Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Charley Earp on an integrative approach to socialism.
Charley Earp is a non-Marxist socialist who writes his own blog, Radical Progress, and also writes for the trans-socialist blog I write for as well. Charley describes himself as a Pentecostal preacher’s kid who lived with a commune for 9 years, which led to his political radicalization. A 3-time college drop-out with a day job in the travel biz, he is currently completing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. No longer a Christian, but still actively involved with the progressive wing of Quakerism both locally, with the national Conference, and ecumenical and interfaith work. Born in 1963, married for 29 years, with two adult children.
Skepoet: So you have been in-dialogue with a bunch of anarchist and marxists, but you try your politics from a different set of traditions than Marxism. What about historical Marxist theory do you find problematic?
Charley Earp: The problematic parts of Marxist theory question is pretty broad. I don’t know if my background details clarifies things, but I came into left politics by way of Christian pacifism (with an anti-capitalist component). So, initially atheism was an issue.
Also the legacy of Stalinism still seems very much to have tainted the entire tradition, even the anti-Stalinist parts of it. One of my Maoist friends jumped in on a Facebook thread on my wall when someone dissed Stalin with the assertion “Hating Stalin is like hating Abraham Lincoln.” He meant that the US Civil War was just as bloody and devestating to the US as the Stalin period for the USSR.
I’ve written a blog post on Marxism, which says that I do think certain parts of Marx are essential to left revolutionary politics. Class struggle, commodity fetishism, etc. However, as I stated there, to call revolutionary politics “Marxism” is like calling evolutionary theory “Darwinism.” We’ve gone a long way past Darwin, and I would argue, Marx. We don’t call General Relativity “Einsteinism.”
Beyond theoretical naming conventions, I do think Marx was Eurocentric to a fault. His later ethnographic notebooks do apparently correct this, but they are generally accessible only to academics. His main theory is really written for Europe, not even so much the US. This raises the “American Exceptionalism” problem.
Today, I am closer to atheism, so that’s now moot for me, but still very live for the religious majority of the US. It’s occurred to me that I still think about politics in terms of mass movement, not professional revolutionaries. This means I want a politically unifying vision that can be embraced by lots of people, including that religious majority. That’s why Christian Socialism and Liberation Theology still seem importantly relevant, even though the 80s are long gone.
S.: Can you expand on what you see as the Euro-centric limits of Marxist theory? Would this apply to Maoism?
C.E.: You’ve asked the question in a way that goes beyond where I am confident. I have limited knowledge of Maoism, though I have some elementary hypotheses.
My concern with Eurocentrism is mostly bound up with African peoples, first of all African-Americans. As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, we learned to view Black Pentecostals as in some sense even more spiritual than us white folks. Their churches were more emotional, which is a good thing for Pentecostals. As I got older, this combined with my admiration for Dr. King, who I still view as the most important figure of the 1960s. He was able to set forward a radical (Christian) Americanism that still operates in many parts of our left movements.
Where this gets to the Eurocentrism of Marxist traditions is that both in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the US, people of African descent are more religious and, much more so than Asians, have embraced the European Christian traditions. This means, I think, that we cannot have an American left radicalism without it being led by a coalition of Black and White Christians. This is why Liberation Theology, which first emerged in Latin America, is so critical for North American radicalism. The Black version of Liberation Theology was first articulated by James Cone of Harvard. This work had a direct effect on Chicago’s Trinity UCC pastor Jeremiah Wright, and therefore Barack Obama.
In a funny sort of way, the form of Eurocentrism in Marxism is actually weaker than the Eurocentrism of American Christianity. It’s just occurring to me now that my reservations about Marxism may be less about Eurocentrism, than about atheism. With respect to Maoism, some Marxists have charged that Mao borrowed themes from Chinese traditional religion in order to advance the acceptance of his ideology. Similarly, Stalinism restored some power to the Orthodox Church after it had been outlawed by Lenin.
My own take on religion is what I call “religious naturalism” which maintains that religion arises from something pervasive, perhaps even hard-wired into human beings. Even Dawkins can see the truth of this when he theorizes that religion is the extension of a child’s unquestioning obedience of its parents, a necessary survival mechanism. I know that my own shift to naturalism from supernaturalism was accompanied by psychotherapy that worked most directly on my abusive relationship to my father. I wouldn’t universalize that abusive relationship, since I have met many religious people who actually had healthy parents. Religion does seem to me to express a projection of familial relations and human agency on to the natural world.
If Maoism is a sort of amalgam of Marxism and Traditional Chinese religion, then it makes sense that it appeals to the peasantry in places like China, Vietnam, and Korea. In North Korean Juche, we see the most obvious form of personality cult and religious nationalism combined with Maoism. Black Nationalism in the US took hold most powerfully among Black Muslims, though there are some Christian churches like Trinity UCC that have adopted some form of Black Power, though it is often called Afri-centrism by them. I remember listening to one of Wright’s protege’s a few years back at a conference on urban ministry talk about Africentrism.
It is interesting that Maoism in the US has been more committed to anti-racism than, say, Trotskyism. The argument in part seems to be about the question of “stagism,” that is, do non-European nations have to pass through a capitalist phase, or can the struggle for communism be waged directly? Maoism says yes to a direct struggle for communism. In Africa, I think only Ethiopia has had a Communist government, and that has been replaced by a Democratic Socialist coalition. In a real sense, Africa does reflect a more Eurocentric orientation than Asia.
Back to Marx’s Eurocentrism. In Marx’s time, it was easy to believe that religion was dying out, because it actually was in Europe. It wasn’t in any other part of the world. In fact, with Arabic and North African immigration into Europe, the European populace is becoming more religious, that is Islamic, but the racial barriers in Europe have kept the electorate as mostly white secularists. The untenability of that situation was reflected in the riots in France among North African youth a few years ago. Banning the Burqa antagonizes this same populace.
S.: I would disagree with you characterization of Juche as it doesn’t have much relationship to Maoism but to Soviet Stalinism plus Japanese racial ideology with some lingering confucianism, and I may also disagree with you on Trotskyism there. After all, C.L.R. James was a Trotskyist. That said, there is a general critique here that is interesting.
What do you think the limitations of Maoism has been in the US?
C.E.: First off, a bit of self-criticism. My ignorant conflating Juche to Maoism was no doubt premised on my own Eurocentrism, even perhaps racism. Just because Korea and China are Asian nations, for me to jump to the conclusion that Maoism and Juche were related was racist. I am out of my depth on Asia and Maoism.
Having my full confession of guilt and ignorance in hand, now, I am terrified of tackling US Maoism! I’ll retreat to story-telling. My most extended interaction with Maoism involves Bill Martin, a philosophy professor at Depaul U. Chicago. I had barely studied Marx when I met him in 1990, but was already on the path that would lead me from Christian Anarcho-Pacifism to more secular revolutionary politics. Bill was at the time a fan of Jacques Derrida, but also a “fellow-traveler” of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Bill later co-authored a book with RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, a series of dialogues about philosophy and politics. Avakian later declared himself the greatest Marxist since Mao, penned the “New Synthesis,” and began expelling intellectuals from RCP. From those expulsions we now have the Kasama Project, which under Bill Martin’s influence has turned to an engagement with Alain Badiou, also a former Maoist.
Oddly enough, long after I met Bill Martin, I learned that one of the first student left groups I ever got involved with was actually a covert Maoist group, called “Progressive Students.” I never knew they were Maoist and the meetings and demos I attended with them were all typical peace and justice stuff, anti-Apartheid, reproductive freedom, anti-homophobia, etc. Those student activists became part of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization. The Chicago group I’d come to know, later led a split in FRSO and to this day they are “anti-revisionist” FRSO associated with “Fightback!” newspaper. In fact, Joe Iosbaker, one of the activists arrested in the FBI sweeps of anti-war activists was one of the Progressive Students leaders and I’m still on friendly terms with him.
One other Maoist group with whom I had some interactions, though they are perhaps anomalous, is the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. Both LRNA and RCP’rs have approached me in the context of my advocacy for a religious Left. RCP’ers were involved with the Chicago protests against housing project demolitions. Since RCP seems to seek out the “most oppressed” sectors, housing project residents probably qualify in some sense. LRNA was interesting because in contrast to RCP, they were more non-White. Nelson Peery is a black Maoist from California with a long history on the left. The Chicago group when I knew them also had several Christians, mostly in the black church.
So between FRSO/Fightback!, RCP, LRNA, and Kasama, I’ve gleaned a sense of Maoism as sort of the “most radical” activists on the block. They talk about Mao, call themselves communists, revolution, reject any electoral work, and are strongly aligned with the third world revolutions, China, Naxalites, etc. They also highlight racism, what in Leninism is called the “national question.”
What are the limitations? Remembering that I am largely non-expert on Maoism, they seem to be the most alienated from the mainstream of the US, left or otherwise. They don’t attract large crowds to their demos, but do attend most of the ones I have and probably a lot more. I can’t imagine any of my religious left friends having any interest in them. Since I believe that the Christian Left is the only sizable left constituency in the US, that’s a big weakness. Why wouldn’t Christian Leftists be interested? Because Maoism and Stalinism is so hostile to Christianity. LRNA seems to me to be the exception to that rule.
Of course, and here I’m going away from the question of specifically Maoism back to religion, race, and the Left, the US left isn’t largely revolutionary. There is an un-articulated anti-capitalism, but as we’d both agree, that can actually be regressive. I’ve become concerned lately that so many of my Christian pacifist friends are now talking about anarcho-primitivism. I’m seriously thinking about creating a critique of anarcho-primitivism on Christian grounds. If people are curious about Christian anarchism, one of the best sites iswww.jesusradicals.com
On racism, the black churches do have a leftwing element, of which Jeremiah Wright is typical. Cornel West is also very important. I’ve probably learned more about racism from West than anyone else. Say what you will about his DSA affiliation, his undisciplined pragmatism, or showy dramatics, he does develop a very solid alterntive to Black Power in his writing on racism.
I’m actually becoming involved with a local Black church here to immerse myself in that milieu. I’m seriously thinking about going to the UU seminary here in a few years and doing field work with this church. The pastor is a spectacular guy. He’s an ex-Pentecostal like myself, an Oral Roberts protege, a former megachurch leader, who took a strange turn into universalism and “New Thought” and was summarily ostracized by the mainstream churches. He’s also a vegan now and a gay rights advocate. These sorts of “mutations” within Christianity fascinate me and convince me that left-wing Christianity has an important future.
S.: You have argued in a few posts that anarchism is the most consistent logically of the various left-wing positions, but seems practically complicated historically. Would you like to go into that line of thought?
C.E.: Anarchism is ultimately consistent, as I think even Marx would acknowledge, since Marx stated that in communist society the state would wither away. In other words, it’s correct about the complete abolition of hierarchies and classes. Marx would add, dialectically, that historic social contradictions make anarchism idealistic and thus doomed to political failure.
In relation to anarchism, I would want to pose the claim that ecology is the most comprehensive of sciences and therefore of a scientific theory of social relations and revolution. This claim comes from combining two of my influences, one of which is Murray Bookchin’s anarchist/communalist social ecology. The other important influence is Scottish Christian Socialist John Macmurray (1891-1976) who figures in more basically to my ecological perspective. Macmurray was very concerned that religion be viewed as a natural feature of human existence and that it be modernized to accept scientific objectivity as the standard for knowledge, including its theological claims. He constructed a grand theory of science as a comprehensive reduction of phenomnena to general laws, a la Kant. In this comprehensive framework, he sees physics as the most elemental level, then chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology (including political economy). (He also critiques Kant’s dualism as untenable ultimately, so he is something of neo-Kantian. Even earlier in his career, he argued for Christian Communism as the dialectical fulfillment of both religion and communism.)
I would encompass all of those sciences within ecology. I went back and forth on this over the years, since I was also attracted to Marxism’s arguments regarding economics as the base of all social relations. If one uses economics as the grand paradigm, then ecological phenomena and systems are actually natural economies. And, politics is a human economy of power structures, and so on. I decided that this was really too reductive, so I now conceptualize ecology as the over-arching paradigm. Political economy is a subset of ecological systems.
Macmurray would have rejected my ecological view as much as he rejected economic reductionism, since his overarching paradigm was personalistic, and insistent on not reducing humans to animals or organisms or mechanical objects. In Macmurray’s view, psychology had failed in his time to develop the sort of objective character that had been achieved in physics or biology. He held that this was due to the intrinsic difficulties of self-criticism and self-understanding. He might have even accepted the view that class, gender, and sexuality distorts attempts to understand human psychology objectively. Despite his socialism, Macmurray wasn’t very strong on class struggle.
For Macmurray, psychology is the science that is most resistant to scientific reduction, and human experience forms the doorway to religious transcendance, ie God. I don’t go all the way with Macmurray there, since I consider supernaturalism itself a sort of dualism, a non-physical extra level that works out in social practice to repress human embodiment and freedom. However, Macmurray’s concern that we not have a reductionist psychology, e.g. Freud’s libidinal two-drive model, stands as a challenge that I think needs to be taken on board left politics.
To complete the argument, ecology is the scientific horizon within which all human life is objectively understandable. However, human psychology resists being reduced to either physical or biological science. This is substantially because the struggle among humans for freedom is incomplete. Capitalism, industrialism, and science have collaborated in modernity to enable a nearly global mastery of the world via economic systems, which comes close to truly mastering humanity and nature itself, but it fails – and resorts to violence – because of the divisions within humanity along political, gender, class, and racial divides. Also, the natural world is ecological, not reducible without remainder to economics, so ecology is the final frontier in politics and science. I will resist the question of space travel and colonizing the solar system, but yeah, I also have a transhumanist streak!
Psychology, economics, and sociology are also incomplete because humans cannot be reduced to economic actors. Each of these knowledges need to be developed in terms of human freedom and equality in political terms and struggles.
Murray Bookchin’s anarchist social ecology is among the best attempts to embrace all of this complexity and I still think he is the anarchist thinker with which the left needs to engage. I have come to believe, however, that his anti-statism ends up being a barrier to political struggle. If we can’t directly contest the power of the state at the national and international level – which Bookchin rejects in fsvor of municipalism as a building block to confederalism – then we don’t have the tools to actually overthrow the existing states or systems. In other words, I’ve accepted the social democratic and Marxist argument that a successful anti-capitalist (and anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc.) revolution will have to apropriate some of the powers of the State.
My original alternative to Bookchin’s anti-statism was to support the Green Party as a combination of prefigurative and reformist politics with a revolutionary potential. Within the party organization, participatory democratic, anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist practices would shape a new collective ecological revolutionary subject that could contest for political power. Not exactly building the new society “within the shell of the old,” the ecological party would interconnect the alternative social forces that would be able to challenge and overthrow the old orders.
I am now rethinking this reliance on the Green Party, as they aren’t explicitly taking on board an anti-capitalist perspective. I might even have to vote for Obama, since the religious right is becoming so damn frightening in the US. While I still think there’s some point to creating a “counter-society” on the left via parties, organizations, unions, communes, cooperatives, progressive churches and mosques, etc., the Democratic and Republican parties are the powers that be which must be overthrown. I can’t see that happening within the Greens at this point. I’ve been loathe to join something like “Progressives for Obama” but in 2012, there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell for an existing third party, despite “Occupy Wall Street.”
Anarchism is some sense still the final state towards which revolutionary politics aspires, but the way forward is obscured by social divisions within the present. As much as I give credence to a socialist view of the State, it may be that we have passed the moment in history when the State can be used to further emancipation. Neoliberalism seems to have decisively rejected social democracy, universal healthcare, etc, which are being dismantled in Europe, which was once the alternative to the Communist road. It reminds of the Matthew Arnold poem, “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”
S.: What would be distinctly Christian or post-Christian in your conception of Socialism?
C.E.: My view is ex-Christian, pluralistic, and post-secular. No one can purge decades of religious engagement, especially if that engagement goes back to the very beginning of one’s life. I remained a Christian significantly longer than most ex-Christians I know, until the age of 34. I was a passionate Christian who went to extraordinary lengths to fulfill my commitment to Jesus. At the age of 23, I moved my wife and daughter to a Christian commune and lived there for over 9 years, as a church member and resident, though not financially invested in the commune. I was also a pacifist and studied advanced theology constantly.
I suppose that my personal history has compelled me to conceive the relation of religion to creating a revolutionary post-capitalist society (whether we call it socialism or something else is an open question for me at this point) within a post-secular framework. “Post-secular” was a term I first learned from my post-Maoist friend Bill Martin. In fact, it was the first topic I ever heard him present at a local left philosophy forum.
If we divide all of humanity into religious and non-religious, the non-religious are out-numbered by nearly 6 to 1. If the left is to have a realistic chance of winning a majority of humanity to a post-capitalist revolution, it will have to convince a significant number of religious people that this revolution will advance the aspirations of their religions. The situation is pluralistic, we don’t just need a Christian vision of revolution, but also Muslim, Hindu, and more. We not only need these religious visions of revolution, but also to advance mutual respect and pluralism between religions as well as across the religious-secular divide. Christians, Muslims, secularists, and others need to develop a framework for mutual recognition within a revolutionary politics.
As a Quaker, I am actually involved with ecumenical (dialogue between different denominations of Christians) and interfaith (dialogue between different religions) work on behalf of my denomination. As a nontheist within a generally theistic tradition, I have begun to develop a general perspective on the character of religion and its relation to revolution that explicitly goes beyond the abstract public/private split of liberal politics. Liberal secularism reduces religion to matters of private assent to unverifiable propositions. This has never been religion’s own understanding of itself. The real shift for religion in modernity is that it can no longer command public assent to a specific aspect of its formulation.
That aspect is specifically “supernaturalism.” Religion and supernaturalism are not identical and it is possible to be a supernaturalist without being religious, as in a believer in superstition or astrology. However, for religion one needs an intersubjective structure, not merely beliefs, but membership, ritual, governance, morality, and an actual community of persons. In this sense, atheism could be a religion, though outside of groups like the American Ethical Union most atheists do not participate in a governed community with membership norms.
On the other hand, it is also possible to be religious without supernaturalism. That is essentially my position, similar to AEU. In the case of my chosen membership in Quakerism, it has a fairly modern history, with a substantial archive of events, practice, and belief, including significant involvement in abolishing slavery, opposing war, and founding feminism. It is also an offshoot of Christianity and in a real sense depends on that tradition. As a nontheist Quaker, I have to read that tradition critically, without supernaturalism, but also affirmatively, appreciating its real world potential for inspiring progressive activism.
To my way of thinking, the left has two choices, either continue to battle religion as forms of supernaturalism that leads to social regression, or to support religious revolutionaries in redefining their traditions in progressive directions. Some significant examples of such redefinition are Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Christian Feminism, and Liberation Theology. The first path of battling religion serves to alienate huge numbers of people from revolutionary ideas. The second path isn’t a guaranteed success, but it seems obvious to me that it has a better chance than the militantly atheist approach.
S.: What do you make of the claim made is made that any irrationalization of Marxist theory undercuts it and leads to fascism? This may sound extreme, but several scholars of fascism, including Ze’ev Sternhall, have argued that fascism of an irrationalization of Marxist doctrine.
C.E.: That’s not a lot to go on, since I am unfamiliar with theories of fascism. On the surface it does seem extreme. To make such a claim one would have to argue that all three of the major fascist states, WW2 Japan, Italy, and Germany each were lead by irrational Marxists. How many such people need to be in leadership to be able to dictate fascist policy? That’s the sort of questions I ask of such theories. From both Marxism and pragmatism, I take a focus on practice that subordinates theory. In other words, it seems incredible to hold that fascists are working with an irrational theory of Marxism in their heads that leads them to the policies they enact. If anything, I’d say fascists are working with a theory of anti-Marxism in their heads. Joel Kovel’s book on anti-Communism comes to mind.
I am not that fond of the rational actor view of humanity, I think we are largely driven by complex mixtures of fear and affection. Even our rational moments have an underlying emotionality at their base. Irrationality occurs, in my view, when we reject sound logic due to warped emotional development that amplifies the fear of others. Our society is so pathological that most people are at least neurotic, if not psychotic. To place the blame for fascism on irrationalized Marxism seems to presume that every leader or subordinate who is not such an irrational Marxist isn’t contributing their own pathological bent to the determination of social policy.
S.: What do you see as the way forward for the left?
C.E.: It’s strange what draws one’s focus. This week, I’ve been somewhat fixated on the question of whether there is a middle ground between state socialisms, like social democracy or Leninism, and anti-state socialism like the various anarchisms. Samuel Konkin III coined the term “minarchism” as something of a disparagement of the libertarian right. He argued for a more thoroughly anarchist non-capitalist market economy. Alain Badiou and Simon Crithcley talk about politics “at a distance from the State.” Certainly for Badiou, there’s an entanglement of the French Left with the bourgeois state that is problematic in ways that we don’t face here in the US.
What we do face in the US is the complete canalizing of the politics of the State within the major parties and an inability to mobilize any kind of effective third party challenge. I submit that it is precisely the existence of more proportional electoral systems in Europe, Australia, and Canada that made possible things like universal healthcare. If FDR and the New Deal hadn’t eviscerated the Socialist and Progressive Parties, the US might have had its own universal healthcare.
So, as I perceive the blockages to social democracy and proletarian revolution in the US, the anarchist strategy becomes more salient. Occupy Wall Street and its satellites makes it plain that this election year will be one in which the politics of local uprisings may be the most potent appearance of the left. OWS is informally connected to other sites like Oakland, but a formal network may yet emerge.
Oddly enough, trying to once again figure out what to do with what I see as the necessity of engagement with the State, but also it’s near futility, I happened across Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike” in which she argues that the Russian Revolution of 1905 showed the Marxists that it was time to embrace the mass strike as a socialist tool. Maybe this year, socialists will embrace the local assembly. Certainly Pham Binh’s quarrel with organized Trotskyists takes on that flavor. Platypus and Kasama are also having to engage with the politics of Anarchism. Perhaps a new synthesis of Marxism and Anarchism is in the offing, a Minarcho-Socialism? Adorno’s ghost may be reincarnated as the Spirit of the Future.
S.: I think we will talk again soon Charley. Anything you’d like to say in closing for this first interview?
C.E.: I’m torn over whether the “Adorno’s ghost” quip is pretentious or actually clever. But, let it stand. While I tend to be an “ordinary language” kind of philosopher, it’s hard to really adhere to that when we’re talking about the nearly inconceivable possibilities of human emancipation. Yeah, probably pretentious, after all.