Muggeridge, Marxism, Morality and Meaning

I have often written on and quoted from the great English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who died in 1990. Once a radical lefty, he later in life embraced Christianity and became a staunch anti-Communist and critic of Western liberalism.

And I have often used his phrase, “the great liberal death wish.” I have never really discussed the source of this phrase before, so let me do it here. It originated in a talk he delivered back in 1979. In this important speech he discussed his own life in some detail, and his important role in exposing the evils of Soviet Communism.

This, the bulk of his talk, is not that which I want to concentrate on here, although perhaps quoting just one short section from this will help set the tone for that which I do wish to focus on:

“We were required to end anything we wrote on a hopeful note, because liberalism is a hopeful creed. And so, however appalling and black the situation that we described, we would always conclude with some sentence like: ‘It is greatly to be hoped that moderate men of all shades of opinion will draw together, and that wiser councils may yet prevail.’ How many times I gave expression to such jejune hopes! Well, I soon grew weary of this, because it seemed to me that immoderate men were rather strongly in evidence, and I couldn’t see that wiser councils were prevailing anywhere.

“The depression was on by that time, I’m talking now of 1932-33. It was on especially in Lancashire, and it seemed as though our whole way of life was cracking up, and, of course, I looked across at the USSR with a sort of longing, thinking that there was an alternative, some other way in which people could live, and I managed to maneuver matters so that I was sent to Moscow as the Guardian correspondent, arriving there fully prepared to see in the Soviet regime the answer to all our troubles, only to discover in a very short time that though it might be an answer, it was a very unattractive one.”

But it is the closing section of his important speech which I really want to highlight. Let me pick it up here: “I was reading … a long essay by a Yugoslav writer Mihajlo Mihajlov, who spent some years in a prison in Yugoslavia. He cites case after case of people who, like Solzhenitsyn, say that enlightenment came to them in the forced labor camps. They understood what freedom was when they had lost their freedom, they understood what the purpose of life was when they seemed to have no future.

“They say, moreover, that when it’s a question of choosing whether to save your soul or your body, the man who chooses to save his soul gathers strength thereby to go on living, whereas the man who chooses to save his body at the expense of his soul loses both body and soul. In other words, fulfilling exactly what our Lord said, that he who hates his life in this world shall keep his life for all eternity, as those who love their lives in this world will assuredly lose them.

“Now, that’s where I see the light in our darkness. There’s an image I love – if the whole world were to be covered with concrete, there still would be some cracks in it, and through these cracks green shoots would come. The testimonies from the labor camps are the green shoots we can see in the world, breaking out from the monolithic power now dominating ever greater areas of it. In contradistinction, this is the liberal death wish, holding out the fallacious and ultimately destructive hope that we can construct a happy, fulfilled life in terms of our physical and material needs, and in the moral and intellectual dimensions of our mortality.

“I feel so strongly at the end of my life that nothing can happen to us in any circumstances that is not part of God’s purpose for us. Therefore, we have nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, except that we should rebel against His purpose, that we should fail to detect it and fail to establish some sort of relationship with Him and His divine will. On that basis, there can be no black despair, no throwing in of our hand. We can watch the institutions and social structures of our time collapse – and I think you who are young are fated to watch them collapse – and we can reckon with what seems like an irresistibly growing power of materialism and materialist societies.

“But, it will not happen that that is the end of the story. As St. Augustine said – and I love to think of it when he received the news in Carthage that Rome had been sacked: Well, if that’s happened, it’s a great catastrophe, but we must never forget that the earthly cities that men build they destroy, but there is also the City of God which men didn’t build and can’t destroy. And he devoted the next seventeen years of his life to working out the relationship between the earthly city and the City of God – the earthly city where we live for a short time, and the City of God whose citizens we are for all eternity.

“You know, it’s a funny thing, but when you’re old, as I am, there are all sorts of extremely pleasant things that happen to you. One of them is, you realize that history is nonsense, but I won’t go into that now. The pleasantest thing of all is that you wake up in the night at about, say, three a.m., and you find that you are half in and half out of your battered old carcass. And it seems quite a toss-up whether you go back and resume full occupancy of your mortal body, or make off toward the bright glow you see in the sky, the lights of the City of God. In this limbo between life and death, you know beyond any shadow of doubt that, as an infinitesimal particle of God’s creation, you are a participant in God’s purpose for His creation, and that that purpose is loving and not hating, is creative and not destructive, is everlasting and not temporal, is universal and not particular. With this certainty comes an extraordinary sense of comfort and joy.

“Nothing that happens in this world need shake that feeling; all the happenings in this world, including the most terrible disasters and suffering, will be seen in eternity as in some mysterious way a blessing, as a part of God’s love. We ourselves are part of that love, we belong to that scene, and only in so far as we belong to that scene does our existence here have any reality or any worth. All the rest is fantasy – whether the fantasy of power which we see in the authoritarian states around us, or the fantasy of the great liberal death wish in terms of affluence and self-indulgence. The essential feature, and necessity of life is to know reality, which means knowing God. Otherwise our mortal existence is, as Saint Teresa of Avila said, no more than a night in a second-class hotel.”

[1219 words]

10 Replies to “Muggeridge, Marxism, Morality and Meaning”

  1. Bill, could “In contradistinction, this is the liberal death wish” be in bold?

    John Angelico

  2. Hello Bill,

    The article from which you quote, although it is titled “The Great Liberal Death Wish”, is only an interview which Muggeridge gave in America in 1979, and is much tamer than the article of the same name that he wrote in 1970.

    The original “The Great Liberal Death Wish” appeared in Britain’s left-wing New Statesman magazine, when Paul Johnson was editor.

    It stirred up a storm of horror and consternation among Britain’s left-liberal elites, who didn’t like the harsh medicine that Muggeridge administered to them.

    Editor Paul Johnson recalls: “The day [the article] was published I received a 30-minute phone call from Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, speaking (she implied) on behalf of all liberals, dressing me down like a thieving footman for printing such filth.”

    I can’t find a downloadable copy of Muggeridge’s essay on the internet, but it can be found in Russell Kirk’s anthology The Portable Conservative Reader (1982). It is a “must read”.

    In the mid-1970s, when the Labour Party was in government, and militant trade unions were bringing the British economy to its knees, Johnson himself broke with the left and embraced Thatcherism and Catholicism.

    Muggeridge was a remarkable character (I heard him speak once at my old school in England, a few months before I moved to Australia).

    He was the son of a Labour MP and married the niece of Beatrice Webb, one of the founders of the Fabian Society. Like his friend George Orwell, he was willing to report the truth unflinchingly and wasn’t afraid of being unfashionable.

    In the 1960s he became a great friend of Australia’s political commentator, the late B.A. “Bob” Santamaria (1915-1998).

    Muggeridge, after doing a BBC documentary on Mother Teresa, converted to Christianity. Santamaria sent him a telegram inquiring if he was willing to consider joining the Catholic Church. Muggeridge replied: “No. Rats always swim away from a sinking ship.”

    In 1982, Muggeridge finally joined the Catholic Church. Santamaria sent him another telegram. This time it said: “Welcome aboard.”

    John Ballantyne, Melbourne.

  3. Thanks John for that. Of course you have me at a great disadvantage here, since I am on the road with speaking engagements, and thus away from my home and my library, where I normally would have first checked all this out further . When I get back I can pull out my Kirk volume and take it from there. Although what I link to does not appear to be an interview, but a speech which he gave to “this delightful college”. But thanks again, and when home I can then fully check it all out, and I am sure, corroborate what you have said.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. As Larry Norman sang so many years ago, “I am happy now that when this good life ends a better one begins”
    Much Love
    Warwick Marsh

  5. Thanks again John. I am back home now so back in access to my library. And yes, I pulled out my Kirk volume, although in the intro to his essay it says this: “The present form of this unsparing essay (which Muggeridge has published in various versions at various times) occurs in the collection of his pieces entitled Things Past (New York, 1979).”

    So even that one is not the original it seems. When time permits I will try to track that one down online. And the one I link to seems to be a speech he gave, perhaps, at Hillsdale College.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. And we both may be wrong on the date of the original John! It seems from various sources that the article in the New Statesman first appeared on March 11, 1966.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Good on you, Bill. You’re even more fastidious than I am about tracking down correct sources!

    John Ballantyne, Melbourne.

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