06 July, 2006

42. God-fearing Communists?

To many of the secular left, this image would seem to contain a massive contradiction – a Christian shrine at a Communist party headquarters? Who could be more determinedly godless than the Communists?

It was the 'godlessness' of the Communist movement that provoked the United States government – at the height of its anti-communist paranoia in the Eisenhower-led 1950s – to allow religious fundamentalists to insert the words "…under God" after the words "one nation" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and to add the words "In God we Trust" to every denomination of the dollar bill. Formally declaring their country to be a Christian nation, even if it meant surreptitiously undermining the world's first and best secular constitution, was seen by many frightened Americans to be their only defence against the godless hoardes of Communists supposedly springing up in their midsts.

But in most of Europe the idea of the separation of church and state has never been as strong as it was among the founding fathers of the United States. For instance, the constitutional head of Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth, is also (thanks to her predecessor, Henry VIII) head of the Church of England. The co-mingling of the spiritual and the temporal is particularly true in Italy, where the Pope was for centuries not just a religious leader, but also commanded armies and the church's own secret police, who were not just Inquisitors but also judges and executioners.

The Partito Rifondazione Comunista is also not what you'd call a hardline orthodox Marxist-Leninist party either. As the Soviet Union lost its international influence, many parties of the radical left in Europe – like this one – grouped around the idea of 'Eurocommunism', which made them look more like Social Democrats with a few retained 'communist' elements in their platform.

This overt display of Christian allegiance on the outside or this 'Refounded' Communist Party branch building in Castello is one of many hundreds of similar such shrines on buildings all over Venice, so it is as much part of the general cultural heritage as it would be a statement of the religious affiliation of the party members who meet here. I am quite sure that the probability of Communist Party meetings inside starting with a prayer is much lower than it would be at any Republican or even Democratic Party meeting in the much more fundamentally religious USA.


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