Marxism as Religion 31 October 2006Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory.
The September 21st New York Review of Books carried an essay about Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski by Tony Judt, in which Judt discusses at length the philosophers thoughts on Marxism. Kolakowski likens marxism to a religion or a faith statement in its social effect, and as I rode the commuter train this morning, I had one of those Eureka moments. I have never been able to make sense of the contradictions within marxism, and between the best of Marx’s ideas and the horrific outcomes of marxism in practice. I had never fully bought the apologists’ efforts to rescue Marx from his followers and practitioners, but hadn’t been able to fully comprehend why. Kolakowski’s idea that marxism is (or I would say functions like) a religion suddenly brought it all into focus.
As a graduate student, I was introduced to more in depth look at Marx’s social thought, especially his critiques of capitalism, and I even took a course where we examined Das Kapital in depth. For sociologists, Marx is one of the founders of social scientific thought, most notably in his insistence on the centrality of social relations to ideas (ideologies) and to material outcomes, his views of social systems as complex interactions, and his belief that such systems could be understood “scientifically” (that is, through systematic observation and analysis). Surely, Marx’s social science method wasn’t well developed (we owe that mostly to Durkheim and Weber), but his ideas proved central to the growing idea in European (and eventually American) universities that human societies could be understood scientifically and planned.
Marx as social theorist is pretty narrowly read today by most sociologists who don’t specialize in Marxist criticism, focusing mostly on his analysis of capitalism as a social system. In cultural studies, 20th century dialogues with Marx’s ghost is practically a rite of passage. The obvious critiques of Marx have been made over and over, particularly his historical materialism, which so often devolves into a kind of gross determinism in Marx’s writings as to make you want to throw the whole thing out. But starting with his writings on the 18th Brummaire and culminating in Kapital, Marx had shifted to a depth of analysis of how capitalism functions to mix ideologies and social relations together (his notion of the fetishism of the commodity is fucking brilliant, and more salient today than he could have imagined). That contradiction between the irritating determinism and the powerful insights has plagued my relationship with Marx for years.
As a sociologist who sometimes studies religious cultures, I instantly felt the resonance of thinking of marxism as a religion. Anyone with the most cursory knowledge of religion knows that all religious systems are morally conflicted and internally inconsistent in their morals. The same religious system can produce massive violence and suffering in one context, and on another occasion be the source of humanity’s shining moments of compassion and healing. This contradiction makes religious cultures (that is, their symbolic contents) difficult to deal with empirically, because their effects in the social world are mixed and contradictory. Further, most world religions as they have survived today rely on texts and often on founders. Again, these founders are often the source of contradictory ideas: Jesus taught both “love they neighbor” and that his religion would tear apart families and bring violence (“the sword”); Mohamed taught both that the diversity of humans was divine, and that Arabs were god’s only people; the buddha taught that enlightenment lies within and is available to alll, but forbade women to practice or learn his methods. Of course I’m being overly simplistic here to illustrate a point, that religious systems are ethically and ideologically mixed and that the mixture can be traced back to its founders.
The apologists for Marx often try to say that his followers didn’t understand his ideas; or they argue that communism wasn’t real marxism; or they insist that communism was corrupted by a handful of corrupt men. But Kolakowski sees in Marx’s determinism, specifically his view of the Proletariat as the “true people,” the ideas of inevitability and of moral certitude necessary to create the slaughters and oppressions in 20th century communist societies. Surely, Marx was in favor of a kind of radical freedom familiar to any good libertarian, but he also held ideas that, in Kolakkowski’s words, were nearly eschatological. That is, he saw history (in a modified Hegelian framework) in a way familiar to most Christians: as moving toward a glorious, if bloody, end, and the end was Good and would bring everlasting peace and happiness, despite being preceded by violence. These ideas are indeed contained in Marx, along with his biting and incisive critique of the inequalities and suffering produced by the social relations of capital.
And so to see marxism accurately, even to be able to gleen from it what is useful to me in 2006 while rejecting what is damaging or merely wrong, I can see marxism as a religion with millions of followers who, like religious originators and their followers elsewhere, truly believed what they practiced, and had in many ways left reason at least partway behind. Marxism had become, perhaps even for Marx himself, a kind of credo, an end-in-itself, an ultimate, unquestionable Good. The assumptions within Marx’s early works can and did plausibly lead to the repressions of the Soviet state; and his critiques can and did likewise lead to the social-democracies of western Europe. I think it might be interesting to actually study ‘marxists’ and see if empirically their interactions do indeed follow religious models. To be fair, I’d also love to study some market fundamentalists, a somewhat smaller and yet infinitely more powerful crew, to see if The Market doesn’t likewise function as a faith.