This is really a thumbnail sketch of trying to wrap my head around a Marxist approach to religion. This really comes out of the experience, evolving from the approach pioneered in contemporary times by Chris Harman, of relating to imperialism in the Middle East and the role of Islamism in the resistance to that imperialism. In many ways that relationship is a clear signpost as to how Marxists ought to treat the contradictory phenomenon of religion. For instance, going back to the late 1970s we saw two important developments. On the one hand there was the Iranian revolution of 1979 that quickly (though not without internal struggle) saw it move in the direction of Shi’ia-based Islamism, as formulated and led by Ayatollah Khomeineh. The defeat of the US client dictator, the Shah of Iran, under the impetus of an anti-imperialist movement led to the demonization of Islam in western popular culture and political policy. On the other hand, the 1980s saw a civil war in Afghanistan in which the US-backed, Islamic-based mujahideen fought against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. Here, while the struggle of the mujahideen was increasingly a struggle against Soviet imperialism, it was distorted by the involvement of the USA and lauded by the latter precisely for the distortions that they had infused into the character of the struggle. Similarly, the theocratic dictatorship in Saudi Arabia (which funneled significant resources to the mujahideen) was and is closely aligned to the United States government. Clearly Islam could be an ideology of both resistance and accommodation to repressive and regressive power.
Harman encapsulated well our attitude to religion as a political phenomenon with his slogan “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never.” That slogan allowed, for instance, the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood represented a conservative but nonetheless reformist response to the pro-US dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and to resist their repression without dropping their criticisms of MB policies that were regressive and even counter-revolutionary. Only by doing this could they relate to the much larger body of MB supporters, particularly the youth wing, who were to the left of the leadership in militantly opposing both imperialism and the Mubarak dictatorship.
But in many ways this still left open the question of how to theorize the phenomenon of religion. This gap made it possible to both relate to religiously-inspired political movements and individuals in an open, non-sectarian way while sustaining a sectarian stance to religion itself. This gap has been under-theorized in my opinion and could allow, for instance, Alex Callinicos to argue that a person couldn’t be both religious and Marxist. Of course Callinicos, and probably most other Marxists besides, could argue that the historical materialism of Marxism simply wasn’t compatible with a religious outlook. I would argue that this, rather, was a shibboleth that placed a barrier between Marxism as an ideology of revolution and a broad population of religious adherents who had moved towards a position of revolution through their experience of resisting imperialism and (increasingly) austerity.
A good place to start in exploring this question is to define Marxism itself. In some ways Marxism has many elements in common with religion. The most obvious one is that the definition of what constitutes “Marxism” is itself contested. Maoists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, council communists, and many minor strands and hybrid formations all define themselves as Marxists in ways that are often radically contradictory. These sometimes seem to take on the character of scholastic debates about doctrine – particularly the more isolated they are from reality. Even theorists within particular traditions disagree on particular aspects of the canon. Some Trotskyists, for instance define self-identified Communist or socialist regimes, such as Cuba, as deformed workers states, while others (including my tradition) argue that they are state capitalist regimes, which nonetheless still leaves open important tactical and strategic questions. Even within traditions there is disagreement on more abstract philosophical questions such as whether the dialectic – which I will define, following Rees, as a series of principles by which to explain change as a dynamic process arising from internal contradictions – extends to the natural world or is restricted to society.
This makes defining Marxism itself rather problematic. However, I would say that at its core, the original Marxist canon contains a few key principles and these are philosophical materialism, the idea that class society has inherent contradictions that leads to conflict, particularly between the main classes and the principle that the overthrow of capitalism must be the act of the working class (self-emancipation). Self-emancipation itself is rooted in two precepts, the first being the strategic position that the working class holds within capitalist society – it produces the vast majority of wealth in society and by its actions it can stop the machine and restart it to meet its own needs. Secondly, and relatedly, the working class is, as Marx put it, a radical class in that its own liberation doesn’t require the subordination of another class. When the bourgeoisie smashed the old feudal state apparatus, with its codified system of privileges and duties, assigned to particular classes, raising the banner of universal rights, more than anything it liberated itself from aristocratic privilege so that it could better exploit the working class. The working class has no subordinate class beneath it whom it rests upon (though there are social strata beneath the working class in terms of wealth and social power) and whose exploitation it requires. Therefore the working class, to liberate itself, must also liberate all of humanity. (This is complicated by imperialism and colonialism but I don’t think that it fundamentally alters this strategic outlook so I don’t want to get into it here.) Of these three principles, really the only principle that seems to necessarily come into conflict with religion is that of philosophical materialism.
This leads to two questions, to my mind. What are the limits of philosophical materialism in terms of it being necessary to achieve the key strategic aims of Marxism (self-liberation of the working class to overcome all class division)? Does religion, or at least some religion, exist within those limits sufficiently to permit a person to be both religious and a Marxist? It is self-evident that one can go to church, believe in God, believe in (for instance) Christian salvation and still believe in working class self-emancipation. There are plenty examples of individuals who did so. AJ Muste, who led the American Workers Party in the 1930s, for instance, was a Christian socialist and nonetheless was comfortable fusing his organization with the Trotskyists led by James Cannon to form the Socialist Workers Party (US). More challenging for those who adhere to a particular religious sect: is it possible to believe that real, practical unity is possible and desirable between workers of one faith and another? However, this is a common problem, not restricted to religion. We see a similar phenomenon in terms of different strands of socialism as much as between different faiths (if on a smaller scale given the global predominance of a religious outlook versus one connected to various strands of Marxism). Religion hasn’t cornered the market on sectarianism, unfortunately. And, generally, as suggested above, the possibility and desirability of unity exists in direct proportion to the level of struggle and therefore the confidence of the masses to make gains in their own interest. During the early stages of the Egyptian Revolution, for instance, there were many instances of Muslims and Christians uniting to defend each other from attack during prayers.
Returning to the question of the limits of philosophical materialism as a standpoint necessary for scientific examination, if one looks outside of politics we see that many scientists, whose professional activity is a materialist examination of, for instance, biological evolution or genetics, are nonetheless religious. On the other hand, more than one atheist cosmologist nonetheless accepts that the universe had a beginning moment that looks an awful lot like theological creation – and we often forget that the Big Bang theorem is only the “standard” model that is contested by other models like Steady State, etc. And physicists accept phenomenon, like entanglement, that looks an awful lot like spirituality and which has yet to be really explained by what we would normally call materialism. In other words, defining that limit, beyond which lies the wasteland of submission to otherworldly authority and conservatism is not as straightforward as some, perhaps most, Marxists have generally assumed. This suggests that religion, like any ideological and material (in the sense of social practice) phenomenon, including various expressions of Marxism, must be examined concretely and specifically.
This fundamental starting point to any critical, materialist analysis is generally lost on Marxists who seek to polemicize against religion. We become obsessed with theological dogma and debates. For instance, the much-lauded book by Paul Siegel, the Meek & The Militant, argues that the reason for the defeat of great movements in history has been their adherence to religion and its failure to have a properly radical critique and strategy. “But the other-worldly aspect of religion makes these movements turn away from class struggle. Instead of learning the lessons of defeat to renew the struggle, they find solace in dreaming of heavenly bliss or in passively waiting for the messiah.” (p.55) Certainly this is sometimes true – religion can lead to a moderating of the struggle when more radicalism is needed. But is this always the case and can the defeat of religiously inspired movements be reduced to religion in this way? Not only is it sometimes the case that movements are defeated because they are simply not strong enough – for instance the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-72AD, which is probably the source of Christianity and its spread. But this also applies to other ideologies, including Marxism. Sometimes you lose because you can’t win, not because you are wrong. The Bolsheviks in Russia were victorious against imperialism and counter-revolution and were, nonetheless, defeated by the weight of material circumstances – famine, economic ruin, failure of the revolution to spread. This was independent of the ideology of the leading party of the revolution. In fact, ideology is itself transformed by the level and confidence of the struggle of subordinate classes. As we witness with the defeats of both the Jewish zealots and the Bolsheviks, in most instances defeat of a movement leads not to a considered rethinking, followed by the “renewal of struggle” but, rather, to the retreat of the guiding ideology into conservatism, routinism and forms of subservient idealism. Certainly factions may see the error in this, break away and form new attempts to resist oppression but that applies as much to religion as it does to Marxism. We must not be arrogant about this. After all, religion has inspired more revolutions against oppression than Marxism, a fact of which we must be cognizant, even if we believe – as I do – that the social analysis of Marxism is correct and its strategic orientation is fundamental to a winning strategy for the liberation of humanity.