marxism


The University of Newcastle is offering the following PhD scholarships to high calibre international applicants. This is – as usual – extremely competitive. A few details:

  • A high quality, international University partner
  • Agreement of the supervisors and student to undertake a jointly supervised PhD with at least one supervisor from each University
  • Availability of a high quality (top) student preferably from the partner institution
  • Student to spend (face-to-face) time at both institutions during their PhD, the time distribution being flexible
  • Up to 50% full scholarship support from University of Newcastle and the remainder from the partner

Please contact me at my university email address if you know of anyone eligible and interested in a joint PhD in Marxist philosophy and religion.

In 1947, Stalin’s found himself assessing a thesis on Carl von Clausewitz, the German theoretician of war. Not a bad example of how might assess a doctoral thesis:

The thesis contains too much philosophy and abstract statements. The terminology taken from Clausewitz, talking of the grammar and logic of war hurts ones ears. The question of the factional character of war theory is primitively posed. The hymns of praise to Stalin also pain the ears, it hurts to read them (Works, vol 16, p. 73).

So no hymns of praise … but no psalms of demonisation either.

Australasia’s own Historical Materialism conference will meet again this year: 17-18 July at the University of Sydney. More information here, but I have copied the call for papers.

Historical Materialism Australasia 2015: Reading Capital, Class & Gender Today

The year 2015 marks a series of conspicuous anniversaries. Three books in particular celebrate significant milestones this year. Raewyn Connell and Terry Irving’s seminal Class Structure in Australian History was published thirty-five years ago, Louis Althusser and his students published Reading Capital fifty years ago, and Silvia Federici produced Wages Against Housework forty years ago. These works function at once as indices of the diversity of approaches licensed by the Marxist tradition – historical sociology, philosophical inquiry, polemical ardor – while also sharing that singularly Marxist commitment to the ruthless criticism of all that exists (including Marxism itself) in light of the real movement that abolishes the present state of things. It is in that spirit of diversity and critical engagement with the world as it is that we announce the 2015 Historical Materialism Australasia Conference.

The diversity in the works commemorated above is not limited to their methodology. The issues they address remain alive today, as questions of politics or scholarship or both: the interaction of class and race in settler colonial societies; the place of class and labour in historical inquiry; the concept of a transitional period; the philosophical status of Marx’s work and its relationship to other forms of knowledge; the concept of critique itself; the question of Capital’s continued reproduction; the relationship between feminism(s) and Marxism; the role of care labour in a theory of work; the place of the wage in capitalist society. This list does not exhaust the challenges these works undertook to address nor, of course, the specific challenges and opportunities that confront us today. But it is the wager of this conference that the vitality of historical materialism is precisely in this propensity, even bias, towards interdisciplinarity, seen not as a conference buzzword, but as the only adequate response to the society that faces us.

With that in mind, we welcome submissions of 250-word abstracts for papers on the questions above or any others that engage with this broader tradition, critically or otherwise; panel proposals should include short abstracts for each paper coupled with an outline of the panel as a whole. We especially welcome contributions from activists and scholars outside of (or peripheral to) the academy. All submissions should be emailed to hmaustralasia [at] gmail.com by Friday the 15th of May.

Today, on Mayday, we had the inaugural Stalin Prize film night. More than I expected gathered to watch the epic Fall of Berlin (winner in 1950). We drank vodka, soaking it up with various nibblies. Some extraordinary scenes, such as the one when a mad and rat-like Hitler meets prelates from the Vatican and promises them that he will save ‘Western civilisation’, or the Stakhanovite themes at the beginning, replete with the rich harvests and steel plants that smiling children simply visit on a whim, or indeed the calm, measured, albeit somewhat stiff Stalin himself, who calmly directs the Red Army with insight and brilliance. Not a few laughs, but most stayed rivetted to the end. After all, it is really is a love story between Alexei and Natasha.

fall-of-berlin

More film nights to come, with other winners of the Stalin Prize.

In an address to the first all-union congress of collective-farm shock brigaders (1933), Stalin deals with the processes of admitting individual peasants into collective farms. Some such farms were a little wary of accepting individual peasants who may not have been so keen on collectivisation. The reasons were many, such as this one about the peasant woman’s brown eye:

Two years ago I received a letter from a peasant woman, a widow, living in the Volga region. She complained that the collective farm refused to accept her as a member, and she asked for my support. I made inquiries at the collective farm. I received a reply from the collective farm stating that they could not accept her because she had insulted a collective-farm meeting. Now, what was it all about? It seems that at a meeting of peasants at which the collective farmers called upon the individual peasants to join the collective farm, this very widow, in reply to this appeal, had lifted up her skirt and said—Here, take your collective farm! (Laughter.) Undoubtedly she had behaved badly and had insulted the meeting. But should her applicationto join the collective farm be rejected if, a year later, she sincerely repented and admitted her error? I think that her application should not be rejected. That is what I wrote to the collective farm. The widow was accepted into the collective farm. And what happened? It turns out that she is now working in the collective farm, not in the last, but in the front ranks. (Applause.) Works, vol. 13, p. 261.

Can a religious person join the communist party?

One would expect that the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Is not Marxism a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or indeed for reactionary religious institutions? The catch is that communist parties around the world have actually permitted religious people to join and be members.

Let us go back to the First International. It was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist,[1] he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’[2] As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.[3]

Why did they take this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’.[4] The third reason is that they would simply be copying a bourgeois anti-religious program, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democrats: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’.[5] A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.[6]

Perhaps Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide us with a clear example of demanding atheism from party members. Here too we will be disappointed, for Lenin – as a good ‘Erfurtian’ – took the position of the Erfurt Program.[7] To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.[8]

Surely the Cuban Communist Party bans religion for its members. It did so initially, but even then many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ anyone who sought to become a member. Indeed, in the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.[9]

It is becoming difficult to find a communist party that requires atheism of its members – at least until we come to the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’.[10] At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and exercises them along officially recognised channels.

[1] ‘Record of Marx’s Interview with The World Correspondent’, 1871, MECW 22, p. 605.

[2] Marx, ‘Remarks on the Programme and Rules of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy’, 1868, MECW 21, p. 208.

[3] Engels, ’ Account of Engels’s Speech on Mazzini’s Attitude Towards the International’, 1871, MECW, p. 608.

[4] Engels, ‘Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, London, July 1884’. 1884, MECW 47, p. 173.

[5] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Erfurt Program. In German History in Documents and Images: Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890–1918. Available at  www.germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/513_Erfurt%20Program_94.pdf.

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Walters, New York: Pathfinder, 1970, p. 132.

[7] Lenin, ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion’, Collected Works 15, p. 404.

[8] Lenin, ‘Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party”?’ 1993, Collected Works 6, p. 331 fn.

[9] See http://www.cuba.dk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=229:central-report-to-the-6th-congress-of-the-communist-party-of-cuba&catid=49:politik-og-historie&Itemid=50.

[10] http://en.people.cn/n/2015/0202/c90785-8844565.html.

Having just returned from a lively panel on ‘Marxism and Theology’ at the New York Historical Materialism conference, I have been asked whether I would be interested in a panel on my Deutscher-prize book, In The Vale of Tears, for the Sydney event – on 17-18 July. The catch is that not so many Marxists in Australia know much about philosophy, let alone Marxism and religion. One or two come to mind, but this is probably a good moment for some crowd-sourcing. Suggestions welcome (send to my University of Newcastle email address).

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