theology


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

PUBLIC LECTURE IN THEOLOGY

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
ALL WELCOME
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.

James Endicott (1898-1993) was both a Christian missionary and a communist. Of Canadian background, he was ordained as a minister in the United Church. His claim to fame was active support of the communists leading up 1949 and then, back in Canada after more than two decades in China, speaking and agitating openly for support of the PRC. He was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, for his work towards peaceful coexistence between communists and Christians.

endicott

endicott and zhou

This was a meeting between Endicott and Zhou Enlain in 1972.

Are we witnessing the end of the myth of Western classicism? By this I mean the myth that ancient Greece, with its philosophers, drama, art, culture and pretence at democracy, is the foundation of ‘Western’ – that is, European – culture. The efforts by many of the north-western European powers to force Greece out of the Eurozone and the European Union suggest that we may well be seeing the end of that myth.

Slightly less than two hundred years ago, ancient Greece entered forcefully into the Western European consciousness. In 1823 Greece began fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Support in Western Europe was widespread and enthusiastic. By 1827, the Ottoman fleet was destroyed at Navarino. Greece became autonomous and independent, which for many Europeans was Greece’s ‘natural’ status. In Western Europe, people of all manner of persuasions supported Greece’s inclusion in Europe: Christians, political liberals and left-wingers, conservatives and even new humanists. Greece stood at the border of civilised Europe and the barbarous Orient, so it was crucial to claim that it was part of a vibrant and advanced Europe. No longer were ancient Egypt, India and China the embodiments of power, wealth and wisdom.

The elevation of all things Greek was spectacular. What had been a trickle became a flood. As custodians of ancient Greece, the modern Greeks embodied ‘progress’ in terms of freedom, harmony, individualism and the role of reason, and they provided the sources of philosophy, drama, the arts, politics and the ideal of the human form. Philhellenes abounded, especially in Germany, where Greece was regarded as the true source of all that was good in the world. Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Friedrich August Wolf may have been precursors in the later eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, the Humboldts and Hegel all proclaimed the greatness of Greece. For Hegel, only in ancient Greece had human society begun ‘to live in its homeland’ (The Philosophy of History, 1837, p. 247). Or as Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, an early sociologist, wrote in Kulturgeschichtliche Charakterkopfe (1891) concerning his recollections of life in a German gymnasium of the time:

We regarded Greece as our second homeland; for it was the seat of all nobility of thought and feeling, the home of harmonious humanity. Yes, we even thought that ancient Greece belonged to Germany because, of all the modern peoples, the Germans had developed the deepest understanding of the Hellenic spirit, of Hellenic art, and of the harmonious Hellenic way of life.

How things have changed. A couple of centuries ago, a Western Europe conscious of its new global power needed a dynamic new model that was in some way European. The classical Greeks provided that image: youthful, energetic, progressive, even ‘democratic’ (although this took longer to emerge). The ‘Classics’ became the core requirements for educating the ruling class, providing a cultural framework that had its own codes and signals. Plato occupied the chair in many philosophy departments, with Aristotle his understudy. Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes found similar locations in drama departments. Pericles and Athenian democracy became the darlings of political science. All of them seemed very much present, interlocutors in current debates.

Now Greece is a pariah. For north-western Europeans in our time, Greece is the embodiment of ‘southern laziness’. Their culture is chaotic; they cannot manage their finances; they allow all those dreadful Africans into Europe; they are too close to Turkey and the turmoil of the Middle East. So for the last five years, they have been punished with ‘austerity’ measures, administered by European banks, funds and politicians. At the forefront is Germany, which has had a profound change of heart. And when the Greeks elected a mildly left-wing government, led by Syriza, the grey bureaucrats of the European Union felt called upon to punish Greece even further. How dare they vote against austerity measures! They will be brought to heel. So each time the government of Tsipras caves in and agrees to the latest round of measures, the EU manipulators raise the bar.

Indeed, it has become clear that a hard-core majority of European states want to push Greece out of the Eurozone, out of the European Union, and thereby out of Europe. They keep proposing measures that Greeks can hardly accept. The tragedy in all of this is that many Greeks have internalised the myth of the Greek origins of Europe. While they oppose the crippling austerity measures, they overwhelmingly wish to remain part of Europe. Indeed, they cannot imagine that the rest of Europe would banish them. Or rather, they respond with disbelief that north-western Europe should wish to do so. In light of this situation, it may well be that for the time being the government caves in to the latest and even harsher measures. But this will be yet another step in the process of banishing Greece.

The symbolism is powerful. The fount of Western civilisation is now being stripped of that mythical honour. It may have enjoyed this status for a couple of centuries, but it is fading fast. But this raises a problem: who or what will become the new basis? Will it be a revamped Aryan myth? Not so long ago, this myth was expressed in terms of the Indo-European hypothesis. The problem with the hypothesis is that it included the Greeks. But another strain has always argued that human civilisation began not in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East, not even among the Mediterranean peoples, but in northern latitudes. Will this become the dominant myth of north-western Europe as it demonises anyone from southern or eastern Europe – especially Greece?

‘At times I regretted not being a Protestant, so that I might be more of a philosopher without ceasing to be a Christian’.

Joseph-Ernest Renan, author of the Life of Jesus (1863).

I am working my way through Farnham Maynard’s Religion and Revolution (1947). He was canon of St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, from 1926 to 1944. He saw socialism arising from Christianity, especially the Anglo-Catholicism he championed. Indeed, he managed to escape the Australian government’s ban on people travelling to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. He toured for eight months in 1952, moving across eastern Europe, through Russia and then to a conference in Beijing.

Anyway, in Religion and Revolution he traces the roles of Christianity in the French and Russian revolutions, arguing that it mostly missed the opportunity to be constructive contributors to the establishment of new modes of production. I am particularly taken by a discussion of the League of the Militant Godless in relation to the Soviet Union.

Maynard begins by noting Stalin’s response to a question from the First American Labour Delegation to the Soviet Union in 1927. He was asked about religion and repression of the church, to which Stalin replied in his typical fashion: ‘Have we repressed the reactionary clergy? Yes, we have’ (Works, volume 10, p. 139).

And then Maynard writes concerning the League itself: ‘Let us note, however, that a substantial part of the work done by the Anti-God League consisted in bringing about reforms which in the West had been brought about by Christians themselves’ (Religion and Revolution, 1947, p. 45).

I am writing an article on Farnham Maynard (1881-1973), who was a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. He wrote a number booklets and contributions to books on Christianity and communism, which were texts of speeches he gave: Economics and the Kingdom of God (1929), ‘Christianity and Socialism’ in A Fair Hearing for Socialism (1944) and Religion and Revolution (1947). More on this material soon, but I am quite intrigued by a forword given to the final work by none other than the secretary of the Victorian branch of Australian Communist Party, Jack Blake.

This foreword manifests the tensions of Marxist approaches to religion, found in the works of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Indeed, does so in a rather sharp fashion:

The Communist Party welcomes the growing interest among Christian people in the popular striving for a new social order as revealed in this collection of lectures which correctly set forth the Marxist viewpoint.

The Communist world outlook is based on dialectical materialism, which means that the Marxist does not include religion as part of his mental outlook.

Precisely because we Communists base ourselves on the dialectical materialist outlook, we are strongly opposed to any kind of persecution of religion, or attacks upon people’s religious beliefs. Frequently it is said that this is merely a tactic of the Communists to dupe innocent Christian people; actually it is a matter of deep principle with us; it arises from the fundamentals of our Marxist outlook on life.

Marxism teaches that religion arises from the economic and social foundations of society, and as society is changed and reaches the highest pinnacles of human attainment and enlightenment, religion as such will wither away.

Christian people believe otherwise, but the great question now posed before them is whether they are so lacking in faith as to defend an outmoded form of society as a means for preserving their religion, or whether they have enough faith in Christianity to play their part in the advance to a new form of society for the betterment of mankind: a society in which all religious freedoms will be preserved and even increased.

No person is excluded from the ranks of the Communist Party because of religious beliefs. For our part, we gladly welcome any steps to increase co-operation between Christians and Communists having a common interest in the advancement of mankind.

I have been discussing the Danish election results with Christina this afternoon. For a small country, the results may not seem important, but they may be read as harbingers of the situation in Scandinavia more generally. Initially, the results may seem depressing for anyone with sympathies vaguely on the Left. The ‘blue block’ seems to to have won the election with the slimmest of margins, 90 seats to the ‘red block’s’ 89 seats. Why depressing? The Danish People’s Party (DF) has won more than 21 percent of the vote, becoming Denmark’s second largest party in the Folketing (parliament). This is the party that has campaigned on three issues for the last 20 years: anti-Muslim propaganda, a wider xenophobia and a rhetoric of watching out for the ‘little people’ who are ‘suffering’ from the EU’s policies. This party has now become the king-maker, nominating Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the centre-right Ventre Party as Prime Minister.

But let us look a little deeper into the election results. The Social-Democrats actually improved their standing, cementing their position as Denmark’s main party. They now command about 27% of the vote. However, their various allies in a conventional bourgeois democratic system did not get enough votes to get the ‘red block’ coalition over the line. The second most popular party is the Danish People’s Party (as I mentioned, with more than 21% of the vote), a kind of neo-fascist bunch with a populist appeal. The two main parties would seem to be the antithesis of one another. But at a deeper level, they have much in common. Both have played the xenophobia card. The Social-Democrats have pointed the finger at ‘Eastern Europeans’ as the bane of Denmark, while the People’s Party likes to target Arabs, Muslims and people with obvious skin colouring that is not white.

Why are they so close to one another? I suggest it has to do with the infamous Scandinavian welfare state. The Social Democrats have been the architects of the welfare state in Denmark (and also with similar parties in other Nordic states). The catch is that the welfare state can only function by means of strict controls as to who is eligible for its benefits. The boundaries have always been clear. The Danish People’s Party plays on that theme: they promise to care for those who have been disadvantaged by aggressive EU policies aimed at bringing in cheap labour to undermine the very structure of welfare state. In that sense, the Danish People’s Party is the child of the welfare state, laying bare its incipient xenophobia.

The upshot: the natural alliance should be between the Social Democrats and the Danish People’s Party, since the latter is the child of the former. In that way, they could easily form government (at more than 48% of the vote) with one of the other minor parties.

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