Prophetic insights from Muggeridge on the decay of cultures:
When I penned a brief biographical piece on the great Malcolm Muggeridge two days ago, I did not envisage it turning into a trilogy. But yesterday I wrote about his views on suffering. I mentioned that this was one of several clear themes found in his writings. Another was that of civilisational decline. That second article is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/18/malcolm-muggeridge-on-suffering/
So I might as well now finish this impromptu series by looking at that other theme. From early on Muggeridge was an outsider, a non-conformist, a critic, and a sceptic. Although at first he was a devotee of his father’s socialism, and he gladly embraced the Russian Revolution, he soon enough outgrew his gullibility and naivety.
Communism, like Nazism, was a monstrous, unredeemable evil. His time in the Soviet Union in the early 30s where he saw for himself the bitter fruit of Stalin’s policies resulting in the intentional death of some 10 million people quickly dispelled any notions of heaven coming to earth via man-made Marxist utopias.
The Great Liberal Death-Wish
This was a phrase often used by Muggeridge, and various essays and articles dealt with it. In a December 1970 Esquire version of it, Muggeridge said this: “Never, our archaeologists of the future will surely conclude, was any generation of men intent upon the pursuit of happiness more advantageously placed to attain it, who yet, with seeming deliberation, took the opposite course—toward chaos, not order; toward breakdown, not stability; toward death, destruction and darkness, not life, creativity and light.”
I covered another version of this idea here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/09/muggeridge-marxism-morality-and-meaning/
This was part of his critique of liberalism, liberal optimism, utopianism, scientism, leftist belief in progress, and the idea of the perfectibility of man. All such thinking was naïve in the extreme, and exceedingly dangerous. Indeed, it has resulted in the death of tens of millions of people. In his biography Ian Hunter puts it this way:
“He was against the notion of progress, which he called ‘. . . the most pernicious delusion ever to take possession of the human mind.’ To believe in any sort of mechanical progress governing history by which men automatically improve and become more enlightened and humane is to confuse progress with change. Progressive materialism is the most foolish of all philosophies and requires the greatest credulity in those who hold it.”
Naivety about the human condition inevitably results in attempts to coerce people into some earthly utopia. Gregory Wolfe puts it this way in his biography:
The prevailing fantasy of the decade, according to Malcolm, is that of liberalism, or the belief in “progress without tears ”. . . . Liberalism, Malcolm argued, was a philosophy grounded in materialism, the notion that the satisfaction of man’s physical needs was the goal of human existence….
Facts cut off from the imagination become abstractions, and abstractions become dangerous when they are imposed on people by political means. Social scientists like the Webbs had reduced man to an abstraction – a statistical Everyman who could be satisfied with the requisite amount of food, clothing, shelter, sexual satisfaction and entertainment The premise common to both liberalism and totalitarianism is the idea that people can be grouped into collectives and brought to a materialist promised land.
In one of the essays found in Jesus Rediscovered – “Credo” – Malcolm begins with these words: “In trying to formulate what I believe I have to begin with what I disbelieve. I disbelieve in progress, the pursuit of happiness and all the concomitant notions and projects for creating a society in which human beings find ever greater contentment by being given in ever greater abundance the means to satisfy their material and bodily hopes and desires.”
And in Confessions of a Twentieth Century Pilgrim he puts it this way:
The process of death wishing, in the guise of liberalism, has been eroding the civilization of the West for a century and more, and now would seem to be about to reach its apogee. . . . Previous civilizations have been overthrown from without by the incursion of barbarian hordes; ours has dreamed up its own dissolution in the minds of its own intellectual elite….
It was, of course, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection which first popularized the notion that Man and his environment are involved in an endless and automatic process of improvement. Who can measure the consequences of this naïve assumption?…
The enthronement of the gospel of progress necessarily required the final discrediting of the Gospel of Christ, and the destruction of the whole edifice of ethics, law, culture, human relationships and human behaviour constructed upon it. What we continue to call Western Civilization, after all, began with Christian revelation, not the theory of evolution, and, we may be sure, will perish with it, too — if it has not already. Jesus of Nazareth was its founding father, not Charles Darwin; it was Paul of Tarsus who first carried its message to Europe, not Karl Marx, or even Lenin. Jesus, by dying on the cross, abolished death wishing; dying became thenceforth life’s glory and fulfillment.
Christendom in decline
Muggeridge knew there was no golden age in the past, and there can be none in the future. Human attempts to bring paradise to earth are always doomed to fail. But it is not just secular culture that is decaying – be it socialist “utopias” or the democratic West. Institutionalised Christianity is deeply involved in all this. In his lengthy interview with Roy Trevivian he discusses this in some detail:
M.M. I am personally convinced that our Western European civilisation is approaching its end. This is an absolutely basic part of my thinking which governs all my feelings about the world that I live in. There is to me every symptom of our civilisation petering out. This was bound to happen sometime; it just seems to me to be happening now, when I am alive. I think there are advantages in living at a time when a civilisation is coming to an end; in such a situation, one can much better understand the nature of power, just as one can better understand the nature of the body when one is sick. In a dying civilisation one is at least not taken in by power and authority as one easily might be when conditions are flourishing.
The Christian Church is inevitably involved in this death of our civilisation. I can see that very clearly. If you consider the death symptoms, the foremost is an increasing preoccupation with the material things of life. Here the Churches go with the popular trend, and endorse, and even enhance, our affluent society’s materialist standards. I thought at one time that the Roman Church would be a final bastion of the Christian religion. I imagined it as a sort of last citadel into which, for no other reasons than that it was the last citadel, I should probably climb myself. But I don’t think so now. It seems to be clear that the Roman Church is going the same way as the Anglican Church, and will expire with our expiring civilisation….
R.T. You have said previously that you believe this civilisation is coming to an end, and you are quite sure that institutional Christianity will come to an end with it, and I agree with you; but this is contrary to what the Church has believed for two thousand years. Jesus said to Peter: ‘You are the rock, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ Now the implication seems to be that empires can fall, kingdoms can come to an end, but the Church will always continue.
M.M. It may, of course; I’m not saying it won’t, because it has survived a great many things.
R.T. But my strong feeling—and I thought you echoed this— is that for the first time the Church is not going to prevail.
M.M. I think it’s very doubtful whether institutional Christianity will be able to separate itself from the general process of decomposition. But one always comes back to thinking that with God all things are possible, and it is conceivable, of course, that this whole situation might change. We can only be grateful and delighted if it does, but as of now, looking at the situation objectively, I see institutional Christianity as irretrievably a part of a world order, a civilisation, which is rushing to destruction. I don’t feel particularly perturbed about it, and it doesn’t alter in any way, of course, my feelings about the Christian religion. The survival of the Church to date is an extraordinary fact, and no doubt churchmen would argue that its survival indicates clearly that God had a hand in it, and wants it to survive today. It might be so but I find institutional Christianity, with certain exceptions, highly unsympathetic.
R.T. When you say that you feel civilisation is collapsing, do you think this is because the Church has failed, or do you think it is man who has refused the claims of the Church and has become world-centred—this world-centred—and therefore corrupt, and that this is why civilisation is collapsing?
M.M. I think both processes are taking place.
Or as he puts it in a 1978 lecture (later published in The End of Christendom):
I conclude that civilizations, like every other human creation, wax and wane. By the nature of the case there can never be a lasting civilization anymore than there can be a lasting spring or lasting happiness in an individual life or a lasting stability in a society. It’s in the nature of man and of all that he constructs to perish, and it must ever be so. The world is full of the debris of past civilizations, and others are known to have existed which have not left any debris behind them but have just disappeared….
In these circumstances why should anyone expect Christendom to go on forever or see in its impending collapse a cosmic catastrophe? . . . If, then, all the signs point to the decline and impending fall of what we continue to call Western Civilization, to be followed by another Dark Age, this no more represents any finality in human history than other such developments have in the past.
I think of St. Augustine when in A. D. 410 the news was brought to him in Carthage that Rome had been sacked. It was a sore blow, but as he explained to his flock: “All earthly cities are vulnerable. Men build them and men destroy them. At the same time there is the City of God which men did not build and cannot destroy and which is everlasting….
So, amidst the shambles of a fallen Christendom, I feel a renewed confidence in the light of the Christian revelation with which it first began. I should hate you to think that this view that I’ve put before you is a pessimistic view. Strangely enough, I believe it to be the only way to a proper and real hope.
Someone just commented on my piece on Muggeridge and suffering, wondering if joy is not also an important element of life. I replied by saying that perhaps a melancholic disposition is a prerequisite for those with a prophetic calling! A few more things can be said by way of conclusion.
While I share many of the points of view of Muggeridge, he was not an evangelical, while I am. But many past greats were not evangelicals either, be they Augustine, or Aquinas, or Chesterton, or Barth, or Bonhoeffer. But we can all learn so much from them.
And I of course differ greatly from St. Mugg in two key areas. He had no interest whatsoever in theology and basic Christian doctrines, and he had no concerns as to whether what Christianity describes has any historical objective basis. So we part company there.
But in so many areas he was a man ahead of his times – as most prophetic voices are. I hope this trio of pieces on Muggeridge will spark your interest in him, and that you will grab some of his many books and give them a careful read. He has so much that he can teach us.