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Joe Bord © 2004


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Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to get this notion out of their heads, say by avowing it to be a superstitious, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful consequences all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. [1]

The parable is not, of course directed simply at religion, but rather at the notion that a struggle of ideas divorced from the empirical realm of history has any significance. The new prophets merely mirror the old, and any amount of (anti-) theological verbiage underlines the futility of ‘revolutionary’ philosophy. Despite the decomposition of mature Marxism, at least one of its great revisions remains intact: namely, that Romantic anticlericalism has little to offer a socialist critique. Leftists might bear this in mind while (let us be frank) enjoying the misconceived belting of religious and homiletic discourse.[2]

There is no a priori reason why morals and religion need be spoken about in the same breath; but then there are very few a priori reasons for anything. In practice, moral polemic - as distinct from bloodless ethical systematisation - is shot through with religious reference. George Steiner puts it rather well: God is the old rag or ghost in the attic, a ‘phantom of grammar’ persisting in unconsidered turns of phrase and allusion, rather like the pre-Copernican figures of ‘sunrise’ and sunset’.[3] In fact the apparition now hovers in plain daylight. As our own dear Prime Minister explains, the war of liberty against insurgency is a struggle for ‘salvation’ against partisans who ‘have faith in our weakness just as they have faith in their own religious fanaticism’. [4] This kind of stylised depiction plays off the sinister horde and its stereotyped war cries: There is No God but God, and America is His Enemy.[5]

Post-war socialist theory has laboriously come to terms with nationalism, but has dismally failed to address religious and sacral-moral beliefs and more importantly their mass mobilisation.[6] This is not to say that we do not possess the building blocks for an analysis. In a few, compressed pages Fredric Jameson points to the ‘simulated’ relationship between religious revivalism and its sacred past.[7] Scriptural literalism and obeisance to a renovated conception of tradition constitute ‘the denial of any fundamental social or cultural difference between postmodern subjects of late capitalism and the Middle-Eastern subjects of the early Roman Empire.’[8] The differentiation of modernity collapses, and we are immediately juxtaposed with the prophets. In this context, the distaste for the ‘creeping Jesus’ has left the Left dangerously unarmed. We have let our enemies monopolise the bandwidth of moral and religious language. We have nothing to say to these colonisers except to tell them, to our own satisfaction, that each is like “Saint George” (the good doctor from Holstein), ‘a spiritualistic charlatan, a pious fraud, a mystical old fox’.[9] This marks a return to the obsolete rhetoric of depth that Jameson has identified as the modernist conceit now bypassed by postmodern fundamentalism. It is therefore tactically futile. In chasing charlatans we have committed ourselves to a self-denying ordinance of irony, satire and the exposure of interest. Irony might help us catch rabbits like the Archbishop of Canterbury (‘beseeching us to speak to God as we wend our way through the market’),[10] but this register has little force against George W. Bush’s pursuit of ‘evildoers’. Bush and Bin Laden are both fundamentalists in Jameson’s precise sense – they inhabit an immediate continuity between contemporary time and scriptural time. Satirical disclosure can have some effect in subverting the hypocrisy of elements that ostensibly share some of the goals of the Left, for example, humanitarian centrists and New Labourite imperialists, but it has little to say to Neoconservatives and Islamists who in the main do not subscribe to our criteria of right. Furthermore, these movements appeal to a language of the gut that the secular Left, at any rate, has renounced. The task is to explore ways in which we might begin to retrieve the moral (and by contingent association, the religious) terrain on acceptable terms.

The Curse of the Jellyfish

The Left has a neuralgic aversion to the discourse of evil, even while it attempts to combat the terrible global ills inflicted by corporate capital, militarism, landlordism and other perversions of human power. Evil has become the metaphysical property of reaction: defined as an amoebic ontology rather than a series of historical practices. Evil operates as the negation of social explanation: a vulgar jellyfish substance to be invoked in order to end debate. By avoiding the subject, the Left has tacitly conceded this definition in public discussion.

Yet communism has long possessed an eminently sensible (in both connotations of the word) characterisation of an indispensable condition of evil - namely, the deprivation of human needs. Given that needs may be deprived by natural adversity, which, while harmful, cannot properly be described as ‘evil’, a second necessary condition is required – the human exploitation, or derivation of benefit, from the deprivation of needs. While such exploitation is often conscious in intent (‘wicked’, or malicious) it need not be so. The Marxist insight is that significant exploitation is not conspiratorial but systemic, historically relative, and often carried out by well-meaning executors.

Evil, or the exploitation of deprivation, habitually produces suffering and under these circumstances can be described in terms of cruelty. Not all objective evils are cruel in this sense. Well-paid professionals are always exploited through the expropriation of their labour-time but in most essential respects are pretty comfortable. Their exploitation figures some way down the list of moral and political priorities because we should measure evils according to the intensity of cruelty involved. Justice might be indivisible, but evil is not. Injustice matters morally because of its evil character, and therefore injustices can be ranked according to the intensity of cruelty (by suffering) incurred. It would certainly be wicked for a boss to exult in the exploitation of his accountants, but the socialist is more concerned about the earnest pharmaceutical executive – and more to the point his indifferent company board superiors – who enact or preside over the lethal drugs monopoly racket. Both cases are unjust: the former case might be wicked, but the latter is the greater evil. Of course there are instances revolting to the moral imagination where intentional wickedness and great objective evil coincide. One thinks of the repellent scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 where President George W. Bush addresses his rich backers as his ‘base’ and all laugh heartily. Most evil situations are compounded. For example the whole of American corporate government was implicated in the evil prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, but the degree and quality of wickedness varied with the perpetrators. One part of the capitalist system is as an unjust as any other, but practical politics is mobilised to address manifest cruelties.

The Centrality of Suffering

Marx very famously wrote that ‘Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’[11] The critique of religion is therefore an indirect call to cast off the real conditions of oppression. Its blandishment is a pragmatic matter of socialist strategy, a point well understood by Lenin who insisted on the subordination of anticlericalism to the broader social struggle.[12] In the current situation, the mobilisation of religious modes of expression (in the context of the exhaustion of much traditional leftist diction) could very well act as a stimulant. We might, for example, find creative ways of addressing the crucifixion of Christ or the Shia martyrdom of Ali. While Mel Gibson has momentarily cornered the market in The Passion, it cannot be beyond the wit of radical directors to evoke some of the central dramas of Islam, especially as American troops tread over the sacred shrines.

Yet there is another sort of shift to be considered, beyond the purely cynical or instrumental use of specific myths: namely, the forging of resonant ways to talk about suffering. The remnants of the secular left have lost the faculty of religious speech: we have little access to the universe of religious expression and an ungainly (because embarrassed, unversed) proficiency in the language of morals. This has arisen from the desire to avoid at least three forms of reactionary attack. The first is as old as Edmund Burke: the notion that radicals love humanity but hate human beings. This kind of conservatism contrasts grand abstractions with the ‘real’, unsystematic emotional life of deferential individuals. The second form of attack is the neat polemical trick that equates socialism with religion. This subversive rhetorical move is based on certain historical organisational and psychological parallels. Trotskyist cults, Stalinist inquisitions and a nebulous ‘total’ form of ideology have been invoked to produce the tired charge that socialism is the god that failed.[13] Yet this polemic has only had purchase because of the plain atheism professed by the bulk of the left over the course of the twentieth century. If the pseudo-theological accusation was misleading as a category of analysis fifty years ago, it is surely redundant now after the foundering of supposedly churchlike institutions of party and state. The third kind of attack is the relativist inflexion of contemporary postmodernism. General moral propositions uttered by the left are predictably painted as totalising and coercive manoeuvres.[14]

Each of these three forms of attack has been calculated to close off the avenue of radical moral speech. They are reactionary devices, and by and large they have succeeded. Sheer embarrassment and irritation – more so than atheism – would now render unthinkable the following sort of radical denunciation:

Why may we not suppose, that the great Father of all is pleased with variety of devotion; and that the greatest offence we can act, is that by which we seek to torment and render each other miserable. For my own part, I am fully satisfied that what I am now doing, with an endeavour to conciliate mankind, to render their condition happy, to unite nations that have hitherto been enemies, and to extirpate the horrid practice of war, and break the chains of slavery and oppression, is acceptable in his sight, and being the best service I can perform, I act it cheerfully.[15]

We do not necessarily have to be Enlightened Deists (in this example) to adapt and use the treasure-store of vocabulary and concepts they have left us. But to speak convincingly we do have to engage with the tradition. Chains of slavery still strangle the developing world, and every current news bulletin drums the gallops of the horsemen of war. There is a rich reservoir of ideas at the head of every religious and moral stream. Two broad modes of engagement might be considered.

The first is frank cooperation. Socialists need to start attending congregations: finding creative ways to come to terms with religious languages and practices, and working to mobilise ecclesial structures to combat evil as the left understands it. Those who find traditional forms truly incomprehensible should head for more liberal and open territory. Unitarian and reformed denominations might be a good place to start. Sadly, the seekers after alternative therapies and neo-mysticism are rather difficult to organise.

The second approach is to revisit (or perhaps to construct afresh) specifically socialist, radical or secular-humanist religious practices. The left has not really been a faith, but it should become one without remorse and without apology. Auguste Comte has the last laugh after all: socialism needs the ‘Religion of Humanity’. With a little artistry it should not be necessary to dance around the maypoles of the cult of reason. We might begin with charitable camaraderies that go out and attempt to tackle social problems face-to-face. Churches have been working with the homeless and other sufferers for years. The point is to use such efforts as a stepping-stone towards political mobilisation, rather than a substitution for it. Moral visions have to be demonstrated as well as argued. That this is eminently possible is illustrated by the world debt and living wage campaigns (the latter is an outstanding domestic example of communal and trade union activity transposing to administrative action).

Socialism may not have much of a future as a formal party mechanism, but it might be reborn as a moral and religious movement. One might go so far as to say that its utility in political mobilisation ultimately depends on this sort of evolution. As bureaucratic organisations decline in post-industrialised societies, democratic politics will become more and more the concert of socio-moral coalitions. As usual, the right has instinctively understood this sooner and better. In Britain, the virtual moralism of the mid-market tabloids roughly parallels the American influence of the evangelical sects. We have neither a left-moral press nor a prominent radical church. It’s time that we sought to get them.

[1] K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology [1845] (New York: Prometheus, 1998), p.30
[2] For a recent example of knockabout anticlericalism see P. Reidy, ‘People’s opium: the drug doesn’t work’, Tribune, 3 September 2004. Compare E. Press, ‘Closing the ‘Religion Gap’, The Nation, 30 August – 6 September 2004.
[3] G. Steiner, Real Presences: Is there anything in what we say? (London and Boston: Faber, 1989), p.3
[4] T. Blair, ‘Why we must never abandon this historic struggle in Iraq’, The Observer, 11 April 2004
[5] For the fascination of the British press with this and related slogans, see A. Philps, ’13 Iraqis die as US troops fire into crowd’, The Daily Telegraph, 30 April 2003; R. McCarthy, ‘US soldier killed in Iraq grenade attack’, The Guardian, 20 June 2003; S. Ramadi, ‘Patriots and Invaders’, The Guardian, 27 September 2003.
[6] For example M. Hardt and A. Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001) ignores the topic. [7] F. Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991), pp. 386-391
[8] ibid. p.390
[9] ‘Doctor Georg Kuhlmann of Holstein or The Prophecies of True Socialism’, The German Ideology, p.560.
[10] S. Watkins, ‘A Weightless Hegemony: New Labour’ Role in the Neoliberal Order’, New Left Review, 2nd ser., 25 (January-February 2004), 29.
[11] K. Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’ [1843-4] in Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1992), p.244
[12] V.I. Lenin, ‘Socialism and Religion’ [1905], ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party Towards Religion’ [1909] and ‘The Attitude of Classes and Parties Towards Religion and the Church’ [1909] in On Socialist Ideology and Culture (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House), pp.65-94, 76.
[13] For a succinct survey and debunking of this myth, see Jacob Stevens, ‘Exorcizing the Manifesto’, New Left Review, 2nd. ser., 28 (July-August 2004), 151-160
[14] This theme has been ventilated at length by Terry Eagleton. See his Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1996) and The Idea of Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000)
[15] T. Paine, ‘Rights of Man’ [1792] in Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings ed. M. Philp (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.324.




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