Two Discontented Catholics: Lord Acton & Michael Harrington

March 1987By Lee Congdon

Lee Congdon, author of The Young Lukacs, teaches European history at James Madison University in Virginia. He is both an Anglo-Catholic and a graduate of Wheaton College.

Essays in the History of Liberty.  By John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton [Lord Acton] Edited by J. Rufus Fears. Liberty Classics. 558 pages. $7.50.

Taking Sides: The Education of a Militant Mind.  By Michael Harrington. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 278 pages. $16.95.



Most people remember Lord Acton as the sage who observed that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Few are aware, however, that the Catholic historian made his celebrated remark in primary reference to St. Peter's successors; still fewer know that his passion for liberty almost resulted in his excommunication.

Born to a wealthy and well-connected family, Acton pursued historical studies in Germany before assuming responsibilities as an editor of the Rambler and the Home and Foreign Review, periodicals devoted to the cause of liberal Catholicism. Faithful to his ideals, he helped to lead the futile campaign against the promulgation of papal infallibility, after which he held prudently aloof from public controversy on the subject. It was then that he formulated plans for a monumental history of liberty that was destined to remain unwritten. On the basis of his political contacts and well-deserved reputation for learning, he nevertheless received appointment as Regius Professor at Cambridge in 1895 and, prior to his death in 1902, organized and edited Cambridge Modern History. Although he never published a book, Acton wrote a good deal, enough to fill three large volumes, of which this is the first in a project undertaken by Liberty Classics.

From the beginning his thinking was far more moral than religious in character. Indeed, he believed Christianity to be "a system of ethics" It was as an ethical judge that Acton surveyed the past. It was not, he concluded, the dead weight of a people's historical experience, but "the living thoughts of man," that pointed the way toward history's ultimate goal of human liberty.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the United States, according to Acton, for the American revolutionaries justified their actions not by citing minor instances of oppression, but by appealing to the natural right to liberty. In that way they demonstrated to Europe and the rest of the world "that Revolution with very little provocation may be just." Before long the French made a revolution of their own, though Acton was understandably appalled by the tyrannical turn it eventually took. Unlike Burke, however, he refused to assign any blame to the conscious effort to make the world conform to abstract moral principles, for there, in his view, lay the Revolution's greatness and glory. The fault arose rather from French democracy's decision to sacrifice liberty on the altar of equality.

Like that greater Catholic historian and political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, Acton recognized the danger presented by unrestricted democracy - by the tyranny of the majority. Liberty consisted in the legal restriction of power and the protection of minority liberties. Here too the Americans had led the way, for their Constitution established a federal system that set specific limits to the central power's authority. Because of his allegiance to state rights, Acton championed the South's cause during the Civil War. In his judgment, not even slavery, which he thought had paradoxically deepened Southerners' love of liberty, should be permitted to divert attention from the North's authoritarian determination to destroy a way of life disapproved by a national majority. "I saw in State Rights," he wrote to Robert E. Lee, "the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy."

Acton's warning of the perils of unlimited democracy and his spirited defense of the Southern cause were thoughtful and at times eloquent, but they suffered from an inability to appreciate Burke's rejection of political abstractions and insistence upon an appeal to history. Moreover, slavery can never be acquitted on abstract moral grounds.

Acton's work was determined, I think, by his profoundly personal disappointment with the Church's historical record, particularly its anti-liberal political role. In a revealing unpublished note, the historian once mused that "America meant: escape from History. They started fresh, unencumbered with political Past." He of all men should have known that to escape from the past is to leave behind the historical drama of redemption and to open the way for the moral imagination, which, if it refuses to respect the texture of life that time and tradition have created or to allow for human weakness, soon metamorphoses into its opposite.

This "moral inversion," as Michael Polanyi once argued, is characteristic of all revolutionary creeds, including Marxism, the modernist faith to which Michael Harrington, another discontented Catholic, elected to convert. Happily, Harrington is too decent and too much a witness of our century's nightmares to succumb to the totalitarian temptation. As a poet manque, his imagination is more esthetic than moral, a point that he makes repeatedly in this collection of essays which intends to explain how a deeply religious, Jesuit-educated boy grew up to be a leading spokesman for democratic Marxism. Harrington designed the book, in short, as something of an intellectual autobiography.

Unlike Acton, who made a public "intellectual sacrifice" rather than be denied the sacraments, Harrington broke with the Church. Yet in some ways he is, as he himself puts it, "religiously musical" in a manner that the stern historian was not. Certainly he is less concerned with moral perfection than with the creation of a "beloved community," a society in which love would finally overcome human alienation. That he has experienced a religious sense of community in the socialist movement there can be no doubt. He "will never forget marching in a huge peace demonstration in New York in 1967"; he thanks God (so to say) for his "one comfortable night as a guest of the New York City police," because "otherwise, one would be as déclassé as a virgin in a street gang."

Harrington's America is a far cry from the almost paradisiacal land that Acton described so admiringly. As a result, his life has been the sum of his demonstrations, speeches, and written protests against the "prose" of American history. One quickly comes to suspect that it mattered little to him what the causes of the moment were; only the belonging, the brotherhood, counted. So lyrical is Harrington's memory of the Common Struggle, that one almost forgets how unimportant he is as a political thinker.

It is only fair to add that Harrington had the courage, during the 1960s, to defend anti-communism against the New Left's scorn. And despite his own muddled notions about economics, he has occasionally leveled telling criticisms against one or another of capitalism's vulgar displays - the devastating portrait of Disney World reprinted here being a case in point. But clearly his intellectual celebrity is a result less of his cogent arguments than of his ability to make of socialism a poem, "a vision of loveliness." Such an appeal must, of course, ignore the truth that serious political thinking proceeds from a deep consciousness of the past, not from a rhapsodic dream of the future. That Harrington never learned this is a consequence of the fact that, in abandoning the faith, he, rather like the rebellious Acton, exchanged a liberation already accomplished for one still to come.



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