The Religious Content of Communism

Written by Jonathan Moss

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Contrary to the myth of “scientific socialism”, communism is an essentially religious movement. This is not meant in the sense that communists are religious, or that communism follows a religion, though obviously there are dialectical parallels with Christianity, which will be explored in this essay, and dissolved. This is also not meant to suggest that communism replaces religion in the communists life, though once again this can be true. No, what this means is that communism is itself a religion, and the completion of communism is a religious act. This is why the statement “communism is the real movement that abolishes the present state of things” is not nihilistic, as I have seen it crudely described as, rather this statement is a statement of the divine, analogous to how death in Christianity leads to heaven. Or hell.

This is not to deny that communism is traditionally seen as an atheistic movement. Certainly Marx, in which communism finds its materialist basis, posited it as an atheistic movement, saying “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo”, meaning of course that the critique of religion is senseless without the critique and sublation of capitalism into communism, that religion serves a numbing roll as the “opium” of the people who are alienated by capitalism. This helps us to see how communism itself can be understood as a religion, if christianity is a passive one with a revolutionary past then communism is an active one with a revolutionary future. This statement is a tad undialectical of course, as Christianity is still capable of revolution, as shown by liberation theology, and communism has a revolutionary past as well, and one of failure. So, the truth content of the statement is muddled, but it is catchy.  

Christianity is founded on an idealist basis. God created the universe and the universe cannot exist without him. This is in contrast to the materialist basis fo Marxism. However, Marxism has never been materialist in the way the term it has been traditionally understood, it says nothing on what the universe is made out of, that is not our concern. Instead, the materialism of Marxism is used to dialectically explore the workings of history, and has since been applied to other things, including, in an attempt to render Marxism positivist, nature, as done by Friedrich Engels. This materialism owes far more to idealism than anything positivistic, and, outside of particularly dogmatic orthodox marxists, most will admit that Marxian Materialism does exist in a dialectic with idealism, otherwise it is unlikely Marx would have said anything like: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. So, it is in this dialectic in which communism can be further understood religiously, in which it meets with Christianity as a materialistic version of it, sharing to make the utopia of Christianity a reality, and root the morality of Christianity in a fluid and fractured human nature, rather than one which suggests anything like original sin. The abstraction of heaven is made concrete in history, for it the the in economic laws and the agency of the proletariat in history that will result in communism.

Christianity is dogmatic, and Marxism, with its dialectical basis, is not. Whilst of course many Marxists have became dogmatic, Marxism is itself simply dialectical materialism, it is exploratory and enquiring. I can’t put it better than Georg Lukacs, who said: “orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders.” So, Marxism has no ten commandments, and it has no God. Marx of course has been shown to have got things wrong, and Engels, though important and his legacy secure, did Marxism a disservice in his positivism.

To go back to a previous train of thought, just like materialism and idealism have to fundamentally be understood as a dialectic so can christianity and atheism be understood likewise. Indeed a pure atheism negates too much, it is a destructive positivism. Christianity is built on the the most probably false premise of a God, but this does not mean that the faith of Christianity cannot be seen as inspiring, and Jesus Christ as an admirable figure. The extent to which religion will be needed during communism- if indeed communism is reached- is debatable, but right now it serves something of a positive force and as Marx pointed out cannot be abolished until the conditions that make it necessary are. Atheism negates the central truth of Christianity, but this truth is sublated in Christian morality and Christ himself, in turn negating the bourgeoisie scientism of atheism, and while marxism and christianity are generally in contradiction, their positive elements continue to mediate and negate each other in the promise of communism, and until communism is completed this process will go on.

It must be said though, it is quite hard to believe in communism currently. Almost as hard as it is to believe in christianity. Certainly the communism of the 20th century, though not nearly as deserving as the scorn its had thrown at it by anti-communists, did ultimately end up in failure. Communism was not built, at the most a feeble socialism was created. This is entirely due to the failure of world revolution, which is integral to the success of communism, an internationalist movement. And now, in an age where capitalism is showing its failures at a rapid rate, and people still see social democracy as too left wing, the advent of communism seems unlikely. Simply put, the totality of capitalism has succeeded in its reification, in its rationalisation of everything. The administered world is a hard world to put up with, but it is one many people have accepted, scowling at the idea that anything else is possible, not realising the conditions that have created it, not realising that the world was once different and can be so again, thinking it is a natural world and not a created one. The concept of reification itself has religious parallels, for Christianity also points out that this world is not the world as it is. In response to this, nihilism does seem healthy, but a materialist nihilism. Life does not need to be meaningless, but capitalism has rendered it so. But, in an attempt to take something positive, to add idealism to the nihilism, some remnants of the Christian faith are preserved, its morality, the piety, and penance. This is what I have taken to calling Christian Nihilism, a dialectical joke whilst also being the most accurate description of any genuine religious view under capitalism.

Communism definitely remains the goal though, and if this goal is conceived religiously rather than “scientifically” the Kierkegaardian idea of the leap of faith can be introduced. This is not to say there aren’t concrete reasons to believe in the possibility of communism, the material basis is certainly there, and capitalism is degenerating to the point that it certainly will not continue within our century. But the proletariat has been made thoroughly jaded as to the possibility of communism, as elaborated in the last paragraph. However, to elaborate further, it can be said that one of the biggest achievements of capitalism has been to build itself on a revolution and subsequently convince people that revolution is futile. So, although the objective conditions for communism are there, the subjective conditions are not. One must take the leap of faith, believe that the objective conditions will eventually inspire the subjective realisation of the objective, to believe in spite of it all, that communism will prevail. This is a metaphysical view, but not one without a materialist basis, as demonstrated previously in the paragraph. It can once again be understood as the dialectic that unites idealism and materialism, as without this dialectic both are vulgar.

This is how communism can be understood religiously. I am of course not the first person to think of socialism in this way, a kindred spirit was found in Joseph Dietzgen in his essay “The Religion of Social-Democracy”. This essay was conceived before reading Dietzgen and his discovery made me rather downcast initially, however, the differences soon became clear. Like Marx, Dietzgen was not able to free himself from positivism, and this leads him to adopt a crude anti-religious viewpoint, wherein socialism is undialectically conceived as a replacement for religion, based on the astute observation that humans need a system. This is contrasted with this essay, which is an attempt to show that christianity and communism are essentially one and the same, in a dialectic of idealism and materialism. Nonetheless, Dietzgen’s essay is a masterpiece of socialist theory and the way my own work developed would not be possible without a close reading of it.

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