Question 27: Orthodox Fathers on Communism


Saint Sophrony of Essex stated in 1981:

 "Communism is put into practice in the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit it is an impossible ideal. This is clear in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. They wanted to keep some of their wealth for themselves, and the Apostle Peter told them: "You have not lied to men but to God" (Acts 5:4).” -Met. Hierotheos Vlachos, I Know a Man in Christ, p. 318.

 Saint Paisios the Athonite said something similar: "Personally, if the communists weren't atheist, if they didn't hunt Christ, I would agree with them. It's good for the plots of land, the factories, to belong to everyone; not for one to be hungry while someone else is throwing away food.

 If material goods are not distributed with the Gospel, in the end they will be distributed with the knife.”

In a lecture in 1983 Fr. John Romanides states the following as found in Patristic Theology:

“Today all the Marxists who live in Greece are empiricists. Of course, they do not realize this, because Greek ideological Marxists are not familiar with the Marxist family tree like their counterparts in Europe and America are. Over here, they just mechanically memorize their lessons in Marxism like a Jehovah’s Witness would.

I think it is a real tragedy – and I am not talking about a tragedy of Aeschylus, but about something shameful – that there are not any intellectually compelling Marxists in Greece. Of course, their absence is a windfall for the police, the political Right, and Modern Greek theologians, but it is a misfortune for the pursuit of the truth. Marxism started out with principles taken from experience and ended up where it ended up. From a scholarly point of view, Marxism and Patristic theology share the same foundation, so that if Marxists and Patristic theologians would come together, they would be able to communicate with each other.

Although it is true that Marxism came into conflict with religion, we need to ask ourselves, with what kind of religion did it come into conflict? It did not come into conflict with revelation, but with religion that is identified with metaphysics. Adamantios Koraïs belonged to that group of metaphysicists who made such an identification, identifying the destiny of Hellenism with metaphysics.”

Is what Saints Paisios and Sophrony the Athonites said in line with what Fr. John Romanides said above? Or is there a departure conceptually? Would you characterize Fr. John Romanides’ coverage of mystical experience in Patristic Theology as if it was some scientific experiment? Does he conflate Fathers with positivists and then conflates Marxism with them. Perhaps he heard Lenin's famous quote “praxis is the criterion of truth” ("практика — критерий истины") and probably the Marxist-Leninist axiom “dialectics is not metaphysics” ("диалектика — не метафизика.") But it's not necessarily solely Marxism per se to my knowledge. Should we differentiate between communism as a political teaching and Marxist philosophy here? Would you say that Saints Paisios and Sophrony are speaking of Communism as a political teaching or doctrine (in practice), but not Marxist philosophy, which is incompatible with the Eastern Orthodox faith in doctrine? To what degree can we say there is overlap between communism as a world view and Eastern Orthodoxy given the comments of the saints here?



I think the main point is that Orthodox theology is applied theology, revelatory and therefore experiential (so Romanides); and that outside the Christian context, no ideology is workable (so Sophrony and Paisios). 

Fr. John Romanides is merely pointing out that the empirical, that is to say, practical and experiential character of Marxist philosophy, provides a basis for dialogue with Orthodox theologians, who base their theology on the verifiable experience of the Saints.

I recall that Fr. Romanides was struck by Lenin’s statement that for communism to succeed, the whole Adam had to be changed, transformed. 

Fr. John Romanides was also impressed by the “empirical” approach of the logical positivists, but believed that the dominance of existentialist philosophers had caused philosophy to “go bankrupt”.

So for Sophrony and Paisios, communist materialist ideology, without Christ, is but a futile endeavour; and this has been borne out of course by world history. 

For Romanides, a fruitful scholarly dialogue would be possible between Marxists and Orthodox theologians, on the basis of certain shared practical and experiential methodologies.

So I think that Romanides’ perspective is more intellectual / academic; although the perspective of all three of the above is ultimately ascetic. I think they all agree that Orthodox theology is experiential and verifiable, consisting of propositions (Christ’s commandments), which can be put to the test and verified by experience - the experience not just of one person, but of many (“a cloud of witnesses”). So in this general sense, Orthodox theology is no less scientific than modern medicine; it is therapeutic, and verifiably so. 

Romanides does not of course place the Fathers, Marxists and Positivists on the same level - heaven forbid. It is just that he sees elements in the two latter groups which could form the basis of a serious discussion, on the academic and intellectual level.

Bear in mind, however, that Orthodox Biblical and Patristic theology - they are in fact one and the same, but I specify to make clear - is non-conceptual and so non-dialectical. 

Your question, whether we should differentiate from Marxism as a political system and Marxist philosophy, I think is answered by both Sophrony and Paisios in their various writings: “politics is a struggle for power” (Sophrony), and one is left looking for the lesser evil at the end of the day (Veniamin), only to find that all political systems are basically the same (Paisios). 

St. Paisios’ advice seems most practical: “Strive to learn who is honorable, righteous and vote for them. Today we have need, not of bright people, but of honorable people.”

Marxist philosophy is incompatible with Orthodox theology, because it is atheist. Simple as that.

Regarding the question of whether there is overlap between Marxism and Christianity, both Sophrony and Paisios acknowledge that there is a correct intuition in communism regarding common ownership of property and the means of production. However, without the Holy Spirit and the gospel of Jesus Christ, human endeavor even of noble principles are doomed to failure, because of our fallen nature.