Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Marxism & Religion: Part 3

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”.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Marxism & Religion: Part 2 - From Hatred to Brotherhood

Marxism is a child of the Enlightenment. It was born of the revolutions in politics, philosophy and economy that shook Europe and America from the 17th Century through to the 19th Century. As such it was tempered in part in the polemics and struggles against religious authority. After all, religion was the ideology of the European ruling classes, used to justify the right of kings and popes to do as they pleased at the expense of the people. To be against religious authority was to be against the feudal order. It was to be in favour of equal rights and natural law, as opposed to the rights and privileges of estates.

But Marxism was also a break with the Enlightenment. It developed after the retreat of the great French Revolution, long after the ossification of the English Revolution and the disappointment and slavery that issued from the American Revolution. The experience of revolt and disappointment deepened the critique of Marx and Engels. This was particularly true after their very direct experience of the German revolution in 1848, which was defeated by the treachery of the bourgeoisie, the class that had led the Enlightenment and the revolutions of the previous century. But even before Marx raised the call for permanent revolution to sweep away the bourgeoisie as well as the old feudal order, he and Engels had reached an understanding that the phenomenon of religious ideas and religious practices has to be understood as an expression of the experience of contemporary humans:

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”

It was no longer the case that religion was a trick pulled on the masses by the ruling classes. Certainly the ruling class used religion for its own purposes but even if it hadn’t, the conditions of oppression would have generated it so long as the oppressed masses didn’t have the confidence themselves to resist their conditions. It was, in that sense, a painkiller – an opiate – that made oppression easier to bear. Though at this point Marx still holds that criticism of religion frees the mind of man so that he is free to resist real oppression, by the time of the Theses on Feuerbach in 1845, two years later, he argues that to get rid of religious ideas one must annihilate the social practices from which they emanate (“Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically”). Thus, I think that if we’re going to analyze religion we ought to at least start from the level that Marx began at way back in 1843 and not revert to the position of the Young Hegelians.

This marks a big step forward, I would argue, and begins to bring materialism back into the critique of religion. But, of course, Marx isn’t the final word on Marxism in general nor on the question of religion in particular. It’s interesting that in Engels and later, Kautsky, we seem some important evolution of the idea. Kautsky, for instance, quotes Engels as saying:

“The history of primitive Christianity presents remarkable coincidences with the modern workers’ movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of the oppressed; it first appeared as a religion of slaves and freedmen, of the poor, the outcasts, of the peoples subjected or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and Socialism preach an approaching redemption from servitude and misery; Christianity assigns this redemption to a future life in Heaven after death; Socialism would attain it in this world by a transformation of society…”

Kautsky agrees overall with Engels parallel but notes that there are a few limitations to Engels views: “Christianity can hardly be called a religion of the slaves; it did nothing for them. On the other hand, the liberation from misery proclaimed by Christianity was at first quite material, to be realized on this earth, not in Heaven.” What is interesting is that Kautsky traces the “collapse” of primitive Christianity into an idealistic religion of servitude and bureaucracy to many of the same kind of material pressures that transform the workers’ movement. He does not, first and foremost, fetishize the details of early Christian ideology. It is the pressure of material conditions that corrupts the Christians.

“Like Christianity, this movement is obliged to create permanent organs in the course of its growth, a sort of professional bureaucracy in the party, as well as in the unions, without which it cannot function, which are a necessity for it, which must continue to grow, and obtain more and more important duties. “This bureaucracy – which must be taken in the broad sense… - will not this bureaucracy in the course of things become a new aristocracy, like the clergy headed by the bishop? Will it not become an aristocracy dominating and exploiting the working masses and finally attaining the power to deal with the state authorities on equal terms, thus being tempted not to overthrow them but join them?”


The conclusion we ought to draw from this is that rather than dismissing religion as a phenomenon incompatible with an ideology of revolution, in general, and of Marxism, in particular, we must examine it in its concrete specificity. We also ought to have a certain amount of humility as Marxists as religiously inspired people have been resisting oppression through revolutionary struggle a lot longer than have we, though I suppose that it is in the nature of all youth to disrespect their elders.

PART 3: Would there be religion under socialism?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Marxism and Religion: Part 1

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.
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