Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.” –The gospel according to John 18.33-8

In a five-year period in the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies, I encountered three figures from a slightly earlier generation who it seemed to me put together the scattered themes of my eduction and offered a set of ideas with some intellectual coherence – that in short were true. Although there was some overlap, the three would by no means entirely agree with one another. And the annealing of their ideas for me was to some extent accomplished in the fire from the US assaults on southeast Asia and the ever larger questions of history, politics and ethics that those crimes posed.

That was in fact rather late in my formal eduction – I was doing a doctorate in the history of Christian thought and taking my first academic job (at Notre Dame), where I thought I was supposed to tell the truth to people even younger than I. In spite of time spent in schools considered to be the best in twentieth century America, I was still too ignorant to realize that the regnant attitude to truth in the American academy was that proposed by the Roman prefect in the occupied province of Judaea in the first century. And the source of the attitude was the same, too – people under authority: people who had to give up control over what made them human – their conscious work of head and hands – in order even to eat regularly. Some did that all too willingly; some less so.

A crucial element in those years for anyone with the leisure to think about theology and politics, history and philosophy, literature and psychology – was in fact biblical studies, which in the modern world led the way for establishing theology, history and literature as critical disciplines. That was the origin of “exegesis” and “hermeneutics” as technical terms. In the passage above, for example, it became clear that the world meant not the natural world but the present political and social arrangements – as it does throughout the gospel according to John.

I. NOAM CHOMSKY (1928- )
“I think that the libertarian socialist concepts – and by that I mean a range of thinking that extends from left-wing Marxism through anarchism – are fundamentally correct and that they are the proper and natural extension of classical liberalism into the era of advanced industrial society.”

In the midst of the five years under consideration (1968-73), I attended a lecture at MIT by a man who was already – just past forty – perhaps the most famous intellectual in America. Noam Chomsky as a young man had done for the field of linguistics what Einstein had done for physics – perhaps even more, for he had changed the nature of linguistics as a discipline from a predominantly historical field, philology, into a cognitive science. He was also known as a vigorous social critic and and an opponent of the US war on southeast Asia. His essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” may have been the single most important tract in the anti-war movement in the American universities of the 1960s – and it has lost none of its power. The responsibility of intellectuals – “to speak the truth and to expose lies” – in a vicious and unjustified war in southwest Asia today remains what it was then, when the US was conducting a similar war in southeast Asia.

The lecture I heard – “Government in the Future” – is still in print, forty years later, and still quite worth reading. The question is the role of the state in advanced industrial society. Chomsky considers “four somewhat idealized positions … first, classical liberal, second, libertarian socialist, third, state socialist, fourth, state capitalist.”

It’s important to note that “libertarian” has acquired a new meaning in the years since this lecture was delivered. Chomsky said recently,

“The term libertarian as used in the US means something quite different from what it meant historically and still means in the rest of the world. Historically, the libertarian movement has been the anti-statist wing of the socialist movement. Socialist anarchism was libertarian socialism. In the US, which is a society much more dominated by business, the term has a different meaning. It means eliminating or reducing state controls, mainly controls over [business] corporations. It is a sort of ultra-rightism.”

Speaking of what the contemporary US means by libertarianism – perhaps best expressed by US Representative Ron Paul – Chomsky nevertheless says, “I agree with them on a lot of things. On the drug issue, they tend to oppose state involvement in the drug war, which they correctly regard as a form of coercion and deprivation of liberty. You may be surprised to know that some years ago, before there were any independent left journals, I used to write mainly for the Cato Institute journal.”

As an alternative to the two great world systems of the day, Soviet communism and American capitalism, Chomsky proposed a position that was a critique of both from the Left – where Left had the meaning it originally acquired in the French national assembly of 1793: more democratic, as opposed to the more authoritarian direction of the Right. One consequence of this usage is that Leninism (Bolshevism, Soviet communism) had to be seen as a right-wing Marxism, because of its authoritarian character.

“It seems to me,” said Chomsky, in that austere lecture room with a view of the Charles River basin, “that the ideology of state socialism, that is, what has become of Bolshevism, and of state capitalism – the modern welfare state – are regressive and highly inadequate social theories, and a large number of our really fundamental problems stem from a kind of incompatibility and inappropriateness of these dominant social forms to modern industrial societies.”

An hour’s painstaking analysis led to his conclusion. “We have today the technical and material resources to meet man’s animal needs. We have not developed the cultural and moral resources – or the democratic forms of social organization – that make possible the humane and rational use of our material wealth and power. Conceivably, the classical liberal ideals as expressed and developed in their libertarian socialist form are achievable. But if so, only by a popular revolutionary movement, rooted in wide strata of the population and committed to the elimination of repressive and authoritarian institutions, state and private. To create such a movement is a challenge we face and must meet if there is to be an escape from contemporary barbarism.”

Taking on the world is not a simple or easy political task. In the United States, said Chomsky, “Roughly speaking, I think it’s accurate to say that a corporate elite of managers and owners governs the economy and the political system as well, at least in very large measure. The people, so-called, do exercise an occasional choice among those who Marx once called ‘the rival factions and adventurers of the ruling class.'”

As a libertarian socialist, Chomsky opposes from the Left what came to be called socialism in the twentieth century. In his 1986 article “The Soviet Union Versus Socialism,” he wrote, “When the world’s two great propaganda systems agree on some doctrine, it requires some intellectual effort to escape its shackles. One such doctrine is that the society created by Lenin and Trotsky and molded further by Stalin and his successors has some relation to socialism in some meaningful or historically accurate sense of this concept. In fact, if there is a relation, it is the relation of contradiction.”

A decade earlier, his Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood described how it happened that Israel was becoming America’s chief client in the Mideast, far and away the greatest recipient of US foreign and military aid, so that it could be (in spite of corrupting influences on its own society) America’s enforcer in controlling Mideast energy resources. (The US never needed Mideast energy for its home industries – even today it imports little oil from the Mideast – but control of energy gives the US an unparalleled advantage over it real economic rivals in Europe and northeast Asia.) “There should be a peripheral region of gendarme states (Turkey, Iran under the Shah, Israel joined after the ‘67 war, Pakistan was there for a while). These states were to be the local cops on the beat while the US would be the police headquarters.”

In a recent interview, Chomsky discussed political thought with a theme unique to the Hebrew scriptures:

“The word ‘prophet’ is a very bad translation of an obscure Hebrew word, navi. Nobody knows what it means. But today they’d be called dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical analysis, arguing that the acts of the rulers were going to destroy society. And they condemned the acts of evil kings. They called for justice and mercy to orphans and widows and so on.

“I don’t want to say it was all beautiful. Dissident intellectuals aren’t all beautiful. You read Sakharov, who is sometimes appalling. Or Solzhenitsyn. And the nivi’im were treated the way dissident intellectuals always are. They weren’t praised. They weren’t honored. They were imprisoned like Jeremiah. They were driven into the desert. They were hated. Now at the time, there were intellectuals, ‘prophets,’ who were very well treated. They were the flatterers of the court. Centuries later, they were called ‘false prophets.’
“People who criticize power in the Jewish community are regarded the way Ahab treated Elijah: You’re a traitor. You’ve got to serve power. You can’t argue that the policies that Israel is following are going to lead to its destruction, which I thought then and still do…
“I particularly admired [Amos’] comments that he’s not an intellectual …’ I’m not a prophet, I’m not the son of a prophet, I’m a simple shepherd.’ So he translated ‘prophet’ correctly. He’s saying, ‘I’m not an intellectual.’ He was a simple farmer and he wanted just to tell the truth. I admire that.”

This from the man The New York Times once called, “The most important intellectual of the present.” At least for once, they were right.

“…the only God who matters is the unfathomable mystery of love because of which there is being and meaning to anything that is … we are united with God in matter, in our flesh and his flesh … Christianity is not an ideal theory, it is a praxis, a particular kind of practical challenge to the world.”

Several years before hearing Chomsky’s lecture, I had encountered another prophet in his sense who drew explicitly on the Hebrew bible. In 1968 I picked up from the front table of a Boston shop an odd-looking little book from a British publisher, a series of lectures on ethics, Law, Love and Language, by Herbert McCabe, a member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). In witty and agreeable prose McCabe contrasted an ethics of rules (law) with the then-fashionable situation ethics (love) – and suggested that ethics finally had to do with the meaning of human behavior (language).

“In these essays I want to take a quick look at three starting-points from which we might think about ethics, three different ways of throwing light on what ethics is all about. None of them is a complete account of ethics and I think at least the first two are fairly seriously inadequate; nevertheless they may each be of some help.”

McCabe’s approach to ethics was equally indebted to Aristotle and Wittgenstein. In the years since its publication, that book has taken a place in a rising academic philosophic specialty known as “virtue [i.e., Aristotelian] ethics,” especially owing to the work of McCabe’s friend and colleague Alasdair MacIntyre. McCabe’s contribution to virtue ethics is summed up in a posthumous work (he died in 2001), The Good Life: Ethics and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Remarkably, in the course of his “quick look,” McCabe – among other observations – drew important lessons from Aquinas’ philosophy on the doctrine of God, from modern biblical studies on the meaning of the decalogue, and from marxism on the nature of politics.

He had learnt from biblical studies that the ten commandments were an account of the God of Israel:

“Yahweh is the God of freedom and there are to be no other gods. ‘The prohibition of “other gods” is the basic demand made of israel’ [Martin Noth]. The important thing is not just to be religious, to worship something somehow. The important thing is to find, or be found by, the right God and to reject and struggle against the others. The worship of any other god is a form of slavery; to pay homage to the forces of nature, to the spirit of a particular place, to a nation or race or to anything that is too powerful for you to understand or control is to submit to slavery and degradation. The Old Testament religion begins by saying to such gods ‘I do not believe and I will not serve.’ The only true God is the God of freedom. The other gods make you feel at home in a place, they have to do with the quiet cycle of the seasons, with the familiar mountains and the county you grew up in and love; with them you know where you are. But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you cannot rely on the safe workings of nature, on spring-time and harvest, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring. This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the old traditional shrines and temples of your native place, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way. You are forbidden to make an image of him by which you might wield numinous power, you are forbidden to invoke his name in magical rites. You must deny the other gods and you must not treat Yahweh as a god, as a power you could use against your enemies or to help you to succeed in life. Yahweh is not a god, there are no gods, they are all delusions and slavery. You are not to try to comprehend God within the conventions and symbols of your time and place; you are to have no image of God because the only image of God is man.”

(Using McCabe’s account, I’ve written elsewhere about the political significance of the decalogue: The Subversive Commandments.”.)

The brief book contains a consideration of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and sacramental theology that comports well with the best of what was being produced by Liberation Theology at the same time.

With an Aristotelian view of society and a Wittgensteinian view of language, McCabe concludes, “It will I suppose, be clear from what I have said that the relevance of Christianity to human behaviour is primarily a matter of politics, it is concerned first of all with the [forms] of communication, the structures of relationship in which [people] live … To speak with vast and misleading generality, there is in the world at the moment a conflict between the dispossessed and the rich … It seem to me that the first thing a Christian will want to say about his moral position is that he belongs with this revolution. I say ‘belongs with it’ rather than ‘belongs to it’ because the Christian revolution goes in and through this kind of revolution to something deeper, to the ultimate alienation of man which is sin and the ultimate transformation which is death and resurrection.”

In an important article in 1987, McCabe took up what seems a difficult political problem for the Christian theologian, “The class struggle and Christian love”:

“What is wrong with capitalism, then, is not that it involves some people being richer than I am. I cannot see the slightest objection to other people being richer than I am; I have no urge to be as rich as everybody else, and no Christian (and indeed no grown-up person) could possibly devote his life to trying to be as rich or richer than others. There are indeed people, very large numbers of people, who are obscenely poor, starving, diseased, illiterate, and it is quite obviously unjust and unreasonable that they should be left in this state while other people or other nations live in luxury; but this has nothing specially to do with capitalism, even though we will never now be able to alter that situation until capitalism has been abolished. You find exactly the same conditions in, say, slave societies and, moreover, capitalism, during its prosperous boom phases, is quite capable of relieving distress at least in fully industrialised societies – this is what the ‘Welfare State’ is all about. What is wrong with capitalism is simply that it is based on human antagonism, and it is precisely here that it comes in conflict with Christianity. Capitalism is a state of war [i.e., class struggle], but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not. The permanent capitalist state of war erupts every now and then into a major killing war, but its so-called peacetime is just war carried on by other means.”

Already in 1968 he had written as follows:

‘The quarrel of the Christian with the Marxist about God is not a matter of the validity of the ‘five ways’[Aquinas’ proofs of God], nor is it a matter of whether a man should have the right to worship whatever way he likes in his spare time, it concerns the nature of revolution and the interpretation of Jesus. If the Marxist is right and there is no God who raised Jesus from the dead then the Christian pre-occupation with death as the ultimate revolutionary act is a diversion from the real demands of history; if the Christian is right then the Marxist is dealing with revolution only at a relatively superficial level, he has not touched the ultimate alienation involved in death itself, and for this reason his revolution will betray itself; the liberation will erect a new idol…”

“Christianity alone, because it is the articulate presence of Christ, the future of mankind, cannot (however hard it sometimes seems to try) wholly betray its mission. As it seems to me, like St Peter and the twelve, we remain Christians because there is nowhere else to go: if Christianity is not the revolution, nothing else is.”

McCabe’s religious order was founded in the thirteenth century to talk to people, and he was quite good at it. (One of the best theological debates I ever heard occurred at a climbers’ hostel half-way up the highest peak in County Kerry, Carrauntoohil; it involved McCabe and a pub-owner; she provided a disputatio equal to the Dominican tradition.) The following is from one of his sermons:

“Jesus died of being human. What was outstanding about him was not that he was something more than human, that he was a superman or superstar. It was just that he was more intensely human, more intensely one of us than we dare to be. He lacked the illusions and deceptions by which we try to protect ourselves from our humanity, try to protect ourselves from our failure. He was like to us in all things but sin, in all things but self-deception. He shows us God simply by showing us the reality of being human. And it is not at all the reality we like to think it is. Really being human is not at all what humanists believe in their simple-minded way. Really being human means being in the kind of muddle and mess that Jesus was in. And that is where God is.”

“…there is only one contender as a general account of human development across the centuries from primitive societies to present forms of civilizations. That is historical materialism. All other partial versions are derivations, or fragments, by contrast. Marxism alone has produced at once a sufficiently general and sufficiently differential set of analytic instruments to be able to integrate successive epochs of historical evolution, and their characteristic socio-economic structures, into an intelligible narrative. In this respect, indeed, it remains unchallenged not only within socialist, but also non-socialist culture as a whole. There is no competing story.”

In 1974 I read two books from the editor of the British journal New Left Review, Perry Anderson. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State were the first two volumes of a projected four volume Marxist general history of the Common Era. Volume three, which appeared only in parts, was to consider the sweep of bourgeois revolution from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and volume four was to summarize capitalism triumphant.

Anderson’s industry and insight have produced a large collection of material since then – must more than could be encapsulated in a fourth volume. But the first two were revelatory, works of intellectual synthesis that have still not been surpassed. In the early 1970s I had ordered them from London – they were were only tardily available in the US – and began reading them in the front seat of my car in the post office parking lot when they finally arrived. I wasn’t disappointed.

Anderson’s work represents the finest flowering of the New Left. Interestingly enough, today a new generation of scholars is taking up Anderson’s Marxist history and combining it with the revived Aristotelian ethics and politics of which McCabe wrote. See, e.g., Revolutionary Aristotelianism: Ethics, Resistance and Utopia (2008), edited by Kelvin Knight and Paul Blackledge.

Since I was then writing a dissertation on ecclesiology in the Reformation, I read with interest Anderson’s insightful obiter dictum on the church of Rome:

“Strange historical object par excellence, whose peculiar temporality has never coincided with that of a simple sequence from one economy or polity to another, but has overlapped and outlived several in a rhythm of its own, the Church has never received theorization within historical materialism … Issued from a post-tribal ethnic minority, triumphant in late antiquity, dominant in feudalism, decadent and renascent under capitalism, the Roman Church has survived every other institution — cultural, political, juridical or linguistic — historically coeval with it … Its own regional autonomy and adaptability — extraordinary by any comparative standards — have yet to be seriously explored…”


Tom Stoppard’s great play, “Travesties” – I saw the London production in the years I’ve been considering – is set in Zurich during World War I and presents historical characters including Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara. Its central character (also historical) is an obscure English consular official, Henry Carr. The curtain line is his, as he reminisces on art and politics:

“Great days … Zurich during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers, radicals of all kinds. I knew them all. Used to argue far into the night … at the Odeon, at the Terrasse … I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might has well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary … I forget the third thing.”

The poets – I’ve thought for a while – usually get there first, even though they often don’t seem to know where they have in fact got to; so – as I try to remember the third thing – here’s a concluding word from a disgraced poet:

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs, or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee.
–Pound, from Canto 81.1


C. G. Estabrook
Champaign IL
Candlemas 2011

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