An anarchist in Soviet Russia

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Dame Rebecca West

My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman is certainly one of the lesser know books on my list of classics to read, so it is worth explaining how it got there. The first reason is Rebecca West (and this is not the first time she prompted me to read a book). After reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and loving it, I searched around the internet for short pieces of her writing, and one of the first things I found was her introduction to Goldman’s book. One line from it had stuck with me from reading this introduction a couple years ago: “We must let each people seek God in its own way.” (I had forgotten the less inspirational-sounding next line, “and refrain from persecuting it in its search by such indirect methods as interference with the natural flow of trade.”) Although the line sounds relativistic or indifferent, at the very least, West is making the bold claim that the Revolutionary project in Russia is a search for God. She sees the project as an attempt (albeit mistaken) to establish man’s final end, which must ultimately be God. This language is very different from Goldman’s use of religious vocabulary, which she only uses to mirror the corruption of the Bolsheviks. (Whereas Rebecca West is capable of seeing reality as sacramental, Emma Goldman is a thorough and vehement atheist.) And yet this difference in outlook does not prevent West from praising the integrity of Goldman in recounting the facts as she saw them, the facts concerning the injustice and brutality of the Bolshevik regime. Both Rebecca West and Emma Goldman, despite identifying with the Left, were both ostracized by their Leftist peers who uncritically accepted the Communist project. This connection with Rebecca West was my first encounter with Goldman, but was not yet enough to convince me to read her work.

My second encounter with Goldman, which eventually pushed me to read her work, came only a few months ago. Seeing the widespread uncritical acceptance of contraception and Planned Parenthood among so many young people led me to wonder where this was coming from, and led me me right to the beginning of the birth control movement in the United States. Among the leading figures in this movement was Emma Goldman. Despite obvious difference in views, I wanted to understand where she was coming from on this, what led her to these positions. I figured the easiest way to get into her thought would be to start with a work where I could sympathize with the views represented. Thus My Disillusionment with Russia entered my list of books to read. Although I had never yet seen her on a list of classics, it turns out her autobiography is among the Penguin Classics, and so it seems no great stretch to extend the title classic to her important account of the Bolshevik regime.

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Emma Goldman

The book starts around the end of the Great War, not long after the October Revolution in Russia. Authorities in the United States are rounding up and exiling anarchists, and Emma Goldman finds herself among their number. This exile means she will end up in Russia. Despite the difficulties involved in mandatory relocation, she is enthusiastic to see first-hand the effects of so large a social revolution. The rest of the book is her experience of the (almost completely terrible) effects of the Revolution. She comes in with the greatest of expectations, but steadily comes to separate in her mind the Revolution from the Bolshevik regime. “I knew that the Revolution and the Bolsheviki, proclaimed as one and the same, were opposites, antagonistic in aim and purpose. The Revolution had its roots deep down in the life of the people. The Communist State was based on a scheme forcibly applied by a political party. In the contest the Revolution was being slain, but the slayer also was gasping for breath.”

The question I kept asking as I read the book was: Why does she still cling to the Revolution as a good thing even though the effects are so obviously terrible? At several points, she even admits that things were better under the Tsar, “if the gendarmes of the Tsar would have had the power not only to arrest but also to shoot us, the situation would have been like the present one.” Besides the humanitarian work of a few anarchists, the only people who seem to be doing well are those that stand against the Revolution in some way. There is an example early on of a factory that seems more tidy and efficient than anything Goldman had seen at that point: shortly after, she finds out that the former owner of the factory had been given permission to continue running it, and so things worked well there, only because he still possessed a sense of ownership. On another occasion, she is surprised to find nuns in habits working at a government school, where the government official was more lax in enforcing the anti-religious policies. The nuns were better workers than any she had seen, and the school was one of the few that wasn’t simply putting on a good show for the American visitors. Goldman tries to attribute their joy and duty to some anarchist or revolutionary principle, but I was not convinced. As for putting on a show for Americans: In her travels throughout Russia, attempting to collect items for a museum, almost no one trusts her at first—it is only when she displays her American identity that many open up both their revolutionary artifacts as well as their real thoughts and feelings about the Bolshevik regime.

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Emma Goldman

Although the book is primarily a journal of her travels and impressions, I was disappointed to find little theoretical treatment until the very end of the book. As far as anarchist morals go, I found myself sympathetic with Goldman much of the time: the things she found deplorable were usually things I found deplorable as well, but only vaguely did she indicate her reasons. She ends up emphatically rejecting the principle used by the Bolsheviks for their cause—that the end justifies the means. In my mind, this also means a rejection of violent revolution (in most cases), and in the Afterword, she makes some distinction between a revolution that takes place on merely the external level (which will be violent and have no lasting good effects) and a revolution that is a complete transformation of values. Much of the Afterword contrasts the authoritarian principle (which stands behind communism, socialism, and any statist scheme) and the libertarian principle (which sees at the base of her own anarchist ideology). There is plenty to think about there in her consideration of how freedom and order are related to each other.

One funny note: In nearly everyone of her first-time meetings, she is asked, “How close is America to the revolution?” And she, embarrassed by how little these comrades know, has to either let them down softly or give an account of the tiny groups of communists and anarchists in America. Even when she meets Vladimir Lenin, he leans over and eagerly asks, “When can the Social Revolution be expected in America?” And she just thinks, Wow, nobody here knows anything about what is going on in the world.

Unless someone is really interested in reading first-hand accounts of Russia at the time, I would recommend reading the Introduction and the Afterword as these contain the most thinking. Her encounters and conversations with important intellectuals and politicians, such as Gorky and Lenin, are also interesting, but she usually only gives snippets of what they talked about.

9E0FD20B-9B56-4760-8559-4D4F2ADD5EB3-2747-000002B917BF7E1AIt is now 100 years since 1917 when Russia had her revolutions, but these were not the only sweeping changes in that year. 1917 was the year that the Catholic Church promulgated for the first time a Code of Canon Law, reorganizing all ecclesiastical laws according to rational principles instead of relying on ever-increasing compilations of councils and papal decrees. It was not so violent a revolution, but it was the most sweeping change made in centuries, and it still shapes the Church in our own day and especially my own life, as I dedicate the next month to preparing for my canon law finals. I hope to pick up again this summer with Tolstoy and Undset. Until then, pray that all goes well!

Basil and the Mysteries

img_0303“Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learned the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence.”

-Saint Basil, On the Holy Spirit 27

(Also cited by Gratian, Decretum, Distinction 11, Capitulum 5.)

Initial Thoughts on Coccopalmerio

img_0273I was recently asked about Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s recent comments on how to interpret Amoris Laetitia. This gave me an opportunity to spell out some of my thoughts on the possible situations where discernment might lead to the conclusion of permitting someone in an irregular marriage situation to receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. The following is all lifted from an email I sent to someone. They are by no means definitive, but just a thinking-out-loud.

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I hadn’t been keeping up with news the last couple weeks, so your email was the first I heard about Coccopalmerio’s new little book. One first note is that even though Coccopalmerio is the President of the Council for Legislative Texts, and even though his book is published by the Vatican, he is not publishing it as head of that Council and so it does not function as authentic interpretation of the law.

Looking around a few websites, it sounds like he is basically open to “discerning” situations where it would be possible to give communion to people in irregular marriage situations, just as the bishops in Germany, Malta, etc. What I’ve read from him looks a bit more moderate than these others, inasmuch as he sees certain cases as exceptional. I’ve been trying hard to figure out what these exceptional cases look like. In the case where you have a couple civilly married that is committed to living as brother and sister, there is no objective sin, and (so long as no scandal is involved) I think everyone agrees that such persons could be admitted to the sacraments.

The cases that people are more interested in are those where the irregular couple continue to have sexual relations, since this seems (pretty obviously) to mean that they are objectively in a state of sin. Now Coccopalermio says that all that is necessary is “verification of two essential conditions — that they desire to change that situation, but they cannot act on their desire”. The only cases I can think of where they cannot act on the desire seems to be where there is disagreement between the persons involved with respect to either understanding or will. I will give two scenarios where I think there is reason to consider giving communion to a civilly remarried person.

The first case is disagreeement of will between the spouses: both spouses know they are in an irregular situation (i.e. not actually married), and one spouse wants to abstain from sexual relations, but the other one does not. Both of these people live together perhaps for a number of reasons (financial dependence, children) and so that it would be inconvenient for them to live apart. Here it seems possible to me that one spouse could have a real desire to abstain from relations, but this is impossible while living in the same house with someone who is not committed to living in that manner. Now there is a distinction that St. Raymond of Penyafort makes for dealing with certain odd marriage situations that may be relevant in this case. He distinguishes between requesting the marriage debt and paying the marriage debt, and gives some cases where he thinks it would be morally acceptable to pay the marriage debt but not morally acceptable to ask for it. Now in this case, it is not a true marriage, but I think there may be a difference between to requesting relations and acquiescing to someone seeking sexual relations (especially when to resist could lead to dangerous consequences). I’m not 100% sold on this, but it is the sort of case that I would consider.

The second case is like the first, but with an added element. Let’s say that a woman was married to a man who then left her, and is now civilly married to an unbaptized man with whom she has 3 children. She has been from the Church for years and now is wanting to go to confession and receive communion again. Since she is objectively still married to the man who abandoned her, this means that relations with her irregular spouse would be adulterous, and so she should not have relations with him. From her side, this seems clear enough. But now look at the conscience of the unbaptized man. He is not a man of faith, and so he does not have any sense of anything but civil law governing his marriage situation, and so objectively has no reason to think that he is not legitimately married to this woman who was divorced from her first husband according to civil law. As far as he is concerned, he is not doing anything wrong in having relations with a woman whom he considers in good faith his spouse. Again, it seems this is a case where the woman involved could certainly not ask the marriage debt, but perhaps could acquiesce to the man who asks it in good faith. Again, I’m not completely sure on this, but it is a case I would consider.

Here is another case that comes to mind: Polygamy exists among Muslims. Let’s say there is a Muslim woman who is the third spouse of a Muslim man, and she comes to faith that Jesus is Lord. In societies where Sharia Law reigns, I don’t think she could be expected to separate herself from this man upon whom she depends, especially in a society where the civil law does not give her freedom to leave. In such a case, I would be inclined to admit this woman communion, following the same distinction: so long as she does not ask the marriage debt, but only renders it. This case is similar to the second case, but the lack of freedom involved is more obvious and certain.

So those are the cases where I think it may be possible that the conditions named by Coccopalmerio, “that they desire to change that situation, but they cannot act on their desire”, might actually be met. Looking at his comments, I think he would apply it more widely. But I as far as I understand it, it would only be one-sided situations where there is a disagreement between the irregular spouses that I can even conceive of a moral impossibility. If it was both spouses coming to me, and both Catholic, I can’t imagine “discerning” to give them communion unless they were at least committed to living chastely. “Oh, you’re both Catholic? You both understand the Church’s teaching on marriage, and accept that you are not actually married? But you are going to continue having sexual relations but want me to give you communion?” No, I can’t imagine giving communion in that case. Now, if they were committed to living as brother and sister and occasionally fell (for it is reasonably difficult to live continently with someone to whom you are attracted and with whom you have been in the habit of having relations with), then that would be another matter. Some people have trouble seeing the difference.

Again, I am not completely convinced in the cases I have named for you, but I only think that these sorts of situations are the sort where a debate is actually possible.

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If anyone out there has comments, feel free to share! Just today, I purchased Coccopalmerio’s book, so I will be able to take a closer look at what he is actually saying and to think it over. More to come…