- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Marxism and Spiritualithy

Posted by: Bernard Flapdoodle ( President, Funny Names Society of America ) on December 11, 1999 at 21:36:08:

I don't like to say "I'm a Marxist" because I have an aversion to the grammar "I'm a (anything)." I will say "I'm a Red Sox fan" but that's about as far as I'll take it. Still, I consider Marx and Marxism essential to understanding socially caused pain, so I'd never want to disavow the insights I've gained through reading Marx and Marxist scholars.

At the same time, there are other aspects of life--the intangible, the spiritual--which sit uneasily next to Marxism. Like strangers on an airplane, they steal furtive glances at each other, wondering whether to start a dialogue.

Everyone knows that Marx had a hostility to organized religion. The "opiate of the masses" line is just as famous as Nietzsche's "God is dead," and is indeed an accurate summation of what Marx thought about religion and probably spirituality, as well. In fact, Marx may be spinning in his grave right now that I'm trying to integrate his scientific, historical materialism with something so unscientific, so ahistorical, and so non-material as a spriritual consciousness. But I will try, because spirituality, though not necessary to Marxism, is in my opinion necessary to what Marxism is all about, which is radical politics. I'll take liberties with another one of Marx's quotes here and say that the point is "not to understand the world, but to change it."

But before we the relation between Marxism and relation to spirituality, I should explain my notion as to what keeps people from spiritual consciousness. Basically, it is the Ego, sense of oneself as separate from nature and others. And the Ego must be fed and as such the Ego is Desire. Then, as Buddhist teachings go, Desire is the root of all suffering.

Under capitalism, we are taught to bond ourselves with our Ego--embrace it and feed it with consumerism. Capitalism points the way to salvation as wealth, possessions and social status. Most of the people reading this page know that this is what capitalism does, and they reject it. Most people logging on to this website reject consumerism even as they live surrounded by it, and maybe even give in to it on occasion. To discuss this point any longer would be to belabor the obvious.

Also, just about everyone reading this knows that our Ego--collectively and individually--must link itself with something other than consumption, for this is the pattern which we have had drilled into our heads but we know it is simply not sustainable. The earth will simply not hold up to it.

So, we must identify with that Other, but the question becomes, what is that Other? People have gone down many roads in search of this Other--they've identified themselves with their nations, their religions, their races, their genders, their orthodox behavior, their UNorthodox behavior. They've thrown themselves into toxic relationships, uncontrollable addictions and rabid political affiliations.

Most people realize that we're on the verge of environmental extinction yet Marxism seems irrelevant to this problem which is facing us all. The environmental crisis was only peripheral to Marx and Engels' writings, and indeed it was not Marxism, but radical feminism which exposed the link between science, capitalism, male domination and the ecological crisis. Marx's irrelevance to today's issues appears even greater when we read how Marx stressed time and time again the idea of class consciousness, but we all know what we need is a global consciousness.

Finally, a defendable (but I think crude) analysis of Marx would allow one to put him in the same cycle of consumption that is ruining the planet. That is, Marx thought the workers should get more--a bigger slice of the pie, more salary, more things. That is, the workers should have the same rights of consumption that the bourgeoisie has. A program of LESS consumption all around was never even on Marx's radar screen, but we all know that's what we need, together with a RADICAL change in WHAT we consume and HOW we consume it. (Example, we have to get rid of all these damn cows. We probably have to all become vegetarians. Marx never said that but lots of people know it's true.)

I think most honest people-- who haven't wedded themselves to a belief system like Jesus is going to come again and initiate the Apocalypse--know pretty much that the world isn't ending in a bang but a whimper. There probably won't be a singular moment where the world blows up, but a series of smaller catastrophes which gradually denigrate our lives even as we tap away at our computer keyboards surrounded by all those possessions which were supposed to make us happy. (Or, at least get us sex with young girls, which was then supposed to make us happy.)

The wealth and privilege that we First Worlders enjoy makes us in many ways deprived, but many of us have started to wake up to our own deprivation. For example, we know that it was wrong to think that advances in science and technology would by themselves create a better world. And lots of us know from our use of psychedelic chemicals that there are transcendent, non-ordinary forms of consciousness, which we may be able to attain through natural means such as yoga and meditation. We know that our unprecedented material wealth and freedom (to do, to have) is also accompanied by anxieties, depressions and various mental illnesses. (Significantly, capitalism has provided for us a specious 'personal growth' industry to cure this.)

In short, we know that even with all our consumerism, we're miserable.

Finally, many of the political radicals are beginning to realize that a spiritually uninformed movement will inevitably duplicate (as Marx said the bourgeois family did!) the hierarchical structure, domination and agression of society at large. Without a spiritual element, even the best most well-intentioned political group will disintegrate into factional splits, pretentiousness and self-indulgent anger. If we are to overcome the culture of violence, greed and despair, our revolutionary politics must be animated by peacefulness and love, even if (no--especially when!) the struggle manifests itself in the form of physical confrontation.

To say that all reality is material is in my view a woeful mistake. While I have yet to meet another person who can tell me what my 'soul' IS and what it's doing here, I'm still sure a soul inhabits my physical body and will continue after I die. Not as my sense of my individual, egotistic self (i.e., I won't come back as a cricket and say to myself: "I'm a cricket now but I used to be a communist") but as a bucket of water goes back into the ocean. Many books and articles have been written on synthesizing Marx and Skinner, the father of Behaviorism. Skinner's views on the "empty vessel" (or "tabula rasa"--"blank slate") view of human beings ran so deep that he even said that our capacity for language was a learned skill. Marx said this as well, conflating language acquisition with society. Both Marx and Skinner wrong. All human beings learn language and speak it in creative ways every day. The capacity for language acquisition, therefore, goes beyond what Marx imagined. Speaking a natural aspect of what it means to be human, just like having arms and legs instead of wings and beaks.

It is not much of a leap, therefore, to posit a sense of morality that is equally a natural part of being human. And this sense of morality recoils at the thought of exploiting others for one's own benefit. It says that it is not right that Bill Gate's should have the wealth of several small countries when there are people homeless right outside his office. It says that it is not right that the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined, and uses this military to bomb innocent civilians. It says a lot of things to which we don't have the chance to listen.

We don't have the chance to listen because, if we want to eat and have a home, most of us have to spend 40-60 hours a week in an hierarchical, oppressive and incipiently VIOLENT environment. So, we gradually stop listening to the voice deep within us, and pretty soon we can't even hear it any more. Then we start telling our kids about "how it is in the real world" and by this time we're so caught up in the whole thing--car payments and house payments and alimony payments, and credit card bills and drunk driving tickets--that we don't even remember what it was like to have a conscience.

At this point, we've been bought off. The system has us by the balls, even if we're a woman. And we're damn near through as a revolutionary force. Plus the corporations don't really need us anymore because we're just middle-management and it's our job to make schedules. Or maybe we run a restaurant or a pizza joint. Or maybe we sell photos of people fucking over the Internet.

Or maybe we're somebody "nice." We work in a hospital helping people. We run a charity. We work in a school for "special" kids where we teach them how to make interesting shapes out of macaroni and popsicle sticks.

But the point is we're nowhere near the point of PRODUCTION. That's been moved to Malaysia, Thailand, China. There's almost nothing we can do because, really, the corporations don't need us to do anything except BUY what the wage slaves MADE. What the hell can we do, go on strike?

That's where the class analysis comes in, and is Karl Marx's singular contribution to philosophy. We as First Worlders are quickly becoming simple consumers; it's the people in the Third World who are making everything--our shirts, our toys, even our high-tech equipment. We just have to sit back and buy it like good little consumers.

This is where the spiritual side comes in. Marx was telling the proletariat: "Hey! WAKE UP! Can't you see that you're being ripped off? You make everything for the boss, and he takes it, then pays you a wage, a wage that is only the amount for you to reproduce yourself, so that you can have kids which can work for his kids! Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!"

But in today's capitalism, we have a a situation which Marx did not foresee. In 1999, the proletariat is far removed from the consumers. The proletariat is working for miserable wages producing commodities for consumers are so wrapped up in their bourgeois-inculcated narcissism that they have difficulty recognizing the misery and exploitation that was necessary for creating their Nikes and Big Macs. And they'll never see it until they start listening to that voice within--that spiritual side of themselves--which says that exploitation is wrong, slavery is wrong, oppression is wrong.

Marx expresses this very idea in "The Communist Manifesto", and in doing so spoke an eternal truth which resonates with the better part of all our natures. Still, however eloquent he was, Marx was nonetheless a product of the times in which he lived and wrote. Marx, a product of the 19th century, could not have foreseen the vast changes that took place. For one example, he did not foresee how capitalism could transform itself so as to provide for its own survival (Roosevelt's New Deal, Johnson's Great Society).

Anyone looking for a liberating social theory will transcend Marxism while at the same time preserve his invaluable insights and most humane, progressive goals.

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