Last year I found myself wandering in a leisurely way through aisles of second-hand books at a sale when I stumbled across a treasure. Buried amongst tattered Penguin books and back-issues of National Geographic was a copy of Douglas Hyde's autobiography I Believed – and for the bargain price of $3.
I had heard the strange story of Douglas Hyde some years earlier – in a sermon of all places. It was the almost fantastic tale of a hardcore Marxist couple who, having put their children to bed in post-war London one evening, were having a chat about Christmas, what their children should be raised to believe and what sort of life they should live. Each spouse had, in their own way, been flirting with Catholicism, but in secrecy for fear of what the other would think. Both were long-time Communist Party members and Douglas was a senior staff member at the Party's paper, The Daily Worker.
The story of how the couple opened up to each other, shocked those around them, as they embarked on their journey across the Tiber, had made such an impact that I did not hesitate to snatch up the book (subtitled The Autobiography of a Former British Communist). Reading it over the following week was an eye-opener in almost every sense: historical, political and spiritual.
Hyde began his life, interestingly enough, as a man of faith. Coming from an English non-conformist background, he spent the years of his early adulthood divided between his desire to become a missionary – or at least a lay preacher, which he did for a time – and his latent political activism. Coming from a family of British Liberals, he was nevertheless influenced by the many open air, town hall-style meetings that were frequent in the Bristol of his youth, such that political activism became for him a logical extension of his desire to help his fellow man.
While a worthy intention, Hyde's book details, step-by-step, how this desire led him, at first indirectly by means of front groups and "fellow traveller" type organisations, then openly into the Communist Party. The conversion was aided by the growing contempt he clearly felt towards lukewarm Christians who talked the talk, but did not walk the walk. While their creed seemed hollow, Communism offered answers, doctrine and dogma, a hagiography (Marx, Lenin and others), scripture and, most importantly for Hyde, clear evidence of people living their "faith" and building a better world.
Hyde tells, with some irony, how he left a small but dedicated group which was convinced it would live to see world revolution, for an organisation many times larger, the Catholic Church, whose members were half-hearted, disconnected from their own parish life, and in no mood to add to their numbers. Hyde shames his Catholic readership when he compares this with the zeal of war-era Communists, cycling or running between bomb shelters with newspapers when they realised they had a captive audience.
This theme runs through much of Hyde's book, with its simple intention of challenging Catholics to do better: to live their faith as openly as the early Christians and to labour with a missionary's fervour.
Hyde's story and contribution continued long beyond the conversion story contained within I Believed. I'm happy to say that at least one of his other works, Dedication and Leadership, is still in print. This book is an excellent read – mandatory reading for anyone involved in the lay apostolate, politics or pro-family activism.
While we live in a rapidly changing world – and one where technology plays an ever increasing role – those involved in the aforementioned vocations should realise that fundamental principles never change. Leadership, explains Hyde, can be learned and improved by almost anyone – provided they have dedication, that is, a clear unshakeable commitment to their faith and a desire to take it into the world.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the consequent fantasy that Communism was no more saw this book temporarily unavailable. Fortunately, groups like the US-based Leadership Institute promote it heavily as a useful tool (and not just for Catholics) in the battle against a far more insidious cultural Marxism found throughout the West today.
Ironically, it was reported by a British paper on his death in 1996 that Hyde had become an agnostic. The reason for the alleged loss of faith was despair with the Church's track-record on issues of social justice and economic issues. Whether true or not, it is sadly not surprising that a British Catholic of the last few decades should at least struggle with his faith.
Benefit of the doubt
One is inclined, however, to give Mr Hyde the benefit of the doubt on reading the closing paragraphs of I Believed, which would probably ring true for many converts, not to mention a former Marxist:
"Six men who, like me, were once communists or fellow-travellers and who left the Movement disillusioned, called their story 'The God That Failed'. They lost a faith, even though it was a bad one, and, in most cases, found only a vacuum. That has been the tragedy of many of the best of our day. Communism took their best years, claimed their whole mind and soul as of right, then left them with nothing but their disillusionment and an unbounded cynicism.
"I was more fortunate. I lost my communism because I had been shown something better. I did not find it easy to get to know my new God. And the love of God did not even then come automatically. Just as one has first to get to know a man or woman, and love comes later on the basis of common interests shared and intimacies exchanged, so, slowly, I came to know that love. But one thing is certain: my God has not failed."