A Prophet of the 20th Century

It is often insightful to know how eminent writers measure their fellow scribblers. Historian Paul Johnson wrote of the late English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge that, “No man of his generation, except the late Evelyn Waugh, has cherished words so deeply, or used them with such fastidious exactitude.” What might have been more to the point is that no man of Muggeridge’s generation, except the late George Orwell, was better at predicting the future.

In his book, Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography, Gregory Wolfe recounts the remarkable life of a man who had a knack for accurate but unpleasant prophesies.

One of Muggeridge’s most important literary legacies is his chronicle of the horrors of the Soviet famines. On assignment as a foreign correspondent in Moscow in March 1933, he defied a travel ban and hopped on a train to the Ukraine and North Caucasus.

From the countryside, he wrote of rotting corpses in the fields, and later compared the 7-10 million victims of Stalin’s genocide to the Nazi Holocaust. At the time, leftists refused to believe his dispatches from the Soviet killing fields, and his editors at the liberal Manchester Guardian cut his stories and buried them in the back pages of the newspaper.

Mr. Wolfe’s work is full of Muggeridge anecdotes about how leftist movements were destroying the moral foundation of culture. Referring to Nazism and Communism, he wrote in the early 1930s that, “It’s the same show.” He criticized modern culture’s obsession with sex and referred to its acceptance of abortion, contraception and euthanasia as liberalism’s “death wish.”

Acknowledging the siege of the Ivory Tower, Muggeridge in 1979 told the author, “There are no Communists left in Russia; the only Communists knocking about today hold professorships at Western universities.” In 1934, he predicted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 45 years ahead of time, and then in the mid-1970s-when democracies were in retreat-he predicted the upcoming collapse of the Soviet Union.

One problem with modern biography is that it often lacks the depth of research common in the past. Numerous biographers use the same texts readily available at university libraries or from obliging descendants eager for an encomium of dear old dead grand-papa. Mr. Wolfe cannot fairly be called a lazy biographer, as he interviewed associates of Muggeridge, rifled through dusty files and old letters and spent time with the subject himself. However, there are some sources that are inexcusably unexamined.

For example, on Feb. 20, 1983, a few weeks after Muggeridge and his wife converted to Catholicism, he hosted prominent Catholic journalists Roger McCaffrey and Michael Davies at his home in Sussex, England, for a long question-and-answer session.

Published as A Fireside Chat with Malcolm Muggeridge and broadcast on Mr. McCaffrey’s radio program, the interview is indispensable for a thorough biography of Muggeridge as it delves into his analysis of the state of the church into which he was famously received.

Referring to Pope John XXIII, who instigated the liberalizing Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Muggeridge told Mr. Davies: “Pope John, who’s built up as a sort of saintly and perfect pope, the good man of our time, whether consciously or unconsciously did more damage to the Church than possibly any other individual man had done in the whole of its history. . . It seemed almost as though Pope John was operating on behalf of the Devil.”

He wasn’t alone in this dismal opinion of church hierarchy which, among other errors, initiated rapprochement with Communist states. Novelist Evelyn Waugh, the most famous English convert to Catholicism, wrote of the council’s “multitude of ills,” that council bishops “are destroying all that is superficially attractive about my Church” and that the new liturgy introduced in the 1960s was “impoverished.” A month before he died on Easter 1966, a depressed Waugh wrote to his old friend Lady Diana Mosley: “The Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me.”

These writers’ criticisms of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church are important because its auto-demolition epitomizes the suicidal tendencies of Western society as a whole.

A Casanova and a liberal in his own right when he was younger, Muggeridge was intimately aware of the spiritual dangers of sexual and ideological promiscuity. He viewed it as religion’s role to warn against vice, not accommodate it. As the institutions of Christianity strove to be one with the world instead of antagonistic to it, culture was left defenseless. As Malcolm Muggeridge saw it, society was throwing in the towel, and clergymen sadly were the first to surrender.