socialism


One of the things you notice after being in eastern Germany for a while is the continuous ideological warfare against the GDR. It happens at so many levels, from everyday conversation through to official policies by the government. One of the most pernicious is to suggest that communism is no different from fascism (thanks Hannah Arendt, you western liberal, for that one). And it happens because the sensibilities and traces of the GDR persist and refuse to disappear - including the Frei Deutsche Jugend. Indeed, it’s quite clear that the majority of the citizens of the GDR did not want to be overrun and colonised by West Germany. So the latest effort by the German government is to consider a ban on symbols from the GDR.

But you can do your little bit to indicate how many people are opposed to this measure by signing the online petition – here.

Volume 30 of Lenin’s Collected Works: what a read it has been so far! At one level, it is an extraordinary narrative that draws you in, giving you the proverbial never-ending book. At another level, it has blown away many caricatures and preconceptions concerning Lenin. One would have to be the sectarian Lenin, brooking no rival and eliminating them at the slightest provocation. Not at all, Lenin struggles between what I call ecumenism and sectarianism, voicing now one, now the other position – so I will need to call on a complex dialectic to deal with it all.

However, the best find of late is the lice. Lice!? Not on me, mind you.

Let me set the scene. It is late 1919, two years after the revolution. The place has faced six years of perpetual war, first in WWI and then in the ‘civil’ war. Of course it wasn’t ‘civil’ at all: the British, French, Americans, Canadians, Japanese et al thought they could topple the fledgling and weakened communist republic. They failed, so they sent arms, money, supplies and troops to old guard generals in the north, south, east and west – Kolchak, Yudenich, Denikin, Churchill et al (Churchill predicted he would have Moscow by Christmas of 1918). The lesson: any socialist state that wants to delink from the global capitalist system will be attacked, brutally and consistently, dubbed ‘terrorist’, a threat to civilisation, un-democratic, dictatorial and so on and on. It will also need to make sure it is bloody well protected – the necessary evil of what I call ‘war communism’.

But defeat the lot of these shits the Soviets did, especially with the genius of Trotsky. So by the end of the 1919, they can finally turn to reconstruction. Three key issues have been dogging them: food, since the blockade had attempted to starve the Russians; fuel, since the same arseholes grabbed the coalfields and tried to freeze them to death. Pecisely on these issues does the question of the transition from old to new turn: how do you construct a completely different system of production, distribution and consumption in the midst of the old system. I cannot wait to write about this deeply theo-political problem in the book.

But what about the lice? They are the third key issue for the tension between old and new. Here is Lenin at the seventh congress of Soviets in December 1919:

Comrades, we must concentrate everything on this problem. Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice! (Collected Works, Vol. 30, p. 228)

Why lice? Easy: they spread typhus. Typhus was sweeping through a hungry, cold but  increasingly victorious Red Army and population. The outcome is now history, albeit less known than it should: socialism did defeat the lice, or at least those lice.

No wonder Lenin could proclaim, ‘it really is a miracle!’

It’s also the reason he stopped wearing those furry hats:

In assessing miracles, we can discount that shoddy operation known as the Vatican and its saint-mongering. Instead, I suggest we use that profound investigator of all things theological, V.I. Lenin. With news that the tsar had abdicated and a provisional (bourgeois) government installed in early 1917, he writes:

There are no miracles in nature or history, but every abrupt turn in history, and this applies to every revolution, presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces of the contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that must appear miraculous. (Collected Works, vol 23, p. 297).

Once he warms to the idea, he puts aside his scepticism and says, ‘shit yeah, that is a miracle’:

Workers, you have performed miracles of proletarian heroism, the heroism of the people, in the civil war against tsarism. You must perform miracles of organisation, organisation of the proletariat and of the whole people, to prepare the way for your victory in the second stage of the revolution. (Collected Works, vol. 23, pp. 306-7).

Note carefully: one miracle down (overthrowing the tsar); one to go (turfing out the bourgies and bringing about the second stage of the revolution). So now we have two miracles.

Comrade workers! You performed miracles of proletarian heroism yesterday in overthrowing the tsarist monarchy. In the more or less near future (perhaps even now, as these lines are being written) you will again have to perform the same miracles of heroism to overthrow the rule of the land lords and capitalists, who are waging the imperialist war. You will not achieve durable victory in this next “real” revolution if you do not perform miracles of proletarian organisation. (Collected Works, vol 23, p. 323).

When you have two, you have a multiple: one, two, many miracles are now possible. Ever keen for a motivating slogan, Lenin identifies two. ‘Miracles of proletarian heroism’ might be back-dated to the overthrow of tsarism, but what is the slogan for the forthcoming October revolution?

Miracles of proletarian organisation! That is the slogan of the moment! (Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 360).

While Marx admitted that he had a particular dislike of Christianity – ‘so specific is my aversion to Christianity,’ he wrote to Lasalle – and even though he is guilty of occasional moments of crass materialism, he also argued that atheism is not a prerequisite for socialism.

One reason was theoretical, for as Marx points out already in his response to Bruno Bauer’s program to abolish religion, atheism is ‘the last stage of theism, the negative recognition of God’. In other words, atheism is really a theological position; one needs a God whose existence can be denied. He goes one step further in an astute couple of sentences in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. He begins with this very same argument – atheism is theological since it is a negation of God in order to focus on the existence of human beings (Feuerbach did as much). But then Marx argues that we need to move beyond the opposition of theism and atheism: ‘Atheism … has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in need of such a mediation … Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion’. Abolition here is of course Aufhebung: socialism is the sublation, preservation and lifting to another level of religion. One does not need atheism as a basis for socialism; rather, it is sublated by socialism. Or as Marx put it more prosaically and somewhat quaintly in an interview with the Chicago Tribune:

‘You and your followers, Dr. Marx, have been credited with all sorts of incendiary speeches against religion. Of course you would like to see the whole system destroyed, root and branch’.
‘We know’, he replied after a moment’s hesitation, ‘that violent measures against religion are nonsense; but this is an opinion: as Socialism grows, religion will disappear’.

Another reason for distinguishing between atheism and socialism was tactical. On one side Bakunin and the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. Marx comments dryly, ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’ On the other side there were plenty of accusations that the International was precisely as Bakunin had wanted. I do not mean the scaremongers of state repression, but former comrades such as Jules Favre and Mazzini, who stated that the International wanted to make atheism compulsory. Engels repeatedly points out that atheism is not part of the socialist program. In a similar vein Marx, in his interview with The World, replies to the question,

‘And as to religion?’
On that point I cannot speak in the name of the society. I myself am an atheist. It is startling, no doubt, to hear such an avowal in England, but there is some comfort in the thought that it need not be made in a whisper in either Germany or France.

Does this mean that the communist movement took the position of freedom of conscience for its members? Here Marx is ambivalent. In his Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction he argues that religion is the inviolable ‘subjective frame of mind’, at least as far as religion itself in concerned. It is part of a longer argument against religious censorship by the state, suggesting that the state censor usurps God’s sole role as judge of the heart. The reasons why such an argument was made in the context of censorship are not difficult to determine – the preservation of at least some domain that is free from censorship (the ‘kingdom within’), as well as the characteristic inversion whereby the censor turns out to be the one guilty of defamatory and offensive judgement.

It is of course a position that is all too common today: religion is a private matter that is no-one else’s business. My initial reaction is that he merely buys into the privatisation of religious commitment that is by now almost universal. Religion ceases to have any communal or social presence: all that counts is one’s relationship with one’s God. So we find one politician after another responding to the latest social comment from church, synagogue or mosque: stop seeking the media spotlight and mind your own business, which is the cultivation of souls and religious experience. Is this not a deeply liberal position in which the individual is sacrosanct? We can at least account for Marx’s argument by pointing out that it comes from an early text before he had taken up communism.

Later on, be blasts the very idea of freedom of conscience as a tired old liberal catchword. For example in Critique of the Gotha Programme he writes that what freedom of conscience should mean is that ‘everyone should be able to attend to his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in’. He goes on to state that it actually means the toleration of only certain types of religion, which is nothing less than ‘unfreedom of conscience’. And it certainly doesn’t include the freedom to be liberated from religion itself.

There is actually more here than at first seems to be the case. Marx does appear to dismiss the whole idea of freedom of conscience as an irredeemable liberal position, but then he takes another step. This position is actually not freedom of conscience at all, for if it was then one should be able to hold whatever religion one wants or indeed dispense with the witchery of religion completely. It is as if he is saying, you want freedom of conscience, then here it is … in full!

In a situation in which the thought police of Germany persecuted any one who opposed state power and the church, Marx must be consistent and argue that the socialists should not exercise the same type of censorship. Even more, a fully collective program does not seek to impose the will of either the one or the many over the other. What we end up with is a dialectical point: rather than throwing out the baby of freedom of conscience with the bathwater of liberal ideology, a fully collective program will enable the full realisation of freedom of conscience. And that applies as much to religious belief as to anything else.