by Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P.
For me the “genius loci“ of my Bethnal Green pitch is Lenin. Before I first spoke to that very alert area of the Ghetto I was told that Lenin had preceded me by some years. Since then I have never forgotten what I was told. Indeed the man who has made such a house-breaking dust and din in Russia is always so present to me at Bethnal Green that I talk not only of him, but to him. In sheer comradeship I offer him some of the wisdom I received from the old nursing Mother of the Western peoples. The trouble is that Lenin is no longer to be found at Lenin’s Pitch.
But Lenin’s well-intentioned inconsequences and therefore inhumanities haunt the spot like the reek and echo of a passing exhaust pipe. Sometimes my expectation of it falls dramatically below the reality, as quite recently, May 24, about S p.m.—a day and hour never to be blotted out of an old priest-contemptible’s memory.
Perhaps I had occasioned what I met. Regularly during the winter months when I had gone to Lenin’s Pitch I had found myself the only platform. When winter was over, and the pitch was not an introduction to Nansen’s “Farthest North,” I twitted the “fire-brand revolutionaries“ with leaving the pitch to the old priest; whilst they toasted their toes round the hearth of a Saloon-Bar. I even asked them to come out and show fight, and not to be frightened, as they would not have to face automatic pistols, but only dogmatic weapons primed with argument and perhaps a little humour.
Whether my banter reassured the fire-brands at least to the extent of sending a delegate, I do not know. I only know that last Thursday night was an unforgettable night if the Lenin Pitch delegate was giving me Leninism up to sample.
I had read out to them from the Acts of the Apostles St. Peter’s first talk Urbi at Orbi—to Jerusalem and to the World. I asked them to realise that this rather boring talk with its long quotation from Joel and its tangled reference to David had broached the world’s greatest Revolution—which made the Lenin revolution sound like the “crack” of an automatic pistol against the roar of a thunderstorm.
I called their attention to the doctrine and ideal held up before them that morning on the Jerusalem Peter-Pitch. Peter was not, like Marx, an expert on Rieardo’s theory of value; or like Lenin, an expert in street fighting. Peter was a fisherman, sent out by God to offer the world the gift and challenge of Jesus crucified. Peter’s weapon was not a spear or a sword [Malchus’s ear had seen to that] or a cross-bow—but a Cross. And when Peter preached to the Judeans—then the Israelites—then to all “men brethren” about the self-sacrifice of God-made-man, he broched the one, ultimate, perfect Brotherhood of Man.
A tall, thin, dark-haired, sallow-faced man whom I took to be still in the twenties had been visibly exercising self-control whilst I first read and then explained Peter the Rock’s talk on the Brotherhood of Man. Question-time found him instantly vocal. He began after this fashion:
“Yours is the Capitalist Brotherhood of Man.” Of course I could not see how he could get that out of the Crucifix. But it was now my time to exercise self-control.
He went on: “Karl Marx has told us how there are two classes—the exploited and the exploiters. Whilst these two classes exist there is only your Capitalist Brotherhood of Man.”
Perhaps I asked—”How then would you bring in the Brotherhood of Man”? Whether I did or did not ask the question, he answered it, “We shall have the true Brotherhood of Man only when we have annihilated the others!”
I could hardly believe my ears. But my tall Jewish Leninist left no loophole for my doubts. He repeated almost in a fugue of changes, “When they are all annihilated we shall have the Brotherhood of Man!”
As I was standing up in Lenin’s Bethnal Green Pitch for the sake, not merely of the Leninist but also for Bethnal Green, I turned more in anguish than in triumph to the crowd, saying: “Do you hear? Brotherhood by annihilation!” My anguish saved itself from anger by a very deliberate, self-controlled recitation of “The Young Lady of Riga.” I have a dim recollection of calling it fiercely: Tiger-brother-hood.
When I had my startled wits more under control I said: “Have you realised that it takes two for an annihilation? You can’t annihilate your enemy by a vote—even a unanimous vote of your Cheka—or what you call your G.H.Q.”
In the eyes of the crowd I seemed to see that Bethnal Green, now foregathered at Lenin’s Pitch, was taking a judicial view of the discussion. That was all I wanted.
I looked at my Leninist friend with an appeal for calm thinking as I said gravely: “Your Brotherhood by annihilation means war. Now, let me give you the opinion of an old priest who loves and must protect the poor, and who has some acquaintance with men’s actions, their causes and effects. Differ from me if you like. But differ only on evidence; not on sentiment. My reading of history is that in wars, such as you are proposing, you have never won—it is you and not your enemies that have been practically annihilated!”
One Act of this drama of Lenin’s Pitch was ended. The last was perhaps the most dramatic. I opened it by saying: “A friend of mine makes out an arguable case that whatever happened in the beginning of Bolshevism, our present-day Bolshevism is run by a small, very clever group, not of Communists but of Capitalists. When you protest against the absurdity of his view, he asks you how you can account for the fact that the only people really benefiting by this so-called Communism are the Capitalist nations.”
I thought my Leninist would meet the argument by denying the alleged facts. As mere strategy this would have been his best move, it would have led the discussion into a question of fact, where our opposite opinions would be equally incapable of proof
It was a surprise to me that he swallowed the bait ad even the hook I had thrown out to him. Quite firmly he said: “For the present we are lining the pockets of the Capitalists. Russia needs more machinery than it can produce. When it has bought machinery enough from Capitalists to be independent, it will stop buying. At the end of its new Five Years’ Plan it will line the pockets of the Capitalists no longer.”
I turned to Lenin’s Pitch: “Hear this gentleman. Communism is ‘lining the pockets of the Capitalists.’ Not I, but this gentleman used the phrase ‘lining the pockets of the Capitalists.’
I turned to my Jewish Communist. “Good! But will you get back the wealth you have given ‘to line pockets of the Capitalists?” For the first time in the discussion his self-control seemed failing. His argument lounged and became erratic with (perhaps undesigned) personalities and abuse.
The crowd seemed to be turning their judicial mind towards the unprejudiced verdict. I thought I would end on a note of tragedy disguised as comedy.
I said “Brotherhood by Annihilation and a Communism that lines the pockets of the Capitalists. If you are a paid agent of Russia—be careful or you’ll get the sack.”
I got down from my platform with a “God bless you all.” Two little girls whose united ages would hardly be four and twenty, had been open-eyed and tongueless at the foot of the platform. The elder jerked out in a tone of anxiety: “You’ve won.”
I put my hand on her head, saying, “ My little one. I don’t want to win. I only want the truth to win.”