What do Friedrich Engels, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Kim Il Sung and Stalin have in common?

They all made the – often difficult – step from religious faith to Marxism. Engels, with his Reformed background and the strong religious commitment of his youth, set the initial example. In his footsteps followed Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre, Terry Eagleton and Kim Il Sung, to mention but a few. Crucially, they did not give up their interest in matters theological and ecclesiastical. Even if they had “lost” their faith (and not all did), they maintained a lively interest in, if not an insight into, the realities of belief, theology and the church. So also with Stalin.


On Chinese Marxism

Among other things, I am reading a book called Chinese Marxism by Adrian Chan (20o3). It is a bit thin in parts, especially in terms of the Russian Revolution, but the core of the book is excellent. In a devastating chapter, he demolishes what has become a standard position among Sinologists and ‘authorities’ on Chinese Marxism: the early theorists and members of the CCP were deluded and did not understand Marx properly. And since those early leaders became the teachers of Mao, he too misinterpreted Marx. That is, the adoption of Marxism was opportunist and that approach was used as a convenient screen for nationalist and specifically Chinese concerns. Sound familiar?

Let us have a closer look at Chan’s points. The key text here is Benjamin Schwartz’s Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Harvard, 1951), which set the agenda and became an ‘authority’. In discussing the key early figures Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, Schwartz proposes that they were opposed to socialism until quite late, they were ‘Manchester Liberals’ even after founding the communist party, they read little Marx, what they read they misunderstood (focusing on peasants rather than workers), their late turn to a misunderstood Marxism was inspired by nationalist resentment after the May 4th Movement, as well as direct Comintern intervention, and they passed on this distorted approach to Mao. That is, they simply used Marxism as a convenient screen for their own political agenda and lust for power. Schwartz’s basic position soon became authoritative, adopted by others, such as Maurice Meisner, Carrère d’Encausse and Schram, and even Arif Dirlik’s The Origins of Chinese Communism (1989). And we see it today in the common position among the Left that Chinese communists are that in name only, using Marxism as a convenient ideology for their own very different agenda.

Chan thoroughly demolishes Schwartz’s position, showing that he was highly selective in what he used from these early Chinese Marxists, altered their texts, left out crucial sections of those texts and attributed works to them that they had not written. And as Chen points out, Schwartz had been appointed to Harvard by both the Departments of Government and of East Asian Studies. The head of the latter department, John King Fairbank, made it quite clear that the purpose of Asian Studies at Harvard was to train ‘capable’ intelligence officers, who would ‘contain’ and resist the ‘disaster’ of ‘modern Asian totalitarianism’. That sounds strangely familiar today, echoed in quarters as apparently different as Rick Santorum and Slavoj Žižek.

Dirlik is particularly interesting, since he at least claims to be a Marxist. Yet his 1989 book makes many of the same Cold War assumptions: the Chinese turn to communism was a direct result of intervention by the Comintern (based in Moscow and decidedly Bolshevik); they misunderstood communism as social democracy; they did not understand Marxism ‘in its totality’. Apart from the fact that Marxism is not a total philosophical system, Chan also points out that in the early decades of the 20th century some key texts by Marx and Engels had not even been published (Grundrisse and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), so no-one would have been able to know it in its ‘totality’.

Here I would add Eagleton’s recent Why Marx Was Right (2011), which carries on this venerable tradition. Holding to a romantic Marxism, in which the true revolution is yet to come, Eagleton argues that the Chinese communist revolution – along with all of the others from Russia to Vietnam – was deluded and misdirected. Why? A proper communist revolution should take place only in an advanced capitalist context. Given that the Chinese revolution occurred in a largely pre-capitalist, agricultural country, it was both a travesty of Marxism and bound to ‘fail’. Obviously, it has been a while since Eagleton seriously read Marx.

Back to those early Chinese communists: the reality is, of course, quite different, for Chen and Li and others engaged in intensive study of Marx and Engels well before 4 May 1919, using the library under Li’s direction with over 70 works by our good friends, engaging in active translations, and publishing items on Marxism in very influential journals from 1915. They worked closely with texts such as The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Capital, The Civil War in France and the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And they were particularly interested in the points made by Marx and Engels that there was never a ‘master-key’ based on a supra-historical and ‘general historico-philosophical theory’. Rather, the path to communism will take very different forms, depending on particular historical, social and economic factors, or, in their words, ‘on the historical conditions for the time being existing’.

A Message for Terry Eagleton

A belated comment on an earlier post concerning the best way to contact Tezza from New Zealeand (or anywhere else for that matter), given that he doesn’t use the internet:

Hello Prof. T. Eagleton,
I am a participant in the Jordanian philosophical Association and the socialist forum. I will give a lecture about your book  “The Illusion of Postmodernism”.
I have a weak and unclear Arabic translation for your book. Is it possible that you send me a broadened idea regarding it in English?
Your language seems a bit obscure to me and I will be thankful if you you can use a more common language.
Thanks very much in advance
Ahmad Otoum
Amman – Jordan

How to contact Terry Eagleton

Should you (as Deane Galbraith did recently) wish to contact Tezza himself – now at the University of Lancaster – then you will eventually stumble on this page, where the following appears:

PLEASE NOTE: Terry Eagleton does not use email. If you wish to contact him please write to him at his departmental address: Professor Terry Eagleton, Department of English & Creative Writing, County College, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK.

However, being an inventive sort of chap and being too polite to contact Eagleton’s (fifth) wife, Deane chatted with his good friend, who suggested the following approach:

Creative writing? That’s pushing it a little, Tezza …

Jesus, Marx and the flippancy of Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton still has the knack of turning out catchy sound bites, such as the following:

The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition.

The problem is that Eagleton’s renowned flippancy has once again ensured that he misses a deeper truth here: one can trace a path from the recorded sayings of Jesus to the Inquisition, as one can from Paul as well. And we can also follow a thin line from Marx’s writings to the atrocities of Stalin or Pol Pot. That is a far harder pill to swallow, but I suggest it is more truthful. Why? First, it is easy to blame the ‘distortions’ of followers and zealous disciples, while leaving the original words of the founder untainted. Second, a profound dialectic may be found within both Christianity and Marxism, one that leads to the Terror, to oppression and bloodshed, and another powerful line that leads to liberation. Third, although both elements may at certain times be inseparable, and although one needs to make some tough choices (as Lenin found), the trick is to ensure that the liberating side of the dialectic comes out on top. Easier said than done.

Latest publications: Nick Cave, Ethics and Islamic Perspective

Three publications in the last couple of weeks:

First, a study of Nick Cave and Christology:

2010    ‘Jesus of the Moon: Nick Cave’s Christology’, In The Bible In/And Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter. Eds. Elaine Wainwright and Philip Culbertson. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, pp. 127-39.

Second, a full study of Eagleton on ethics, with a blast at the possibility of ethics itself, especially by left-wing scholars:

2010    ‘Quailing Before the Real: Terry Eagleton and Ethics’. The Hobgoblin, 1 December. http://www.thehobgoblin.co.uk/2010Dec_ROLAND_BOER_ON_TERRY_EAGLETON.html.

And third, a piece in a fascinating journal, called Islamic Perspective, Number 4, 2010.

More details:

The Fourth volume of the Journal of Islamic Perspective has been published by the London Academy of Iranian Studies’ Centre for Sociological Studies. The journal is comprised of 14 articles, 2 Books Reviews and one Interview in 322 pages.

The Journal of Islamic Perspective is a peer reviewed publication of the Center for Humanities and Sociological Studies, affiliated to the London Academy of Iranian Studies (LAIS) and aims to create a dialogue between intellectuals, thinkers and writers from the Islamic World and academics, intellectuals, thinkers and writers from other parts of the Globe. Issues in the context of Culture, Islamic Thoughts & Civilizations, and other relevant areas of social sciences, humanities and cultural studies are of interest and we hope to create a global platform to deepen and develop these issues in the frame of a Critical Perspective. Our motto is homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto. Contributions to Islamic Perspective do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or the Center for Humanities and Sociological Studies. To order a hard copy of the journal email sadreddin@iranianstudies.org.

To download the electronic version of the Journal click here



Interview on Globalization
Judith Blau 15

Deconstructing Global Education
Sayyed Mohsen Fatemi 23

AreWe Now “Post-Secular”? A critique of some of the recent claims
Bill Cooke 39

Faith and Science: Juan Luís Segundo On Religion and Science
Richard Curtis 54

The Swastika and The Crescent – “Islamofascism”: Reality or Political Syllogism
Dustin Byrd 73

The Paradoxes of the Secular State
Roland Boer 92

Religion as Worldview: Its Primordial, Perennial, and Practical Significance
John Herlihy 109

Johannine Christianity and Secularisation
Matthew Del Nevo 142

The Vatopedi Monasteri Scandal:What does the media coverage of the scandal show about the contemporary social and political role of Greek Orthodox Church?
Despina Chronaki 161

Soroush, Sufi Hermeneutics and Legitimizing a Hybrid Muslim Identity
Banafsheh Madaninejad 183

The Semantic Potential of Religion in Habermas’ Struggle for Modernity: Something’s Missing
Michael R. Ott 198

Next challenge: Community Development and Superintelligence
Ali Akbar Ziaee 243

Religion and Social Theory in the Frommesque Discourse
Seyed Javad Miri 254

Towards an Index of global tolerance: A quantitative analysis, based on the “World Values Survey” data
Arno Tausch 263

The Qur’an as a Criterion for Hadith-Text Examination
Israr Ahmad Khan 280

Book Reviews

Yoginder Sikand, ed., Madrasa Reforms—Indian Muslim Voices, Mumbai: Vikas Adhyayan Kendra
Nasir Khan 314

M.L.Bhatia, The Ulama, Islamic Ethics and Courts Under the Mughals—Aurangzeb Revisited
Yoginder Sikand 318

Korean translation of my Eagleton piece

I must admit I get a buzz out of this – when an item of mine is translated into another language. It gets better when the first I hear of it is that at some point the translator or publisher or whoever says to me, ‘Oh by the way, we translated this into …’ Or when I doscover it on a blog somewhere. The latest is Marishin’s translation of my MR piece on Eagleton’s ethical failure, now up on the lefty Korean blog, Jinbo – in Korean. Marishin tells me it’s generated a fair bit of traffic among the Korean left, where Eagleton is widely if somewhat uncritically read.