"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

On Marxism, religion and history

Lenin links a piece from the Socialist Worker entitled 'Marxism and Religion', which attempts to link 'pro-war secular liberals' with the academic and Young Hegelian Bauer, a contemporary of Marx. Even if you knew nothing of Bauer, you could guess that the comparison is not designed to flatter, and you'd be right. Lenin describes the article as 'brilliant'. I beg to differ: take two dimly understood concepts, mix them together and you get an ahistorical slanderous mess such as the Socialist Worker has reproduced here.

Briefly, the evil 'pro-war secular liberals' are compared to Bauer because unlike Marx, he opposed the Emancipation of the Jews, based on, as the piece points out on his trenchant opposition to all religion:
"Bauer argued that religion was the main enemy, and therefore to support Jews demanding emancipation as Jews would be tantamount to capitulating to religion and the special pleading of a religious minority. Jews should first renounce their religion, he insisted, and only then would they deserve the support of liberal atheists."
Later, Bauer was to shift further to the right and "became a cheerleader for the vile anti-Semitism that emerged in Germany in the 1870s - an ideology that would eventually lead to the Nazi gas chambers."

The predictable line is that the 'secular prowar left' are the political heirs of Bauer ("Here the parallels with arguments over Islam today are striking") so enough of this banging on about cartoons and free-speech because the next thing you know, you'll be overseeing camps where Muslims are disappearing up the chimneys by the million.

It should go without saying that such a fatuous conclusion is only possible if you don't understand either Marx, religion or history but in this ahistorical age of course it doesn't, so a brief treatment of this specious nonsense is necessary.

Beginning with Marx, and credit where credit's due - and I mean this sincerely - the comrades have finally worked out that repeating "religion is the opium of the masses" like a mantra and leaving it at that doesn't do justice to Marx's treatment of religion. Well, good - that's refreshing:
"Many people know that Marx described religion as 'the opium of the people'. But far fewer know the whole quote: '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.'"
Personally, I don't know anyone who doesn't know the full-quote - but never mind. One could add the minor point that people who repeated the phrase had a rather poor understanding of opium and how it was used in the 19th century. I digress. The problem is the new, genuinely (to me, anyway) welcome attempt of the left to finally try and get their heads around the strange and subtle phenomenon of religious faith has come a bit late and they're trying the running bit before they've learned to walk. For instance, while it is certainly true that Marx saw a secular state as an insufficient liberation and all that, what justification did the author have for doing a bit of selective quoting of his own? The context of the "opium" passage from his 1843 essay A Criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right can be seen below:
"Religion is the moan of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless 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. The demand to abandon the illusions about their conditions is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion therefore contains potentially the criticism of the Vale of Tears whose aureole is religion. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers which adorned the chain, not that man should wear his fetters denuded of fanciful embellishment, but that he should throw off the chain, and break the living flower . . . Thus the criticism of heaven transforms itself into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."
This is the one that begins "the criticism of religion is the basis of all criticism". So, it's true that our Karl had a more subtle take on religion than some calling themselves 'Marxists' gave him credit for, this much is true - and I'd also agree that a 'marxist analysis' shouldn't be used as a pretext for giving the religious a hard time. But it's also clear that the present unwillingness to offer any criticism, not of religion, not of monotheism, not even Islam, but of politicized religious movements for fear of being branded 'racist' - or out of a desire to brand others racist, more likely - is utterly alien to Marx's thought.

But enough of this already because I'm not even a Marxist. If people want to continue to try and bend historical reality into the German economist's framework, that's their perogative. But it remains the case that, as it is so often with the obscurantist left, the attempt to pretend that Stalin was the author of all the Soviet Union's oppressions in order to vindicate Marx, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks in general, just doesn't hold water.

For one thing, while it is certainly true that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not anything like as interested in other religions compared to the Orthodox church, it remains the case that the religious of whatever their confessional division were discriminated against, excluded, persecuted and killed by the Reds. A process that, as everyone knows, Stalin accelerated with white-hot ferocity. There were 25 000 mosques in the Soviet Union in 1917; by the 1970s there were 500. Leonard of the Tomb's emphasis on the relative tolerance shown towards Muslims has some historical basis, but it was the product of a rather inconsistent approach to the management of the republics rather than any general sympathy with the religious.

And even if this were not the case, why the shocking indifference to the persecution and murder of Christians carried out by the Bolsheviks? And since we're on the general subject of historical precedents isn't there something authentically Bolshevik at the complete lack of concern by just about everyone over indigenous Christians being murdered in countries like Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria?

Anyway, back to the history. I remain distinctly unstruck by the supposed parallels between Bauer's opposition to Jewish Emancipation and the approach of today's 'muscular liberals' towards political Islam ('muscular' is a Bad Thing, in case you were wondering). There's the slightly inconvenient fact that if you're looking for examples of Muslims in Europe being discriminated against in the legal and systematic way in which Jews in Europe were marginalised, you end up really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

In this country, there are only a couple of legal anomalies: the blasphemy laws don't apply to Islam, nor to Judaism or Hunduism, for that matter.

And the proposed incitement to religious hatred was intended to overcome the anomalies thrown up by the racial hatred legislation. Actually, it's a sop to Muslim voters pissed-off about the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq but as a legal inconsistency, it's a valid example.

And there is the problem in education that it is not presently illegal to discriminate against teachers on the grounds of their confessional division. Muslim teachers, I'm sure, will fall foul of this and find themselves losing out in applications for Church of England schools. If so, they have my sympathy and support. This agnostic protestant blogger knows from direct experience how that feels: unfair, but then again, akin to the experience of European Jews in the first half of the 19th century? Certainly not.

This is not to understate the experience of discrimination and relative poverty that many Muslims in this country experience but concern for these is degraded by this deeply unsavoury practice of continually equating the present situation to that of Europe's Jews.

I've been - as often as not on the grounds of technicality rather than affection - on the centre-left all of my life. One of the reasons for my emotional ambivalence is there's always been elements in the articles of faith that I've never felt comfortable with - one of the most important being the attitude routinely taken by the left towards religion and the religious. I have, for example, never agreed with Christopher Hitchens on this subject and I find bitter 'critiques' of religion such as you can find coming from him and his imitators deeply unpleasant as well as intellectually unsatisfying. But my God have they been consistent. Haven't those accusing Hitchens et al of 'Islamophobia' or worse, racism, ever read anything they had to say about religion before all this happened? Have they not seen, for example, what Johann Hari has to say about Christianity? Critical to the point of viciousness, and frankly stupid, if you ask me. But their historic hostility to religion qua religion is palpable, on record, and it is therefore unjust to accuse such of being racist now.

Finally, can we ask the comrades with the newly-deepened understanding of Marx's critique of religion to consider this? It is indeed the case that the traditional 'Bolshevik' understanding of religion drew its hostility from the fact that the Orthodox Church used religiosity as a bulwark to shore-up the Tsarist state - hence the relatively lenient treatment of minority religions that Lenin cites in his post. I certainly think this should be emphasised and I would have to agree that to address religious minorities in this country today as if they represented a power something akin to Russian Orthodoxy really does misunderstand the traditional leftist critique of organised religion. But hold that thought and carry the implications a bit further: religion as understood by Marx and later by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was attacked as a temporal power responsible for oppression and deception. Very well - so what, exactly, do people imagine the attitude of Marx would have been to the quasi-theocratic tyranny in Iran, for example? No I dare say he wouldn't have wanted the Americans to invade, and neither do I. But if anyone were to suggest that he would have made excuses for such a regime and rationalised the anti-Semitic rantings of its nuclear-ambitious President, I take leave to doubt it - as I doubt he'd find anything 'progressive' about the various fundamentalist movimentos currently killing their co-religionists in Iraq.

When all of this is done with - if it ever is - for me one possible positive outcome would be if the 'left' emerged with a more rounded appreciation of religion than it has held hitherto. There's precious little sign of it so far. All this conflation of race with religion and this weird hierarchy of desecrations people seem to be working with doesn't make too much sense to me so far. Lenin in his post makes reference those who "claim some intellectual heritage from or solidarity with the Bolshevik tradition". Dunno who he's talking about here but in general, and particularly to his rather eccentric interpretation of this tradition, one can and must say: I for one am not a Bolshevik.

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