I ALWAYS try to do a bit of theology in the summer, and have been looking at the writings of Donald MacKinnon, the philosopher and theologian who so influenced Rowan Williams in his student years.
MacKinnon was a huge, brooding presence in the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge, an Anglo-Catholic layman, and a passionate Socialist. For him, the most important dialogue for Christians to engage with was with Marxism. In the late 1960s and ’70s, Marxism was a global force.
MacKinnon insisted that Christians and Marxists were both enemies of any kind of idealism, any escape into timeless truths that could blunt the edge of their mission to cast down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble and meek. MacKinnon’s most crushing put-down, delivered in a review of an essay by Denis Nineham in the Doctrine Commission’s Christian Believing (1976), was that “Nineham never mentioned Marx.”
MacKinnon suggested, daringly, that Christians could see a parallel between Lenin’s grasping the moment to instigate the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and Christ’s setting his face to go to Jerusalem to confront the powers that would crucify him. The logic of both movements was to risk tragedy for the sake of humanity’s future.
It was heady stuff at the time. No one saw quite how fragile the Soviet system had become until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, or how Maoist China would embrace capitalism while maintaining one-party rule. The world changed, but not in the way that MacKinnon and his followers might have expected.
But the promise of global capitalism has delivered its goods only patchily. While it can justifiably be claimed that free markets have raised billions out of poverty, the cost has been a widening gap between the power of the global super-rich and the rest — a gap that many believe threatens our democratic institutions.
Reading MacKinnon again has put the fight for the future of the Labour Party into a new perspective. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters believe in the unity of theory and practice. They see the current moment as an opportunity to be grasped.
This is the time to cast off the Blairite error of seeking peace with capitalism; it is the time to seize on the disillusionment of the masses, especially the young. It is a moment for ruthlessness, for overthrowing the parliamentary party, and being prepared (as some already are) to throw bricks through windows and take the struggle to the streets.
The issue is whether the new Left’s attempt to seize the moment by demagoguery could ever deliver a fair and just society, or whether the argument is just as flawed now as it was then.