Author Archives: radicalprogress
Communism is the Truth that Fulfills All Truths: Why Christians and Atheists (& Muslims, Hindus, Etc) Will Someday Reach the Same Destination
from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher. – Alain Badiou
Reading this line from Badiou a few years ago pushed me over a hesitation to embrace the word “communism” in a full-throated sense. I wrote an essay not long after this point on Plato’s Republic where I explored how Plato connected the ability of his ideal city’s guardians to achieve justice to their having forsaken private property. In fact, re-reading Book V last night only confirmed for me what Badiou is saying, that Communism is the fulfillment of political rationality. If Plato’s philosophy of ideal justice requires communism in this sense, I hold that a profound truth has escaped the notice of many in our time, including advocates of Marxism. That truth is that communism does not belong to Marx and his successors, but to humanity as a whole.
Marxists often want to define just how communism will be brought into being. They have a theory of the proletariat revolution led by a Communist Party. The leadership of the Communist Party is composed of the advanced activists and theorists who correctly understand the necessary path to take towards Communism. Of course, history is littered with the failures of Communist governments. It isn’t adequate to slap a label on your philosophy and call it Communism. Communism does not belong to Marxists, but to humanity.
If communism is as old as Greek philosophy – actually older – then is it so surprising that it also makes an appearance in the most popular world religion, Christianity? The gospels are only comprehensible as a communist event with a vision of a classless society at their core. The Book of Acts presents the “Jerusalem Commune” where the followers of Jesus set up a system of wealth redistribution among the members of their new movement.
I am not arguing that Communists should become Christians, by no means. I am contending that Communists, whether atheist or Christian, have a common heritage that is older than Karl Marx. I am contending that Communism’s central axiom, “from each according to ability, from each according to need” is rooted in universal human relationships. Every healthy nuclear family operates as a commune. In “primitive communism” sharing was simple and direct exchange. It is the ruling classes throughout human history who have rejected this basic relational ethos and imposed class domination on the majority of all societies.
The rebirth of Communism in our times will not fall into the classic divides of the left of Marxist vs. Anarchist vs. Religious communists. In our post-secular world, communism is only possible with an inclusive alliance of Atheists, Christians, Muslims, and others.
Or, communism may fail to be achieved. Humanity may be forever trapped in an undesirable system of class domination. Many science fiction dystopias paint such a picture. I am an optimist, but I am not a fatalist. Humanity could fail to fulfill its own potential. That will be tragic, indeed. But, even such a failure does not prove that Communism was not the true fulfillment of humanity’s potential.
It has long seemed quite strange to me that so many atheists find Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God attractive. God doesn’t exist at all for atheists, his “death” can only be at most the death of the theism of some part of humanity. Perhaps a historical point can be made about the passing of a specific era of religiosity in Europe at the time of Nietzsche.
Beginning in the 60s, Nietzsche’s ideas got re-deployed by theologians, no less, or rather, atheologians. Thomas J. J. Altizer declared the “Gospel of Christian Atheism” which asserted the historical death of God in the event of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Today, Slavoj Žižek has produced his own Lacanian spin on this mostly forgotten theological fad.
On the contrary, God (as theism) never died for a substantial portion of modern society. God was redesigned, certainly, by the course of Western history. God today has become the ultimate capitalist, a Heavenly Boss who punishes the lazy and hedonists with poverty and war. Working-class Christians in the US have been lavishly courted by the ruling class into a New Religious Right with showers of campaign donations promising to end the sinfulness of society by reactionary economic discipline.
As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I somehow got deformed and alienated against the New Right. Jesus was always to me a hippie, a communist, a peacenik, and a rock star. I held the orthodox doctrines as long as I could, up to my mid-30s. I can still wax eloquent about the wonders of Trinitarian mysticism and the infinite glories of being resurrected in the New Jerusalem. While still a believer I argued obsessively that Jesus was a revolutionary, a radical who prophesied the destruction of the ruling class and the victory of perfect love over the earth. And, I could show how such a theology came straight out of the biblical texts themselves. Despite their putative belief in inerrancy, most Christians today don’t follow the teachings of Jesus on wealth, but rather those of John Calvin.
One of the most puzzling mysteries of the modern world is how followers of Jesus can be such willing propagandists for the inhuman system of capitalism and tyranny under which we slave daily. Why aren’t there Christian Socialist Clubs in every church? Jesus denounced wealth and possessions in no uncertain terms. How can anyone read the gospels with an open eye and not understand that the one they call Christ and Savior is the enemy of the system of commodity production and wage labor?
If we turn from the deformed condition of Christianity to the condition of “Actually Existing Socialists” we don’t find a pretty picture there either. Although most potential proletarians in our society today are Christians, often fervently so, card-carrying socialists are nearly all deeply hostile to Christianity. Today’s socialists take the New Atheists as their models for religious criticism, not the more nuanced approach taken by Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. My favorite quote from Rosa’s classic Socialism and the Churches reads:
In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this [Roman proletarian] class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.
My experience trying to discuss Christian Communism with left-wing atheists has been quite dispiriting over the years. The business class holds massive fund-raisers courting preachers and laypersons to their causes, but except for the largely defunct religious socialism commissions of DSA and the SPUSA, there is no effort to appeal to Christians on the basis of their most fervent passion, following Jesus.
Some have accused me of cynicism when I propose a religious left as a necessary element of a revitalized left politics in the US. Since I personally no longer hold an orthodox theology, they assume that I want socialists to lie to Christians when we invite them eagerly into our ranks. Not at all, what I want Socialists and Communists and Anarchists to do is listen respectfully to the faith of these working-class followers of Jesus. Ask them why they don’t take their own gospel teachings about poverty literally.
There is no hope of ever overthrowing capitalism in the US unless we kill the Capitalist God who reigns in American Christianity. We can only kill that satanic inversion of the Father of Jesus if the Christians do that from their own convictions. I am proposing a mutual collaboration between the brilliant atheists in the socialist movement with the disheartened Christians who are daily coming to question the heresy of the Christian Right. We need each other.
We need each other not because Christians are potentially a massive pool of allies and activists, though they are indeed such. They are necessary for the revitalization of Communism as the universal vision of world emancipation. Every religion has its earthly paradise that it promises the faithful. These paradisiacal visions are the seedbed for the utopian mindset from which radical politics sprung. Communism comes from humanity’s total history, not from the mind of one philosopher named Karl in the mid-1800s! Reclaiming the communist teachings of Jesus and his early followers means reclaiming an essential part of communism’s historical development.
Communism’s axiom, from each according to ability, to each according to need is the economic corollary to the Golden Rule, do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Although many leftists like to praise the achievements of modernity and seem to forget all the blood, sweat, and toil of humanity before the onset of capitalism, in fact, communism springs quite logically from the nature of humanity and our highest values. Although Karl Marx did banish Hermann Kriege’s “Communism of Love” from his organization, it seems in the aftermath of Stalinism that Communism needs to restore its reputation as humanizing vision with affirmative principles of human mutuality. Who better to be a symbol of such a kinder, gentler communism than the Good Shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth?
[Note: This speculative essay was originally posted on my first "Leftist Quaker" blog in Nov. 2009. I'd approach the topic differently today, but recent discussions I've had regarding the relevance of Ken Wilber made the hypotheses I proposed here resurface.]
Ken Wilber has repeatedly said that most of the world is at the level of Nazis in their development, most notably in his recent book, Integral Spirituality. This statement has troubling prejudices within it, as it seems to not ask why this might be so. Even further, is it even really true?
I will propose here that the under-used concept of “pathology” proposed in Wilber’s Integral Psychology has the potential to re-shape and advance a critical understanding of social evolution. I am calling this project of rethinking, “Critical Integrative Theory.” It is integrative, rather than integral, as that term is becoming a trademark of the Wilberian movement, and I wish to cast a wider net. It is called ‘critical’ after the Frankfurt School’s tradition of “critical theory,” of whom Jurgen Habermas is one of the leading thinkers.
Critical Theory is a “social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it.” I know that Wilber does wish to change and critique society, but in these blogs I will pursue a line of social analysis that Wilber seems to neglect, though I do not charge him with intentional neglect.
Frankfurt School critical theory began as an attempt to address the political crises of pre-war Europe. Frankfurt school theorists were troubled by the implications of burgeoning fascism for Marxist (and Liberal) theories of social change and revolution. Many Marxists expected that the working masses in Europe would align themselves with Russia against German and Italian Fascism and overthrow those regimes. However, in both nations the working masses substantially supported Fascism. It is clear that working-class fascism was utterly against the objective interests of the working masses, and yet, millions of workers seem to have swallowed it whole. How do Marxists and progressives account for such a self-defeating situation?
Marxism theorizes that the collectivization of industrial labor leads to the unification of working-class interests and culture, guided by the Communist movement into a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. What happened in Nazi Germany was the unification of the society by appeals to religion, patriotism, sexual repression, and scorn for intellectuals. To this day, working masses around the world are often easily drawn into alliances with the rich and powerful at the expense of their own emancipatory interests. Critical Theory sought to explain this and to do so, it sought resources that lay outside those typically considered politically acceptable to Marxists, namely, Freud, Kant, Weber, among others.
In the decades since the Frankfurt School first coalesced in the 1930s, critical theorists have continued to seek out and extend a critical understanding of political and social development. In the 1960s, Feminism came into the picture to challenge the gender biases of both Marx and Freud. Other challenges to critical thought have come from environmentalist, anarchist, anti-racist, and anti-heterosexist movements and thinkers. Addressing all of these critiques and their relevance to an integrative theory of social evolution is obviously a massive undertaking, but some beginning is vitally important.
One beginning point is class-consciousness. This is a fundamental component of Marxism, though it is not confined to Marxism. Class-consciousness is simply a recognition of the division of power in society that is perpetuated by our contemporary economic system. In all of the things I have read by Wilber, he nowhere acknowledges that the evolution of consciousness might be impacted by economic factors such as poverty, lack of education, or hierarchical workplace conditions. If Wilber has in fact considered this possibility, its lack in his major works, such as Sex, Ecology, and Spiritualityor A Brief Theory of Everything suggests that at best he considers it only weakly relevant or at worst that he considers it has no relevance.
Another element of Critical Theory that addresses the prevalence of fascist mindsets is psychoanalysis. Freud’s theory of the unconscious proposed that we do not always act rationally because we are emotionally deformed, often in our infantile development. Frankfurt theorist Theodor Adorno collaborated with American psychologists to produce the seminal work The Authoritarian Personality which proposed a model for measuring authoritarian tendencies in individuals, as well as a theory of how such authoritarian tendencies become part of the personality. The chief culprit in TAP is harsh parental discipline and abuse.
Here is where Wilber’s concept of pathology in Integral Psychology becomes relevant. Ideally, the development of consciousness involves a wider and wider social world, beginning with infantile egoism and advancing through stages of transcending and including the lower stages in a higher awareness that takes in the interests of others in growing circles of affinity. When something obstructs the ideal stage progression, the personality clings to a lower stage of awareness in an attempt to save the self from a perceived threat. The result is a pathological – neurotic or psychotic – disconnection from healthy awareness and agency.
The combination of class-consciousness and psychoanalysis led critical theorists to the ingenious, though perhaps by now obvious, conclusion that the working masses’ propensity for self-defeat and acquienscence to authoritarianism originated in developmental malformations in childhood, i.e. psychological trauma. Instead of seeing potential “Nazis” everywhere, critical theory offers a sympathetic account of human woundedness that underlies the fearsome threat of mass fascism.
The rise of fascism in Germany was explained by Critical theory as the result of harsh parental discipline that was widespread in the pre-War era. Mothers who had to work due to poverty, could not attend their infants with the sort of indulgent parenting that middle-class mothers could. Even if a working mother was inclined to indulgence, the conditions of poverty and stress would frustrate such aspirations. The conclusion is that poverty psychologically traumatizes infants, obstructing the ideal developmental sequence so prized by Ken Wilber and other integral thinkers. Much, much more could be said here, for example, taking in feminist accounts of how predominantly female mothering leads to sexist attitudes in boys and girls. For the time being, hopefully, what I have written persuades some in the integral/integrative development movement to consider constructive changes in their approach.
The project of a “Critical Integrative Theory” would pursue many of the worthy aims of Wilber’s Integral theory, but subject them to a wide range of radical rethinking that draws on the continuing work of critical theorists. Wilber’s concern about billions of potential Nazis is worrying, but understanding the psychoanalytic and class determinants on human agency reveals that Nazism is not a “natural” stage of development, pace Wilber’s contentions, but rather a pathological developmental aberration. The challenge to integral activists is to use the evitability of pathology as an opening to rethink the project of changing the world. To this point, Wilber’s mode has been to groom a middle-class cadre of enlightened mystics. The elitism of that approach seems self-evident, but also understandable from a critical theory perspective. The psychological development of middle-class infants has its own set of neurotic and pathological pitfalls.
My belated return to blogging.
Originally posted on RADICAL PROGRESS:
At the risk of being Freudian, I suspect my radical ideas stem from early childhood experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional family that relied on religious shaming, arbitrary punishment, and abuse both physical and emotional to keep us kids in line. It’s a mystery to me that my younger brother has chosen to quite enthusiastically embrace the Pentecostal subculture that I find so often toxic. My little sister has also embraced the religion, but as we are 12 years apart I can understand that her experience of parenting was quite different from mine. The phrase, “daddy’s little girl” may capture a significant part of the reason for her differing perception of my father and the family religion.
One crucial element of my childhood was that early on I drew a sharp line between my father and Jesus. Dad preached Jesus as the divine savior of humanity from…
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Perhaps I’m just a contrary old man, but I feel that I can embrace both the most reductionistic physical science, yet also remain devoted to the living heart of religious aspirations. Long after the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason are gone, I believe humanity will live in an Age of Love, Love’s Communism, which will be built upon the fulfillment not only of science and technology, but the maturation and judicious distillation of the world’s cultural legacies, including religion.
In response to Dario Cankovic’s Socialism and Religion, Redux:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions.”
— Karl Marx, Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right
I have a love/hate relationship with religion and layers upon layers of both antipathy and affection for this complex reality. The same thing could be said for the revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary struggle is my primary allegiance; my personal happiness means very little while millions languish under the yokes of the death-systems of capitalism, sexism, racism, authoritarianism, and ecocide (to name only five of the central enemies of all beings on earth.) It seems most urgent to me today that we build alliances with all who are committed to the revolutionary struggle and that emphasizing our common ground is critical. I’m very aware that most people on the far left will disagree with my approach to religion, but it seems to me that the left really has no choice but to rethink how it will work with all potential revolutionaries, the majority of whom are religious — because the majority of humanity is religious.
Derick writes: “The conservative retort that “if we are all equal at the lowest common denominator, then our future is blend indeed” is fundamentally true. The dangerous of this focus on equality for equality’s sake even in equality of substance is subtle but acute in its problem: problems of substantive equality are problems of distribution, but if these problems of distribution are fixed by a structural economic process that is dependent on classes of people doing particular kinds of production, so then we are still left with a fundamental contradiction.”
I reject “bland” or wooden equality, but still we don’t have a better word to characterize the difference between our current social and economic orders and the Communist future we are fighting towards. The distribution of wealth in the world today is grotesquely unequal. Simply reducing that maldistribution would do wonders. How we get there is not easy or obvious, but that we get closer to such substantive equality seems the inescapable consequence of forging a “classless society.”
Human needs do not vary infinitely; we all need a scientifically measurable nutritional intake, a decent place to live, reliable transportation, quality medical care, and a shorter workweek. Nobody needs caviar, a mansion, a Rolls Royce, multiple cosmetic surgeries, or to be able to live off their inheritance. At the opposite end, nobody should be forced to live off of Dickensian gruel, in a rotting shack, chained to one spot, exposed to unsanitary conditions, or forced into constant overtime labor. Between the extremes of opulence and destitution, there is a zone of basically reasonable ordinary needs.
Maybe someday, after the Singularity, we might be able to give everyone free body modification surgeries on a whim, but that day is so far from today it has minimal political implications. The scary blandness of equality is also just that, a boogie-man that doesn’t exist and probably never will. Someday, we might be unfrozen into a future world where everything is bland and sameness, but without poverty and oppression. I’ll take the boredom, please!!
My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for, I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.
Badiou, Alain. “On Evil: An Interview with Alain Badiou.” in: Cabinet. Issue 5, Winter 2001/2002.
Philosophy is not the professional product of philosophers, nor an esoteric discipline of the ivory tower. It is a general human potential that is necessary for our fulfillment as persons. The importance of such a universalistic conception of philosophy was driven home to me as I listened to Bruno Bosteels level criticisms at Alain Badiou’s conception of the importance of philosophy to the rebirth of the idea of Communism in our world. (These comments are taken from a panel on Badiou at last year’s Left Forum.)
Quoting Bosteels: “the place of philosophy in Badiou’s own work causes greater problems for the implementation of the Communist hypothesis …. the task of the formulation of the Communist idea, he attributes that to philosophy …. it is the philosopher’s task to help this type of mediation by working out the very nature of the Communist Idea. And in the absence of this work of the philosopher, Badiou seems to claim even that the masses might once again be disoriented.”
Bosteels quoting Badiou: “In fact, what we are ascribed as a philosophical task – we could say even a duty – is to help a new modality of existence of the hypothesis to come into being, absent which, the people appear once again disoriented and confused. Lacking the idea, the popular masses’ confusion is inescapable.”
Bosteels finds this assertion problematic and tied up with what he takes to be a drift by Badiou into “speculative leftism” a philosophical abstraction that abandons the messy engagement with history considered crucial in left-wing politics ever since Marx declared the supremacy of praxis over theoria. And Bosteels suspects that when Badiou assigns a grand duty to philosophy for the renewing of the idea of Communism he is harkening back to a Platonic vision of the hegemony of the philosopher-kings. I believe that it is very likely that Bosteels has mistaken Badiou’s intent. I read Badiou as not calling for philosophers to undertake the revisioning of Communism, but for the Communists in movement to cease their engagement in forms of Communist politics that have become saturated and instead, turn to philosophy. In other words, turn to a democratic philosophical engagement that takes as its aim rebirthing the idea of Communism.
My interpretation of Badiou can be confirmed by reading Badiou’s own contribution to the Idea of Communism conference in 2009. This essay entitled simply, The Idea of Communism, nowhere contains the word “philosopher.” In fact, it only uses “philosophy” when it appears in citations of his books that contain the word philosophy in the title. If Badiou were proposing that philosophers understood as a distinct class of intellectual experts should dominate the restitution of the idea of Communism, why does this essay never use the term?
That Badiou is rather asserting the duty of philosophizing about Communism for all in the Communist movement is borne out in this passage, “What is at issue is the possibility for an individual, defined as a mere human animal, and clearly distinct from any Subject, to decide to become part of a political truth procedure. To become, in a nutshell, a militant of this truth.” Badiou’s proposal is that Communists become militant partisans of the truth procedure that recreates the idea of Communism for a new sequence of human emancipatory struggles using philosophical means.
Perhaps Bosteels might find even this democratic and lateral interpretation of Badiou’s program troubling. After all, didn’t Marx himself say that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it?” Of course, the simple response to this worry is to cite Adorno, who said that the moment for philosophy’s overcoming had passed, referring to the deformation of Communism in the Stalinist era. We must take up philosophy anew when the structures of praxis we rely upon have become futile repetitions of failure.