- Capitalism and Alternatives -

On religion and political triumphalism

Posted by: Samuel Day Fassbinder ( Citizens for Mustard Greens, USA ) on January 18, 19100 at 10:20:49:

In Reply to: What GG had to say about THAT one posted by Nikhil Jaikumar on January 17, 19100 at 15:29:44:

Yeah, sure, it often fails to be understood that Marx recognized and respected the role of religion as the coping mechanism of a particular type of society, corresponding to a particular anthropological place of a particular historical time. This should be heeded as part of a general tolerance one should have for all religions, connected perhaps to the ethnographer's tolerance for all of humanity which he or she studies. Understanding always comes first, criticism later. However, the critical part of this quote:

The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Thus religious behavior actually serves the diverse and monumental cultural purposes which Marx ascribed to it, but the struggle to change society actually changes society, a task of a different magnitude. The key here is in deciding whether or not changing society, in any real sense, is in fact possible, and when and how is it possible. Concern with the historical status of the struggle for a better, i.e. communist, world underlies my continual emphasis upon the problem of Christianity the Socialist Remix, but a lot of that is useful to its believers only because it comes close to the idea of "utopian dreaming" that figures strongly in Paulo Freire's pedagogy, as a connecting concept between "conscientization," critical self-awareness, and the struggle for a better world itself. See especially Lark's promising quote of Matthew 25:31-46 in the above link.

The downside, though, is that religious criticism of capitalism is really an appeal to a precapitalist critique of the system, a critique which, despite its claim to objective validity, is losing its social force as more and more people are becoming integrated into global capitalism (see the above link's quote of Craig Calhoun's The Question of Class Struggle for an analysis of precapitalist objection to capitalism). Lark's notion that "The system of profiteering and interest and loans is not condoned in the bible (Exodus 22:25, Duet 23:19, Leviticus 25:35-38)" strongly recalls Michael Taussig's analysis of capitalism in The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, where, as he points out, profiteering has been associated with the Devil since Aristotle, and where, as he also points out, the Colombian locals he studies actually WORSHIP the Devil in order to increase production on the factory farms where they work. So, needless to say, the Bible's prohibition on greed "didn't work," because people had cultural reasons for "worshipping the devil" anyway, and/or were able to convince themselves that such a "devil" as capitalism was actually "God" to them.

One's commitment to triumphalist politics can also be made into a religious fetish, too. We can insist all we want that there be 'ACTION to BACK UP the talk' all we want (while exhibiting some vague claim to 'agitation'), and we can rave all we want about the need for violent revolution, but if our assessment of revolutionary potential merely dwells upon how bad things are in ONE COUNTRY while assuming that "naturally" people will revolt if things are bad, then we haven't met the challenge of Craig Calhoun's questions about revolutionary mobilization, and our project is not really "scientific socialism," regardless of how many times we accuse others of not being socialists. In short, if we scream "revolution" over and over again in an environment that won't make it happen, where we really DON'T have the power to overthrow capitalism, how is this any different than if we are religious devotees chanting a mantram? In short, how much better than religion is our communism? If our socialism is not scientific, how is our promotion of revolution any different from the promotion of the Second Coming? Accusing others of "defeatism" won't make this problem go away, and endless debate about how "my utopia is better than yours" will push backward the moment of revolutionary mobilization, not bring it forward.

Are we then any more efficacious than those 'liberals with picket signs' that we accuse others of being? I am reminded of that part of Dante Germino's Antonio Gramsci: Architect of a New Politics where the author interviews Giovanni Lay, who "as a very young man had taken part in many of the conversations initiated by Gramsci in the courtyard during the common exercise hour:

The discussions concerned the Comintern's reversal of its analysis of fascism in 1928-1929, when it abandoned the "united front" and predicted the imminent collapse of the capitalist order, to be superseded immediately by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

According to Lay, Gramsci expressed his opposition ot the Comintern's new line. He was disturbed that the party would urge its members to take serious risks against the Fascist regime on the supposition that fascism was in its death throes and therefore their imprisonment would be short. To Gramsci the height of irresponsibility was to beat one's head against the wall, because "it is one's head that breaks the wall."

So what is the point of demanding that everyone line up around one's own idea of the revolution without a clear path to the revolution of one's idea?

My objection to triumphalist politics also applies to religion. Why believe in something and act on one's belief, if such belief does not conform to the solid ground of empirical realism?

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