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Is Marxism a "Religion"? November 29, 2004 by RedStar2000


Now and then, one runs into what might be called the "atheist critique of Marxism" -- the proposition that Marxism is, or at least "acts like" a "religion".

I started this thread at the Ex-Christian Net forums to see if I could "flush out" some defenders of that "critique" into the open and confront their objections directly.

But, for the most part, they didn't want to argue with me.

I wonder why.


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Is Marxism a "Religion"?

The superstitious often claim that it is. Some anarchists have also said so. Perhaps most irritating are statements by atheists to the same effect...they, one would think, should know better.

Since everyone knows that Marx's theories are completely materialist and have no use whatsoever for the supernatural or the "spiritual", the claims that Marxism is a "religion" must rest on observed similarities...it is said that "Marxists" act "as if" they were "followers" of a "secular religion".

This is a "real world claim" -- we can actually look at those who are Marxists or at least claim that distinction and decide if they behave in the manner of religious leaders and/or followers.

For example, we could look at both the writings and the political behavior of Marx and Engels themselves.

It's interesting that neither of those guys ever articulated the sense that they were constructing a "closed system" of ideas -- although there were quite a few 19th century "social reformers" who did try to create such systems and, indeed, boasted of their "successes". The intellectual ideal of a "perfect system" that would "explain everything" was very much "in the air" at that time as religious systems were clearly becoming intellectually disreputable.

But there was also a competing idea "in the air" -- that of science. Careful observation of the real world was the true "key" to understanding.

Marx and Engels claimed that this was their chosen path...that their theories were constructed according to social phenomena that could be observed by any interested person.

Now whether they achieved this is, obviously, controversial. But I don't think that anyone could seriously argue that they were "not" trying to develop a scientific analysis of human social history.

Their analysis pointed in a particular direction -- if one understands, in a broad sense, that the direction of human history is "towards greater emancipation", then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that one should join in the struggle to make that happen in one's own interests. Marx and Engels did so.

If slave-owners and aristocrats can be eliminated from human society, why not go "all the way" and eliminate the despots of capital as well?

And here, I'm afraid, is where the facile comparisons to religion begin to be made. What's the difference between a struggle against capitalism and for communism and a "struggle" with the "devil" and for "the kingdom of God on earth"? Aside from the fact that the "devil" and "God" don't exist, doesn't it "otherwise" look about the "same"?

Actually, no, it doesn't. It's very short-sighted to say that "a struggle is a struggle is a struggle" and then close the book.

The godsuckers say that their particular religion will be victorious because of "divine intervention" on their behalf. They believe that mere human effort will never be sufficient to defeat the "devil".

But Marx said that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves". Neither "god" nor even the "forces of history" will do it "for us".

The reliance on conscious human agents to generate social change is something completely different from both the deeply-rooted passivity of most believers -- "it's in God's Hands" -- and the hysterical persecution of the "heathen" characteristic of the fundamentalist.

To take a rather sharp example, if Stalin's "Marxism" was "religious", then the fall of Berlin to the Red Army would have been followed by the massacre of all Germans -- for the Russians could not know who was a Nazi and who was not.

As a victorious Christian general said on a similar occasion: "Kill them all! God will know His own!"

When your world-view is entirely secular, then you can't "kill them all" and let "God" sort it out. You know that some of them are "on your side"...and you will need their help.

However, since I mentioned Stalin, let's talk a little about 20th century "Marxism"...since it was in the last century that the "religious" image of Marxism became wide-spread.

It's my rather controversial opinion that Lenin's variant of Marxism was...not really very "Marxist" at all. It used the terminology and some of the concepts...but it also added a great deal that was, shall I say, pretty dubious.

In this context, the most erroneous "addition" by Lenin was that of a "vanguard party" that would "lead the proletarian revolution" and afterwards govern "in the name of the working class". There's nothing in Marx or Engels to support this innovation at all...and some passing remarks that strongly suggest they would have opposed Lenin's idea.

Marx and Engels "On Leninism"

One of the predictable "side-effects" of Lenin's paradigm was the re-emergence of the idea of the "great leader"...who, naturally, was not satisfied with merely being premier or party chief but also aspired to the title "greatest living authority on Marxism".

Thus both Stalin and Mao eventually became "popes" (Trotsky was an "anti-pope"). The writings of Marx and Engels became "holy books" that were ritually invoked on ceremonial occasions and otherwise largely ignored. The clarity of the language of Marx and Engels was replaced by "Comintern-speak" -- a quasi-theological and almost impenetrable language in which things were asserted and "proven" by quotations (no matter how irrelevant).

I'm afraid it must be admitted that even many of the Marxist critics of Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, et.al. fell into the same swamp -- Marxism may not have been "religious" but it was certainly dogmatic enough to qualify.

There are obvious material and psychological reasons for this "set-back", of course. Russia and China were poor countries with long traditions of despotism. The prestige of the Russian and, later, the Chinese revolutions covered a "multitude of sins". Many millions of people around the world hoped that those events were the prelude to world revolution...and even when their own common sense rebelled against the latest nonsense from Moscow or Peking, still "hoped" that things would work out for the best "in the end".

That never happens, of course. Once an idea, no matter how good, becomes a dogma, then you're "in the shit" and things will always work out badly.

The collapse of 20th century Leninism has "cleared the way" for the possible re-emergence of Marxism as a science. What would have to happen is that those who think, in a fundamental sense, that Marx "got it right" would also have to critically analyze Marx himself and re-think the whole struggle for communism.

Indeed, that very act "sinks the boat" for those who believe that Marxism is a "religion".

"Liberal" Christians (Muslims, Jews, etc.) "cherry-pick" from their "holy books"...they pull out the "good stuff" that they think people will like now and pretend that all the rest (the really disgusting stuff) doesn't exist.

But a real Marxist -- in the sense that Marx was a real Marxist -- does not hesitate to criticize Marx himself from a Marxist perspective.

He was a brilliant human -- not a god or even a prophet -- and he made mistakes, some of them serious.

To pretend otherwise would be theological...and very un-Marxist indeed.
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First posted at Ex-Christian Net on November 24, 2004
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quote:

I, personally, think socialism isn't capable to handle the natural egoistic nature of humans.


That's a different kind of argument, as you noted. Perhaps we need a different thread to properly discuss it.

But note that in, say, the 13th century, it was thought by everyone that "human nature" required a belief in "god" -- your belief might be the "true faith", all right, but every human had to believe.

quote:

Too few people question their belief system, whether it be conservative, liberal, marxist, or fascist, or moderate for that matter. Is it a matter of place, time, opportunism, dumb luck that lead people to subscribe to the indoctrinations they believe in?


How do we draw the line between a "belief system" and knowledge about the real world and how it works?

For example, is "Darwinism" a "belief system" or a paradigm -- a framework for ordering accumulated knowledge about how living species originate and evolve?

It seems to me that "belief systems" exist independently of real world evidence that can be verified (at least in principle) by anyone willing to seriously study the matter.

Of course, evidence can be faked -- bodies can be removed from tombs, for example.

But fakery has its limits -- sooner or later, "belief systems" run up against real evidence that simply can't be refuted. Even before Darwin, the Christian creation myth was in serious difficulty because of the growing geological evidence that the earth was much older than is suggested in Genesis.

The same thing is true even in philosophy. Hegel used "dialectics" to "prove" that the "highest form of democracy" was manifested in the despotic king of Prussia...provoking contempt in France and derision in England.

It doesn't matter what you conclude philosophically if it turns out to be useless in explaining or changing the real world.

I agree that which "belief system" one might entertain in one's youth is almost entirely a matter of chance and circumstance...and for many and even most people, there's little point in changing it in their maturity unless it does run into real world difficulties.

A scientific paradigm can also run into real world difficulties -- things which it should be able to explain or accomplish and yet fails to do so.

In fact, that's my summary critique of the Leninist variant of Marxism -- it just flat out didn't work, either in the socialist (not communist) countries or among Leninist parties (all varieties) in the advanced capitalist countries.

It "looked like" it was working for a while...as late as the 1960s and 70s, its future looked very promising. But we all know what happened after that.

Some indeed argue that it was "a failure of Marxism itself". But I think we should be suspicious of such an argument because it is so obviously based on self-interest; the despots of capital and their ideologues have a very strong interest in putting finis to the idea that human society could permanently dispense with their "services".

But even if, for the sake of argument, we were to say "Marxism is finished", then what?

Accept things "as they are"? Cultivate an attitude of dutiful obedience to our masters? Beg for charity?

You see, if you find the world "as it is" to be acceptable to you, then, I agree, Marxism is superfluous. You don't want to change the world...thus you have no need for any paradigm that shows any promise in that regard.

But if you do think the world needs changing, then at least for the time being, Marxism is "the only game in town" -- regardless of its difficulties.

quote:

A serious examination of the weaknesses of Marxism, both theoretical and practical. A look at marxism made reality, and the reasons behind its failures and successes.


I have done so on many occasions...and so have others. For example...

Does Capitalism "Self-Destruct"? A Problem in Marxist Economics

quote:

It's a step in the right direction, but what about from a non-Marxist perspective?...It's more intellectually honest to hear the criticism coming from another camp, if it's true criticism and not just propaganda.


Catch 22! Of what merit is a creationist critique of Darwinism? Darwin (like Marx) made mistakes...but his creationist opponents in his own lifetime and today are just completely "off the wall".

There have been tons of critiques of Marx written from various anti-Marxist perspectives (capitalist, fascist, anarchist, religious, etc.). As far as I've ever been able to tell, all of them are based on unsubstantiated assertions.

Capitalist -- "the accumulation of wealth is at the core of human nature".

Fascist -- "the will to power and rule over one's inferiors is at the core of human nature".

Anarchist -- "altruism and co-operation is at the core of human nature".

Religious -- "a relationship with god is at the core of human nature".

From a Marxist perspective, "human nature" is demonstrably social -- we are what we are because of how we live with other humans.

And the way that humans live with each other is fundamentally determined by material conditions.

Suppose someone came up with a new non-Marxist paradigm? One that explained social reality and human societies better than Marxism. And one that proved far more useful in the drive towards greater emancipation of the human species.

Then you'd have something...and not only would I "consider" it, I'd embrace it and use it.

It's possible in principle...but it hasn't happened yet.

quote:

Is Marxism science? No, It's philosophy, and very theoretical at that. It becomes very religion-like when applied to the masses, and the only way to get the masses in line is indoctrination and propaganda.


I presume you speak here of the Leninist despotisms and their associated dogmas.

No sensible person, Marxist or non-Markist, would want to live in those societies or advocates reviving them.

Ruling classes (including Leninist ones) must indeed resort to such tools because they are a small minority of the total population. If such tools were not used (along with police, prisons, armies), then who would obey them?

But Marx himself thought that the "masses" were competent to rule themselves...indoctrination and propaganda directed "at them" to "keep them in line" would be superfluous.

This, by the way, may be the most fundamentally controversial of all of Marx's hypotheses: the masses are competent to rule themselves.

The Leninists rejected this hypothesis, as have nearly all philosophers and all theologians. It's an idea that runs counter to pretty much everything we've been telling ourselves for all of recorded history.

Only for a brief historical period -- a few decades in the old Athenian republic -- was this idea even partially entertained.

And today, let's face it, many people find it frightening.

They hope, very much, that Marx was really wrong about this one.

We shall see.
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First posted at Ex-Christian Net on November 25, 2004
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quote:

Whereas Marxism does not believe in a greater being, it does believe in something greater than mere mankind (the State)...


No, that's simply wrong...in Marx's outlook, the state was simply an organ of class rule and no more "greater than mere mankind" than any other social "tool".

It was Hegel who elevated the state to "god-like" status and 20th century Leninism owed as much to Hegel (if not more!) than to Marx.

quote:

Although Marx and Engels did not mean to create a religion, for all intents and purposes they did.


I think any "large-scale" explanation of human history is vulnerable to being turned into a dogma (if not "a religion")...particularly one that invites conscious human participation in "making history".

Those are the breaks. Eventually the dogmas are overthrown and whatever was sound in the original is liberated for fresh investigation.

quote:

They were also wrong on their observations of the historical evolution of human political systems. Many of the studies of stone age, bronze age, and early iron age cultures had not be done at the time of their studies. Every stage of human development has similarities. Every culture has exploited some class and has in turn been exploited by some other group. It is not a matter of political evolution but instead of the availability of resources. Man in the singular is greedy and wants as much as he can get, consequently the strong (whether an individual or group) will enforce their will upon the weaker. This has happened from the stone age to [the] present...


This is the more or less boilerplate response of capitalist ideologues to Marxism -- it doesn't argue that Marx and Engels did not try to investigate social reality in a scientific way, it just says they were really lousy at it.

This view has been refuted on numerous occasions of course...but I'm not sure that this particular thread is the appropriate place to do so. I was rather hoping to confront directly the opinions of those who think that "Marxism is a religion".

But if you really want to go off on this tangent, naturally I will accomodate you.

quote:

By this we can see that Marxism has the other piece necessary for a religion -- faith. You have to have faith that the system will work and the willingness to force the unwilling to conform. In what way is that different from religion?


The story is told that when the first experiments were planned to check Einstein's prediction that mass would cause light rays to curve, someone asked him how he would react if the observations didn't match his predictions.

"Then I would assume that the observations were in error," he stoutly replied, "The theory is correct."

It was.

There is fragmentary evidence that communism "will work" -- most notably in Spain during the civil war.

But I agree, the Marxist hypothesis of a classless society can only be demonstrated by the existence of one or several viable communist societies over a prolonged period of time. Einstein's "faith" was strong indeed...but we still had to make the observations.

As to the "willingness to make the unwilling conform", what do we live in now?

What of your faith in the American Empire (and that of others here)? Is it not "greater than mere mankind"? Is it truly "benevolent"? Will it be "eternal"? Does it not resort to violence to make the "unwilling conform"?

Shouldn't you have a little statement beneath your avatar: "America is my religion!"?
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First posted at Ex-Christian Net on November 26, 2004
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Why can't you discuss the subject of this thread without introducing an endless number of diversions?

Do you want to discuss the so-called "workers' paradises"? We can have a thread on that.

Do you want to discuss the American Empire? We can have a thread on that, too.

You say that "Marxism is a religion" but you don't back it up. Where is the "religious" element in anything that Marx said or that I have said?

I explained once already that 20th century Leninism was dogmatic and, as a consequence, developed many superficial resemblences to various religious institutions. In North Korea, they actually attribute "miracles" to their "great leader".

So what? People once used "Darwinism" to elaborate a nonsensical "theory" of "racial superiority". Did that make Darwinism "a religion"?

"Great leaders" are mortal and, sooner or later, depart the scene. Dogmas are fallible and, sooner or later, get rejected. Socialism in poor, backward countries evolves into capitalism. (Something, by the way, that Marx actually predicted.)

None of that has anything to do with my contention that Marxism is scientific or your contention that it is "a religion".

What you have to demonstrate is that the Marxist view is "irrational" or in some sense dependent on non-scientific "modes" of "reason"; that it is, in your words, a "philosophy" that's disconnected from the real world.

Of course, if you prefer to jump up and down and stomp on a bunch of old bones (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc.)...I understand. That's much easier than actually confronting the central question of this thread.
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First posted at Ex-Christian Net on November 27, 2004
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Well!

A very scholarly introduction to the question -- did you actually write that yourself?

In any event, there are some interesting angles to discuss here.

quote:

If the political characteristics of Theocracy are to include a Founder, a Mythology, a Sacred Book, a Priesthood, a place of pilgrimage and an Inquisition, Communism must be ranked among the great religions of the world.


Those are not "political" characteristics -- except for the inquisition, of course.

It would be better to call them the ideological characteristics of a religion (not a theocracy). They don't require the possession of political power to exist.

The author of this particular segment appears to be preparing an indictment of the USSR under Stalin (that's the "inquisition" part).

quote:

For Buddhism was founded by a thinker who certainly believed in no god within the comprehension of his disciples.


Well, that's wrong -- the Buddha did not deny the existence of the Hindu pantheon...he simply did not think the gods were very important.

quote:

There is therefore no reason to suppose that the deified Lenin will not be the god of Communism.


This suggests an archaic text (c.1950?) -- the "deification" of Lenin or even Mao is a "dead issue" for the most part now. Some communists still hold such figures in high regard -- but they've also been subjected to severe criticism...as has Marx himself.

Which, incidentally, chops the ground from beneath the proposition that Marxism is a "religion" -- can you imagine the pope even hinting that "Jesus" or "St. Paul" was grossly wrong about this or that controversial issue?

quote:

For the atheist becoming a god there is ample precedent already.


An astounding assertion. I cannot think of a single historical example of an atheist who was later worshiped as "divine".

Has someone built a temple to Tom Paine or Robespierre while I was taking a nap?

quote:

His revolutionary and atheistic ideas prevented him from becoming a lecturer at Bonn but allowed him to marry Jenny von Westphalen, sister of the Prussian Minister of the Interior.


This author, apparently different from the author of the earlier quotes, has a rather interesting "take" on the romance of Karl and Jenny. If he means what he says, Jenny had very high standards and was not about to get involved with anyone "unless" they had "revolutionary and atheistic ideas".

If true, good for her!

quote:

He lived upon an allowance of 350 a year from Engels, a legacy of 800 and an occasional sovereign for an article in the New York Tribune.


It was late in Marx's life when Engels sold out his business interests and retired, settling on Marx an allowance of 350 pounds/year. Most of Marx's life, he and his family lived on considerably less -- the extant letters suggest that Engels sent Marx 5 pound notes in the mail as needed...sometimes desperately needed. Karl and Jenny had no money to buy medicine when Marx's 8-year-old son was dying.

quote:

Marx lived at his desk, knew little of practical affairs and less of the working class he sought to befriend.


Oh? That must be the reason that the workers in London elected him to the position of General Secretary of the First International.

quote:

After thirty years in London he still lived among the German exiles, knowing nothing about England or the English.


Wrong.

quote:

He had all the single-minded purpose of a Hebrew prophet (which is what he was)


An utterly nonsensical assertion -- unless one is prepared to argue that "single-mindedness" was indeed a pronounced characteristic of Hebrew prophets.

To say that he "was one" is just drooling idiocy.

quote:

Marxism may sound contemporary as a doctrine but Marx himself lived in the world of Dickens, Wellington and Queen Victoria.


The Duke of Wellington died in 1852; he was a pronounced and deeply unpopular reactionary. But there were many such in Marx's time.

The reason that so much of Marx's writings "sound contemporary" (and I agree, they do) is because he was on to something...his analysis of capitalist politics and economics reveal something that's really going on.

Right now.

quote:

He had decided in advance what he was trying to prove.


Bourgeois scholars often regard this as a kind of "intellectual sin"...we are supposed to be "open-minded" or even attempt to "disprove" our own hypotheses.

In my opinion, such a conceit is both foolish and pretentious. If one thinks that one has developed an interesting and useful hypothesis, one naturally proceeds to gather evidence in its favor.

Only if the evidence in favor is scanty while the evidence against it seems preponderant does one reluctantly abandon the idea.

quote:

Das Kapital remains the text-book of Communist economic thought. There are, however, few other subjects in which the student is given a text-book begun in 1867 and embodying theories dating from 1845.


The "laws" of Newtonian physics are considerably older -- but no one reads Newton in the original because modern texts have been written that are easier to understand.

And Darwin's own works (written during Marx's lifetime) are also rarely consulted by modern students of evolution.

If someone wanted to argue that a modern Marxist textbook should be written, I would agree with enthusiasm. But who would publish it?

It would be a massive undertaking and authors, like the rest of us, have to eat.

Meanwhile, there have been a large number of books written to deal with various aspects of Marxist theory...some of them quite critical of Marx himself.

quote:

It has been called "The Bible of the Working Man," an expression which gives a clue to its nature.


Sounds like a journalist's quip to me.

For one thing, I suspect very few "working men" have ever read a few passages of Capital before going to bed at night...like religious people read the "Bible".

Nor, even under Stalin or Mao, were there public readings of chapters of Capital in the fashion that the religious ceremonially read from the pages of their respective "holy books".

Try again.

quote:

It is only religious texts that never go out of date. But if it is a religion that we have to study, we shall have to distinguish between the doctrine taught by the Founder and the Theology evolved ever since by his admirers. Thus we have, in Marxism, the Bible of Orthodoxy which none may contradict. We have the priests who preach on selected passages. We have the scholars who wrangle over the interpretation. We have all the early intolerance of Christianity and all the early fanaticism of Islam. There is an Inquisition to deal with heretics just as Christians have dealt with their own deviationists in the past. After this process the Marxism practiced may have only a theoretical relationship to the original doctrine. The legends, literature, customs and ritual built up round the Founder's memory must tend to obscure what he actually taught.


Sounds very plausible, doesn't it? In this light, I would be a "Marxist fundamentalist" who considers all the variants of Leninism to be "heresy" and "worthy of the stake". *laughs*

As I've had occasion to remark on many previous occasions, argument by analogy is "tricky" and can be very misleading.

A tree is "like" a bush -- there are many similarities. Nevertheless, planting a tree next to your house is going to yield very different results than planting a bush next to your house.

There's no question that 20th century "Marxism" manifested some surprising parallels with "crusading religions" like Christianity and Islam. Nevertheless, it did not in fact "deify" either Marx or any of his "disciples" -- the secular root remained untouched.

In my opinion, a 21st century Marxism is going to be very different from what we saw in the last century...and much more empirical.

But, we shall see.

quote:

The idea of 'Dialectics' is borrowed from Darwin and applied by Marx to society.


Totally wrong. "Dialectics" was borrowed from Hegel, not Darwin.

And no one but "religious Marxists" takes "dialectics" seriously at all.

quote:

The Origin of Species appeared in 1859 and Marx had read it.


Quite true. But he had read and been influenced by Hegel a good 20 years earlier.

quote:

We should, however, beware of concluding that any one scholarly interpretation of history is truer than any other.


Is that a post-modernist peeking out from behind the page?

quote:

It is needless to argue about the merits of the different viewpoints. They all give us an aspect of truth.


Yep, sounds like one.

Some truths are far more significant than others.

quote:

But when some enthusiastic person seizes upon this one aspect and flatly denies that there is any other, the historian will regard him as an amateur; a man who has read one book and found in it the whole truth of the universe. And an amateur is exactly what Karl Marx was.


Marx's "economic interpretation" of history was vigorously opposed during his life by all of the "respectable" scholars. As Marx said in a late letter, he and Engels had to "over-emphasize" this thesis just to gain a hearing. Of course, there are other factors that play a role...but their roles are secondary and derivative.

And Marx was, of course, known as a voluminous reader...even his critics admitted that he had read "every economist".

quote:

Marx tries, in effect, to formulate a general rule from a single example. Whereas we have evidence of civilisations rising and falling over a period of some 30,000 years, Marx rests his economic theory on an analysis of about 500 years of one civilisation; and his analysis ante-dates the very beginnings of economic history as a serious field of study.


Marx founded economic history as "a serious field of study".

Among other things.
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First posted at RevolutionaryLeft on December 23, 2004
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