Australian Marxist Review No. 40 August 1998

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 

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 

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 

"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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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

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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