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Pope of reaction – communion of suffering

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As millions watch the funeral of John Paul II, the working class should remember why the capitalist politicians have praised this Pope so highly – from Bush and Blair the warmongers right through to the reformist leaders of the labour movement, including even ‘Communists’ like Italy’s Fausto Bertinotti.

Within the church he led (or, rather, ruled) for 26 years, Karol Józef Wojtyla’s papacy will be remembered principally for reversal of the liberalising trends of the 1960s and reestablishing a more autocratic leadership. In reality, this meant the rule of the Curia, whose candidate he was after the unexpectedly early death of his predecessor, and it is the same upper echelons of this Vatican bureaucracy who are now orchestrating the drive to make his conservative policy irreversible.

In addition to popularising the idea that he should be known henceforth as John Paul the Great, they are even canvassing support for his rapid canonisation - a process which has, in the past, often required centuries. The story is told that when Wojtyla went to confession, the mystic Padre Pio predicted that he would one day be Pope. This is a revealing anecdote because it implies either that the padre broke his priestly oath never to divulge the secrets of the confessional, or that the story was humbly spread by the Pope himself! No doubt reports of miracles associated with him will be soon be circulating.

The Pope did as much as he could to ensure the continuation of his policies. He handpicked the overwhelming majority of the College of Cardinals who will elect his successor. Nonetheless, those policies have ensured that he leaves behind a divided church. It is one thing to pontificate about the sanctity of human life to justify opposition to a woman’s right to choose an abortion or to the use of contraception. But it is quite another to witness unmoved the suffering this caused - backstreet abortions, unwanted pregnancies and the death of millions from AIDS.

Where the Pope and his apologists may see only allegiance to tradition and safeguarding the interests of their Holy Mother the Church, the more clear sighted see denial of the equality of women, prejudice against gays and duplicitous protection for child abusers. Although there were coincidences of policy agreement between John Paul and political leaders like Bush, over for example abortion or stem cell research, that is not enough to explain the intense campaign to present him as a global paragon of virtue. No, that can only be explained by the role they have ascribed to Wojtyla in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is said that when Stalin was planning the imposition of puppet governments in Eastern Europe, his advisers warned him that this would bring him into open confrontation with the Catholic Church. Stalin, we are told, sneeringly asked, “And how many divisions has the Pope?” For some who thought themselves Marxists, this characteristically crude assertion that all social phenomena can be negated through military force was another example of Stalin’s mastery of strategy. The more thoughtful and farsighted Marxists, who understood the social roots of religion and the effects of national oppression, had for the most part already fallen victim to Stalin’s bloody methods.

For the leaders of the imperialist states and capitalists everywhere, there is, therefore, a delicious irony in their perception of a Polish Pope who turned the tables on the Kremlin. In reality, however, it was the Polish workers’ movement, whose origins lie in the industrial battles of the early 1970s and which went on to become the multi-millioned base of the trade union Solidarnosc, which created the social force that broke up bureaucratic rule. It was their mobilisations and underground movement which caused the cardinal from Krakow to become a real option for the Vatican Curia and led them to break with their age old tradition of electing an Italian as Pope.

Certainly, as a brutally oppressed people, the Poles had clung to their religion, and Catholicism thus formed part of their national consciousness, so that the elevation of “their” cardinal to the papacy was naturally a boost to ‘national’ morale. Nonetheless, their dynamism and their methods of mobilisation were those of the factory and the street not the cloister and the convent. It was the Polish workers who gave political significance to John Paul, not John Paul who gave significance to the Polish workers.

What he did offer them, and to their cost they accepted it, was the advice to limit their demands to the removal of the bureaucratic dictatorship. Not to establish their own rule through democratic workers’ councils, but to step aside and allow the restoration of capitalism, wholesale privatisation of the economy and years of economic deprivation from which the country has still not recovered.

Whether or not it is true that his last word was “amen” - so be it – his teaching of the need to accept “God’s Will” also earned him the gratitude of the world’s rulers, who have always been very keen that everybody should accept the fate allotted to them, just as they themselves, of course, have accepted theirs.

Finally, what can genuine communists say on this day, when we see scores of millions earnestly mourning this Pope of counterrevolution, this new Saint of globalised reaction, this humble lover of the poor who dwelt in at palace waited on by servants who treated him as a living god.? Should we be dumbfounded or depressed by the apparent strength of religious illusions and false consciousness? Not at all. The real cause of religious belief resides, as Marx understood, not in a heaven free from suffering but in a world full of woe. When the conditions of that suffering are ended, the illusion of religion and all its associated lies, repression and hypocrisy will fall away:

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation, but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower.”