A special friend to The American Spectator and its venerable founder R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. was the late, great Malcolm Muggeridge, who was a regular presence in the magazine from the 1970s through and beyond his death in 1990. He was written about in the magazine as much as him writing for it. In fact, he wrote for TAS quite a bit, including cover features. Many of those reading this right now remember him fondly.
As this magazine’s official “Tacitus,” bestowed by none other than the Great Tyrrell himself, I’ve read those pieces whilst compiling America’s long-awaited official History of The American Spectator (currently an exhaustive work in progress—the Pulitzer Committee will need to wait). And among those Muggeridge articles, one continues to stand out, if not haunt me. It was actually Muggeridge’s very first piece for the magazine, written 45 years ago. Titled “Albion Agonistes,” appearing in the February 1976 issue, it’s worth revisiting. It was a prophetic piece by the renowned British social critic and curmudgeon.
The subject of “Albion Agonistes” was, broadly speaking, the loss of faith and Western civilization, subjects dear to Muggeridge’s heart. As Muggeridge fans know, he once had been an infamous agnostic. The skeptic’s long path out of the pit of atheism began decades earlier when he visited a Moscow church that communists had converted to an ugly museum of atheism. Muggeridge was equally aghast at the stunning naivete of the secular progressives who accompanied him on that tour, easily duped as they were by their Bolshevik handlers.
Fast forward some four decades later and Muggeridge’s heart had been forever changed by discovering the work of a little nun in Calcutta named Mother Teresa. He would feature her in a groundbreaking BBC documentary titled Something Beautiful for God, which so powerfully introduced Mother Teresa to the wider world that the film has been effectively credited with discovering her. Muggeridge, this tough, wise-cracking, hard-hearted Brit, melted when he came into touch with the future saint and her sisters.
That background is crucial to understanding “Albion Agonistes” and its sentiments and diagnoses of the dangers the West was facing in the mid-1970s, a decade that Muggeridge had foreseen in a December 1970 piece for Esquire that he titled, “The Decade of the Great Liberal Death Wish.” There he wrote of “the process of death-wishing in the guise of liberalism, which had long been eroding what remained of Western civilization.” That erosion was “about to reach its apogee.” Muggeridge believed: “Systematically, stage by stage, our way of life had been dismantled, our values depreciated, our certainties undermined, and our God dethroned — all this in the name of promoting the health, wealth, and happiness of one and all. Past civilizations have collapsed through being overrun by barbarians from without; ours has the unusual characteristic of having nurtured its own destroyers at the public expense, and dreamt up its own dissolution in the minds of its own intellectual elite.”
Ours was a society being overrun by barbarians inside the gate. These destroyers from within were being nurtured at public expense. An unusual characteristic indeed.
Writing here for the February 1976 edition of Tyrrell’s magazine, then titled, The Alternative: An American Spectator, Muggeridge picked up that theme of the liberal death wish; actually, more precisely, of the collapse of Western civilization. He began his article with this:
Of all the Great Issues which confront us today, none can be considered of greater moment than the manifest threats to the survival of our Western civilization. Spengler’s The Decline of the West made a considerable stir in my young days. Has the decline Spengler observed fifty years ago now, become an irreversible stampede to destruction?
In assessing the causes for the decline of the West, many men of the day would have focused on matters of survival ranging from economic to military decline. Malcolm Muggeridge acknowledged those things, but he then went straight to a diagnosis that would become vintage Muggeridge, especially in his pieces for The American Spectator in the years ahead. For him, the crisis was less political than cultural and moral and spiritual. He stated:
No, what is at issue, as I see it, is not the means to survive, nor even the will to survive, but the faith to survive. It seems to me clear, beyond qualification or equivocation, that our Western civilization was born of the great drama enacted in Palestine two thousand years ago, the drama of the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection, and all that flowed therefrom. This is what has inspired and nourished the art and literature and music and architecture and learning which are, and forever will be, the glory of our civilization, besides giving rise to innumerable lives of dedication to the love of God and of our human family. If it should prove to be the case that Western man has now rejected these origins of his civilization, persuading himself that he can be master of his own destiny, that he can shape his own life and chart his own future, then assuredly he and his way of life and all he has stood and stands for must infallibly perish.
In other words, the real crisis which confronts us is about faith rather than power, about the question “Why?” rather than the question “How?”—about man’s relationship with his Creator rather than about his energy supplies, his currency, his balance of trade and Gross National Product, his sexual fantasies, and his other passing preoccupations, with which the media interminably concern themselves.
This was the Muggeridge that so many conservatives were coming to admire, the former barbed skeptic-agnostic who was now waxing lyrical about fundamental questions of God and man. What matters, he asserted, was “the God we serve, the salvation we hope for, the light we live by in this world, and, when we come to leave it, the vista reaching before us into eternity—these concern the very fundamentals of our mortal existence.”
Such was being threatened. Again, these were self-inflicted wounds, and the West was inflicting them deeper than ever. Said Muggeridge:
The barbarians who overran Rome came from without, but ours are home products, trained and suitably brainwashed and conditioned at the public expense. In the light of these antics, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Western man, having wearied of the struggle by himself, has decided to abolish himself. Creating his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, his own vulnerability out of his own strength; himself blowing the trumpet that brings the walls of his own city tumbling down.
This was man’s struggle and Muggeridge’s struggle in his “Albion Agonistes.” And yet, the curmudgeon, the cynic, the former editor of the irreverent Punch magazine, finished with surprising optimism— a faith-based optimism. As he would often in the years ahead, including in other pieces for The American Spectator, Muggeridge pointed to the hope in the words of the Apostle Paul and of the Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
Before such a prospect, are we then, as Christians, to fold our arms in resignation? On the contrary, it is the breakdown of power which provides Christianity with its greatest opportunity. After all; it was to the Rome of the Emperor Nero—a ruler who makes even some of ours seem, by comparison, positively enlightened and humane—that the Apostle Paul carried the gospel with such fantastic success, founding a universal religion which has endured through twenty centuries because, and only because, it has never finally identified itself with any earthly power.
This might seem like mere words to keep up our spirit, but actually a sign in the same sense has been accorded us so extraordinary that it amounts to one of the great miracles of history. I refer to the Christian testimony of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who makes the point in a letter he addressed to the Soviet Government just before he was sent into compulsory exile, that what is wrong with his country is not so much its political or economic system as the Marxist materialism which is its ideology. To this, he insists, the only valid answer is provided by Christ and his teaching; the only possible response to the pretensions of absolute power is the absolute love proclaimed in the Gospels.
Muggeridge continued, invoking what he termed the only enduring liberty there is; it was the City of God to which all humanity must aspire, because it is the one and only city that human beings could not destroy:
Should we not, then, rejoice that once more it has been demonstrated to us unmistakably that God never abandons us; that however somber the darkness, His light still shines; and however full the air may be of the drooling of Muzak, and the cackling of Newzak, truth will make itself heard; that in all conceivable and inconceivable human circumstances what the Apostle Paul called the glorious liberty of the children of God is available to us—the only enduring liberty there is. I think of Augustine in Carthage when the news came that Rome had been sacked and the great Roman Empire was nearing its end. If it be so, he told his flock, it is only what happened to Sodom; men build cities and destroy them, but there is also the City of God which they did not build and which they cannot destroy. So it is today.
With that, Muggeridge finished with a touching personal note, not knowing that he still had a decade-and-a-half to go in this world, but nonetheless feeling ever-closer to the end:
I am an old man, already past the allotted three score and ten and, as the old do, I quite often wake up in the night, half out of my body, so that I see between the sheets the old battered carcass I shall soon be leaving for good, and in the distance a glow in the sky, the lights of Augustine’s City of God. Let me, in conclusion, pass on to you two extraordinarily sharp impressions which accompany this condition. The first is of the incredible beauty of our earth, its colors and shapes and smells and creatures; of the enchantment of human love and companionship, of the fulfillment of human work and human procreation. The second, a certainty surpassing all words and thought, that as an infinitesimal particle of God’s creation I am a participant in His purposes, which are loving not malign, creative not destructive, orderly not chaotic—and in that certainty a great peace and a great joy.
That was where the crusty Malcolm Muggeridge was now moving. He was, as he said under inspiration from Mother Teresa, sensing something beautiful for God, and from God. He was sensing it with a certainty of a great peace and a great joy.
This was Muggeridge’s first piece for this magazine, in February 1976. One can only imagine what Muggeridge would think of the West today, 45 years later. His optimism surely would be exhausted, devoured by the barbarians from within, by those irreversibly stampeding onward toward the West’s self-inflicted destruction. Would the City of God today even be desired, let alone possible, by the elites no doubt preferring Nero over Augustine? Truly, how many would actually prefer Sodom? Do we have the faith to survive?
In the 1970s, Muggeridge saw home-grown barbarians trained and brainwashed and conditioned at public expense. In the 2020s, the training and brainwashing and conditioning is complete. The Great Liberal Death Wish, Malcolm Muggeridge would surely insist, is fully upon us.