Scholars who pay attention to the ironies of history would be most intrigued by the relationship between Jacques Maritain and Saul Alinsky, and between Martain and Emmanuel Mounier. Maritain identified Alinsky as a true reformer, a “practical Thomist,” and “a great soul, a man of moral purity whose natural generosity is quickened, though he would not admit it, by genuine evangelical brotherly love.” Brought up in the ghettos of Chicago, Alinsky grew to become a warrior for social justice, a provocateur par excellence, and a man of the people.
Stories abound that demonstrate Alinsky’s penchant for public spectacle, a trait he himself characterized as the ability to “rub raw the resentment of the people of the community; to fan the latent hostilities. On one occasion, Alinsky targeted the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York, when he threatened to go out, buy a hundred tickets to the symphony orchestra, and give them out to 100 ghetto blacks who he would entertain before the concert with a dinner of baked beans. On another occasion, Alinsky organized a “watermelon march” in which he chose “several hundred of the blackest Negroes,” dressed them up in overalls and handed them watermelons to march on the Oakland Tribune and into white neighborhoods until “the white folks move out and you can get their goodies.”
Over the years, Maritain and Alinsky became close friends, albeit unlikely ones, and Maritain encouraged the writing and edited himself Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a manifest of sorts for social upheaval. Together they would collaborate on thinking through the just means for revolution, agreeing that the means determined the morality of any action. Alinsky put feet and arms to Maritain’s programme for social justice. Maritain gave Alinsky a lesson or two in the only kind of Christian ethics that could make his revolution last and dispelled him of utopian illusions. In an interview with Harper’s magazine, Alinsky noted:
I do not do what a lot of liberals and a lot of civil rights crusaders do. I do not think that people are specifically charitable or noble because they’re unemployed and live in crummy housing and see their kids without any kind of future and feel the weight of every indignity that society can throw at them, sophisticatedly or nakedly. Too often I’ve seen the have-nots turn into the haves they used to envy. Some of the fruit ranchers in California steam around in Cadillacs and treat the Mexican-American field hands like vermin. Know who those bastards are? They’re the characters who rode West in Steinbeck’s trucks, in The Grapes of Wrath.
By the end of his life, Maritain has seen a shift in the Church as it viewed the Jews, and he had cultivated the closest of friendships with a Jewish agitator. He still had questions about the ability of the church to make good on its spiritual and temporal responsibilities to the poor and oppressed, and he found in an agnostic Jew a better picture of what the Church should be doing. It is instructive that Maritain seemed to hit his head against a wall with popes and prelates. But he found guts and even piety in the cursing of a hot-headed Jew. This, Maritain came to believe, was the essence of the Christian faith in action. And in this way, Maritain serves many as an exemplar of the beautiful symphony of head and heart—of faith and works.
Another relationship that Maritain forged to put his theories of social justice into action was with the radical French Catholic intellectual, Emmanuel Mounier, founder of the influential magazine Esprit. Mounier’s strident opposition both to Soviet communism and Western capitalism merged with his robust Catholic faith to articulate the faith in the context of extreme poverty and oppression. In 1933, one year after Mounier founded Esprit, a French transplant and Mounier disciple, Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day. Together the two would utilize their journalistic and organizational skills to give voice to the unemployed, impoverished and despondent by means of direct aid and weekly newspaper reaching more than 185,000 readers by 1940.
During the formative years of Mounier’s education in Paris, he came to meet with Jacques Maritain. Indeed, to be an educated Catholic in Paris made the pull of Maritain’s thought irresistible. As one commentator has noted, Maritain was to the emerging intellectuals “one sun in the small Parisian universe.” Between 1928 and the outbreak of the Second World War, Mounier visited Maritain’s home, turning to him increasingly for advice on his academic work, and then for the formation of his ideas on the founding of Esprit. The magazine was born out of Mounier’s reaction to the interbellum crises both on the American continent and the European.
In 1941, Mounier gave three reasons for the founding of Esprit which demonstrate the degree to which Maritain’s indictment of modernity had nurtured the growing activistic impulse of young Catholic intellectuals. Among the reasons Mounier gives are the painful awareness that Christianity was increasingly tying itself to a “disestablished order” coupled with his desire to break from that order, and the perception that below the growing economic crisis of 1929 and subsequent events a total disintegration of civilization was revealing itself.
But the partnership of Maritain and Mounier was to become strained as the older Maritain pushed for the magazine to adopt a more reflective and religious tone while Mounier’s younger associates came to see Esprit as a vehicle for political action. In time the magazine would be the sole work of Mounier, though he and Maritain would continue to collaborate in the articulation of a Catholicism equally opposed to the radical individualism of capitalistic systems and the Marxist collectivism of Soviet communism. For the two men, a new humanism must be forged that reasserts the individual value of each human person within the context of a society that refuses to dismiss or dispatch the least of men. That was, of course, before the Second World War when both men’s dreams shattered. By the time Mounier died in 1950, he had found Marxism more appealing and his focus on justice and equality took a form much different from Maritain’s pursuit of philosophical renaissance. Their shared agenda, however, with the distinct emphases on justice and reform aided unquestionably in the modernizing of the Church that would occur at the Second Vatican Council
These two relationships, one with Alinsky and the other with Mounier, represent the way that Maritain navigated the conflicting ideologies and political crises of Western civilization in the 20th century. With Alinsky, Maritain was able to direct the work of social action that meant liberating the oppressed and giving voice to those silenced by materialistic machines of modern capitalism. With Mounier, Maritain was able to assess the positive contributions of Marxist collectivism and work within European structures to oppose communism on the one hand, while appropriating it on the other. Indeed, Maritain was a man fighting a battle on two fronts. In this way, Maritain employed a renewed awareness of history and social engineering that sought authentic equality and justice without appropriating systems of economic leveling and sociological reductionism.
To be continued…