A recording of a presentation and Q&A I did on the topic of Jesus and Communism.
I tend to encounter two general views of religion in my life. Most people consider religion an important – if not ultimately important – part of their lives and/or the world. In fact, one philosopher has suggested that we should define religion as the quest for ultimacy or ultimate values. This first group contains many of the people with whom I am most directly connected, such as my wife and most of my extended family.
The other less common view is that religion is an outdated legacy of our irrational past. In our scientific era it is claimed that we can do without grand mythologies and deities. Everything is reducible to natural causes and processes. While I have deep sympathies and respect for this viewpoint, my extensive intimate connections with people devoted to religion rules out any sort of complete rejection of the importance of religion.
Perhaps I’m just a contrary old man, but I feel that I can embrace both the most reductionistic physical science, yet also remain devoted to the living heart of religious aspirations. Long after the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason are gone, I believe humanity will live in an Age of Love, Love’s Communism, which will be built upon the fulfillment not only of science and technology, but the maturation and judicious distillation of the world’s cultural legacies, including religion. The Age of Love’s Communism will embrace all the authentic passions of Jesus, Marxism, Anarchism, Buddhism, Allah, and the Goddess. “Do I contradict myself? I contain multitudes.”
A Marxist friend of mine posted the following pointed comment (directed no doubt in part at me) on his Facebook wall:
“….something that bothers me about two friends I know who call for liberation theology: both of them admit that they think that a non-natural vision of G-d is incoherent or at least has no evidence for it. Yet they think we should encourage a socialism based on religious convictions. This seems problematic to me because I think people should be told the truth as we know it, and if there is no supernatural anymore, then the entire framework of liberation theology must be different. Otherwise this seems much more cynical than they see it. I for one am not necessarily interested in the masses raising up for something untrue-so if there is a theological turn necessary, it’s got to be justified in more than pragmatism or the failure of prior social forms. Both notions of “progress”–the technocrat one and the religious one seem just as based in a notion of teleos of which we have little evidence and of which we must exclude opportunity costs.”
For Communists to redefine our movement as the fulfillment of humanity’s authentic aspirations we need to change how we understand religion and include religious persons within our movement and organizations. Religions are the product of centuries of the evolving articulation of ultimate values and Communists have no choice but to work with religious people in creating the revolution. The old Leninist strategy (which owes something also to Marx himself) of making Atheism the de facto ideology of the movement has decisively failed. Communism cannot be reborn without religious expressions of its goals and values.
This doesn’t mean that we all have to become Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Pagan Communists. The model for the way forward has been demonstrated by the many interreligious dialogues held over the past two centuries. A signal event in world dialogue was the first “Parliament of the World’s Religions” held at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. The PWR event set off a sequence of dialogues between scholars and religious leaders around the world to work on mutual understanding and conflict resolution. As global communications in the 21st century bring ever more interaction across the boundaries of religion, opportunities for fruitful collaboration and risks for deepening hostility must be faced with a higher consciousness of the ultimate unity of humanity in view, transcending historical boundaries of exclusion, whether religious or secular.
A flat-footed atheism is profoundly out of place in our post-secular world. While science has succeeded in demonstrating that the natural world operates according to regular laws of cause and effect, the hardest problem remaining is the very nature of human consciousness. If evolution has given us superior brains for problem-solving, why did it take millenia for a purely naturalistic worldview to emerge? It would seem that the emergence of religion served some sort of functional cultural adaptation in human history. Religion, regardless of the specific mythology deployed is principally aimed at creating a cultural and social unity that binds together men, women, and children in communities that can survive external threats and internal strife.
Atheists tend to focus on the “supernatural” claims of miracles, invisible conscious beings (deities), and view of the afterlife. In pre-modern times, these mythological features were not considered “super” to nature, but to be part of the world as experienced by everyone. When a calamity befell a community, an evil spirit was at work, since natural explanations were often impossible to obtain. By the same token, when forture blessed a community, a beneficent deity was at work. These spirits and deities weren’t in some non-physical dimension orthogonal to the world of ordinary experience, but rather the Greek gods lived on Olympus, a mountain visible throughout Greece. The Greek gods were also directly assigned characteristics that represented the values of the Greek culture, such as power, beauty, and wisdom. It was only as Greek philosophy under Plato began to confront the problems of mythological incoherences – which is what one expects from a tradition that was constructed over generations of storytelling – that the gods began to be consigned to a non-physical realm of ideas and virtues.
Religion therefore wasn’t the guardian of the supernatural world separable from the natural world, but rather the integrative cultural deposit of all the truths a society depended on for its operation from art to agriculture. The naturalistic aspects of theism were included indivisibly within the supernatural conceptions of theistic religion. Such aspects included the psychological benefits of an ultimate ethical commitment, humility towards the non-human forces of nature, the transcendent importance of human emotional values (most supremely that of love), the ultimate incomprehensibility of existence (including epistemic modesty), a trans-historic sense of human oneness via cultural legacies, and the sense that at bottom the universe isn’t malicious.
Classical religions also include non-natural aspects that were the organic result of pre-scientific understanding of the world. The progress of science at experimentally revising humanity’s world-picture under conditions of capitalism, androcracy, white supremacy, and authoritarianism mean that most human beings are denied the education and emotional health to perceive the world in naturalistic terms, so the emotional appeal of supernaturalism wins popular assent.
Overturning the conditions of oppression, repression, domination, and exploitation requires mass struggle and so the natural religious inclination of humanity must be transformed by struggles on multiple fronts. This means enlisting the narratives of Jesus, Buddha, goddesses, and Allah for the global project of human emancipation by means of pan-religious alliances. Social struggle will transform incrementally and sometimes rapidly the gestalt of the masses as they struggle towards more worldly goals. The disappearance of supernaturalism will happen as a by-product of cultural revolution.
Such cultural transformation will come from within the same social struggles for more freedom as all other emancipatory gains. Under the present social systems the gains are always tenuous and incomplete. As humanity unites to fight for freedom from oppressive authority, literalistic religion will be challenged for its own arbitrary authority. As human beings are complex, emotional creatures the transition from supernatural to natural thought will be uneven and occasionally regressive. The literalism that treats sacred texts as perfect truths will over time be replaced by more critical and revolutionary approaches to religious tradition.
In many ways this is already happening even in societies like the US where religious identification is strongly prevalent. Surveys that go beyond simply asking if one believes in God to asking people to choose from multiple definitions of God find that many people understand theism in ways that are not considered orthodox. 26% of Americans consider God to be an impersonal force rather than a personal being. Roman Catholics have an even higher percentage of impersonal theists, 29%. In a denomination that prides itself on its long history of theological orthodoxy, this finding is quite significant. Religion does not have a fixed for all time meaning, but is evolving with the rest of human civilization. The religion of the future will likely still have Jesus and Buddha as characters within its dramatic narrative, but they won’t be the same Jesus and Buddha as our ancestors.
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions.”
— Karl Marx, Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right
I have a love/hate relationship with religion and layers upon layers of both antipathy and affection for this complex reality. The same thing could be said for the revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary struggle is my primary allegiance; my personal happiness means very little while millions languish under the yokes of the death-systems of capitalism, sexism, racism, authoritarianism, and ecocide (to name only five of the central enemies of all beings on earth.) It seems most urgent to me today that we build alliances with all who are committed to the revolutionary struggle and that emphasizing our common ground is critical. I’m very aware that most people on the far left will disagree with my approach to religion, but it seems to me that the left really has no choice but to rethink how it will work with all potential revolutionaries, the majority of whom are religious — because the majority of humanity is religious.
Recently, SkePoet posted a critique of Bhaskar Sunkara's "Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Socialism." He quotes from Marx's "Critique of the Gotha Program," a text that is often quoted these days as objecting to equality as a socialist value. SkePoet specifically takes aim at Sunkara's invocation of the French Revolutionary slogan, "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity." He chides Sunkara for using the term "equal respect," which he charges is "fundamentally liberal" not socialist.
A recording of a presentation and Q&A I did on the topic of Jesus and Communism.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.
A while ago, I wrote a post listing brief counterarguments to the claims usually used to "disprove" Communism. To this day, it's been one of the most read pieces I've written, so I thought it might be time to expand it a bit. Written below are the most common arguments people use against Communism, and my responses to them.
Communism Has Been "Tried and Failed":
The first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote was the 2000 Gore-Bush contest. On Election Day, my mother called me and said simply, “I wanted to make sure you voted today. Your great-grandmother (born in rural North Louisiana in 1903) took great pride in voting. You do the same.”
My great-grandmother Daisy, made sure that one of her granddaughters came during every Presidential election to take her to vote.
Political theorists call the present two-party system in the USA, the “Fifth Party System.” In this view, since the time our first federal government was formed in 1792 until today, this country has had 5 different configurations of political parties. Today’s “Fifth Party System” is dated from the New Deal in 1933. Prior to the New Deal during the “Fourth Party System” era we had a significant number of minor parties that challenged the Democrats and Republicans, such as the Socialist Party of America, Bull Moose Party, Progressive Party, and so on, who all were decisively marginalized by the multi-term presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.
The Fifth Party System of today needs to be replaced with a new configuration. The current system has given us political regression since the 70s. The “Citizens United” decision of 2010 opened the door to total corruption of the democratic process by enabling unrestricted political contributions by private corporations. This means that alternative viewpoints that include the interests of less economically wealthy have less power than ever before. This is a new level of danger for US politics and its influence on world affairs. As the major parties are now so wholly owned by wealthy corporations, social movements for change have little alternative but to either try to raise huge amounts of money and therefore buy into the problematic system itself, or begin organizing new “third parties” that resist corporate influence. The Green Party US is the most substantial of these efforts in US politics today. A close second place is held by the Libertarian Party, which seeks to end the dependence of corporations on government largesse and eliminate many onerous prohibitions on private moral decisions, like abortion, cannabis use, and same-sex marriage.
Two lesser-known but rising parties are the Constitution and Socialist Parties. The first of these is largely composed of radicals from the Christian Right. The latter is the heir to the Socialist Party of America, formed in 1973 after a split occurred. Most of the SPA leadership of 1973 decided against running electoral campaigns in favor of working within the Democratic Party. It’s no accident that this schism occurred just as the conservative counter-offensive to the 1960s was gaining momentum. Without a substantive third-party challenge from the left, the Democrats have moved consistently to the center, abandoning organized labor, blacks, and women to ever more impotent efforts at legislative reform, most notably in recent times, the Republican-inspired “Affordable Care Act” of 2010, that pales in comparison to the robust national healthcare systems of other industrialized countries.
My bold suggestion is that this configuration of political parties forms the seeds of a“Sixth Party System” of US politics, which will hopefully be a true multi-party system. If these minor parties continue to grow in political strength, as the Greens and Libertarians have done to date, then a showdown is in the making against the existing stalemate between government and corporate influence. Imagine that several key elections, even perhaps the 2016 presidential election, were to result in the following voting results:
Democrats – 49%
Republicans – 47%
Greens – 2%
Socialists – 0.5%
Libertarians – 1%
Constitution – 0.5%
By this count, the “left and center” wins 51.5% of the vote total, the “right and center” wins 48.5%, which isn’t too far off from where the numbers fall today. If this were to happen in any election that had national impact, such as Congress or State Governor, the failure of either major parties to earn a majority would force the existing powers to consider some changes, such as “instant run-off” voting systems, or perhaps even proportional representation.
It should be no surprise to regular readers that I am a member of the SPUSA and offer this analysis as minimal targets that we should strive to achieve. Socialism has risen in popularity as the economic crisis of 2008 continues to wreak havoc upon working people. In Europe, the left is regrouping in movements like Syriza in Greece, and here in the Occupy Wall Street mobilizations. However, OWS in particular fell prey to the main weakness of the US left, no political vehicle to absorb and organize all that insurgent energy. The Greens and the Socialists might have capitalized on OWS, but they failed to do so.
From a socialist perspective, mobilizing an anti-capitalist movement requires a political party or organization. Many socialists operate within the Democratic Party in the hopes of pulling it to the left. However, there has been no leftward movement except in various social movement concerns, such as same-sex marriage. On the two leading crisis points of our time, the destructive character of capitalism and the ecological destruction being advanced by industrial production and fossil-fuel consumption, the Democrats have given the left almost nothing for decades. After all, the left cannot contribute millions of dollars to political candidates.
There was a time when the unions were reliable allies in pulling the Democrats to the left on economic matters. However, the anti-union demobilization since the 70s has shrunk the actual power of organized labor to a shell of its former strength. In order to reverse this direction, a party committed to a progressive labor agenda is necessary. The Labor Party formed by Tony Mazzochi in the 90s was meant to be such an effort, however, his untimely death among other factors doomed that effort to failure. A socialist party could be a critical vehicle for revitalizing labor politics. Instead of simply trying to influence Democratic Party candidates in the direction of labor movement interests in competition with the wealthy corporate donors, a party of the left can create an oppositional pole outside the Democrats. Here, the experience of the Green Party is instructive.
When I presented a thumbnail of my “minor party offensive” strategy in a socialist forum on Facebook it was immediately objected that this concept depended on a strategic alliance with the far right Constitution Party. Such an objection is worth considering. From my perspective we don’t really need the Constitution Party in a multi-party strategy, since the Libertarians have already proven that they can divide the pro-capitalist bloc with some success. However, the Constitution Party does fill a real niche on the far right. Some on the left will object to forming any kind of strategic alliance with even the Libertarians, but the truth is that on some key points, such as same-sex marriage, drug decriminalization, anti-intervention, and other civil liberties, the Libertarians are a useful wedge inside the right.
I offer this proposal as very rough first pass at a new way to conceive third-party strategy. Instead of always worrying about the “spoiler effect” we can lock arms with Greens and Libertarians to fight the right for a real place in the political future of our nation and world.
The whole world is my province until Africa is free. - Marcus Garvey
(This essay originated as a class assignment in comparative politics. It is a polemical response to a 1990 article by Jeffrey Herbst. The class was asked to answer the question, “Is this a good theory?”)
If one adopts a simple distinction between the states of the African and European continents and asks what are the differences between these two regions in political terms, one theory offered has observed that in Europe there are a large number of “strong states” that are effective in taxation, governance, and military readiness. By contrast, in Africa there are a relatively large number of states that are “weak, failing, failed, or collapsed.” With this basic construct in place, Jeffrey Herbst’s 1990 article “War & the State in Africa” offers the following hypothesis:
“War in Europe played an important role in the consolidation many now-developed states: war caused the state to become more efficient in revenue collection; it forced leaders to dramatically improve administrative capabilities; it created a climate and important symbols around which a disparate population could unify. While there is little reason to believe that war would have exactly same domestic effects in Africa today as it did in Europe several centuries ago, it is important ask if developing countries can accomplish in times of peace what war enabled European countries to do. I conclude that they probably cannot because fundamental changes in economic structures and societal beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to bring about when countries are not being disrupted or under severe external threat.
“I conclude that some [African] states will probably be unsuccessful in finding ways of building the state in times of peace and will therefore remain permanently weak. Accordingly, the international community will have to develop non-traditional policies for helping a new brand of states: those that will continue to exist but that will not develop. Other states, perceiving that peace locks them into a permanently weak position, may be tempted to use war as a means of resolving their otherwise intractable problems of state consolidation.”
In sum, a lack of inter-state warfare in Africa has led to weakened development of the political states on that continent. Political science as a discipline is somewhat problematic in this respect, as it attempts to create parsimonious, satisfying, falsifiable, and rich theories of human politics. Human politics is not easily reduced to cause and effect explanations due to the sheer number of causes, that is, human behaviors, and their complexity, such as intention, social conditions, collective agency, etc. that would lead a serious theorist aiming at causal reduction into statistical tesseracts of astronomical proportions, perhaps beyond the complexity of mapping the smallest galaxy. By this token, political science has to content itself usually with approximations, rather than rigorously lawlike theories.
That said, other considerations impact the theory at hand, suggested by a common knowledge of the shared history of Europe and Africa, that of colonial exploitation of Africa by European states. That Herbst does not seem to consider this history strongly (though he acknowledges it) relevant is startling, given the centuries of political struggle within his homeland of the United States against the racial oppression of formerly enslaved persons of African descent. The U.S. economic and political system from well before its founding in 1776 up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was profoundly enmeshed in a racist system of slavery. Similarly, the growth of European political states was enmeshed in the slave trade and an even more direct colonial domination of the continent’s people groups. To put the alternative premise bluntly, perhaps the “strength” of European versus African states was deliberately intended by those European states?
Herbst intends his theory to suggest possible directions that African nations might pursue towards creating stronger states, such as pursuing wars. On the alternative premise, if the formation of strong states in Europe was bound up with the domination of Africa, does this suggest that Africa should now turn north and seek to dominate Europe? Recent clashes within Europe between populations of African immigrants and authorities of those exemplary “strong states” of Europe suggest that warfare is being carried on by other more social means, perhaps? Various radical movements and uprisings in Africa over the centuries suggest that Africans haven’t been as passive in state-building as Herbst implicitly projects, but that they have been outgunned by forces that intentionally prevented their success?
To attempt to remain properly – for a political scientist – theoretical and objective, this domination counter-theory also is subject to the canons of good theory: clarity of concepts, rich explanation, and verifiability. Of course, it is also subject to the persistent problematics of political science earlier mentioned. After all, the scientist is still a human being and treating humanity as a scientific object ultimately turns the clinical eye of science onto the scientist himself. Can such a science be entirely objective, when the very object of study is also in some sense intimately bound up with the observer? As much as a theorist might wish that the histories of Europe and Africa were separable like so many petri dishes in which bacteria grow, cross-contamination is systemic and ineradicable when pursuing the messy business of human politics. Political science is ultimately, also politics by other means.
That said, humans do have the potential to step outside their own embedded social position, and aim at sympathetic and truthful understanding of other societies. Clinical distance from the object of study is not an end in itself, but rather a limited – though necessary and helpful – tool, a step in a much larger process towards concrete truth and potentially effective action. Acting as a scientist is but one aspect of being a full human being. It may be obvious that this short essay is bound up with a moral outrage, a grief and sadness at the conditions of human suffering – in Africa and elsewhere – and the political forces that perpetuate them. Like a medical doctor who has dedicated her life to curing cancer, exploring the ravages of disease with clinical rigor isn’t the endpoint, but rather one necessary moment of a larger battle to gain a strategic clarity in order to achieve a greater good.
Michael Hardt is the co-author of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth, three significant volumes of Autonomist philosophy. He began developing a concept of “political love” a few years ago, and this lecture last year captures some of his best thinking on the topic.