Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    illustration of a marble floor

    From Karl Marx to Jesus Christ

    The novel Quo Vadis converts a disillusioned Communist to Christianity.

    By Ignace Lepp

    January 7, 2023

    At the age of fifteen, Ignace Lepp read Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother. From this book he first learned about the difficulties endured by the working class, a revelation that pushed him toward Marxism. His conversion to Christianity occurred late one night ten years later when he picked up another novel.

    There I was, then, in a state of complete mental confusion, when the Sign was shown me.

    It was late at night. I had just got back from one of the soi-disant artists’ clubs where I spent all my evenings. The general atmosphere and outlook in them was more or less identical with what one knows only too well of the “cellars” near St. Germain-des-Prés since the Second World War. Gide and Malraux, Picasso and Breton were discussed with more vehemence than conviction. It was the fashion to stand out against any commitment which would entail the least restriction of what these snobs called their “freedom.” Above all, everyone drank a lot; and the girls, even more than the men, announced themselves as completely emancipated from all principles and morality. Naturally enough, I found it all completely empty, but at least I wasn’t alone, and I could benumb myself with unreality.

    On this occasion the hands of my watch must have pointed to three or four in the morning by the time I reached home. But, as often happened now, I could not go to sleep. To fill in the time, I looked on the drawing-room table for the novel which my host’s daughter had left there. At first I glanced through it absent-mindedly, for books no longer had enough interest for me to make me forget the fundamental emptiness of existence. That night, however, for the first time for months, a novel did succeed in holding my attention – succeeded so well, indeed, that I forgot about the Communist Party and my own despair, how tired I was and how late it was getting. … Books had always been my best friends. They had given me an indispensable means of getting away from the limitations of everyday life; they had shown me a more subtle form of thinking, and brought to light the hidden longings of my own soul. Nevertheless, especially since I had become literary critic for several papers and reviews, I had always refused to identify myself with the heroes of the novels I was reading; that would really have been rather too childish! I always tried to read with the greatest possible detachment – the objectivity which I felt befitted a Marxist. I even made it a rule to stop reading any novel the minute I felt I was being carried away by it.

    a Roman man reading a book

    Illustration from Quo Vadis, 1902

    That night I did not try to curb my wish for escapism. On the contrary, I was delighted to be able, for a few hours, to exchange the drabness of my own life for the lives of other people.

    By the time I at last finished the book and laid it down, it was midday. My eyes were filled with tears. I was hardly conscious of feeling tired, after a whole night without sleep. It was not until I had finished the book that I looked at its title – Quo Vadis?, by a certain Sienkiewicz. The Petit Larousse informed that he was a Polish novelist who had won the Nobel Prize in 1905. I had never heard of him.

    I expect that most of my readers know Quo Vadis?, so that it will not be necessary for me to describe its plot at any length. It is a historical novel, very much in the style of the late nineteenth century, and set in the age of Nero, when a savage persecution of Christians was raging in the imperial capital. The followers of Christ, one after another, were flung to the lions in the circus, or set on fire and left to blaze like torches, to light up the festivities in the Emperor’s gardens. Some, like their Master, were crucified. The apostle Paul was put to death, and Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, began, as once before, to waver. He let himself be persuaded that he would be serving the best interests of the Church if he fled. But, when he had left the city walls behind him, he met Christ, walking towards Rome. “Where art Thou going, Lord?” he asked in consternation: “Quo vadis, Domine?” Christ’s reply was uncompromising: “As you, Peter, are deserting My flock, I am going to Rome, to be crucified for the second time.” No more was needed to make the apostle repent of his cowardice. He turned back, took his place once more at the head of the community, and, not long after, was crucified. On his own plea, as a mark of humility, he was fastened to the cross head downwards.

    If I had not been so totally ignorant of everything connected with Christianity, it is quite likely that Sienkiewicz’s novel would have made less impression on me. Even as it was, there were many things in it which I did not understand. Why, for instance, was it so important that Peter should die in Rome? Again, I did not see the true significance of his meeting with Christ. These were matters I was as yet unable to understand, for they belonged to the supernatural order whose very existence was a closed book to me. What I found so enthralling in Quo Vadis? was the picture it gave of the life of Christian communities in the first century. I felt suddenly as if everything for which I had been confusedly longing ever since I was fifteen, and had vainly sought in Communism, was not, at all, to be found only in some imaginary utopia. The early Christians had made it come true.

    The fact that the book was a novel, not a work of strict historical accuracy, did not at once strike me. As soon as I did realize that it was, after all, a work of the imagination, I made up my mind to find out at all costs whether, and to what extent, Sienkiewicz had respected the truth of history, or whether this was just another bit of propaganda writing on the pattern of the books meekly turned out by Communists at the orders of the Politburo. I knew, for instance, how very little resemblance there was between the kolkhoz of the Russian novel and the kolkhoz of real life. Had the Polish novelist also been turning out clever propaganda with only a very flimsy basis of reality?

    The Sermon on the Mount, for instance: how incomparably more beautiful it was than the Communist Manifesto!

    Some readers may feel surprised that a book, and a novel at that, should once again play so important a part in my life. To understand it, they should remember that reading and writing had always been my keenest pleasure, as well as my own personal way of sharing the conflicts and sufferings of others.

    For weeks after I read Quo Vadis? I never went near any of my clubs. I didn’t mind, for I had never really felt at home in them.

    I went to the public library and began by drawing up a list of all the books which dealt with the first three centuries of Christian history. Then I set to work systematically to read them. First came the novels, for I have always held that a good novelist can feel himself into the spirit of a given period even better than a learned historiographer. Everything was grist to my mill – Lord Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii, then Cardinal Wiseman’s Fabiola, then French, German and Italian novels on the same theme. Not all the authors were of the same religion: indeed, some of them obviously had no Christian faith at all. Yet it was significant that they all agreed on essentials.

    By the time I had finished reading these novels, I was already fairly at home in the atmosphere and “climate” of primitive Christianity. I next set about tackling more serious works, beginning with Renan’s Vie de Jésus, which one of the librarians had recommended. I did not as yet see that Renan’s “history” was at least as novelesque as the novels. I thought it very beautiful, and felt a deep sympathy with the hero, the “gentle Jesus of smiling Galilee.” How well I understood all those men and women, who had only to see Him and hear Him call them by name, and they at once left home, work and family to follow Him! The fact that Renan denied His divinity did not trouble me at all. I was not looking for a god, only for a new ideal of life – in time, and on this earth. What Jesus taught, and His own way of living, seemed to me extremely beautiful . . .

    In everything which, to me, was essential, I felt that all the various authors were in wonderful agreement. Could one imagine Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Rykov writing almost identical histories of the October Revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union? Yet Catholics, Protestants and unbelievers all painted the first Christian community in almost the same colors. What was one to deduce from this, if not that they were all drawing on the same source, a source of incontestable historical truth?

    It was true, then, that a certain teaching had been dynamic enough to weld men of all races and conditions into one brotherly community – to fill the gulf which separated master from slave. I thought it magnificent, superhuman, that the Church should honor as saints both princes and slaves. I found that underlying this Christian community, too, there was a dialectic, but a dialectic based on universal love. And I had to admit that, on the sociological plane which alone interested me, it could point to better results than the dialectic of the class struggle, which had led to nothing but the substitution, for the former ruling class, of a dictatorship at least equally pitiless.

    After some weeks, I felt that I had a fairly good idea of the structure based on the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. All the authors I had read referred to the same source – the Gospels. So I went into the first bookshop I came across and bought a copy of the New Testament. I was surprised to see what a small book it was. That same day I read at a sitting the four Gospels and the Acts . . .

    I was not in the least surprised to find so many miracles in the life of Christ. I simply paid no attention to them for the time being. What was important was the sublimity of Christ’s teaching, by which, even at this first reading of the Gospel, I was completely overcome. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance: how incomparably more beautiful it was than the Communist Manifesto! Then, again, the parables; they were not only full of poetry, but conveyed the most wonderful doctrine. But nothing in the Gospels impressed me so much as the character of Christ Himself. His simplicity, His inexhaustible kindness to all who were suffering, the terms of perfect equality He accepted, not only among His disciples but with the poorest of His people – all this was a marvelous confirmation of His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the parables. How very different was His treatment of sinners – Mary of Magdala, the woman taken in adultery, the publicans – from the police methods in force in the Soviet Union!

    When I had finished reading the Gospels I could no longer doubt that the life of the Christian community described by the historians and novelists I had been reading was directly inspired by the teaching of Christ. The Acts of the Apostles showed me that there was a direct link between the small group of men and women clustered round Christ Himself, and the Christian communities that flourished hundreds of years later in Rome, Alexandria, Asia Minor and Gaul. The author of the Acts taught me something I had never heard before – that in Jerusalem just after Pentecost “all they that believed were together and had all things in common,” and that “their possessions and goods they sold and divided them to all, according as everyone had need.”  Was not this in line with the purest ideals of Communism? To me, it was a reference of capital importance. It is true that I was bitterly disappointed by the way Marxist Communism had worked out in Russia, but I was none the less convinced that the ideal of Communism was the finest and most generous in the world, and that, if only there were some other way of realizing it than by the methods which had been adopted in Russia, it could bring nothing but happiness to mankind. My opinion of any philosophical doctrine or social policy depended almost entirely on its degree of conformity with Communist ideals. The ideal society described in Plato’s Republic is admittedly not entirely like the society of the modern socialist’s dream, but it was none the less communist, and that alone was enough to make me rate Plato above all the other philosophers of antiquity. And what attracted me to Christianity was the fact that the teaching, and the practical realization of the teaching, of Christ and His followers, was “communistic.” Not until much later did all the rest come to be added to this first concept – a “rest” which is no doubt far more fundamental in the Christian synthesis than what I had first admired.

    From Karl Marx to Jesus Christ, by Ignace Lepp (Sheed & Ward, New York, 1958), 178–184.

    Contributed By portrait of Ignace Lepp Ignace Lepp

    Ignace Lepp (1909–1966) was a French writer, an ardent atheist, and Marxist for many years. He became a disillusioned with Communism and converted to Roman Catholicism.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now