Page 7, 6th May 1994

6th May 1994
Page 7
Page 7, 6th May 1994 — When the Left still danced

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Locations: Southampton, Oxford


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When the Left still danced

In the 1960s a group of young Catholics drew together to found a magazine which would address issues of Church and socialism. Slant became a forum for Left-wing writers and idealists. Francis Davis remembers the journal's glory days.

THIRTY TEARS AGO this spring a group of young Catholics drawn largely from Cambridge University but also from the Dominicans, the publishing house Sheed and Ward and the adult education movement, founded a journal named Slant.

Its writers proclaimed the radical task of the Church and the need to move away from "the dynamic conformity" of progressives" such as the reformers of Vatican II, and towards the creation of a Church whose liturgy would become a counter culture in which Catholics could learn the imperative of a revolutionary commitment.

Slant grew from an annual meeting of young Catholics who had gathered for the first time in 1058 at Spode House and whose annual meetings evolved into the "December/Group" which, coordinated by Mike Simpson of Shrewsbury Diocese, still meets in a different form today.

Among those present at that first meeting or who came to be active or contribute later were Terry Eagleton, now Professor of English at Oxford, Francis McDonagh now CIIR's specialist on Brazil, Herbert McCabe the well loved and brilliant Dominican, Brian Wicker one of our leading Catholic anti-nuclear campaigners, and Angela and Adrian Cunningham who through Lancaster University, Christian Aid, and the Christendom Trust, have in recent years contributed so much to justice building.

Reading the many books and the more than twenty editions of the journal that Slant produced until its close in March 1970 one is struck by the energy, the excitement, and in the hope of the young Slant writers, as they struggled to build a new vision of English Catholicism.

In the light of the lack of progress we have made today, these perspectives seem almost depressing. For exam ple, the urgent calls for the garish to become an agent of community development, for ecumenism, for working together with others of the left against market exploitation, and the calls for a more open "decentralised" Church.

Some of Slant is almost comical for its lack of judgement what of Terry Eagleton's desire that the priest in Britain might take on the Leninist role of peoples' organiser?

Slant's most important contribution was its notion of community. This communitarian vision did not merely comprise a sense that people should be nice to one another, or be pleasant to one another which is the outcome of so much catechetical "reflection" today.

The Slant vision went deeper than that, to recognise that genuine community is a rejection of the atomisation of open market societies and thus also of nations who gather in the same place, to worship God in another place.

Drawing on the work of the literary critical wing of the 60s New Left movement, and the later work of Wittgenstein, Brian Wicker in particular argued that in a genuine community meanings of language are shared and those shared meanings form the basis for communication between equal people.

Terms of language should riot be presented as historically neutral or as neutral within the life of the polls. Consequently, if a word like "culture" or "sacrament" has one meaning in, say, a multi national boardroom or wealthy household, and another for the residents of a night shelter, there is no "common culture" and communion does not exist.

Where common culture does not exist in a community of shared meanings which we both internalise and represent in relationship, then objective values are inexpressible and the danger is that we live in a world of permanent alienation. Notions of private morality or salvation consequently collapse as they undermine human flourishing.

Ultimately, Slant argued,

the liturgy was to become the living example of this new "communication" and Christ would be the ground of that communication. In this new community persons would learn to be both. the cause and consequence of community.

As late as 1970, Eagleton could thus celebrate "communication" as being similar to the unity of two fine dancers in "the dance" and use imagery that still, when coupled with the writing of Herbert McCabe at that time, inspires the Catholic Labour MPs to argue today that the problem with the left is that it has become "all Labour and no Party and needs to learn how to dance again".

The key achievement of all of this was not that Slant generated a coherent theology of revolution (it didn't) or that Slant built bridges with the wider left (on the whole it didn't) but that for the first time Catholics on the left were engaging with the theorists of the wider British left and were attempting to renew them not at the level of policy but that of principle.

This in itself was an achievement of vision, as Catholics traditionally had had an uncomfortable relationship with the Labour Party and the wider left and had almost been hermetically sealed from its intellectual development by the nature of the pre-Conciliar Church.

Even in the days when Frank Pakenham was Minister for Germany, he earned the ire of Richard Grossman for preferring to spend more time with Conservatives in Germany who happened to be Catholic, than getting on with the task in hand.

Slant writers recognised that Catholic support for a systematic natural law can bring tensions in liberal societies because in some of its forms it has a tendency to reproduce liberal injustice. Some of the Slant writers, however, didn't recognise that much Marxism faces the same dilemmas.

In this process of debate, and perhaps unwittingly, their communitarian vision came to bear striking resemblance to contemporary communitarian writers of British democratic socialism.

Looking back on Slant one of its contributors remarked recently that, especially in the light of the Thatcher years, "it all seemed very dated." Admittedly, that has been the

verdict of most of Slant's historians, who have described the period as "all very exciting"if eventually insignificant because Slant's

thirst for political relevance took its writers into the game of upward social mobility.

The leading socialist intellectual, Raymond Williams, whose work had had a

profound effect on Slant participants, even suggested

that it was nice to hear that there were now Catholic radicals but, in essence, was not Catholic radicalism a very long-winded way of getting around to transforming soci

ety? Nevertheless, Slant does

stand as a striking example of boldness in English Catholi cism, for it was no less creative than any movement of social Christianity within other denominations over the last century.

The contemporary leading New Right philosopher

Michael Novak still saw Slant

as representative of an important enough historical moment for it to merit signif

icant attention in his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism when it

was published in 1982: and again in a revised edition in 1991, published by the Thatcherite British Institute of Economic Affairs.

Perhaps most importantly Slant reminds us of how,

whilst some Catholics may condemn the British Left as morally bankrupt and beyond the redemption that Christ ian activism may bring there, the reality is that we have only ever tried to push Catholic policy to the left rather than renew its foundations at the level of principle.

Still frightened of "the world" and the left particu larly, English Catholics have never really followed through this task of sustaining soli darity and community in the thought and practice of the left. In the light of the Thatcher years in particular is it not all the more urgently needed?

Francis Davis is Co-ordinator of the Voluntary Sector Manage ment and Training Unit at LSU College, Southampton. This is a personal view.

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