Rediscovering St. Mugg

The journalist, writer, and latter-day Christian apologist Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was once well known by the cultivated public on both sides of the Atlantic. His television programs and BBC documentaries drew huge audiences (his 1971 documentary and accompanying book on Mother Teresa of Calcutta – Something Beautiful for God – first brought her to the attention of the larger world). Muggeridge wrote sparkling prose in works such as his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time and in his beautiful meditation on the enduring human and theological significance of Christ in an age of skepticism and ideology, Jesus the Man Lives. The latter conveys far more spiritual insight than all of contemporary scripture scholarship, but is, alas, out of print.

Muggeridge’s life was dramatic without being self-dramatizing. Muggeridge was a faithful friend of people who mattered from Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell to William F. Buckley, Jr. (he was a particularly delightful guest on Buckley’s “Firing Line”). Muggeridge had been a reporter in Moscow for the left-leaning Guardian in the early 1930s and was among the first to tell the truth about Soviet Communism and all its works. He also served as a spy for MI-6 during the Second World War. Obviously, Muggeridge was no ordinary journalist. He was a man at the center of the intellectual and political life of the century who nonetheless knew that happiness could not be found solely through human efforts. An astute student of politics, he coolly assessed power and sharply chronicled dislocations and decadence (his work The Thirties is still very much worth reading).

A mordant wit and somewhat tortured seeker, his spiritual search carried him in the 1960s into a non-denominational Christianity of a decidedly Augustinian cast (see Jesus Rediscovered) and then in 1982 into the Roman Catholic Church. There he found his long-sought spiritual home. The luminous spiritual witness of Mother Teresa – whom Muggeridge never confused with a mere humanitarian – and the Catholic opposition to abortion led him to accept “the great boon and blessing” that is the Catholic Church.

Some secular critics derided him as “St. Mugg,” an aging man of the world who turned against worldly pleasures just as he was no longer able to enjoy them. For many years, Muggeridge did lead a tempestuous personal life. Even his supremely happy sixty-year marriage to Kitty Dobbs Muggeridge was marred in earlier years by infidelities on both sides and no small dose of tragedy. But as the essays edited by Nicholas Flynn in the recently published Time and Eternity: Uncollected Writings, 1933-1983 make clear, Muggeridge’s late embrace of Christianity was not a dramatic departure. His early turn away from socialism and secular radicalism stemmed from his first-hand observations of the Soviet Union and his growing awareness that “The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth is all pretence, a denial of the very nature of life.” In 1938, he wrote that “if an epigraph were required for this sad and terrible time”— Communism and National Socialism were then in full bloom – “it might well be found in ‘The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.’”

     St. Mugg

As the nephew-in-law of the famous Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb and the son of a prominent Labour-Socialist activist H. T. Muggeridge, Malcolm went to Moscow expecting to find “the green stick,” the fabled this-worldly source of human happiness. Instead he discovered unprecedented tyranny based upon a “General Idea” that had no place for human fallibility or the liberty and dignity of ordinary human beings.

Muggeridge describes in painful detail what was at stake in “class warfare” that showed no mercy for peasants trying to scratch out a meager existence as the regime “collectivized” them and confiscated their grain. Millions perished in a “terror-famine” in Ukraine and southern Russia, which was denied by George Bernard Shaw and Walter Duranty, the New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his mendacious reporting from Moscow. The “dictatorship of the proletariat,” Muggeridge tells us, hated traditional Russia – the peasantry, the church, the independent intelligentsia – and was bent on destroying it even if it meant ultimately destroying itself. Muggeridge lost his job at the Guardian but would later gain the respect of other honest men such as George Orwell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his courage and dedication to truth. Muggeridge wrote with particular lucidity and insight about Solzhenitsyn’s Christian-inspired opposition to the totalitarian degradation of man (satisfying a longtime wish, Muggeridge interviewed the Russian Nobel Laureate when Solzhenitsyn visited London to receive the Templeton Prize).

The experience of utopia-in-power in the Soviet Union cured Muggeridge of ideological illusions and taught him that western civilization was eminently worthy of defense. No longer believing in the prospects for the self-deification of man, Muggeridge’s soul opened to belief in the one, true God. But even after becoming a Christian he refused the fashionable conflation of Christianity with secular humanitarianism, with what he mockingly called in a 1972 piece reproduced in Time and Eternity, “The Gospel of Jesus Égalité.” He did not become a Catholic near the end of his life, he wrote, because the Church offered a “panacea for contemporary ills, or the promise of future happiness.” That is to confuse Christian wisdom with utopian ideology, and to forget the true lesson to be drawn from the death and resurrection of Christ – the logos, the word made flesh – that “provides the bridge between mortality and immortality, between man and his creator and between time and eternity.”

There is a great deal to be learned from the life and witness of Malcolm Muggeridge, not least the fundamental and enduring distinction between Christianity and ideology. Let us hope that an American publisher has the good sense to make Time and Eternity, Nicholas Flynn’s remarkable collection of Muggeridge’s writings, available to the American public. Muggeridge should not become just another once-important but now forgotten figure. His voice and example still have much to say to us, who face many of the same threats under different guises.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. He has written extensively on such great opponents of totalitarianism as Raymond Aron and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His latest book is The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity.