Marginalia on Radical Thinking: A Second Dialogue with Charley Earp, part 1

Charley Earp is the blogger behind Radical Progress and new co-host of the Radical Righteous Love. 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. I have interviewed him before here.

Skepoet: What do you see as the Quaker relationship to the Left? And what do you see as secular Marxism and anarchism relations to the the radical reformation such as the Puritans, Levelers, Anabaptists, etc.?

Charley Earp: Just to note that I surprise myself at the directions these questions lead me. More so, the second one.

The Religious Society of Friends is a small family of about 5 or 6 distinct groups. Demographically, the largest group of Quakers are the Kenyan yearly meetings, of which there over 133,000 members in 14 yearly meetings, with a theology that is revivalist evangelical and politically conservative by Western standards (though that is ambiguous within Kenyan politics). For most of this interview, I will assume we are talking about unprogrammed “liberal” Quakers, which are concentrated in North America (both U.S. and Canada), United Kingdom (England, Ireland, and Scotland), and a few small yearly meetings in continental Europe. In the anti-war movement, Quakers are most visible as the American Friends Service Committee, which was created in 1917, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for its WW2 relief and reconstruction work in Europe and Asia. How many liberal Quakers are there? My denomination numbers around 35,000 and in the U.S. that doesn’t include 3 liberal yearly meetings in the Western U.S. such as Pacific YM in California which numbers about 1450 members. If you were to add up all the Marxist groups in the U.S. I wonder whether they’d outnumber us, they might.

I put “liberal” in quotes, because that term has both political and religious meanings and they don’t exactly overlap. While FGC Quakers are generally theologically liberal, politically I’d place them as left-liberal. They do vote Democratic generally (or Liberal or NDP in Canada) but with an uneasy conscience due to their pacifist views. Most are quite critical of capitalism as a system, and would probably favor some form of Social Democracy, if not outright socialism. Within that generalization, one would also find some flavors of Anarchism, such as primitivists or Anarcho-pacifists.

The Left in the U.S. I see as really beginning with the pre-Civil War era and the rise of Abolitionism, in which Quakers were fairly prominent. They also were influential in the formation of U.S. Feminism. Class struggle politics are definitely a minor note among Quakers today, though the Socialist Party has usually had a good number of Quakers, such as Bayard Rustin. Anti-capitalist struggle in an odd way may have begun in England just prior to the origins of Quakers in Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers or True Levellers. A fascinating article on the relation of the Diggers to Quakers by my friend David Boulton is found here that argues for at least 10 areas of convergence. Winstanley is buried in a Quaker cemetary, which is usually always a sign of membership. Of course, Quakers didn’t call for the “common treasury of the earth” that Winstanley did. Feminism was there early on, as Quakers were the first Christian denomination to vociferously sanction women’s preaching and give women a nearly equal role in church government.

In terms of what we mean by “the Left”, I’ve already thrown out terms like left-liberal, Social Demcracy, Socialism, and Anarchism. Per your blog readership and some of mine we really mean the “far Left” as in socialist or left anarchist philosophy. Most of my U.S. Quaker siblings are chary about Marxism, though Bayard Rustin and Staughton Lynd are exceptions there. In England, there is actually a Quaker Socialist Society group, which I place as Labour Party leftists. One of the more interesting groups to me was the 1960s “Movement for a New Society” which might be styled utopian socialist or anarcho-pacifist, and essentially broke from FGC to be more consistently radical. Their self-description in 1979 reads, “Movement for a New Society (MNS) is a nationwide network of groups working for fundamental social change through nonviolent action. Together we are developing an analysis of present-day society; a vision of a decentralized, democratic and caring social order; a nonviolent revolutionary strategy; and a program based on changed values and changed lives.” Most of MNS has since dissolved back into FGC, though New Society Publishers still exists as their legacy.

Perhaps even more relevant to the topic of Quakerism and far left philosophy is my favorite philosopher John Macmurray. Recently, I’ve rediscovered one of his early books, _Creative Society: A Study of the Relation of Christianity to Communism_ which was published in 1936. Macmurray became a Quaker after he retired from teaching philosophy in the 1960s, though his philosophy is quite congruent with early 20th Century Quakerism. _Creative Society_ uses the distinction drawn by Friedrich Schiller between the “hunger-motive” and the “love-motive” that formed the template for Freud’s eros and death-drive theories. Macmurray argues that Marxism (which he consistently calls Communism) is the historical negation of the love-motive in favor of the hunger-motive. This negation he considers both a historical necessity and a tragic deformation. Macmurray had been raised in Scotland in the Plymouth Brethren, one of the earliest modern Fundamentalist groups. He rejected fundamentalism while in university, and in turn all churches, but not his own ideal of authentic Christianity, which he later argued best existed in Quakers. Macmurray argued that all the churches he knew had done the dialectical opposite of Marxism by negating the hunger-motive in favor of an idealist formulation of the love-motive. His grand project, which I argue exists even in most of his later work, though more subtle and complex, is to reunite the love-motive with the hunger-motive into a new synthesis of Christianity and Communism. Compare this formulation in 1936 with the emergence of Liberation Theology in the late 1960s, and I’d say Macmurray was there ahead of the game. I’ve been so inspired by re-reading “Creative Society” in the light of the current “theological turn” of left philosophy in Zizek, Badiou, Critchley, and Hardt (Hardt is less theological, but still taking up the love-motive thread) to begin my own book, which I’ve provisionally titled _A Communism of Love_. For me, personally, this marks a new paradigm turn in my thought beyond the things I’ve written on, though not in my mind a negation of it, just a new grand frame. I’ve yet to publish this turn anywhere, so consider this a sneak preview and a web exclusive! Ha, my adoring fans will be thrilled!

On the relation of Marxism and Anarchism to radical reformation movements, I’d say that the relation is fairly causative up until Marx, Engels, and Bakunin made atheism the de facto position of the left. “Utopian Socialism” was very much bound with religious radicals. In Macmurray’s analysis, this tragically necessary negation of the Christian Communist possibility came about because of the alliance of the national churches of Europe (as well as most U.S. churches) with capitalism. Belief in God as loving father of humanity who is creating a universal kingdom of heaven on earth becomes alienated into an exclusive focus on the afterlife, which is gained by a legalistic salvation by grace that issues in personal piety and moralism, but not socially critical prophetic activism. Hutterite radical reformers, in contrast, were and are explicitly anti-capitalist and to this day stand as the longest-lived communist experiment, though ultimately purely sectarian utopian.

The communist impulse in Christianity is recurrent over its entire history, first in the church in Jerusalem depicted as holding “all things common” in the aftermath of Jesus’s crucifixion, resurrection, and the Pentecost outpouring. It is taken up again several times, but never as more than a sliver compared to the mainstream church. Community of goods is tried on a local scale several times, but never survives for long, except among Hutterites. An interesting version of this was the Oneida colony founded by John Humphrey Noyes with his perfectionist theology of “Bible Communism” that included group marriage. Today’s polyamorist movements owe something to Noyes, though they don’t emerge from his theological milieu.

In a somewhat academic vein, the radical reformation is a specialist term in church history centered on the Anabaptist movements in the Germanic regions in the 1600s, such as the Munsterite Communists, the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, and the now mostly extinct Spiritual Anabaptists forming the original milieu. Some also include Czech Unitarianism in this, but that is controversial especially among confessional Mennonites, the largest direct descendents of the Anabaptist tradition. Quakers can be seen as a sort of anomalous dissociated flowering of Anabaptism in England, as can the early British Baptist movement. The connections between Quakers and the radical reformation is most strong in their similar pacifist tendencies, but Quakers at best seem to represent a historic shift away from some of the radical reformation characteristics such as biblicism and social separatism (though this did become prevalent in later generations of American Quakerism), and also to prefigure later developments of pietism and Wesleyanism.

We can talk about the relation of religion to the left generally as well, since I hold the view, again following Macmurray, that religion is a natural outgrowth of the human capacity to reflect, it contains within its holistic apperception the seed-forms of art, science, and ethics, which are distinguished more formally within secularist philosophical approaches. These seed-forms resonate in philosophy with the Platonic forms of the Good, Truth, and Beauty, which Thomas Aquinas argued were actually infinitely united in the simple unity of God. Kant uses this triad to construct his three critiques of pure reason, practical reason, and (aesthetic) judgment. In Schillerian/Kantian terms, the love-motive is the basis of art, hunger-motive the basis of science, and the quest for the Good is the unifying of both motives within one transcendental apperception.

To tie this to the emergence of a renewed Hegelian left, the talk of love and theology still seems to me to need the Kantian corrective of a unifying conception of practical reason as the unification of the hunger-motive and the love-motive into a categorically imperative commitment to the Greatest Good. The relation of the greatest good to the love-motive or the hunger-motive can be deformed in a few different ways, such as left romanticism and aestheticism which overvalues the aesthetic in a narrow sense of appreciating that which satisfies the affections, but doesn’t commit to actual social struggle as an overarching revolutionary praxis aimed at the good society. Another deformation is the purely pragmatic one that dethrones the greatest good in favor of the expediencies of reform. “The movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” This greatest Good in Christian terms is the kingdom of heaven on earth, “Thy Will Be Done, Thy Kingdom Come.”

So, what do I do with “God” since we’re talking about religon? I take a post-supernaturalist stance as to what the term “God” refers. I believe that the abstraction of scientific methodology from its religious origins in an idea of an absolute creator of rational immutable Natural Law, has yielded centuries of verifiable facts and theories about the world as it is, as it has become. God in monotheism was the name given to the source of the world, in contrast to polytheism’s more “order from chaos” perspective. God or the gods as personal is a natural projection of the human cognitive architecture. we attribute agency to natural phenomena, since we are agents. In the pre-scientific world, there was no way to test whether the God of Moses or the gods of Egypt were real or whether the stories about them were true, all that could practically be done was to see whether a people’s faith in their highest aspirations could be realized by collective action. The Gods were personifications of the forces and ideals of ancient social systems.

Science has depersonalized the universe as a whole for secularists, but many people still find this unacceptable. They demand meaning for their lives and struggles. Marxism proposed that the proletarian revolution was the fulfillment of human destiny and would issue in the Kingdom of Freedom, Communism. This ideal, as I argued earlier is based on a prioritization of economic hunger-motives over relational love-motives and Communism is an intellectual signifier that stands for what the inheritors of the revolution can build in revolution’s aftermath. Communism as the Greatest Good is a word with little clear and compelling content, especially in terms of the love-motive, but also in the grander religious sense of a revelation of how the world ought to become. I’m almost beginning to think as I live into this new “Communism of Love” paradigm that I should declare that Utopia is actually possible, if we collectively decide we want it, we can do it. We can begin now, not in the sense of David Graeber’s “Communist freedom already exists” but in the Gospel sense that we can be empowered (sanctified) to be transformed into agents of revolutionary love. Love is the name of the Greatest Good and Love is God. Parenthetically, I would mention the analogy of this to Buddhist self-extinguishment and the Boddhisatva vow of compassion towards all beings.

To round out the claim that “Love” is the Greatest Good i.e. God’s Will, it must be stressed that Truth and Beauty (the affections, including more romantic forms of love) both must be robustly present within Good, i.e. a normative ethic that extends its intentions to all humanity and the earth as the gift of the cosmic force of natural law. We cannot call this communism of universal love if it doesn’t include all humanity, the animal and plant kingdoms and their habitats, our best scientific methodology freed of capitalist and imperialist constraints, and artistic creativity freed from profit and commodification.

In one strain of Christian thought that includes Martin Luther King, Jr., a distinction is drawn based on Greek terms; Eros, Philia, and Agape. Eros is affectionate physical love. Philia is brotherly love. Agape is self-sacrificial non-sexual love in its highest form as exhibited in Jesus’ crucifixion. It isn’t a particular love, but the perfect Love an infinite all-knowing being of Love has for its creation. God’s love knows every feeling you’ve ever had, every kind or malicious thing you’ve ever done, but that Love is unchanging, since it knows everyone from even before conception or the Big Bang itself. This is theology and in mythological language certainly, but it is also possible to be appropriated critically using the tools of modern psychology and philosophy and the “rational kernel” deployed for revolutionary ends. As Zizek says, “we must approach atheism through the Christian experience.”

As I said, this whole train of thought has been something of a new thing, and surprisingly compulsive.

S.: What do you make of both the Quaker and Anabaptist commitment to pascifism?

C.E.: It’s often forgotten that the first Anabapist group to be so labeled were the radical Musterites. They took over a small city and turned it into a commune, pending the outbreak of Armageddon. They were not pacifists. Similarly, the Diggers in England weren’t strict pacifists, though they did have some leanings that way. Several Quakers in fact were partisans of the Cromwell regime in its earliest days. That faded fairly quickly and was part of the impetus for forming Quakerism as a distinct group during Cromwell’s reign, before religious tolerance.

Initially for both pacifist groups, beyond their Biblical justifications, nonresistance was about withdrawing from the State Churches. In both Switzerland and England, regime changes had meant a forced choice between accusations of hidden loyalty to the dethroned order or becoming conformed to the new Protestant order. Both said, “none of the above” and declared themselves under a new order of Christ where the sword was renounced.

This sectarian nonresistance didn’t flower into political pacifism until the late 19th century, perhaps earlier for some Quakers. The idea that war could be abolished worldwide has a geneaology from Tolstoy to Gandhi to A. J. Muste and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Muste was a Quaker for a while as well and wrote an influential pamphlet _The World Task of Pacifism_ that is still read by Quakers. It can be read here:

Pacifism does have some deformed expressions, in my view, as in language-policing, passive-aggressive suppression of conflicts, or political neutralism. Probably the latter is the most troubling from a left perspective. I remember when I was just getting into the peace movement in the early 80s, one of the tensions was over whether to support the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, since they had a mandatory military service policy. Daniel Berrigan defended the regime critically, despite his pacifism, others were more inflexible.

I began my own pacifism fairly early as a response to my father’s dictatorial rule, my infatuation with hippies & Jesus Freaks, the Sermon on the Mount, and my perception that we were in Vietnam for no good reason. All of this had gelled in me by 1975 at the age of 12, when I remember Nixon’s resignation in disgrace. I spent decades studying pacifism seriously to answer the objections such as “what about Hitler?” “what about Grandma?” and “what about the Commies?” I will never forget my somewhat smug satisfaction that the pacifists had been right, we didn’t need war to end Communist Party rule in the USSR.

My own grappling has lead to me to reconsider whether the Just War Theory might have something to say about a Just Revolution Theory. I had to face this quite explicitly when NATO intervened in Libya. I didn’t support Gaddafi and figured that those Libyans calling for NATO intervention were probably some new emergent ruling class, the literal “rock vs. a hard place” dilemma.

The perverse twist on this anti-intervention stance is that now we have a group of Syrians in the US trying to team up with anti-NATO protestors in Chicago. The signs they were carrying explicitly supported the current regime! How is that a left stance?! However, strict pacifism does lead to such problematics. I still don’t feel easy with NATO intervening in Syria, but definitely want al-Assad out of power.

I guess what keeps me so close to pacifism is that in the end I see it as siding with the majority who do not have the wealth to outgun the ruling classes. We have to defeat them by means other than an armed struggle, as I see it.

S.: Why do you think the Protestant tradition in America has taken such a rightward turn, Charley?

C.E.: The Right turn in protestantism goes back to Martin Luther’s anti-semitism and support of class warfare in the Peasant revolts. The Left wing of any religion is always under siege whenever the religious leaders get into bed with the ruling class. Now if we compare the religious Right in the U.S. with Europe, then part of the answer lies in asking why is Europe generally more favorable to Social Democracy? It follows that such sympathies would express themselves in religion.

The lack of a robust labor union system, no legacy of State Churches, and racial division in the working-class leaves (white) U.S. religion stuck without much on which to hang a leftist political theology. Black and Latino churches are a different story. Caucasian Religion becomes about avoiding falling into poverty by not behaving criminally nor consorting with blacks. It is interesting that the decline of liberal Protestantism and Catholicism tracks with the regression of organized labor.

The younger generation of Evangelicals, however, show some signs of leftward drift. The “Emergent Christianity” movement is building off of the tiny old Evangelical left from the 70s that shaped my politics to open up spaces within Evangelicalism on issues such as poverty, war, gender, sexuality, abortion, and race, as well as incorporating participatory practices into church structure. An interesting figure here is Jay Bakker, the tattooed son of televangelist Jim Bakker. Jay runs a church called “Revolution NYC” that is gay-inclusive and streetwise. The torment Jay experienced during his parents’ ministry collapse certainly set him up to question the right-wing church. One of Jay’s favorite theologians is Christian Socialist Paul Tillich, an influence on Adorno!

S.: This leftward turn seems sincere, but also am I correct in seeing it to be predominantly based on lifestyle? This seems like a marked
departure from say the semi-liberation theology one say in Azuza Street Pentecostals for example?

C.E.: Is Emergent Evangelicalism largely a “lifestyle?” I confess that I can’t prove it either way. My main contact with it is through the internet and its impacts in Chicago. My former Mennonite church with peace movement and counter-culture ties has seen an influx of young adults from places like Wheaton College with left, liberal, even Anarchist leanings. was founded by two young adult Evangelicals who discovered Anabaptism and are now trending Anarchist with a tendency towards primitivism, but hopefully that won’t overtake them entirely. They’re not the mainstream of the Emergent trend, for sure, but at least in the urban centers, Emergent Evangelicals seem to lean to the left.

As for the Liberation Theology of Azusa Street, it’s an irony of history that Pentecostal doctrines were formulated by Charles Parham, a white segregationist who let a black preacher named William Seymour audit Bible School clases from a window. That black preacher fostered the Azusa Street revival. The first generations of Pentecostals had a lot of pacifists among them, as well as an organic connection to Wesleyan abolitionists like Charles Finney.

Azusa Street theology was multiracial and egalitarian in both gender and church governance. I don’t have a sense of its class politics, but most early Pentecostals were poor folks. I encountered hostility to labor unions as a kid growing up in the 70s among Pentecostals, but by then most caucasian Pentecostals had long abandoned any social radicalism.

To be continued.

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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on June 22, 2012, in Interviews, Left-turn, Marxism, Philosophy and Politics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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