God's cold war warrior

The reaction of the mainstream media and ruling classes to the death of pope John II must have, at the very least, bemused many people. How, after all, could this elderly leader of medieval, obscurantist Roman catholicism, which has been mired in so much scandal of late, have beguiled the world in the way the media is now claiming 'John Paul the Great' did so miraculously? Surely it defies the laws of history! Where does the answer lie? One attempt from outside the mainstream to explain this 'mystery' comes from Brendan O'Neill, writing for Spiked Online. O'Neill argues that "In the widespread mourning sickness that greeted his demise, we can see the new religion of celebrity worship at work, and an attempt to forge one of those elusive Shared International Experiences around 'grieving for a great man'" (www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CA-97E.htm). The less said about that, the better, one could reply. Typical of a writer out of the Frank Furedi stable of ex-Revolutionary Communist Party Marxists. Whilst it might explain why our own Tony Blair preferred to postpone this Friday's sad little party at Windsor and, instead, go where the A-list celebs are, it explains little else. Yet despite the obvious shallowness of O'Neill's thoughts, at least it is an attempt to explain why the pope's death has been viewed as such an important event - a 'watershed' even, according to some. It is very doubtful indeed that the tributes paid to him by ruling classes owe a great deal to his spiritual leadership. Much has been made of his thoroughly reactionary views on social questions and the long list of abhorrent positions the pope took. Be it his total opposition to abortion, artificial contraception (he was, after all the first pope to have to 'deal' with the human tragedy of Aids), homosexuality or women priests, John Paul took the most dreadful positions, often dressing up his reactionary dogma in terms of the 'right to life'. Yet most sections of the ruling classes in the christian world took little notice of these pronouncements, which were, thankfully, ignored by many catholics across the world. Indeed a certain embarrassment in this regard has often been the response of many of his otherwise admirers in the last few days. One should not, of course, underestimate the ability of the catholic church to galvanise support, even in a predominantly non-catholic country like Britain, for attacks on abortion and other rights. Yet pope John Paul II will be surely judged as someone who failed to halt the tide of progress in not preventing individuals having the right to autonomy over their bodies and personal lives. Nor will his medieval theological views have done too much to win favour outside the cloistered walls of catholic seminaries. Arguably, they were more in tune with 13th century theology than with 21st century 'common sense', and he probably did much to offend catholic tastes influenced by the second Vatican Council. Yet even in his more centralised and monolithic church, the fondness for medieval theology could help John Paul solve none of the problems caused by real life. Such a 'real life' problem was that of paedophilia within the ranks of the catholic clergy. A secular organisation might have been closed down if it was forced to admit such widespread sexual abuse of children. A trickle of highly publicised cases has within the last few years become a torrent that threatens to engulf the church, as more and more victims break the silence they have maintained for years, sometimes decades, and seek legal redress for the suffering to which they were subjected. The projected cost to the American church is estimated at several hundred million pounds - a hefty sum, but it is interesting to note that the US catholicism's annual income from property investment alone amounts to around £5 billion. So much for the virtue of poverty. The real cost, however, is not financial. What is at stake is nothing less than the church's moral authority and credibility, especially in the eyes of the 64 million catholics in the US. "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18,vi). Indeed, the woes of the church are too much for an article of this size. John Paul II's saintly elevation by ruling classes across the world has, therefore, much more to do with non-spiritual causes - in particular with something the church has always specialised in. And that is the very unspiritual art of politics. A worthy article on this subject, although marred by its soft Stalinism, appears in Green Left Weekly, paper of the Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective. Barry Healy points out that the pope's "guiding beliefs were that communism is the greatest danger to christianity, that only deferential obedience to the church hierarchy is the proper behaviour for the catholic masses and that collaboration with the great power designs of brutal capitalist temporal forces was the way to advance the banner of the faith" (April 6). Indeed, the sentence hints implicitly at the real reason why his death has been treated with such reverence by ruling classes across the globe, but fails to spell it out. That is of John Paul's important contribution, symbolically at least, in accelerating 'the end of history' and contributing to the defeat of the Marxist project in the 20th century. Specifically, it was his role in the global collapse of Stalinism - the bastard son of genuine Marxism - for which he will be most fondly remembered by ruling classes. Of course, his role in the demise of bureaucratic socialism was not central - in fact one can argue that it resulted from an act of self-preserving suicide on the part of the Soviet elite who knew their exploitative system had exhausted all possibilities - but, nevertheless, it was a highly symbolic one. Only a writer of a certain kind of tacky fiction could have speculated before 1978 on the cardinals of the church choosing a Polish priest to become the 'holy father'. After all, up to this point there had not been a pope from anywhere except Italy for around 450 years. So when it was announced to the world in 1978 that Karol Josef Wojtyla had been elected, there was a flurry of excitement in the western media. This was not so much because he was not Italian, but because he hailed from an 'atheistic communist state' - communism being the devil incarnate for catholicism. The rest, one can say, is history. Solidarnosc sprang up in Poland in 1980 and, within a decade or so, with some blood and suffering, the Stalinist world had been put to sleep. The west had won the cold war. As I have said, it is far too glib to credit John Paul II for the 'fall of communism' - any more than the antipathy of global capital or the opposition of bureaucratic socialism's subject peoples. The historic unviability of these bestial regimes made their collapse inevitable. But history might have worked itself out a little differently without the intervention of specific individuals, including Wojtyla - perhaps the end would have been more protracted and with a different pattern of events and actors. Yet that was not all. If the Polish pope received the west's plaudits in relation to eastern Europe, he was also spectacularly successful in South America, an area of the world that appeared ripe with revolutionary possibilities. Here, under the influence of 'liberation theology' catholic priests had taken the side of the poor in their struggles against oppression. Pope John Paul used all his power as the 'dictator' of the church to root out liberation theology, excommunicate radical priests and impose a strict uniformity on the church across the continent, frequently against the wishes of congregations. By the end of the 1980s the Nicaraguan revolution, particularly influenced by liberation theology, had been snuffed out - a watershed in the demise of the revolutionary movement in that continent. True, one could argue that the key defeat in South America took place some time before his papacy - that is, the smashing of the popular front government in Chile in 1973 by the CIA-backed general Pinochet (who was on friendly terms with John Paul somewhat later). Nevertheless, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that the priest from Poland put the icing on the cake for the USA. How then should genuine communists react to John Paul's role in the cold war? Like him, we despised Stalinism, but, unlike him, we uphold democracy, freedom and the self-liberation of the working class - the last thing the establishment church wants to see. Whether or not he supported, sponsored or bankrolled Solidarnosc is beside the point in one sense. Reactionary as its role was to become, free trade unions, catholic-inspired or not, had a right to exist in Poland. Only Stalinists and some orthodox Trotskyists would disagree. We opposed his intervention in recognition of the reactionary role and historic political strategy of the catholic church itself. Although not amongst its earliest fans, the church identified capitalism as the system necessary to maintain its own power and status in the era of transition to communism. In the 20s and 30s, the papacy turned a blind eye, as Mussolini and then Hitler imposed their anti-communist nightmare dictatorship on Italy and Germany respectively. Both were seen as bulwarks against workers' power. This is what makes so laughable the claims of the last few days that the pope was such a staunch defender of human rights - although he himself was certainly no Nazi sympathiser, even today the church tries to wriggle out of its complicity in the rise of fascism. Indeed it has to be said that John Paul II was directly responsible for canonising Josemaria Ecriva, the founder of Opus Dei, who had organic links with Francoism. Alex Callinicos argues that "John Paul leaves a highly contradictory legacy. He could powerfully dramatise the injustices of the world. But he promoted the illusion that these could only be remedied within a catholic church that under his leadership was still in flight from the modern world" (Socialist Worker April 9). Perhaps we should expect such mealy-mouthed words from an organisation that has gone over to charity-mongering. Even Tony Blair is quite happy to throw his weight behind Make Poverty History and "dramatise the injustices of the world". Apologists for or defenders of capitalism have always liked to show their 'caring' side. Citing the pope from 1991, when he attacked the failings of the 'free market', comrade Callinicos admiringly notes how his pronouncement "scandalised the Wall Street Journal". It ought to have gone without saying that 1991 was the year that saw the demise of Stalinism, when capitalism appeared completely triumphant. Due to his flawed adherence to state capitalist theory, Callinicos fails to point out that John Paul's role in this delighted the likes of the Wall Street Journal. More laughable still is the claim made by other commentators that he even tried to marry catholicism with socialism. Evidence for this is apparently found in his 'sympathy' for the poor and condemnation of some of the symptoms of capitalism. In fact both are traditional themes of catholicism and the church in general, which has always seen its role as alleviating the plight of the poor and oppressed (but not, of course, eradicating it, since there will always be poverty and suffering, in this world at least). In fact the church could be described as one of the original charity shops. What the papacy adopted under John Paul II was an ideology of reactionary feudal socialism to fend off the genuinely emancipatory, proletarian socialism of Marxism. In that sense Karol Josef Wojtyla was 'modern' in the same way as his 20th century predecessors - as a loyal defender of the rule of international capital. For the religious establishment that is the 11th commandment. Cameron Richards see also An autocratic reactionary