FORTY years ago, on March 18, 1948, I delivered to the Press Association as a statement the text of an interview which was due to appear in the Catholic Herald next morning. It said that I had resigned my position as News Editor of the Daily Worker and from the Communist Party of which I had been a member for 20 years. And I was hoping to become a Catholic.
The stoi y topped the BBC's World Service News that night and was headlined in every paper next morning. Some weeks earlier I had telephoned the Catholic Herald's editor, Michael de la Bedoyere, and told him that for months I had been heading towards a political breaking point and at the same time moving more and more towards Catholic beliefs. I knew no Catholics, maybe I could talk to him as a fellow journalist.
We met in an Italian cafe just opposite the Catholic Herald's old office. He clearly suspected a possible Communist trick. For my part, with an old-time Methodist childhood and years as an active Communist, I still had my own misgivings about him and about the Catholic Church.
The process which led up to that telephone call and in due course brought me to the Catholic Church was a slow one. During the war years, with the Soviet Union our ally, Stalin and Soviet society were open to view as never before. I, like many others, learned of things which I had not known or had merely disbelieved.
Later came growing concern about where Stalin was taking the Soviet people and where the prevailing "party line" was leading our own Communist Party of Great Britain. My sense of let-down was something which many were to share in the years ahead. But what about the Catholic bit?
I had for years exposed in the Daily Worker the activities of
fascists and fascist organisations. This had given me my own particular loyal following within the Party. It was also to lead me into trouble. I attacked a group of Catholic writers who in good faith I labelled fascists. This brought a cluster of libel actions which dragged on over some years ending with our having to pay damages. Those concerned were not fascists, but they were Catholics, followers of G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. The biter became the bitten.
For as my difficulties with Communism grew so did my awareness that there were Catholics who denounced those whom Belloc called the "Rich", and who, like G K Chesterton, sought some alternative to the existing system. Some of what they said was unacceptable, some deeply disturbing. But in their social criticism they talked a language I could understand.
This led on to my reading anything Catholic I could get hold of, from the Early Fathers, through Newman to Ronald Knox. As my Communism was eroded, so it was replaced in my mind with Catholic thought.
But there was a problem. When, as a teenager, I became a Communist I rejected religion as being an obstacle to human progress. Belief in God did not now come easily. Not least because I am a natural agnostic. Intellectual conviction came step by step. The necessary spiritual acceptance arrived in the form of an intensely personal experience, a leap into faith.
The last decisive political jolt came when, in a Soviet-inspired putsch, armed Communists in Czechoslovakia brought down the democratic government they were supposed to be supporting. This was a negation of all I had learned and taught about the way to the new Communist society.
A despairing Jan Masaryk, the liberal Czech leader, was defenestrated. Whether he fell or was pushed through the window made little difference. I said "enough is enough", headed for Fleet Street and the Catholic Herald.
Most painful of all at the purely human level was the break with old comrades whom I still respected and whose warm friendship I greatly prized. There were some people, particularly in the US, who found it difficult to understand my unshakeable_conviction that becoming a Catholic did not automatically entail acceptance of the existing social system.
There was plenty in Catholicism that was hard enough to take. I didn't, thank God, have to swallow along with it the capitalism which I found just as unacceptable now as it had ever been. Because I rejected Stalin's monstrous deformation of Marxism with its cruelty, treachery and deceit, it did not mean that scandalous inequalities, social and racial injustices, poverty and exploitation in our part of the world had suddenly ceased to matter.
A new and better society had — and has still — to be struggled for and brought into existence.
The Cold War, new in 1948, became increasingly bitter and destructive. Soon I was seeing its sharp and bloody side — in Korea, then the Philippines, Malaya, in Indonesia where Communists were massacred in their hundreds of thousands, in Vietnam year after year throughout that atrocious war, in guerrilla war situations in Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Brazil.
When the opportunity came to move from polemics to dialogue I seized it with relief. One cannot, so far as I can see, speak with two voices: one crusading against Communism, the other seeking common ground. I chose the latter. Not only the circular dialogue in words but in action too. The Church I came to, like the Party I left, has changed in the intervening years, the CP a good deal more than the Church.
Providentially, I was in Latin America when basic Christian communities were first conceived, with Camilo Torres when he made his decision to join the guerrillas in the hills of Colombia, and met the young Fr Gustavo Gutierrez in Lima when liberation theology was still coming to birth.
After years of coming and going, I am less at home with the "respectable" Church of the West than with the Third World "church of the people". But indentifying with the oppressed is what my life has been all about.