A “Catholic Fellow-Traveler”? Graham Greene and Communism

Adam Schwartz

In 1949, George Orwell felt the need to correct what he considered a friend’s misconception of Graham Greene’s politics. He told T.F. Fyvel that “You keep referring to him as an extreme Conservative, the usual Catholic reactionary type. This isn’t so at all, either in his books or privately. Of course he is a Catholic…but in outlook he is just a mild Left with faint CP leanings. I have even thought that he might become our first Catholic fellow traveler….”1 Subsequent observers have often echoed the essence of Orwell’s speculation; and some prominent Catholic political conservatives have chided Greene harshly for allegedly muddying religion and politics and becoming something of a Communist fifth columnist in the process. Shortly after Greene’s 1991 death, for instance, Ralph McInerny referred to his “vacillation between Communism and the Church;”2 and, as recently as 1999, Robert Royal wrote disapprovingly that Greene “flirted (and more than flirted)” with Communist beliefs and movements.3 A closer examination of Greene’s views of Communism, though, reveals a more nuanced position than Orwell detected or than his critics have acknowledged.

Like many thinkers of his generation, Greene saw Communism and Roman Catholicism as attractive alternatives to liberal modernity’s perceived collapse. Yet whereas most others regarded these systems as stark antitheses, Greene tried throughout his life to synthesize what he deemed the best elements of each one, for both outlooks resonated strongly with his general worldview and political principles. But his efforts to make such connections should not foster the mistaken conclusion that he was a syncretist or that Catholicism was ever this attempted alliance’s junior partner. Greene criticized Communism strongly from what he considered a Catholic standpoint, perceiving crucial incompatibilities between the two systems, and implied that Communism needed Catholicism’s leavening influence to prevent repetition of its worst excesses. In particular, he sensed that human rights were suppressed frequently in socialism’s name; and this apprehension made him unable to share his leftist contemporaries’ unbridled enthusiasm for it. Exploring his views of Communist ideology, of its adherents, like the Soviet Union, Spanish Republicans, and Kim Philby, and of efforts to forge an entente between it and Catholicism, be they by the Sandinistas or liberation theologians, will reveal that Greene consistently admired Communism’s commitment to ethical absolutes and social justice, while reproving what he deemed its overly-optimistic anthropology, over-ratiocination, and consequent brutality. This critique was rooted in Greene’s Catholicism, which was the lodestar by which he steered his course between the Scylla of reactionary rejections of Communism’s valid insights and the Charybdis of excusing its inaccuracies and the abuses committed in its name.

Greene’s middle class parents were Liberals in both religion and politics, with a typically Victorian trust in human nature and belief in Progress.4 Although he abandoned their liberal Christianity following an adolescent crisis in the late 1910s and early 1920s that made it seem inadequate in the face of positive evil, this trauma’s disillusioning effects on his religious and cosmological views do not appear to have extended to his political outlook immediately.5Greene seems to have imbibed and upheld the class norms of his home and public school readily in youth and young adulthood. While a student at Oxford, he canvassed for the Conservatives in 1923 and was close to the Liberals in 1924. Even more significantly, he helped The Times continue to publish during the 1926 General Strike, and even became a special constable. He admitted later that he and his class regarded the strike as “a game, a break in the monotony of earning a secure living,” and some contemporaneous comments confirm that he saw it only as an antidote to personal ennui.6 Greene thus had little interest in or understanding of class issues at this time: he did not yet see workers as victims deserving his sympathy.7 It was only with the Great Depression of the 1930s that his political opinions assumed a more radical trajectory: “The hunger marchers were really hungry…. They were really people who had not enough to eat and I think it was that that turned us all to the left.”8 While he had joined the Communist Party briefly for flippant reasons in 1925 (in the hope of winning a trip to Moscow and Leningrad), Greene was entirely earnest in signing up with the Independent Labor Party in August, 1933, a decision he rightly recognized as a significant change in his views.9 But, unlike most of his leftist peers, Greene had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926, and his prior commitment to this faith would consistently condition his view of the veracity and viability of left-wing political positions and policies.

Greene saw several significant affinities between Catholicism and Communism. Initially, he considered both systems to be teleologies. He maintained that “criticisms of my books made by Catholics or Communists have a dimension not to be found among others. They succeed in disclosing more”10 because both sorts of readers are guided by a standard beyond themselves, making their criticism “less subjective.”11 Greene portrayed Communism as satisfying a religious urge consistently.12 The Human Factor contains one of the most concentrated examples of this comparison, as one of the Communist “faithful,” Halliday, helps spirit British double agent Maurice Castle to Soviet exile. Halliday dreams of Moscow in paradisal terms, speaks of his pilgrimages to Marxist shrines in London, and recall his own recruitment when he was handed Communist books as “a missionary hands out the Bible.” Castle tells Halliday that he will never “convert” him, exactly what the Communist Sancho says he is trying to do when he loans the Communist Manifesto to his friend, Monsignor Quixote, in the novel bearing that cleric’s name.13 In Greene’s mind, then, Catholicism and Communism each supplied the authoritative, ends-based, external, objective, absolute source of meaning and conduct that he found absent from liberalism and most other modern systems, but which he deemed a basic human need: “People must have something outside the narrow world to live for….Nobody can endure existence without a philosophy.”14

In addition to satisfying that hunger for permanence, Catholicism and Communism also appealed to Greene for what he deemed their common rebelliousness against modernity and willingness to take the victim’s side. Although Marxism is the consummation of numerous modern trends in its anthropocentrism and assertions of a human, historical solution to the problem of evil in its classless, stateless utopia, it is also an elaborate condemnation of the inhumanity and alienation felt by many in the industrial, urban, technological order. It was this latter aspect that attracted Greene, who derived a similar censure from his Catholicism, as when he called the Epistle of James’s warnings to the rich “words of revolution” (a designation he also gave the Sermon on the Mount) that Catholics should rediscover, and praised the papal social encyclicals for their strong rebuke of capitalism.15 Sancho crystallizes this perceived affinity between Catholicism and Communism: “Is there much difference between the two? They are both protests against injustice.”16 Greene had made this case more broadly in The Comedians, arguing through Dr. Magiot that “Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate.”17 Beyond this willingness to rebel against structures of sin and inequity, Greene also contended that, at its best, Communism shared Catholicism’s commitment to the common people’s dignity. Discussing Vietnam in the early 1950s, for example, Greene made a revealing comparison when asserting that Communists treated previously anonymous peasants as individual persons: “Unless a priest, no one before the Commissar has approached him, has troubled to ask him questions, or spent time in teaching him. There is something in Communism besides the politics.”18 It was this extra “something,” witnessed in Vietnam, Central America and elsewhere, that strengthened Greene’s sense that Communists could implicitly serve the same ideals he had learned from the Church.19 While certainly a debatable claim, Greene’s assertion of it is indicative of his desire to establish numerous points of contact between the Communist critique of modern society and his own Catholic criticisms of it.

Yet this contact also generated considerable friction in Greene’s mind, as he saw some signal Communist principles in conflict with norms epitomized for him by Catholicism. Initially, he believed that Communism proceeds from unrealistic premises because it lacks a tragic view of life. Greene had concluded from his adolescent suffering that men could never be like gods due to a radical, and immanently irradicable, flaw in the human condition: “Human nature is not black and white but black and gray.”20 This conviction made the Christian doctrine of the Fall appealing to him as a young man, and also led him to judge the Communist promise of temporal human perfection a whitewash of evil’s permanence in this life. As Richard Johnstone puts it succinctly, “He could not believe in the possibility of a fair and just society because he had no corresponding belief in the essential goodness of man. Communism offered him no spiritual consolation for the oppressiveness of the world. It is just this consolation that Catholicism did offer….Catholicism justifies the world as it is, not as it might be.”21 Witnessing what he regarded as the corruption and failure of revolutionary socialism in Mexico during the late 1930s strengthened this outlook, prompting Greene to write in the novel based on that journey of the “facile and over-confident statement about man having nothing to lose but his chains.”22 As with other elements of his worldview asserting evil’s perdurance, this one also survived his eventual abandonment of belief in the specific dogma of Original Sin. As late as 1988, for instance, Greene insisted on the existence of a fixed human nature impatient of perfection on this side of the grave, and the consequent need for a limited conception of political possibility: “It is not possible to create a New Man, so all we can expect is a change in conditions so that the poor are less poor and the rich are less rich. I am for more humanity, not for a new concept of humanity.”23

Greene maintained that when Communists persist in this belief in human nature’s plasticity, they become obsessed with the abstract New Man to the exclusion of sympathy for actual men, finally resorting to what he judged unjustified coercion and thus creating victims among the very groups they ostensibly represent. He depicted this mindset early in his career through It’s a Battlefield’s Surrogate: “The lovely abstractions of Communism had lured him into the party,” for he desires companions who share his belief that “these things were real–Capitalism and Socialism, Wealth and Poverty–and not these other things, champagne and charity balls and woman bearing their twelfth child in an overcrowded room.” True to his name, Surrogate substitutes his hopes for Humanity for the fate of one man, a party member sentenced to death by the British government whose release other Communists want to petition for: “He resented even Drover’s intrusion as an individual to be saved and not a sacrifice to be decked for the altar….He felt rattled and betrayed by the individuality of men.”24 Greene’s trip to Mexico again helped substantiate his views, as he condemned the socialist revolutionaries there for “violence in favor of an ideal and then the ideal lost and the violence just going on;”25 and his conviction of the human costs attendant upon adherence to Communist abstractions was undimmed twenty-five years later: “Marxists do not believe in persuasion or dialogue. As for the famous Marxist optimism it just makes me laugh; few men have distrusted their fellows more completely.”26

He amplified such sentiments even further in his first novel of the 1980s, insisting that Communists have resorted to violence because rigid loyalty to Marxist dogma has prevented them from accepting the contrary developments of history, and the choices made by even their supposed agents of revolution. Monsignor Quixote tells his friend that

You have to look to the Third World, Sancho, to find any paupers now. But that’s not because of the triumph of Communism. Don’t you think it would have happened without Communism? Why, it was already beginning to happen when Marx wrote, but he did not notice. So that’s why Communism had to be spread by force—force not only against the bourgeoisie, force against the proletariat too.

Greene went on to argue that Catholicism is more inclined to respect people as individuals than Communism is, and thus is better equipped to take the side of poor victims without violating their dignity. In his mind, the Catholic loves discrete people in their present imperfect state and seeks to ease their specific, current agony, whereas the Communist ideologue’s allegiance is to the unrealizable demigods of a future Marxist utopia, a commitment that only produces further pain when it inevitably founders on the unchangeable incorrigibility of fallen human nature. He thus saw Christian charity as a more appropriate response to suffering than the chiliastic schemes of Marxist revolutionaries. Quixote contends that “It was humanism, not Communism” that addressed paupers’ authentic needs, “and behind humanism there’s always the shadow of religion.”27 Greene had shown this opinion to be essentially his own four decades previously when he had condemned the Mexican socialists for driving away from indigent Indians the priests who “had shown interest in them as human beings;”28 and he reaffirmed it in 1988: “Perhaps as the church becomes more concerned with poverty and human rights the Marxists become less concerned with poverty and there’s nothing to show they are concerned with human rights.”29 Although Greene did not portray all Communists as possessing these attitude—as his aforementioned praise of the Vietnamese version illustrates—he did perceive that its idealism could degenerate rapidly in inhumanity, and he made this judgment according to what he regarded as a Catholic standard.

Greene also found these potential conflicts between Catholicism and Communism to be actual consistently in his times. As early as 1934, he depicted Jules Briton (the only identifiable Roman Catholic in It’s a Battlefield) as desiring an authoritative, active alternative to what he sees as weightless modernity, but finding Communism an unsatisfactory teleology: “He wanted something he could follow with passion, but Communism was talk and never action….He wanted someone to say to him: ‘Do this. Do that. Go here. Go there.’ He wanted to be saved from the counter and the tea urn, the ‘Weights,’ and the heartless flippancy of the cafe.” For Jules such salvation comes only from his Catholicism, which rebels assuredly against modern ennui and asserts the presence of evil: “Always in the badly lit church, surrounded by the hideous statues of an uncompromising faith, listening to the certainty of that pronouncement—peche, peche, peche—he was given confidence, an immense pride, a purpose. However lost in the cafe…here he was at home.”30 Greene detected the practical implications of this intellectual and spiritual clash regularly, whether he was documenting the Mexican persecutions of Catholics during the 1930s, protesting the Eden government’s decision to invite Tito to Britain in the early 1950s,31 or rebuking Le Carré in 1979 for claiming that Greene’s description of Catholic-Communist conflict was a relic of the thirties:

It’s very naive to imagine that the problem no longer exists in these terms….It would be
dangerous to ignore the persecutions still being perpetrated on religion. The confrontation between communism and Catholicism is still very powerful….It’s absurd to say that this problem concerned only the thirties. You only have to look at what’s going on in Poland today.

Greene was always clear about where his primary loyalty in this dispute lay, be it his refusal of the Order of Lenin, or his succinct differentiation of himself from his thirties counterparts who had embraced Communism: “Their God failed.”33

Despite these clearly drawn lines, Greene did not think that Communism’s good elements needed to fail along with its despotic brutalities. He once argued that “being a Communist is not the same thing as being a Marxist,”34 and said that he hoped for “socialism with a human face.”35 To him, such a model would avoid the fealty to abstractions and the concentrations of power that had marred Communism’s autocratic avatars, and might even produce the radically decentralized democracy he deemed politically ideal, “the Marxist dream of a far far future. When the world state has withered away and there are only local elections.”36 Not surprisingly, then, Greene praised Gorbachev’s “excellent example”37 and considered perestroika “providential,” even asking a priest friend to pray for the Soviet leader daily at Mass.38 As that last vignette suggests, Greene hoped that a reformed Communism could make common cause with the Catholic Church. Because he believed that Communism and Marxism are not identical, he insisted in the mid-1980s that “there is no reason why a Communist should renounce his Catholic faith.”39 He had expressed a similar sentiment in Monsignor Quixote’s hope of “a deepening friendship” with Sancho, and of a “reconciliation even between their disparate faiths;”40 and Greene professed this dream again during a 1987 conference in Moscow, going so far as to claim that, due to perestroika and the political effects of John XXIII’s aggiornamento, “there is no longer a barrier between Roman Catholics and Communists.”41

To Greene, the key to a successful alliance between Catholicism and Communism was the virtue of doubt that he stressed so often in his later years.42 He depicted doubt as a crucial check on the arrogance, insensitivity and insularity that he detected in Communists who claimed exclusive rectitude for their ideology and also in Catholics of “our own Stalinist periods, thousands of them—Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.”43 He felt that an accepted lack of surety fosters an added dimension of sympathy with others’ views, and thus can promote charity and cooperation between advocates of antagonistic outlooks. As Quixote reflects, “A sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even better than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter fights only with himself.”44 Greene had seen such mutual doubt as a possible basis for Catholic-Communist cooperation since at least the early 1960s, and this opinion eventually climaxed in his declaration that “A doubting catholic can work easily with a doubting communist.”45 This conviction is central to Monsignor Quixote, as in Quixote’s and Sancho’s mutual confessions of doubts in their respective creeds, and the monsignor’s (successful) prayer that they both be saved from the self-righteous certainty of belief.46 At the end of his life, Greene claimed to see such hopeful coalitions forming, especially in Latin America, where priests questioning John Paul II’s strictures on clerical political involvement were working with Communists willing to jettison Marxist platitudes to build socialism with national characteristics under slogans like “Revolution Yes, But Christian.”47

Greene’s enthusiasm, though, should not obscure his continued sense that that maxim’s two elements are not coequal. Although he thought that mutual doubt and the interplay of Catholicism and Communism would temper the extremist tendencies of both, he insisted that Christian norms must finally govern revolutionary impulses. In 1980s Nicaragua (in many ways his showcase of Catholic-Communist cooperation), Greene stressed that the chief benefit of the clerical presence in the Sandinista government was as “a kind of guarantee against a completely Marxist state,” implying that even avowed non-Stalinists will be more subject to the temptations of abstractions and authoritarianism without Catholicism’s constraining checks.48 In addition, for all his sincere doubts, Monsignor Quixote never thinks seriously of becoming a Communist, but Sancho does ultimately begin reconverting to Catholicism. In both fact and fiction, then, Greene maintained that Catholicism must lead an even reformed Communism, for its tragic view of life makes it more honest about political action’s proper extent, and thus more sensitive to each person’s dignity. As Johnstone summarizes, “Political belief, however much it claims to serve the individual, unavoidably denies, in Greene’s view, the value of the individual. The satisfaction of religious faith lies in the confidence that one is important in the eyes of God.”49 Ultimately for Greene, then, religion does not merge into politics.

Greene had a similarly attractive-repulsive relationship to Communism’s chief twentieth-century avatar, the Soviet Union. Conservative critics of Greene’s views on Communism focus often on his favorable comparisons of the Soviet Union to the United States,50 and provocative statements like his 1967 declaration that “If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States of America, I would certainly choose the Soviet Union.”51 Yet Greene’s Soviet sympathies are consistent with his Catholic critique of Communism, and they were hardly unquestioning. Just as he censured Communist ideology while being drawn to it, Greene was quite capable of seeing Red when it came to that theory’s premiere political incarnation.

Greene’s preference for life in the USSR rather than America arose in part, paradoxically, from his religious views. Just as he considered Communist ideology to be teleological, and thus part of the same conceptual universe as Catholicism, so he thought a state founded on atheism was more attractive to a Catholic than the post-Christian West led by the United States: “I prefer in any case atheism to agnosticism under the guise of official Christianity.”52While the American ethic is ostensibly more religious that the Soviet, Greene felt, it is actually more harmful, for it corrodes the soul insidiously with consumerist corruptions to the point where religion gradually loses its vitality and ceases to be an integral part of individual or cultural life. As he put it when asked by Malcolm Muggeridge about the Church’s fate under these two systems, “Russians only destroy its body, whereas the Americans destroy its soul.”53Greene hence hoped that the British Catholics would choose Soviet domination over American “so that the Catholic Church will be driven underground and there survive as a fighting spiritual force.”54 Moreover, he also believed that Russian culture had deep, persistent spiritual roots and thus that “Russian materialism is less solidly anchored than American materialism. In the USSR there’s more of a latent sense of religion however deeply buried. Perhaps that’s the reason why I have felt a sort of attraction to Communism.”55 Because, unlike G.K. Chesteron, he did not consider America a nation founded on a creed, but he did think Russia and the USSR had such a basis, Greene saw them as more congenial culturally to Catholics in the post-Christian world.

Yet Greene was willing to offer fraternal criticism of the Soviet Union, as he sought to reform what he esteemed: “the greater the affection one feels for any country the more one is driven to protest against any failure of justice there.”56 One such perceived injustice was the 1940 Soviet attack on Finland, about which Greene wrote a mocking poem;57 and he also supported dissident authors Yuri Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky publicly and financially during the 1960s and 1970s.58 Furthermore, he depicted everyday life in the Soviet Union as resoundingly bleak in The Human Factor, and Castle’s KGB handlers are hardly portrayed heroically. As Greene’s condemnations of totalitarian coercion and hopes for Gorbachev indicate, he was unwilling to countenance Soviet abuses of power and violations of human rights, no matter what ideal they were committed on behalf of.

He appears to have thought that the Soviet Union abandoned its ideals altogether under Brezhnev, especially when it stomped on Communism with a human face; and with that apostasy went much of Greene’s sympathy. Although he excused the 1956 invasion of Hungary and did not consider its Czechoslovakian reenactment as scandalous as U.S. policy in Vietnam, Greene still thought the events of August 1968 meant that “the days of ideals—and ideologies which are their political expression—are certainly over…the convenience of the major powers now is all and morality counts for nothing in international politics.”59 By 1971 he claimed that he was in greater sympathy with the Communist idea than ever before “though less and less now with the Russian version of it.”60 The “era of stagnation” was a period of intellectual and ethical, as well as economic, torpor for Greene. In his mind, the Soviet model lost its teleological orientation during those years and became morally no better than the U.S., so much so that “they are allies in all but name,” a 1969 conclusion he reiterated in 1988, despite his hopes for Gorbachev.61 Greene’s perception of this Soviet lapse from belief in ideological and moral absolutes is illustrated by Monsignor Quixote’s comments about the U.S. and USSR space programs, as he does not see “much difference between the crews from a Christian point of view…he couldn’t imagine either of them in the company of Gabriel or Michael and certainly not of Lucifer.”62 The Soviet Union only attracted Greene, then, so long as it provided an ethical, as well as a political, alternative to America. When it allowed power to corrupt it, both in specific cases and finally systematically, it became only a materially poorer manifestation of modernity to him, a sinless graceless world with less chromium.

Greene’s disenchantment with the Soviet Union did not sour him completely on the positive potential of leftist political movements, especially if they were guided by Catholicism. Greene’s affinity for such groups first appeared in his position on the Spanish Civil War. Most British Catholic intellectuals supported Franco enthusiastically, but several thinkers of the left fought with both pen and sword for the Republic. Greene was in a quandary: he considered Franco an unmitigated totalitarian, but he could not excuse the reported atrocities committed by republicans against churches and clerics. Yet Greene still felt compelled to take some side, and he eventually chose a group whom other authors largely ignored, the Basques. They suited his needs perfectly, being Catholics (but ones opposed to Franco) and leftists (but ones only loosely affiliated with the republicans, being more concerned with their own region’s needs). He attempted to visit Bilbao in June, 1937 to broadcast on their behalf, but was unable to reach the besieged area, which soon fell. The combination of loyalties that occasioned Greene’s support for the Basques reemerged later, particularly in Vietnam and Central America, and is most evident in his backing of the Sandinistas.

Although Nicaragua had long been nominally Catholic, Greene held that the Somozas had abandoned this heritage in favor of American materialism and had oppressed the Church. In contrast, he argued, the Sandinistas represented the national traditions of Nicaraguans, Catholic and otherwise, and wished to avoid the materialism of either the U.S. or the USSR, plus dependence on either state. He claimed that Catholicism was a driving force behind these goals, referring frequently to the service of Catholic priests in the Sandinista cabinet, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion inspired by them, and the alleged enthusiasm of Nicaraguans for both the Church and the Revolution. He even suggested facetiously that the Sandinista regime could be called “a Roman Catholic government,” and argued seriously that the Catholic political presence was a strong check against both a contra triumph or Nicaragua’s becoming a Soviet client state.63 Greene was so enraptured by this experiment that he excused some troubling elements of Sandinista rule by defending their 1980 decision to delay elections, denying that they had mistreated the Miskito Indians (despite much contrary evidence), and attacking Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo (who had opposed Somoza but also feared perceived authoritarian tendencies in the Sandinista government, a kind of Catholic disloyalty that Greene normally admired).64 Such myopia is part of a disturbing indulgence Greene granted to Latin American leftists, one that stands out for its lack of the sober criticisms that he made of Communist philosophy and the Soviet Union. In Nicaragua, at least, Greene’s hatred of the United States, friendships with some Sandinistas, and sense of the potential power of an alliance between Catholicism and leftist nationalists blinded him to the excesses of those he embraced.

His regard for Catholic leftists in Latin America might make Greene appear predisposed to liberation theology;65but his position on this topic was more typically clear-eyed and nuanced. He claimed cautiously that “intellectually I like the idea of liberation theology—the option for the poor, and their base communities;”66 and he condemned John Paul II for his “partisan and political line” against liberation theologians, particularly Greene’s Nicaraguan friends.67 Yet some liberation theologians’ willingness to bless violence clearly troubled Greene. While affirming that clerics have a legitimate political role, he insisted that “things went too far” when a priest, Camillo Torres, carried a rifle in Columbia, shooting and killing: “That’s a job for a layman.”68 Greene may have based The Honorary Consul’s Rivas on Torres, and this character crystallizes Greene’s uneasiness with marrying the sword and the cross.69 Rivas is a lapsed priest turned political revolutionary, who initially condones killing even an innocent hostage if it is necessary to advance the prospects of a Communist insurgency inspired by disdain for a military dictatorship. Yet Rivas undermines this theory at the novel’s climax by refusing to kill the hostage, and by reverting to a traditional understanding of his priestly duties by trying to minister to a dying man, though doing so costs him his own life. An innocent life and an unshriven soul are finally not inevitable casualties of social progress for him, but things worth dying for; their present (and eternal) value is greater than any future temporal utopia’s.

But Greene’s affirmation of religious agape over political caritas was not without sympathy for those who chose the latter course. To him, it is best to prioritize love of God over love of neighbor; but even those who mistakenly reverse Christ’s two love commandments are ethically superior to those who succumb to the solitary indifference of egoism.70 Greene voiced this appraisal of the ideas behind liberation theology most lucidly in The Comedians, written when liberation theology was still widely unknown. Preaching on the words of Thomas the Doubting Apostle (Greene’s patron), “Let us go up to Jerusalem and die with him,” a priest’s funeral oration for anti-Duvalier rebels asserts that Catholic political violence is sinful but is venial compared with apathy because it at least proceeds from a kind of love:

our hearts go out in sympathy to all who are moved to violence by the suffering of others. The Church condemns violence, but it condemns indifference more harshly. Violence can be the expression of love, indifference never. One is an imperfection of charity, the other the perfection of egoism. In the days of fear, doubt and confusion, the simplicity and loyalty of one apostle advocated a political solution. He was wrong, but I would rather be wrong with St. Thomas than right with the cold and craven.71

To Greene, a church that was of the world was far more forgivable than one that refused to even be in it.

Greene similarly combined criticism and charity in his reflections on Kim Philby’s case. He met Philby during the Second World War, when Philby supervised Greene’s wartime work in the British intelligence service. Although it is unclear how close they were then, Philby had many traits that would have endeared him to Greene.72. Like Greene, Philby was a “rebel against the British establishment that nurtured” him.73 Greene especially empathized with the circumstances of Philby’s politicization, arguing that “he was recruited by the Communists at the time of the Hunger Marches,” a fate Greene had nearly shared.74 Given such similarities in areas close to Greene’s core, it is not surprising that Philby influenced his imagination and subconscious rapidly, yet enduringly. He dreamt of Philby often; and, as Michael Shelden has demonstrated persuasively, Greene’s The Third Man—written in their friendship’s early stages—is saturated with references to Philby’s life.75 Moreover, a priest friend maintains that Greene was “greatly affected” by Philby’s 1988 death.76

Following Philby’s 1963 defection to Moscow, Greene became one of his most public defenders. Despite encountering much hostility, he upheld Philby’s actions and his motives’ purity in articles and interviews, depicting him as a sincere holder of one of those teleological faiths that a Catholic cannot help having a certain sympathy for. In his introduction to Philby’s 1968 autobiography, My Silent War, Greene claimed that “he was serving a cause and not himself and so my old liking comes back,”77 a position he reiterated two decades later: “Philby genuinely believed in Communism….He lived out his belief and I admire him for that.”78 The Human Factor is generally considered Greene’s staunchest defense of Philby, but a closer examination of it reveals a more nuanced assessment of his friend’s views and actions. Although there are echoes of Philby in the character of Maurice Castle, there are also striking differences.

Greene admitted that he did not possess the “monolithic quality” of Philby’s loyalty, and his admiration for that trait was more limited than his vigorous direct defenses of Philby suggest.79 In introducing My Silent War, Greene had referred only in passing to Philby’s “chilling certainty” and” “logical fanaticism” resulting from such a single-minded devotion to Communism, but in the novel his demurrals are clearer, if subtler.80 Unlike Philby or the character Halliday, Castle is no true-believer in Communism, as he eschews explicitly an ideological motive for passing intelligence secrets to the Soviets, telling his control, “I’ve never pretended that I share your faith—I’ll never be a Communist.”81 Castle is only repaying a debt of gratitude for what one Communist did for his wife and son, a motive that Greene considered superior because of its roots in love for specific humans rather an abstract Humanity. Yet Dr. Percival’s presence in the novel indicates that Greene also saw either of those motives as preferable to Percival’s ethic of “spying for spying’s sake,” which has neither personal nor ideological telos and hence disregards covert action’s human consequences.82 If he had some qualms about Philby’s motives, Greene did not condemn them entirely; flawed love, even of an abstraction, is again deemed better than indifference. Greene did not forsake Philby in fiction, then, but his commitment, while genuine, was not as uncritical as he sometimes made it seem or as it was accused of being. Yet Greene appeared willing to endure
such attacks, for by burying his reservations far from the editorial or interview pages, and even claiming that there was “no connection”
83 between The Human Factor and the Philby affair, he sought to deny his friend’s opponents any readily-accessible ammunition: “After thirty years in the underground surely he had earned his right to a rest.”84

Although Graham Greene saw some positive traits in Communism and was occasionally misled into support for dubious adherents of it, then, he was hardly the fellow-traveler that some descried and others decried. Deeming it a teleological protest against many of the inadequacies and injustices of modern culture and politics, Greene felt that Communism could be an ethical ally of Roman Catholic rebels against modernity. Yet he also recognized that without the Catholic stress on man’s fallen condition and his individual dignity, Communist ideals could readily decay into ethereal abstractions that foster flawed attempts to build a New Jerusalem out of the crooked timber of humanity, only to end in the Babylon of the gulag. If insufficiently sensitive to the potential for this utopian implosion in the Sandinista movement, Greene was acutely aware of its presence in Soviet and other socialist states’ policies, in Communist ideology and liberation theology, and in the heart of men like Kim Philby. For Greene, the loves that built these earthly cities, however superior to apathy, were incomplete, and even perilous, without the love that builds the only abiding city. To him, then, it was only by upholding core Catholic beliefs about man’s nature and destiny resolutely that one could engage Communist principles and polities productively and positively. As he balanced on the dangerous edge of things where religion and politics meet, Greene was able to keep his equilibrium by keeping one conviction at the heart of the matter: the power and the glory belong to a Kingdom not of this world.


1. George Orwell to T.F. Fyvel, 15 April 1949; in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), 4: 496.

2. Ralph McInerny, “Graham Greene,” Crisis 5 (May 1991): 55.

3. Robert Royal, “The (Mis)Guided Dream of Graham Greene,” First Things (Nov. 1999): 16.

4. See Humphrey Carpenter, The Brideshead Generation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 107.

5. This crisis and its impact on Greene’s religion and worldview are recounted and analyzed in Adam Schwartz, “Christianity’s Dangerous Edge: ‘Belief,’ ‘Faith,’ and Doubt in Graham Greene’s Writing,” Thematica: Historical Research and Review 3 (1996): 2-29.

6. Graham Greene, A Sort Of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971), 178; and Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 1: 1904-1939 (New York: Viking, 1989), 299.

7. “The middle class had not yet been educated by the hunger marchers.” Greene, Sort of Life, 178.

8. Maria Cuoto, Graham Greene: On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the Novels (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 207, 209.

9. Greene wrote in his diary on 11 Aug. 1933: “Joined the ILP. My political progress has rather curved.” Quoted in Sherry, Life, 1: 461.

10. Marie-Francoise Allain, The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), 91.

11. Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980), 261.

12. See, e.g., Greene, It’s a Battlefield (1934; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1977), 42; The Comedians (1965, 1966; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1981), 225; and Monsignor Quixote (New York: Washington Square Press, 1983), 92.

13. Graham Greene, The Human Factor (1978; reprint, New York: Avon, 1979), 249-51; Idem, Monsignor Quixote, 33.

14. Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads (1939; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1976), 85, 200. For other statements of this need for a telos cutting across Greene’s career, see, e.g. It’s a Battlefield, 170; The Quiet American (1955, 1973; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1977), 94; A Burnt-Out Case (1960; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1977), 125; The Honorary Consul (1973; reprint, New York: Pocket Books, 1974), 113, 223. Greene’s preference for Catholicism and Communism over liberalism on this count is explored piquantly in Cates Baldridge, Graham Greene’s Fictions: The Virtues of Extremity (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2000).

15. Greene, Lawless Roads, 28-9, 49. See Collected Essays (New York: Penguin, 1969), 288; and Comedians, 147, for the continuity of this Catholic condemnation of capitalism.

16. Greene, Monsignor Quixote, 43.

17. Greene, Comedians, 286.

18. Graham Greene, “The Man as Pure as Lucifer,” The Sunday Times, 8 May 1955. Greene made an almost identical declaration in an interview over a decade later, showing the continuity of these beliefs. See J.W. Lambert, “Graham Greene: The Next Move,” in Graham Greene: Man of Paradox, ed. A.F. Cassis (Chicago: Loyola UP, 1994), 184.

19. “He had always sought some of the changes that revolution accomplished. He saw the idealism and devotion of the vanguard of the revolution as exemplary and somehow Christian in its willingness to submerge self in some greater body.” Judith Adamson,Graham Greene: The Dangerous Edge (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 127.

20. Greene, Collected Essays, 16-17.

21. Richard Johnstone, The Will to Believe (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982), 70.

22. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1982), 120.

23. Greene quoted in Dinesh D’Souza, “Beyond Marx and Jesus,” Crisis 2 (May 1988): 21. Emphasis in original. He reiterated this belief a year later. See John Cornwell, “Why I am Still a Catholic,” in Cassis, Paradox, 470.

For Greene’s tragic view of life resulting from his youthful crisis, his consequent attraction to the doctrine of Original Sin, and his subsequent abjuration of that particular dogma—if not his belief in evil’s persistence—beginning in the mid-1950s, see Schwartz, “Christianity’s Dangerous Edge,” 5-7, 14-15.

24. Greene, It’s a Battlefield, 44, 50.

25. Greene, Lawless Roads, 47.

26. Greene marginalia, quoted in Cuoto, Frontier, 214.

27. Greene, Monsignor Quixote, 47, 110.

28. Greene, Lawless Roads, 155.

29. Cuoto, Frontier, 213-14.

30. Greene, It’s a Battlefield, 40-1, 140.

31. “As a Catholic I must admit to being anti-totalitarian and anti-Communist, and I cannot see very much to choose between Mr. Stalin’s Communism and Marshall Tito’s Communism—our religion…[is] equally hated by both the supporters of Marxist atheism.” Greene, “Tito and Stepinac,” New Statesman and Nation, 14 Feb. 1953.

32. Allain, Other Man, 95-6.

33. Cuoto, Frontier, 217. See also Leopoldo Duran, Graham Greene: Friend and Brother (London: Harper Collins, 1994), 24.

34. Duran, Friend and Brother, 91.

35. Greene quoted in D’Souza, “Beyond Marx and Jesus,” 21.

36. Greene, Comedians, 231. For Greene’s belief that decentralized democracy was the best form of government, see Allain,Other Man, 111; Cassis, Paradox, 345; Duran, Friend and Brother, 299; Greene, Getting to Know the General (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1984), 37-8.

37. Greene to the Independent, 27 June 1988; in Yours, Etc.: Letters to the Press, 1945-1989, ed. Christopher Hawtree (New York: Penguin, 1989), 248.

38. Duran, Friend and Brother, 58, 329.

39. Greene in conversation, 1 Aug. 1984, quoted in Duran, Friend and Brother, 91.

40. Greene, Monsignor Quixote, 60.

41. Graham Greene, “The Meeting in the Kremlin,” in Reflections, ed. Judith Adamson (New York: Penguin, 1990), 317.

42. See Schwartz, “Christianity’s Dangerous Edge,” 18-20 for Greene’s general growing accent on doubt as he grew older.

43. Greene quoted in Gloria Emerson, “Our Man in Antibes: Graham Greene,” in Conversations With Graham Greene, ed. Henry Donaghy (Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1988), 137.

44. Greene, Monsignor Quixote, 53.

45. Greene marginalia quoted in Robert McCrum, “A Life in the Margins,” The New Yorker 70 (11 April 1994): 53. See also Greene, “Letter to a West German Friend,” New Statesman, 31 May 1963, in Reflections, 212; Cuoto, Frontier, 214; Cornwell, “Still a Catholic,” 470.

46. Greene, Monsignor Quixote, 68, 178.

47. Greene to the Tablet, 4 Jan. 1986; in Yours, Etc., 230.

48. Greene quoted in Cuoto, Frontier, 214.

49. Johnstone, Will to Believe, 95. Emphasis in original.

50. See, e.g., Yours, Etc., 144, 165.

51. Greene to The Times, 4 Sept. 1967; in Yours, Etc., 136.

52. Greene, “Letter to a West German Friend,” 208. Greene’s respect for atheists long preceded the Cold War. See, e.g.,Lawless Roads, 37.

53. Muggeridge diary entry of 13 Sept. 1948; in Like it Was: The Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge, ed. John Bright-Holmes (London: Collins, 1981), 297.

54. Richard McLaughlin, “Graham Greene: Saint or Cynic?” in Cassis, Paradox, 87.

55. Allain, Other Man, 91. See also Cuoto, Frontier, 218.

56. Greene to The Times, 4 Sept. 1967, op. cit.

57. Greene, “The Winter War: Finland,” the Spectator, 8 March 1940.

58. See Yours, Etc., 135-45.

59. Greene to The Times, 5 July 1969; in Yours, Etc., 140. For Greene on Hungary, see Reflections, 208.

60. Greene, Sort of Life, 135.

61. Greene to The Times, 5 July 1969, op. cit. See Cuoto, Frontier, 211 for his later such judgment.

62. Greene, Monsignor Quixote, 25.

63. Greene to The Times, 20 March 1986; in Yours, Etc., 232. For Greene’s defense of the Sandinistas and reactions to it, see, e.g., Yours, Etc., 221-47; and Cassis, Paradox, 433-4, 447-8.

64. See Greene, General, 167, 201-3, 205; and Yours, Etc., 221. See Clifford Krauss, Inside Central America (New York: Summit Books, 1991), 154 for a more thorough presentation of the Sandinistas’ Miskito policy.

65. Indeed one of the charges in Royal’s indictment of Greene is his “gestures toward a vague liberation theology.” Royal, “Dream,” 17.

66. Cornwell, “Still a Catholic,” 470. Emphasis in original. See also Cuoto, Frontier, 212-13.

67. Greene to The Times, 11 Sept. 1984; in Yours, Etc., 225. See also Yours, Etc., 224, 242.

68. Cuoto, Frontier, 215.

69. See Cuoto, Frontier, 161, 186, and Duran, Friend and Brother, 73-4 for Torres as the model for Rivas.

70. This hierarchy in Greene’s thought is addressed more generally in J.C. Whitehouse, Vertical Man: The Human Being in the Catholic Novels of Graham Greene, Sigrid Undset, and Georges Bernanos (London: St. Austin Press, 1999).

71. Greene, Comedians, 283. Greene marked this scripture verse (John 11:16) in a Bible given him in 1948.

72. Greene’s biographers are poles apart in their assessment of this relationship, with Norman Sherry maintaining that Philby and Greene spent little time alone together during the war years (The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 2: 1939-1955 [London: Jonathan Cape, 1994], 180) whereas Michael Shelden believes they were close companions from the outset (Michael Shelden, Graham Greene: The Man Within [London: Heinemann, 1994], 304). Philby’s biographer’s view is closer to Shelden’s (Philip Knightly, The Master Spy: The Story of Kim Philby [New York: Vintage, 1988], 120-1).

73. Zara Steiner, “They Led Four Lives,” The New York Times Book Review, 1 January 1995, 9.

74. Cuoto, Frontier, 209.

75. See Greene, A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (New York: Viking, 1992), 15-25 for the dreams, and Shelden, Within, 317-27 for The Third Man’s Philby subtext.

76. Duran, Friend and Brother, 29.

77. Greene, Collected Essays, 313.

78. Cuoto, Frontier, 209. Philby’s motives have been debated persistently by contemporaries and historians. See, e.g., James Manford, “The View From the KGB,” The New York Times Book Review, 29 Jan. 1995, 19 for a view in line with Greene’s, as opposed to that of Hugh Trevor Roper cited approvingly in Noel Annan, “The Fabulous Five,” The New York Review of Books 42 (12 Jan. 1995): 12. Muggeridge, who knew both Greene and Philby, had a diametrically opposed appraisal of Philby’s motives from Greene’s judgment. See Chronicles of Wasted Time: 2: The Infernal Grove (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1974), 126, 188. (In an annotation of his copy of The Infernal Grove, Greene attributed Muggeridge’s view to envy of Philby’s skills as a spy and of his kindness; and he stated this view publicly in “Our Man in Moscow,” Observer, 18 Feb. 1968.)

79. Allain, Other Man, 21.

80. Greene, Collected Essays, 311.

81. Greene, Human Factor, 133.

82. Greene, Sort of Life, 115.

83. Greene quoted in Louise Dennys, “The Greene Factor,” in Cassis, Paradox, 274. See a similar denial in Donaghy,Conversations, 105.

84. Greene, Collected Essays, 314. There is another possible interpretation for Greene’s public defenses of Philby despite some private reservations—that he knew long before Philby’s defection of his Soviet service and, that after it, he was really working for S.I.S. to try to turn Philby into a “triple agent.” Although Sherry (Life, 2: 494-6) makes such a claim and Shelden argues that Greene knew of Philby’s work for Moscow by the end of World War II (Within, 308-9), their arguments are highly speculative, beg numerous crucial questions, and provide no concrete substantiation for what are counter-intuitive and counter-factual assertions, and thus demand rigorous documented proof. Moreover, some of their contentions are vitiated by more persuasive sources. See, e.g., Ron Rosenbaum, “Kim Philby and the Age of Paranoia,” The New York Times Magazine (10 July 1994): 29-37, 50, 53-4; and William Schmidt, “Wages of Treason: Detritus of a Traitor to be Sold,” The New York Times, 1 May 1994, 3.