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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Mother Teresa: A Communist View

by Vijay Prashad

This article was first published in September 1997 in Political Affairs, the journal of the Communist Party USA. Vijay Prashad is a contributor to Political Affairs and was born and raised in Calcutta.

To open the work of someone like Mother Teresa to scrutiny is always difficult. First, there is an aura that surrounds her image, one which seems to disallow any form of criticism. Second, there is a sense of inadequacy in all of us towards her spartan life, filled with a genuine sense of service. There are some similarities with Gandhi, who also made criticism seem absurd as he sat amongst the poor in their clothes and with a smile on his ineffable face. Certainly, Mother Teresa was an extraordinary person, or else there would not be such attention at her death on September 5, 1997.

How should we deal with Mother Teresa? Lenin provides a clue. In 1905, he urged Marxists not to be dogmatic towards religion. “Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of paradise on earth,” he wrote, “is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.”1

Our critique of Mother Teresa is not intended to downplay her role in the amelioration of suffering amongst some of the world’s poor. We are interested rather in the limitations of her work, not in the intricacies of her theology.

We will analyse the way in which her work was part of the global enterprise of imperialism in a practical political as well as in an ideological sense. We want to discuss her function as mechanism for the alleviation of bourgeois guilt for poverty and suffering rather than a genuine challenge to those very forces that create, produce and maintain that poverty and suffering.

Our problem with Mother Teresa begins with her glorifiers who have removed her from the realm of history and deposited her, during her lifetime, in the realm of myth. But to lift her to sainthood is to mystify the work she did and to prevent us from engagement with her politics and ethics.

It all began with Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1969 documentary and 1971 book, Something Beautiful for God, which transported a local social worker to a saint. Struck with bad light, Muggeridge claims Mother Teresa did a “miracle” and allowed for wonderful footage.2

Soon, the entire panoply of media and professional mendicant descended upon Calcutta and put the city down in order to lift Mother Teresa up. Calcutta became the ahistorical emblem of distress. (*) Its imperial past and Communist present did not enter into this representation of the city.

(*) Without a doubt, Dominique Lapierre’s bestseller, The City of Joy (Garden City: Doubleday, 1985) and the popular Hollywood movie contributed to this image. Please consult John Hutnyk’s excellent The Rumour of Calcutta: tourism, charity and the poverty of representation (London: Zed, 1996).

There was no sense of the destruction wrought by the East India Company (few question its responsibility for the 1769-70 famine, wherein one-third of Bengal’s population perished) nor of the British Empire (few, indeed, question its role in the 1943 famine, wherein between three and five million people died).3 These are examples from famines, the more graphic marker of imperialism’s practice. Further, there was no interest in the events in East Pakistan (Bangladesh, after 1971), from where 12 million refugees descended upon West Bengal. Muggeridge and his ilk pay little heed to the production and maintenance of poverty in Bengal.

Calcutta is a teeming city of 10 million, a huge number of which live in the street. The capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, Calcutta is ruled by a Communist-led government.

Of Calcutta’s poverty, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss noted incredibly that “they are more like a natural environment which the Indian town needs in order to prosper.” India, for him, is a “martyred continent” whose people are not poor for any reason other than demography.4 Levi-Strauss, like Lapierre and Muggeridge, rely upon Malthusianism, a theory which cannot grasp the structural problems of the region, but which offers cheap slogans — cheap slogans in the service of imperialist callousness. These writers turn Calcutta into a vile pit, oppressed by its teeming millions, rather than exploited by the forces of international capital; the salvation of the city is not to be found in anti-capitalist movements, but in the intercession of the proto-saint.

Calcutta is not an easy city to visit nor to live in. Poverty, in this city, is not abolished to the outskirts, as in Caracas, but lives in the city’s centre. To see the poverty is inevitable, but to see the reasons for the poverty is not as easy to these connoisseurs of the city’s grief.

During the period of Muggeridge’s visit to Calcutta, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Bangla Congress formed a United Front experiment. They pledged to “govern and mobilise” the people, not to simply perform the tasks of a state in crisis, but also to organise the peasantry and the proletariat and to devolve power in their hands.

During these experiments, the Congress party and their US allies conducted a reign of terror against the Communists. On the issue of the US, most people are unaware of Daniel P. Moynihan’s revelation from 1978: “We had twice, but only twice, interfered in Indian politics to the extent of providing money to a political party. Both times it was done in the face of a prospective Communist victory in a state election, once in Kerala and once in West Bengal, where Calcutta is located.”5

We may wish to dispute the figure “twice”. The work of the United Front was consistently disrupted and the police eliminated many young people for their belief in equality and freedom. In 1977, the Left Front (of the CPM, CPI and other left allies) won their first of five consecutive elections (they have ruled West Bengal for an unbroken 20 years). An important consequence of the Left Front-led “agrarian struggles and the mass mobilisation of some of the poorest people for their economic rights has been the raising of political awareness. The poor, therefore, are no longer pliable clients of local elites, but assertive and vigilant participants in local democracy. ”6

The Left Front’s main centre of activities was in the rural areas, wherein the regime formed structures towards the eventual redress of problems. Urban areas, such as Calcutta, emerged on the agenda in the regime’s second decade of rule. The tasks before the Communists are formidable, but the regime and parties have taken them on in earnest.

Separating myth from fact

It serves the anti-Communist pundits well to ignore these developments and to concentrate on saintliness instead. Once the left is erased, the only hope for the poor appears to be Mother Teresa. Her own history (her past and present) was rapidly superseded by her myth. This was compounded after the Indian Government gave her the Prize of the Miraculous Lotus, the Vatican gave her the John XXIII Prize for Peace in 1971, the US gave her the Good Samaritan prize and the J.F. Kennedy Award, the British bestowed upon her the Templeton Prize in 1973, the UN struck a medal in her honour in 1975, and in 1979, the coup de grace, when she received the Nobel Prize for Peace.

To return Mother Teresa to history is to start with her real name and place of birth. Few know her as Agnes Bojaxhiu of Albania (born 1910), a young girl who joined the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Sisters of Loreto) and came to India in 1929 to teach at one of Loreto’s many schools for elite girls.

The Loreto order was founded in 1609 by an Englishwoman, Mary Ward (1585-1645), who wished to create an organisation parallel to the Society of Jesus, but who had to be content, under Church authority, with an educational order pledged to train the elite across the globe.7

Agnes taught for close to two decades in the Loreto schools of Calcutta before she gained permission from the Vatican and founded the Missionaries of Charity (1950) in independent India to continue “Christ’s concern for the poor and the lowliest” (as the 120-page constitution of the Missionaries puts it).

Preferring providence to science

The Missionaries set up Homes for the Dying, a leper village and a Children’s Home. They certainly brought relief for many people, not in medical terms, but with love and affection.

Mother Teresa’s Sisters attempted to soothe the ails of the ill and the dying with the balm of love, since many had only rudimentary training in the arts of medicine.

The Mother herself had spent a few months of 1948 to train as a medical missionary with the Medical Missionary Sisters in Patna (founded by Mother Anna Dengel in 1925 in the US), but her own Sisters did not avail of medical education.

In 1994, Dr. Robin Fox visited the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and found that the Sisters did not utilise modern technology (notably study of blood to determine such common ailments as malaria from other illnesses). The Sisters used no procedures to distinguish the curable from the incurable.

Such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home. Mother Teresa prefers providence to planning; her rules are designed to prevent any drift towards materialism.

On the question of pain and its alleviation, the Sisters offered no relief for the dying. “I could not judge the power of their spiritual approach,” Dr. Fox wrote, “but I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics.”8

Blessed are the poor

In his honest appraisal of Mother Teresa, Christopher Hitchens argues that “the point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.” Further, he notes, “helpless infants, abandoned derelicts, lepers and the terminally ill are the raw material for demonstrations of compassion. They are in no position to complain, and their passivity and abjection is considered to be a sterling trait.”9 This is a far cry from the Communist experience.

The Left Front is engaged with the roots of poverty, the imperialist structures that condemn the world’s masses to impoverished survival strategies. The Communist movement, then, does not hand out charity for the few, but takes very seriously the task of the devolution of power — democracy — towards the working masses. In time, the politicised masses will fight for the right to own and operate the means of production.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says the Gospel of Matthew, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Poverty is the condition of saintliness, an idea shared between the Christianity of Mother Teresa and the nondenominational saintliness of Mahatma Gandhi. Both identified the poor as the blessed and they both sought not the abolishment of poverty, but to valorise the poor and suggested that only amongst the poor can one find happiness.

Gandhi wrote extensively of the “dignity of poverty” and he extolled people to see the joy of poverty. In 1931, he noted in London that those who are in an ideal state of poverty “possess all the treasures in the world. In other words, you really get all that is in reality necessary for you, everything. If food is necessary, food will come to you.”10

Along these lines, Mother Teresa noted that poverty is “beautiful”. Poverty, then, ceases to be bad, but it becomes something to celebrate. The poor can be treated with condescension as those who will redeem the world by their acceptance of charity. This approach expresses no interest in the causes of poverty and in the condition of patronage demanded of the poor by the charity industry. Upon Mother Teresa’s death, her successor Sister Nirmala noted that “poverty will always exist. We want the poor to see poverty in the right way — to accept it and believe that the Lord will provide.”11

The Missionaries of Charity preach subservience and fatalism, two habits that hold back any hope of the politicisation of the poor towards genuine social change. Their approach, however, does not exhaust the wide-ranging positions taken within the Catholic community.

Vatican II vs. Mother Teresa

Pope John XXIII offered an important encyclical to the Catholic world on May 15, 1961 (Mater et Magistra). He urged the church to concern itself with “man’s daily life, with his livelihood and education, and his general temporal welfare and property” (para. 3).

The Pope looked back to an historical 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII which “defended the worker’s natural right to enter into association with his fellows” (para. 22). Further, he revisited Leo XIII’s criticisms of capitalism as immoral. “Enormous riches accumulated in the hands of the few,” John XXIII wrote, “while large numbers of workingmen found themselves in conditions of ever-increasing hardship. Wages were insufficient even to the point of reaching starvation level, and working conditions were often of such a nature as to be injurious alike to health, morality and religious faith” (para. 13). This document, among others, formed the basis for the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) which overturned the conservatism of John XXIII’s predecessors.

Mother Teresa was consistently opposed to Vatican II and to John XXIII. She welcomed the current Pope, whose conservatism on a number of issues came closer to her own brand of Catholicism. Mother Teresa walked in step with Pope John Paul II who was not only opposed to abortion and women entering the priesthood, but who was not too keen on the radical edge of Liberation Theology.

John Paul II invited the “good nun” to the 1980 synod on marriage to denounce abortion and contraception and on February 5, 1994, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, she announced extraordinarily that “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion”!12

Of Diana Spencer and Mother Teresa, Katha Pollitt rightly notes that they are “flowers of hierarchical, feudal, essentially masculine institutions in which they had no structural power but whose authoritarian natures they obscured and prettified.”13

The good work of Mother Teresa must not be allowed to obscure the reactionary actions of the current Pope, this despite her own willingness to act as the shield for his conservatism.

Many believe that Vatican II refounded Catholicism on social justice and radical action in favour of the poor. John XXIII did not, however, champion engagement with the roots of poverty, for he urged his followers to preserve the right of big capital to hold onto the means of production (what he called “property”, but which could hardly mean the meagre belongings of the proletariat and the peasantry).

Along with Pope Pius XI (1922-39), John XXIII argued for a distinction “between Communism and Christianity,” since socialism is “founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being” (para. 34).

From this caricature of socialism, the Pope urged his flock to eschew making alliances with the left and he noted that the church must work to ameliorate conflict and to stop “a widespread tendency to subscribe to extremist theories far worse in their effects than the evils they purport to remedy" (para. 14).

Liberation theology

Many Catholics, however, do work without Vatican sanction, in fact with the “direct disapproval” of the Pope.14 This is the path of Liberation Theology, of some who follow Dorothy Day within the Catholic Worker, of those radicals emboldened by the struggles of the figure of Jesus to fight against the causes of poverty, notably in our epoch, the capitalists.

Such a tradition includes within it the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero of E1 Salvador who engaged with the structural causes of suffering and did not glorify pain in any way; it includes Dan Berrigan SJ who, in 1967, wrote that:

Killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognise. For the sake of that order, we risk our liberty, our good name. The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.15

And it further includes those Catholics in Latin America about whom the Guatemalan military wrote that they saw “no difference between Catholics and the Communist subversives.”16

To be fair to Mother Teresa, when she was criticised in Latin America for her failure to grasp the roots of poverty, she said that “if people feel it is their vocation to change structures, then that is the work they must do.”17

One may turn to her earlier, longer study which, however, does not take up any of these difficult issues, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa, the spirit and the work (Doubleday, 1985). This is a rather noncommittal statement, but it does offer some suggestion of Mother Teresa’s own inconsistent position on poverty. That is, if poverty is “beautiful” and if it is inevitable, is there any point in identifying and combating the structures that produce poverty?

Curious company

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Mother Teresa is the company she kept, partly, I think, for raising money to do her work. She is, of course, not alone, since many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are prone to cavort with the rich and famous from whom they secure funds to do their work.

The NGO phenomenon raises substantial questions about democracy and the tendency to abandon the state as the site of struggle (ie to abandon the instrument of the state as a redresser of social wrongs). With the withdrawal of the state from intervention for social justice, notably since the economic downturn from 1967-73, NGOs entered those vacated zones (such as health care, primary education, nutrition).

The World Bank, under Robert McNamara, championed the NGO as an alternative to the state, leaving intact global and regional relations of power and production. McNamara made his famous statements about NGOs at the annual meeting of the World Bank’s Board of Governors in Nairobi in 1973, about the time when the monetarists (under Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek) dethroned a watered-down Keynesianism to end faith in state engineering (and to withdraw the state to its role of guardian of property, both as police and as law courts).

The monetarist attack on state intervention allowed the NGOs to emerge as a non-state instrument, to be funded privately, for development. Therefore, NGOs allowed states to reduce taxes and abdicate the creation of social equality. Now, the proletariat and peasantry had to wait upon the charitable benevolence of the rich and the NGOs rather than demand redress from a democratic state.

NGOs rely for their sustenance not only upon accountable sources of finance (state funds), but on private donation such as foundations or from individuals. For the latter, there are many motivations for donation, only one being charity. Another, perhaps a dominant strand, seeks to rein in the actions of those who are politically organising the poor towards an eventual confrontation with congealed power.

Think of those with whom Mother Teresa is often photographed, Diana Spencer, Michele Duvalier (wife of the notorious Baby Doc Duvalier), Nancy Reagan and Hilary Clinton, Robert Maxwell and finally, Charles Keating.

Charles Keating is remembered as the emblem of the Savings & Loans fiasco, wherein his own Lincoln Savings & Loan Association required a $2 billion bail-out by the Federal Government, due to its licentious expenditure of the public’s money. In 1992, Keating was charged with 70 counts of racketeering and fraud and he spent a brief period of his ten-year sentence before a Federal judge found him innocent due to a procedural problem during the trial. Keating not only ripped off the US workers of millions of dollars, but he bribed five Senators (the “Keating Five”) to prevent his doing time.

Copping pleas for the rich and famous

During his halcyon days, under the false hope of Reaganism, Keating donated $1.25 million to the Missionaries of Charity and lent his private jet to Mother Teresa for her travels. At the same time, he lent $8.5 million to save his friend Jerry Falwell’s ailing AMI, an ally from the days when Keating served on a Nixon appointed anti-pornography commission.

When Keating was brought to trial in 1992 (before the court of none other than Judge Lance Ito), Mother Teresa wrote the good judge a letter on behalf of her friend.18 The first sentence smacks of hypocritical humility, “we do not mix up in Business or Politics [sic] or courts.” Of course, this is just what the letter attempts to do, since the Mother notes that “Mr. Keating has done much to help the poor, which is why I am writing to you on his behalf.”

Then, in a Reaganesque manner, Mother Teresa offers ignorance as a cover for her plea on behalf of Keating. “I do not know anything about Mr. Charles Keating’s work or his business or the matters you are dealing with. I only know that he has always been kind and generous to God’s poor, and always ready to help whenever there was a need.”

She asks Ito to go inside his heart, pray and follow the example of Jesus. Either the Mother is naive, which is unlikely, or she does not evince any concern for the means by which Keating made that money (against “God’s poor”), only a fraction of which was returned as charity to earn the prestige of Mother Teresa’s name.

Mother Teresa, like other “non-political” service organisations, ends up compromising her principles for her benefactors.

During the referendum in Ireland to end the constitutional ban on divorce and remarriage in 1995, Mother Teresa traveled around the Emerald Isle preaching against the feminists for whom this was an important battle (they won by a narrow 50.3 per cent against 49.7 per cent).

At the same time, Charles and Diana Windsor spoke of moving from separation to divorce (on November 20 Diana gave an interview to BBC). Mother Teresa, in an interview to Ladies Home Journal, noted of that marriage that “no one was happy”.19

For those in power, one has one set of principles and for those who are powerless, one has another. The examples are numerous of this form of reversal of principle.

During the night of December 2-3, 1984, methyl isocyanate left the environs of a Union Carbide factory and poisoned thousands of people. The Bhopal massacre by Union Carbide was but the most flagrant example of a transnational corporation’s disregard for human life at the expense of its own profit. In 1983, Union Carbide’s sales came to $9 billion and its assets totalled $10 billion. Part of this profit came from a tendency to shirk any responsibility towards safety standards, not just in India, but also in their Virginia plant.

After the disaster, Mother Teresa flew into Bhopal and, escorted in two government cars, she offered Bhopal’s victims small aluminum medals of St. Mary. “This could have been an accident,” she told the survivors, “it’s like a fire (that) could break out anywhere. That is why it is important to forgive. Forgiveness offers us a clean heart and people will be a hundred times better after it.” John Paul II joined Mother Teresa with his analysis that Bhopal was a “sad event” which resulted from “man’s efforts to make progress.”20

There is something terrifying about these statements. Both are able to step away from what is widely recognised as a flagrant example of corporate greed.

Bengal’s proletariat and peasantry are, each day, in the midst of a process of politicisation. As a balm, some have taken shelter in the embrace of Mother Teresa (just as they do in the arms of the Ramakrishan Mission or others, less visible to the Euro-American media) and others are mystified by her ceaseless activity.

Unlike the bourgeoisie, she remains dressed in simple garments and continues, in a humble fashion, to tread a self-admitted endless path. Her Sisyphian labour is meaningful to the proletariat, the peasantry and the unemployed, whose own labour appears in this light. As lines of demarcation become distinct, as the Communists make clear the different approaches to poverty, the admiration of the people will lessen.

The Communists don’t give people fish, so they might eat for a day; the point of Communism is to teach the masses how to fish, so that they might eat forever. Each day, Calcutta’s Communists — as real nameless Mother Teresas! — conduct the necessary work towards socialism, for the elimination of poverty forever.

But this is not an essay about Mother Teresa only. It has attempted to provide a sense of the charity industry, a trough for bourgeois guilt. There will be many Teresas in the future to assuage this sensibility of guilt, itself unresolvable under the cruel rule of capital. There will also be many more nameless Communists who will continue to labour tirelessly to make paradise on earth.


  1. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, pp86-7
  2. Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)
  3. A. K. Sen, "Famine Mortality: A Study of the Bengal Famine of 1943" in Peasants in History: Essays in Honor of Daniel Thorner. Ed. E. J. Hobsbawm (Calcutta: Sameeksha Trust and Oxford University Press, 1980).
  4. Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), pp133-4.
  5. A Dangerous Place (London: Secker & Warburg, 1979) p41.
  6. Sunil Sengupta and Haris Gazdar, "Agrarian Politics and Rural Development in West Bengal" in Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives. Eds. Jean and Amartya Sen (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), p159.
  7. Henriette Peters, Mary Ward: a world in contemplation (Leominster: Gracewing, 1994).
  8. The Lancet, September 17, 1994.
  9. Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (London: Verso, 1995), pp41 & 50l.
  10. M. K. Gandhi, Socialism of My Conception (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1966), p52.
  11. Barbara Crossette, "Pomp Pushes the Poorest from Mother Teresa's Last Rites" in New York Times, September 14, 1997, p14.
  12. National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1997.
  13. Katha Pollitt, "Thoroughly Modern Di" in The Nation, September 29, 1997, p9
  14. Achin Vanaik, "No Sense of Proportion" in The Hindu, September 12, 1997, p12.
  15. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper, 1990), p479.
  16. James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America (London: Verso, 1988), p494.
  17. Eileen M. Egan, " `Blessed Are the Merciful': Mother Teresa (1910-1997)" in America, September 20, 1997, p19
  18. Hitchens, op. cit., pp. 64-71.
  19. Christopher Hitchens, "Throne and Alter" in The Nation, September 29, 1997, p.7.
  20. Tara Jones, Corporate Killing: Bhopals Will Happen (London: Free Association Books, 1988), pp32 & 298.

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