Religion is the origin of all social thought – philosophy, science, law, ethics, etc. Like the social thought that we now consider secular, it is also imbued with a referent principle that provides a foundational justification for its imperatives and truth claims. For religion the foundational principle is the will of God, for liberal society it is natural law, for Marxism it is human species-being, which is the ability to perform creative labour (thus transforming self and world). My argument is that it is not necessarily the case that the first and the last are in contradiction. Or, rather, accepting certain conceptions of the “will of God” doesn’t preclude a philosophical framework in which one relies upon the notion of species-being for the foundation of human action. Certain understandings of Islam, for instance, conceive of God as the sum of everything in the universe [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_and_science]. To engage in scientific research is another road to seek an understanding of God’s will through understanding the natural laws, which are partial expressions of God Himself. Similarly, one can argue that God, understood as described above, created humans with a certain species-being and to struggle for that species-being to be liberated from alienation and exploitation is a righteous struggle to bring humans into harmony with their God-given nature. That is, religion is not necessarily a barrier to rational examination of nature and society. It can, in fact, provide an impetus.
The key determination of religion’s role is political and historical. Going back to my previous discussion of Kautsky and his examination of the rise of Christianity in the context of the growing Jewish revolt against Rome in the 1st Century CE, he notes that the messiah must be understood not as someone who will lead people to righteousness through cleansing them of sin by his own death. Rather, the messiah is a warrior prince who will lead the Jewish people, under the yoke of both the Romans and a compliant and corrupt local ruling class, in a revolutionary war to win their freedom. The messiah is understood as much in practical as spiritual terms. When Josephus, the first century eyewitness, and chronicler of the Jewish revolt discusses the various self-declared messiahs leading tens of thousands into the desert or to the banks of the River Jordan – usually to be slaughtered by the Roman army – these have to be viewed not as we would contemporary religious cults. These were religiously inspired political revolts that were crushed but reappeared again and again, though the insurmountable character of Roman power shifted the presumed character of the messiah increasingly in the direction of the supernatural. The Jewish and (likely) Christian urge to insurgency as a core religious principle probably wasn’t broken until the second Jewish revolt, or Bar Kokhba Revolt, that took place some 60 years after the first Jewish war against Rome in 66-72AD. It took two profound defeats, with tens of thousands captured into slavery, tens of thousands slain, the local political and religious leadership shattered and sent into exile and the Jewish capital destroyed in order to bleed Judaism (and the minor Jewish sect of Christianity) of its rebelliousness, at least in the ancient world. In this sense, the rise of the Catholic Church has to be understood in a sense similar to Stalinism – it is the product of a world historic defeat of Christianity, not its victorious triumph. Nonetheless, this is a profound demonstration of the ways in which belief systems, including codified dogma, are subject to the fire of historical experience and molecular transformations over long stretches of time.
Now, before I am handed the long list of crimes by organized religion throughout history and around the world, let me just say that these, while true, don’t negate my point. Certainly all forms of idealistic dogma, infected by pessimism turned into principle, or by ruling class ideas given eternal justification through imputing them to be the wishes of God (or Fuhrer or Great Helmsman, whatever) can act as an obstacle to revolution or even to justify horrors from the Inquisition to the Holocaust. This applies to Marxist ideas and Marxist thinkers as much as it does to religion, witness the earnest defenses and denials of Stalin’s genocidal policies during the Great Purges by well-meaning, self-identified Marxists. Of course we try to test our principles against reality but let’s be honest, at least amongst ourselves, shall we. It is the rare Marxist who honestly and regularly engages in the kind of “ruthless criticism of everything that exists” urged by Karl himself towards one’s own principles – whether that be the “socialist character” of the former USSR or China or Cuba or the validity of Trotsky’s transitional program or the continued relevance of a strategic focus on the working class. Not to disparage any particular position on any of these things but just to point out that we operate on faith based upon past insights or, indeed, prejudices more often than we care to admit. The fact that they are coded into a rational discourse doesn’t change one iota the faith-based character of many of our present positions. The doctrine of the Third Period, in which the Stalinized Communist Parties around the world went on a rampage against everyone else on the left during the late 1920s, was given a perfectly rational form of argument to justify utter madness. At a more mundane level, it is simply not possible or desirable to constantly critique and review all aspects of the canon. At a certain point the past argument decay like radioactive half-life leaving behind an act of faith to justify positions – particularly when the level of struggle is low for an extended period of time. That is why not only religious ideas have provided justification for terrible crimes and for resisting social change – so too have liberal ideas and, more recently, Marxist ideas. The traditional Trotskyist escape route, to point to the pressure of material circumstances leading to the degeneration of the Bolshevik Revolution apply with equal justification to religion. As noted above, Catholicism was the product of the defeat and decay of revolutionary Christianity.
Karl Kautsky, expelled from the Marxist canon for so long because of his renegacy, is a prime example of the transformation of a revolutionary into his opposite. We apply labels for such phenomenon that have descriptive power and provide a convenient shorthand – renegade, centrist, reformist, etc. But those labels also freeze in aspic a process that is ongoing and dynamic. It allows us to forget that our own ideas remain in process, probably until we fly up to heaven on gossamer wings. This is a problem for two reasons. The most obvious is that it blunts our own critical faculties. The self-righteous mind is an uncritical mind. But it also means that we lose the good in the teachings of those who later “betray the faith”. We have forgotten the power of Kautsky’s analysis. Years ago I read The Algebra of Revolution, a book on the Marxist dialectic, by John Rees. It still informs my approach to dialectics and for that I’m grateful. Yet it contains a critique of Kautsky as having rejected dialectics and that this is at the root of his inability to see and understand the bureaucratization of the German SDP – thus explaining his becoming a renegade and counter-revolutionary. I accepted this on faith and even repeated it now and again, though Kautsky has been so thoroughly expunged that he rarely comes up. But then I read the Foundations of Christianity and what did I find – not only a sophisticated use of dialectical materialism to analyze historical events, but also a beautiful use of the idea of combined and uneven development (always ascribed to Trotsky in my Marxist education). There’s also an analysis of the rise of bureaucracy in the workers movement that is thrown into the book in such a casual way that it is obvious it had been discussed elsewhere. In fact, Kautsky’s analysis is much better than Lenin’s analysis of the labour bureaucracy laid out in “Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism.” All these years I thought that Tony Cliff and the IS Tradition had pioneered a sophisticated materialist analysis of the labour bureaucracy that superceded Lenin’s “crude materialism” and here I read it in a book about Christianity by a renegade published in 1908. And yet, notwithstanding Kautsky’s sophisticated and supple Marxism he was, indeed, a renegade against his own principles. Rather than intoning his crimes it ought to give us pause to reflect on the frailty of all movements and systems of thought, especially those of individuals, which seek to remake the world. And it ought to remind us that, insofar as history gives a damn at all about us, it will judge our shortcomings harshly as well.
The point of this journey through the crimes and misdemeanors of history is that we must not mistake the degeneration of movements, doctrines and modes of thought with those things themselves. All these things evolve historically and must be studied in their specificity, including particular expressions of Marxism and Marxist movements.
Nonetheless, most Marxists would argue that while religion might be flexible, and might play role in the struggle for social liberation, as it has repeatedly in history, it is nonetheless a product of class society, which will wither with the victory of socialism. Even were that true would it make religion any different than Marxism, which is first and foremost a theory of social combat? In this sense it too will have been rendered irrelevant once class struggle ceases to be the motor of history. I agree that such an event, to be hoped for, would absolutely transform important aspects of religion and cause a rethinking of many key elements of both religious dogma and ritual, along with shattering reactionary religious institutions, like the Catholic hierarchy – as it will transform every field of human activity: sex, the family, work, medicine, sports, et al. At the same time, I want to argue that religion will absolutely not cease to exist as a community of belief united by a series of principles derived from an awe of the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the puny finiteness of human life. And this is an important point that Marxists forget. Religion’s first point of origin is not class society, though it is sullied by it along with everything else. The religious impulse derives from the mysteries of the universe. By and large we no longer believe that Gods inhabit trees and rocks or are the cause of lightning. We no longer expect the kind of miracles we see in the New and Old Testament, of turning water into wine or parting seas – partly because most of the miracles have been surpassed by technology and now seem rather pedestrian and amateurish. But the universe is still largely a mystery and probably will be for centuries or longer. In the contradiction that exists between our ability to grasp this vastness, Freud described it in Civilization and its Discontents as an oceanic feeling, and our experience of the infinitesimally smaller thing that is a human life – or even human society – is the space in which religion becomes possible. As long as people die and we haven’t ourselves ascended to godhead we will seek to find ways to grapple with that gap emotionally, ethically and morally. The hardened Marxist will of course scoff: “we will conquer the mysteries with the power of science liberated from class society.” But this misses (at least) a couple of things. Intellectual and abstract understanding cannot satisfy all of our emotional needs. Understanding the laws of the conservation of matter and energy isn’t much use at the funeral of a loved one. Knowing the role of genetics, epigenetics, proteomics, nutrition and human biology doesn’t stop a parent’s heart from filling with emotion and awe at the birth of a child. It feels like a miracle because it is a miracle that such a thing should happen in the whole of the universe and arise from apparently nothing. Stripped of the distortions of class society and the reflections of class struggle, religion will nonetheless continue in some form to provide an outlet for the still natural condition of mortality and finiteness in an infinite universe. Of course the exact form it will take is as impossible to understand as the dynamic and multitudinous ways in which a post-capitalist society will be organized democratically from the bottom. To attempt to describe the precise character of it is as silly as attempts to describe the precise ways that economy and culture will be organized under socialism precisely because these will the product of mass participation and experimentation over an extended period of time. All any proponents of radical transformation can do in the here and now is to struggle to create the conditions to unleash human creativity. The reason why we need to show respect for religion, to include expressions of it in the pantheon of potentially powerful ideologies of social change, is to increase the likelihood that humanity will achieve the liberation to ignore our dreams and to create their own. Opening the gates of Marxism to include those who accept the basic premises – self-emancipation, materialist conception of history – in a world where religion continues to dominate, is an important strategic consideration.**
** I should say that I’m an “atheist”, have been since before I was a Marxist, and have never even been baptized. This is a strategic and epistemological argument for a certain kind of philosophical pluralism within a strategic, materialist unity. A Muslim who fights for the unity of the working class and for permanent revolution is more valuable to me than an atheist Stalinist who seeks alignment with bourgeois “progressives”.