The recent English riots, soaked as they are in unrestrained Marxism, bring to mind one of the 20th century’s great anti-Marxists, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was a staunch—even curmudgeonly—defender of social order, and a derisive critic of Marxism, calling it in The Tablet “the opiate of the people.”

Waugh would no doubt have been a booster of the Acton Institute (his best man was Lord Acton’s grand nephew), and a passage in his 1945 classic Brideshead Revisited artfully sums up the Institute’s founding justification. It is a conversation between Charles Ryder and Lady Marchmain in which her ladyship reveals a history of a conscience troubled by great wealth.

It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in paganRomewas necessarily something cruel; it’s not anymore.

Lady Marchmain is not the most sympathetically drawn character, and at first it seems strange what she says about coveting the advantage of the poor. But of course what she was coveting was not the earthly simplicity of Lazarus’s existence, but a perceived spiritual primacy.

What she neglected to do was to put her trust in Providence, which sees to the distribution of wealth according to an Eternal Law she cannot read. What she came to see is that she is merely a stewardess of “so many beautiful things.” The cruel Roman world was that of Nero’s nihilistic tyranny, but the Domus Aurea has become the ornately restored chapel at Brideshead.

The conversation continues with Charles (the first-person narrator),

I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point.

“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, theAlice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”

(Against charges that Waugh was a snob need only be set this comparison of himself to the ox and the ass in Bethlehem.)

The socialist rejects this Alice-in-Wonderland aspect of life, and tries to impose his own order on it. That was the folly of the Soviet Union, and it is the folly of the modern comprehensive state.


  • SjS

    Acton would do well to even more strongly advocate more the universal destination of all goods, and encourage it’s donor base to both give even more charitably and rely on providence, rather than to be seen in any manner as defending ostentation and privilege.

  • Luke Daxon

    Unrestrained marxism? Listen, I am British, Kenneth, so please give me leave to plead a better knowledge of these events.  I have seen the utter disgrace into which my country has sunk, and I have heard and seen all too much from the looters. I have got news for you. They ain’t demanding the workers control the means of production. They are not after the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    They want stuff.

    They want it bad and you’d better believe they’ll get it. This is shopping with violence. Sports stores, mobile phones outlets, booze shops etc, etc, etc. It is Mammon, in all his gaudy vulgarity, before whom the looters abase themselves.

    This is what happens when a culture comes to believe the getting of wealth is the purpose of human existence, when it forgets the presence of God, and ploughs its snout into the bottom of the trough.

    And why not? After all, a dreadful crass materialism, and a hideous narcissism is what passes for culture in Britain, and across the West as a whole. ‘Because your worth it’ is not just the mantra of the make-up adverts. It is our rip-off of the Nicene Creed. This is no excuse for the criminality, but the looters haven’t suddenly appeared out of ether. They have been sired and reared in a culture that is spiritually dead, and can only offer amusement and sensation in the place of God.

    • http://blog.acton.org/archives/author/kspence Kenneth Spence

      I totally agree Luke–the rioters miss what Lady Marchmain figured out early in her marriage