I am delivering the following public lecture at the University of Auckland, on 9 September.


What has Marxism to do with Religion?

‘Opium of the people’ is one description of religion that we find in the work of Marx and Engels. When it came to socialists in power, they were supposed to have repressed all forms of religious expression. The curious fact is that many of the major Marxists – Marx and Engels included – had a good deal more to say about religion, especially Christian theology.

This lecture explores some of the key questions in that extended engagement. It begins by reconsidering the metaphor of opium, or what Lenin called ‘spiritual booze’. Second, it examines Engels’s proposals concerning the revolutionary religious tradition, beginning with early Christianity. This would become a staple in Marxism, with subsequent thinkers and activists elaborating on this tradition. Finally, it considers the thorny question of a religious person being a member of the communist party. Did one have to tick the box marked ‘atheist’ before being allowed to join? On this matter we visit the First International, the Bolsheviks, the Cuban Communist Party and the Communist Party of China.

Wednesday 9 September, 5.30pm
Room 315, Arts 1 (Building 206)
The University of Auckland
For more information and full abstract
visit http://www.arts.auckland.ac.nz

The following two days will be taken up with the ‘Radicalism, Violence and Religious Texts’ Conference. Abstracts may be found at Robert Myles’s blog.

By the early 1930s, Klara Zetkin was suffering from the heart problems from which she would soon die. In the meantime, she needed injections of camphor to raise her blood pressure. On the occasion of one such injection, the nurse administering the stimulant began to prepare her left buttock. Zetkin instructed the nurse to find another site on her body. ‘That one’, she said, ‘belongs to Dr Zamkov’.

Against the standard position that Stalin saw enemies all around him and was seeking world conquest, it is worth recalling comments like these. This is from 1947, in response to an interview question:

Let us not mutually criticize our systems. Everyone has the right to follow the system he wants to maintain. Which one is better will be said by history. We should respect the systems chosen by the people, and whether the system is good or bad is the business of the American people. To co-operate, one does not need the same systems. One should respect the other system when approved by the people. Only on this basis can we secure co-operation. Only, if we criticize, it will lead us too far.

As for Marx and Engels, they were unable to foresee what would happen forty years after their death. But we should adhere to mutual respect of people. Some people call the Soviet system totalitarian. Our people call the American system monopoly capitalism. If we start calling each other names with the words monopolist and totalitarian, it will lead to no co-operation.

We must start from the historical fact that there are two systems approved by the people. Only on that basis is co-operation possible. If we distract each other with criticism, that is propaganda.

As to propaganda, I am not a propagandist but a business-like man. We should not be sectarian. When the people wish to change the systems they will do so. When we met with Roosevelt to discuss the questions of war, we did not call each other names. We established co-operation and succeeded in defeating the enemy. (Works, vol. 16, p. 111)

Yesterday, the first of my articles was published in the People’s Daily, the CPC’s main newspaper in China. It is called ‘The Fundamental Limitations of US Democracy’, and may be found here and here (among a number of sites). However, since the article is in Chinese, below is the original text before it was translated.

The Fundamental Limitations of US Democracy

Roland Boer

Always be suspicious of anyone who claims to embody “democracy” without any qualifiers. Why? If they do make such a claim, they are trying to universalise their own particular form of democracy. The United States has been especially guilty of this claim, as we will see. But before I deal with the United States, let me analyse the types of democracy that are possible.

Types of Democracy

It has become clear that “democracy” does not exist as an absolute and universal term. Instead, we have particular types of democracy.

The ancient Greeks, especially in Athens, practised what may be called “Greek democracy.” It was exercised by the adult males in the small population of the polis. The term polis should not be translated as city, for it was really a town surrounded by fields used for agriculture. The populations of even the largest towns were no more than 30,000.

Another type of democracy is liberal or bourgeois democracy, which spread from Europe to some other parts of the world after the French Revolution of 1789. This form of democracy is restricted to adults over the age of 18 and follows a pattern of representation to a parliament, which does the real work. Notably, bourgeois democracy is, as the name suggests, the form preferred by the new ruling class, the bourgeoisie or middle class. It is also a mechanism developed to prevent the inroads of socialism.

A third form of democracy has arisen more recently in Eastern Europe and may be called “illiberal democracy.” We find it in Russia and Hungary today, where the ruling party in the parliament ensures its continued rule by hindering any serious opposition party.

The final type of democracy is socialist democracy, which is very different from the preceding types. Socialist democracy is found in varying shapes in socialist states where the communist party also forms the government.

Limits of Liberal Democracy

Much more may be said concerning the way these forms of democracy function. But in this article I focus on liberal (also called parliamentary or bourgeois) democracy, with the Unites States specifically in mind. The central point is that liberal democracy is not merely limited in extent (which would then simply entail an extension of that democracy) but that it is structurally geared to exclude significant groups from that liberal “democracy.” In fact, it requires such exclusions in order to constitute itself as “democracy.”

This pattern of exclusion already appears in the earliest theorists of liberalism. For example, John Stuart Mill writes in On Liberty that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians,” for liberty is only for “human beings in the maturity of their faculties” (Collected Works, vol. 18, p. 224). As for the rest of the world, they are little superior to the animals. Similar sentiments are found in the work of John Locke, who observed that slavery in the colonies was self-evident and indisputable (Political Essays, p. 180). In other words, liberalism and repression are two sides of the same coin.

Let us focus on today’s beacon of “democracy” and “liberty”: liberal democracy developed in the white community of the United States in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples (see Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History). When Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he did so as a slave owner. So also was George Washington, as were the other members of the team given responsibility for the declaration, as was John Madison who wrote the constitution, as were the presidents of the United States for 32 of its first 36 years. Indeed, for them a liberal and tolerant society was one that excluded the fanaticism of the slavery abolitionists.

How could these founders of the United States make such bold claims while being apparent hypocrites? “All men are created equal” relied on a crucial restriction to the sense of “all,” which certainly did not include slaves, women and “inferior” folk. One cannot understand “American liberty” without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other.

However, the way they understood of liberal democracy over time was subtle. The line between who should be included and who excluded always shifts; as some groups are included (slaves, workers, women), others are excluded. For instance, during the so-called Progressive Era, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous “democratic” reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret ballot, primaries, referenda, and so on. Yet they all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to assimilate Indigenous people and deprive them of their residual lands.

So also with the treatment of “rogue” or “pariah” states outside the United States. “Rogue” was originally a term used for slaves, and when one had white semi-slaves, they were branded with an “R” to signify their status. Now the term is used for states: once declared a “rogue” or “pariah” state, the “world’s oldest democracy” (Clinton) and “model for the world” (Bush) tries to crush these “barbarians” (Mill) in the name of the war cry, “freedom and democracy.”

As a further example from our own time: the continued construction of a prohibitively expensive wall between the United States and Mexico serves as a physical reminder of the built-in limits of liberal democracy in the United States. Those who still manage to enter the southern United States are denied basic rights, with one exception: they may join the armed forces. Indeed, recruitment targets non-citizens, offering them the hope of fast track to citizenship. Indeed, if a non-citizen is killed in combat, he or she will be granted citizenship posthumously.

Outside the United States, the examples multiply. We may include the necessary role of beggars, vagrants, workhouses, white servants, kidnapping of poor children for the army and for colonial labour, and even the tendency towards eugenics in the development of liberalism and liberal democracy in England. Oppression is inherent in liberalism’s focus on the individual and the growth of master-race democracy in Europe as it engaged in colonial expansion. Further, to what do the oft-repeated and much-vaunted claims for “human rights,” “liberty,” and “freedom” amount? We may deploy Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: “philanthropy + 5 per cent,” where “philanthropy” is synonymous with “human rights” and 5 per cent the profits to be made by waving the flag of “human rights.”

Many of these details are reasonably well known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they do not live up to their ideals. Instead, I suggest that the very possibility of bourgeois “democracy” and “freedom” is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority.

The United States Today

What about the situation in the United States today? A few facts will enable us to make a conclusion. To begin with, liberal or parliamentary democracy fosters systemic corruption. For example, a common practice in the American houses of parliament is “tagging” or “Christmas-treeing” a bill. The term designates a whole series of amendments that have little if any relation to the original bill – so that it looks like a Christmas tree covered in decorations. The purpose is to buy votes for the bill by including special requests from individual members of parliament. They are in fact legalised bribes in order to win enough votes for the legislation to pass. It may be a bill concerning the defence budget, but one person demands a special “tag” for his friends on Wall Street, another for sugar farmers, or another for a new freeway in his electorate. Such “tags” may run into the thousands, blowing out the budget for the initial bill out of all proportion.

The examples could go on, such as the legalisation of unlimited bribery – “secret money” – from the rich for political campaigns through the Political Actions Committees (PACs), the constant flow of undeclared money to influence political decisions by special interest groups such as the National Rifle Federation, and the fact that only the very rich can launch election campaigns. The most recent example is the campaign by Donald Trump in the Republican primaries. This outspoken racist now leads the Republican nomination list.

Second, voter participation appears to be at historic lows. By the 2014 mid-term elections, more than 60 percent of people did not bother to vote. When we consider low income earners and the young, the figure jumps to 80 percent. Many people cannot name the political parties and they do not know the name of their local member. When asked, people simply say that voting makes no difference. The extremely wealthy always get their way and it is in the interest of the ruling parties not to have a high turnout. Why? There is no political party in the United States that represents workers, so the Republican and Democratic parties have little interest in encouraging them to vote.

Some would regard this as evidence of a decline in interest in liberal democracy. If we take this view, then we could argue that the people of the United States have begun to realise that the system does not work. However, figures show that most presidential elections since 1920 have hovered around 50 percent of voter turnout. We may interpret this fact in two ways. First, for almost a century, the common people in the United States have largely been uninterested in its liberal democracy. Second, and picking up my earlier point, liberal democracy functions to exclude real participation by those who wish to change the system. Both points are true.

It is usually suggested that Stalin agreed to let the Soviet Union join the United Nations when Roosevelt offered him the power of a veto at the Yalta conference in February 1945. One should be wary of such spin, since Stalin had already – at conferences in 1942 and 1943 – been strongly in favour of such an organisation. Even more, we find clear public statements in support of the UN, as with the following from the celebration of the October Revolution in 1944:

Accordingly it is not to be denied that in the future the peace-loving nations may once more find themselves caught off their guard by aggression unless, of course, they work out special measures right now which can avert it.

Well, what means are there to preclude fresh aggression on Germany’s part and, if war should start nevertheless, to stifle it at its very beginning and give it no opportunities to develop into a big war?

There is only one means to this end, apart from the complete disarmament of the aggressor nations: that is to establish a special organization made up of representatives of the peace-loving nations for the defence of peace and safeguarding of security; to put at the disposal of the directing body of this organization the necessary minimum of armed forces required to avert aggression, and to oblige this organization to employ these armed forces without delay if it becomes necessary, to avert or stop aggression, and to punish those guilty of aggression.

This must not be a repetition of the sad memory of the League of Nations, which had neither the right nor the means to avert aggression. It will be a new, special, fully authorized international organization having at its command everything necessary to defend peace and avert new aggression.

Can we expect the actions of this world organization to be sufficiently effective? They will be effective if the great Powers which have borne the brunt of the war against Hitler Germany continue to act in a spirit of unanimity and accord. They will not be effective if this essential condition is violated. (Works, col. 15, p. 398).

In an earlier post concerning my winter swim in the ocean, I mentioned that the water was somewhat chilly but that the swim was glorious. Of course, I used some poetic license to emphasise the water’s temperature. My mother decided to write me an email to point out that the water in these parts was 18.1 degrees and that such a temperature is not so cold. I am not sure where my mother found such a statistic, for today I went for another swim. This time I was in the water, swimming laps in the ocean baths, for about 20 minutes. And the temperature: 15 degrees. This was obtained by simply putting a thermometer in the water (as the lifeguard does each day).

By 1942, the German Wehrmacht had suffered its first and stunning defeat at Stalingrad. Here the tide of the Second World War turned. Stalin reflects at some length on the reasons, one of which he puts down to the German propensity for orderliness.

In this respect, things are far from well with the Germans. Their strategy is defective because, as a general rule, it under-estimates the strength and possibilities of the enemy and over-estimates its own forces. Their tactics are hackneyed, for they try to make events at the front fit in with this or that article of the regulations. The Germans are accurate and precise in their operations when the situation permits them to act as required by the regulations. That is where their strength lies. They become helpless when the situation becomes complicated and ceases to “correspond” to this or that article of the regulations, but calls for the adoption of an independent decision not provided for in the regulations. It is here that their main weakness lies (Works, vol. 15, p. 38).