Capitalism, Communism, Christianity - and Christmas
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 06:56

Capitalism, Communism, Christianity - and Christmas

Published in Religion

Roland Boer answers questions about religion, capitalism, Christian communism – and Christmas. Culture Matters is also giving away a downloadable PDF of Professor Boer's new ebook on Christian communism, with best wishes to all our readers for the midwinter celebrations. Let's hope we have a culturally and politically progressive 2019........

Q. To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your path to Marxism?

A. My path to Marxism came through religion, particularly the Reformed (Calvinist) part of Protestantism. This may seem like a strange path, since the more common one is through Roman Catholicism – think of Terry Eagleton, Louis Althusser, David McLellan and so on. But it is one I share with far more illustrious people such as Friedrich Engels and Kim Il Sung.

How did this happen? My parents emigrated to Australia in the 1950s from the Netherlands, where the long post-war recession was still being felt. My father became a minister in the Reformed Churches of Australia, and later the Presbyterian Church. So I grew up as a minister’s son, with all of its benefits and drawbacks. It did mean that this type of Christian faith was part and parcel of everyday life – a rare experience these days. It was the fabric of my life, my assumptions and ways of experiencing the world.

Intellectually, this meant that I would inevitably study theology, but only after a degree in European classics (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit). While studying for a Bachelor of Divinity at the University of Sydney, I took a course in the 1980s called ‘Political and Liberation Theologies’. It was a real eye-opener – my first in-depth engagement with the intersections between Marxism and religion, which would shape much of what I did later. A Master’s thesis on Marx and Hegel followed, with a doctorate in Montreal on Marxist literary criticism of the Bible.

Various jobs followed: a minister in the church, a lecturer in a theological college, a university research scholar. But I have always been somewhat ambivalent about such institutions and their demands. There is always one foot outside, searching for another path.

The reality was that I was on some type of quest: to follow the whole Marxist tradition in all its many directions. In a Western European situation, this meant – given my interests – the complex intersections with Christianity. It is a commonplace that Western European cultures and traditions are deeply shaped by the realities of Christian (and Jewish) thought in so many ways. This meant that many Marxists, from Marx and Engels onwards, had to engage with religion. A similar point could be made about Russian Marxism, although this was now the Eastern Orthodox tradition, with its distinct theological developments.

The study of Russian Marxism brought me to a new awareness: as Lenin said on many occasions, winning power through a communist revolution is relatively easy; trying to construct socialism, often in a hostile environment, is infinitely more complex. So I became more interested in what might be called ‘After October’, after the revolution. What communist parties do when in power is an extraordinary area to study, especially since it remains so under-studied. New problems arise that could simply not be foreseen by Marx and Engels, who never experienced what may be called ‘socialism in power’. New solutions must be found and new theoretical positions developed.

All of this took me to China (and more recently North Korea). Here communist parties are in power, and I prefer to take that reality seriously rather than simply dismiss it. What are the practical and theoretical developments? How do the cultural and historical contexts – so different from Western Europe and Russia – influence the developments of Marxism? One obvious point is that the history of engagements with religion is so different that one must start again in order to understand what is going on.

So I am now, along with a number of others, working on a project called ‘Socialism in Power’. My interest is in Chinese Marxist philosophy, which entails knowing the language and engaging with the rich tradition of this philosophy and its relations with traditional Chinese philosophy. What topics interest me? They include the socialist state, a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, Chinese approaches to ‘utopia’ and how these are reinterpreted in light of Marxism, and even what the Chinese mean by a socialist market economy.

Q. You’ve written for Culture Matters on a number of topics. Can you start by saying something about Marx, Engels and Lenin’s comments on religion?

A.‘Opium of the people’ is where we should begin. For a young Marx in his twenties it meant not simply a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. Instead, the metaphor of opium in the nineteenth century was a complex one. On the one hand, opium was seen as a cheap and widely available medicine, readily accessible for the poor. Marx himself used opium whenever he felt ill, which was often. On the other hand, opium became increasingly to be seen as a curse. Medical authorities began to warn of addiction and that perhaps its healing properties were not what many people believed. And the scandal of the British Empire forcing opium on the Chinese in order to empty Chinese coffers became more and more apparent. In short, opium was a very ambivalent metaphor: blessing and curse, medicine and dangerous drug, British wealth and colonial oppression. This ambivalence carries through to religion.

As for this ambivalence, Engels is our best (early) guide. Despite giving up his Reformed faith – with much struggle – for communism, he kept a lifelong interest in religion. He would frequently denounce religion as a reactionary curse, longing for it to be relegated to the museum of antiquities. But he also began to see a revolutionary potential in religion, which came to its first full expression in his 1850 piece on the German Peasant War. This was a study of Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant Revolt of 1525, which was inspired by a radical interpretation of the Bible.

It was the first Marxist study of what later came to be called (by Karl Kautsky) Christian communism, although Engels tended to see the theological language as a ‘cloak’ or ‘husk’ for more central economic and political matters. But Engels was not yet done. Not long before his death in 1895, an article appeared on early Christianity. Here Engels challenged everyone – Marxists and Christians alike – to take seriously the argument that early Christianity was revolutionary. Why? It drew its members from slaves, peasants and unemployed urban poor; it shared many features with the communist movement of his own day; it eventually conquered the Roman Empire. We may want to question the last assertion, as indeed later Marxists like Karl Kautsky did, for Christianity – unexpectedly for some – became a religion of empire rather than conquering it.

Does Lenin have any insights for understanding religion? Generally, he was more trenchantly opposed, not least because the Russian Orthodox Church sided so clearly with the collapsing tsarist autocracy. Yet there are some insights. Apart from Lenin’s continued interest in sectarian Christian groups after the October revolution, let me make two observations.

The first is that Lenin agreed with a position that had been hammered out in the German Social-Democratic Party: religious belief is not a barrier to joining a communist party. Marx and Engels had already indicated as much in terms of the First International. Why? Religion is not the primary problem; instead, the main target is economic and social exploitation. Indeed, this principle has by and large been followed by nearly all communist parties since then (although the Communist Part of China is an interesting exception).

Second, Lenin reinterpreted Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ not as ‘opium for the people’ (as is commonly believed) but as a kind of ‘spiritual booze’. This term has many layers in Russian culture, all the way from Russian Orthodox theology to the complex role of vodka in Russian society. The main point is that ‘spiritual booze’ is not immediately a dismissal, but rather a grudging acknowledgement of the sheer complexity of religion itself.

Q…..and on the topic of religion and capitalism?

A. Let us go to the heart of the matter, with Marx (and leave aside the superficial efforts to see capitalism as a type of ‘religion’). The most thorough analysis of how religion works in capitalism comes through Marx’s reinterpretation of the idea of the fetish.

Over forty years, Marx turned this idea over and over. He was always aware of its religious dimensions, but he also transformed it (the German is Aufhebung) into a very useful way to understand the core functions of capital. To find this insight, we need to go to the third volume of Capital. After pointing out that fetishism attaches to every feature of capitalism, he then points out the key fetish: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Or as his formula puts it: M–M1. Why is this the main fetish? It is both unreal and real, mystical and concrete. On the one hand, it obscures labour and production, pretending that money produces money; on the other hand, it is very real and profoundly oppressive. It is what would now be called the ‘financialisation of the market’. This is what he means by the ‘religion of everyday life’.

Q. The ebook that you’ve written for Culture Matters is on the topic of Christian communism. What are the biblical roots of Christian communism?

A. Let us begin with the socio-economic situation, because Christianity, like most religions, is a response to economic injustice and oppression in this world. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Rome’s imperialism was reshaping peasant agriculture, and the burdens of taxation and debt were growing, deeply affecting local economies, village communities, cultures and health – malaria, for example, was rife.

When the Romans eventually took possession of the Eastern Mediterranean, they found a colonial system that was working rather well – if one thinks in terms of the colonisers. They took over what the Greeks had already established for a few centuries and modified it in the light of their own preferences. This was a system of Greek ‘cities’ (polis), which marked the colonising presence of foreigners. These cities were Greek-speaking, with Greek culture, institutions and town planning.

Above all, they relied on all of the surrounding territory (called the chora) to supply everything the cities needed. Their ‘needs’ were substantial, transforming the economic structures of this chora.

But what was the chora? In a colonial situation, the chora was not the arable land around the city (as in Greece). Instead, it comprised all of the villages, land and peasants who worked the land. They spoke the local language, followed local customs and practices and saw the colonising cities as thoroughly foreign. Given the immense demands from the cities, the lives of the peasants were transformed. They were often forced to move into lower areas rife with malaria, with profound consequences for short lives – life expectancy was around 30.

Roman armies frequently cut swathes through this countryside, as ‘punishment’ for revolt. Mass enslavements took place, further reducing rural labour power. In a recently published book with Christina Petterson (Time of Troubles), we have described this as a ‘colonial regime’. The Romans gradually transformed the system they inherited. Even though the cities remained Greek in culture, they were also required to provide the relatively large city of Rome itself with even larger supplies of grain, and of course slaves.

Q. Given this context of exploitation and oppression, can you give us some examples of parables and stories from the NT which can be interpreted as revolutionary hopes, prescriptions, exhortations etc.?

A. Perhaps it is best to begin with an item that is often a stumbling block to modern readers: the healing stories. To modern eyes, they seem magical, the stuff of ‘faith healing’. But they can be read at two levels. The first is the reality of lives broken by disease. Earlier, I mentioned the pervasiveness of malaria, born by mosquitoes. Malaria does not necessarily kill immediately, but it makes one prone to a multitude of other diseases. The healing stories provide an answer to this reality.

At a symbolic level, these stories also respond to lives broken by poverty, exploitation and the profound disruption to kin networks. At the same time, we need to be wary: the Greeks and Romans liked to characterise peasants as ugly, misshapen and deformed (among other items of class consciousness). The presence of so many people in the Gospels with what would now be called ‘disabilities’ may also be seen as a standard way of depicting peasants. In this light, the healing stories disrupt this type of anti-peasant class consciousness.

More obviously, we find in the Gospels a whole series of sayings and events that challenge Roman perceptions of private property, imperialism and exploitation of colonised areas of the empire. Let me give one example of each:

A challenge to private property, which the Romans had invented as a legal category in the late second century BCE. At one point, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’.

A challenge to imperialism: asked about a coin and whose bust was on it, Jesus replies, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’. In other words, the emperor is due nothing, while God is due everything. ‘What has Rome given us?’ Jesus says. ‘Nothing’, is the reply.

A challenge to imperial exploitation: the best example here is a central item of the church’s liturgy. Each week at evening prayer, I recite the following, which are the words of Mary from the Gospel of Luke: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’. I suspect that the radical sense of these words has been lost through two millennia of repetition.

Also lost to view has been the practical way of life that early Christians led, which was essentially communist. Their solution to the problems of exploitation and oppression was sharing, and common ownership, as described in Acts of the Apostles:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Q. How did this ‘communist’ tradition continue, and how was it suppressed and co-opted by the ruling classes?

A. At this point, we need to backtrack a little. The idea of Christian communism was first proposed by Karl Kautsky, the leading intellectual of the second generation of Marxists. In a massive study – called Forerunners of Modern Socialism – that has been translated only partially into English, Kautsky and his comrades set about identifying a whole tradition of European Christian communism. A careful analysis of this work appears in the first chapter of a book called Red Theology, which will be published in early 2019.

Kautsky identifies the basic impulse for Christian communism in many sayings of the Gospels, but above all in two brief texts from the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. The first is quoted above, the second was: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common’. For Kautsky, this was enough of an inspiration for a Christian form of communism that would resonate through the ages.

For our purposes here, Kautsky notes that this communist impulse was appropriated by the powers that be in terms of ‘charity’ and ‘alms’. As Christianity spread, it adapted to imperial power. The turning point was when Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion. The radical texts remained, but they were softened and spiritualised into admonitions for alms, family life and simple living.

But it could not be completely appropriated and suppressed. At the moment of this appropriation, the monastic movement arose, which rejected the trappings of wealth and power and sought the simplicity of the original Christian life far from the centres of power.

Q. What examples of Christian communism have there been in the West?

A. There have been many, not least the ongoing monastic movement. The Christian communist impulse refused to die. It kept reappearing, challenging the status quo and the tendency for the Church to become a surrogate for imperial values. The examples are many, but they are predicated on a basic dynamic of Christianity. In the name of returning to the original Christian community, one movement after another has tried to reform the Church from within or challenge it from outside.

Christian communism has had a fascinating history of 2,000 years. There have been two currents: a) communal life with all things in common; b) revolutionary uprisings, due to persecution and radical criticism of the status quo. The communal expression is found in the Franciscans, Beguines, the Moravian Brethren, the Levellers and Diggers in England, and the many American Utopian communes, such as Pantisocracy and the communities inspired by Étienne Cabet.

The revolutionary impulse appears first with the Dulcinians, who took up arms in the early fourteenth century. Later, it appears all over Europe, especially with the rise of early capitalism: Taborites in Bohemia, Peasant Revolutions in England and Europe, especially with Thomas Müntzer (1525) and the Anabaptist Revolution in Münster (1534-1535).

Keir Hardie and Tony Benn are two more recent examples of socialists who were shaped by Christian beliefs.

Q. What examples of Christian communism have emerged in other parts of the world?

A. Russia has a long history, with sectarian groups (Old Believers, Doukhobors, Molokans and so on) and an older peasant Christian communism, with its slogan, ‘the land is God’s’. Tolstoy was a champion of this type, based on the village-commune with land in common.

During the Russian Revolution a unique form arose: ‘God-Building’. According to Anatoly Lunacharsky, Soviet People’s Commissar for Education and Culture, the gods of religion represented the ideals to which human beings were striving. Socialism could embody this approach in education, art, culture – and especially through revolution.

In modern times, the Christian churches of the DPRK have come to support the Korean effort to construct socialism. They are actively engaged in domestic social work and internationally work to overcome the deep anti-DPRK prejudice.

The Chinese tradition of Christian communism, which arose in the early twentieth century, is the most interesting of all.

One of its main theologians was Wu Yaozong, who spoke of two conversions: one to Christianity and one to Marxism-Leninism. Wu established the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church, established in 1951 and supported by the government, which is now the largest Protestant organisation in the world, with more than 38 million members – and growing.

Even the Vatican understands the natural links between the Chinese state’s struggle for socialism and practical application of the Gospel. It recently pointed out that the Chinese state’s commitment to the common good has much more affinity with Catholic Social Teaching than the individualism of Western liberal democracies. Let me focus on the recent agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government, which has confounded many observers, including on the socialist left.

Three recent statements are important for understanding the agreement, which seeks to solve a centuries-long problem: who will appoint bishops, the Vatican or the Chinese government. Up to recent times, there have been two Roman Catholic Churches in China, one recognised by the Vatican and the other recognised by the Chinese government. The 2018 agreement finally solves this problem. But from the Vatican’s side, it was framed in terms of some very important observations.

First, in 2016, Pope Francis observed:

It has been said many times and my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians. Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide.

Second, in 2018 Massimo Faggioli (from Villanova University) pointed out that:

…the use of Catholicism as an ideological surrogate for Western ideologies is not new, but is especially at odds with Pope Francis’ vision of Catholicism, and it makes it impossible to understand this important moment in the relations between the Vatican and China.

In other words, the church has its own agenda and is not to be co-opted by a Western liberal ideological agenda.

Third, and most importantly, Bishop Sorondo, who is head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, made the following arresting observation in 2018:

Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese … They seek the common good, subordinating things to the general good … The dignity of the person is defended … Liberal thought has liquidated the concept of the common good, not even wanting to take it into account, asserting that it is an empty idea, without any interest. By contrast, the Chinese focus on work and the common good.

This may seem like an extraordinary development, especially in light of the ramped-up Sinophobia in a small number of Western countries, but it makes quite clear that the Vatican has its own agenda in the light of a long history of Catholic Social Teaching, and that it values the social good. For the Vatican, China embodies in our time a focus on the common good.

Churches in China are full to overflowing, apart from the many, many Muslims in China (Hui and Uyghur minorities that number in tens of millions) and indeed the Buddhists. Obviously, they are doing something right.

Perhaps we can learn something from the Chinese experience, not least in the way different Christian churches are seeking to contribute to the construction of socialism.

Q. So there seems to be quite a lot of evidence, throughout history and across the world, that Christianity and communism can be mutually supportive - although clearly there have also times when they have been deeply opposed! What are the lessons for Western socialist politics, and political parties?

A. Churches, mosques, temples and meditation centres need to remember that religion is not all about a private spiritual life focused on another world. This world too, with its exploitation, injustice and inequality, is also vitally important. As each tradition recognises, faith is collective and unitive, a fundamental part of our social natures.

That means working with others for the core aspirations of socialism. One example is to become part of the movement for cultural democracy, to liberate itself from the legitimation of exploitation and oppression and like other cultural activities become part of the struggle to transform the material world.

Let me make the following initial suggestions: first, Western churches may want to begin rethinking their comfortable alignment with liberalism and the modern Euro-American project. I am not using liberalism here in the American sense, where it has come to mean – for various reasons – what is progressive. Instead, I mean liberalism – and its more recent form as neo-liberalism – as the main ideological framework for modern capitalism. It means the primacy of the private individual at the expense of the social and the dismissal of any notion of the common good. Aligning with this ideology has been deadly for Western Churches, as empty pews on any Sunday can attest. The answer is not more liberalism, which we often find in Pentecostal churches and others on the religious right. The answer is to recover the Christian affirmation of the common good.

It is important to do so from within the dynamic of Christianity: the faith and the creeds and the practices of the churches and of religious belief. My influence is the Christian communist tradition, which arises from within such affirmations. This suggestion may seem slightly strange for those who have never experienced religious faith or find it simply mystifying and nonsensical (as the New Atheist movement tries to do in our time). But this is where the inspiration lies – a kind of ‘spiritual reserve’ to inhibit the usual drift away from radicalism,.

For example, the Chinese Christian communist, Wu Yaozong, made it clear that his position arose from faith, prayer and Christian belief, and not from some opportunist compromise with the communists. Thus, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church – which Wu Yaozong helped to establish – in China today is deeply confessional. Or if you look at the statements concerning the Vatican’s reasons for the agreement with the Chinese government, they make it clear that the ultimate basis is theological and pastoral.

Let me put it this way: the Christian call to conversion is far more than an individual moment. The original Greek is metanoia, which means a change of heart and mind. This change of direction, of a turn in one’s life and setting out on a new road, is very much a collective change.

What does this entail? In terms of communist parties, which seem to be undergoing a revival as I write, it is worth reminding them of the Christian communist tradition. This tradition is so important for the Western developments of communism (it was first identified by Marxists, after all) and it reminds us that Christianity is not simply a reactionary and conservative force.

In the context of the UK, it may mean influencing an actual Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. The traditions of British Labour can play a role here, with inspiring leaders like Keir Hardie and Tony Benn, who have drawn on the Christian tradition. The trap, of course, is that such a government may end up losing its radical agenda once in office, as has happened so often before. For this reason, I wrote ‘influencing’, or working to keep the radical agenda at the forefront and even pushing it further to the Left. This may be called a Western version of working with progressive movements, but not identifying with them completely. Perhaps the best slogan here is ‘within and for socialism, but holding socialism to account’.

Or it may mean becoming part of a wider dynamic like ‘cultural democracy’ that seeks to reclaim culture for the people rather than big business and its overwhelming drive for profits As writers on Culture Matters and elsewhere have argued, we need democratic control and various forms of social ownership over the arts, sport, the media – and the churches, mosques and temples.

We need it because culture is integral to the socialist project, an essential part of an all-round healthy, happy, human existence. Our participation in cultural activities like religion should be part of our individual and collective realisation of the common good, and not be undertaken for commercial profit or to ignore, deny or legitimise profit-seeking economic systems like capitalism.

Q. Finally, do you have any other thoughts for our readers, relevant to this Christmas season?

A. Yes – the nativity story is full of radical potential! Jesus is born to a poor family, perhaps in a stable or even on the street, and placed in a feeding trough after birth. Why? An innkeeping businessman turned them away, and then the family was harassed and hunted by the puppet king Herod. Think of the Magnificat, when Mary says:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

And as for the great tradition of Christmas gifts, and Boxing Day, we should remember that the communist slogan – ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ – comes originally from the Book of Acts: ‘everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as had any need’.

 IR 20 resized

Christian Communism, by Roland Boer, published as a downloadable PDF by Culture Matters, December 2018.

 

 

The interplay between base and superstructure
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 06:56

Marx and culture

Published in Cultural Commentary

Professor John Storey outlines Marx and Engels' theoretical contributions to cultural theory.

Although Karl Marx did not have a fully developed theory of culture, it is possible to discover the basis of one in his understanding of history and politics. What this understanding points to is the insistence that if we are to critically comprehend a cultural text or practice, we have to locate it historically in relation to its conditions of production. What makes this methodology different from other ‘historical’ approaches to culture is Marx’s conception of history, contained in the now famous (and often deliberately misunderstood) ‘base/superstructure’ model of historical development.

Marx argues that each significant period in history is constructed around a particular ‘mode of production’: that is, the way in which a society is organized (i.e. slave, feudal, capitalist, etc.) to produce the material necessaries of life – food, shelter, etc. In general terms, each mode of production produces: (i) specific ways of obtaining the necessaries of life; (ii) specific social relationships between workers and those who control the mode of production, and (iii) specific social institutions (including cultural ones). At the heart of this analysis is the claim that how a society produces its means of existence ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society and its possible future development. As Marx explains, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. This claim is based on certain assumptions about the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. It is on this relationship – between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ – that Marx’s account of culture rests.

The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’. The forces of production refer to the raw materials, the tools, the technology, the workers and their skills, etc. The relations of production refer to the class relations of those engaged in production. That is, each mode of production, besides being different, say, in terms of its basis in agrarian or industrial production, is also different in that it produces certain fundamental relations of production (not the only ones, but those from which others develop): the slave mode produces master/slave relations; the feudal mode produces lord/peasant relations; the capitalist mode produces bourgeois/proletariat relations. It is in this sense that one’s class position is determined by one’s relationship to the mode of production.

RC article

The Pyramid of Capitalist System, American cartoon caricature published in Industrial Worker, 1911

The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. The base ‘conditions’ or ‘determines’ the content and form of the superstructure. The relationship involves the setting of limits; the providing of a specific framework in which some developments are probable and others unlikely. Regardless of how we view the relationship, we will not fully understand it if we reduce the base to an economic monolith (a static economic institution) and forget that for Marx the base also includes social relations and class antagonisms and these also find expression in the superstructure. This means we should not think of the superstructure as a series of institutions that produce ways of thinking and acting that simply legitimate the activities of the base.

For example, capitalism is the only mode of production to introduce mass education. This is because capitalism is the first mode of production to require an educated workforce. However, while mass education is a requirement of the system, and it is organised as if it had no other purpose than to prepare people for work, it can also be a threat to the system: workers can be ‘educated’ into active and organised opposition to the exploitative demands of capitalism. In this example, and many others, we can see the superstructure as a terrain of both incorporation and resistance (‘class struggle’). Culture plays a significant role in this drama of legitimation and challenge.

Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the relations between base and superstructure are seen as a mechanical relationship of cause and effect (‘economic determinism’): what happens in the superstructure is a passive reflection of what is happening in the base. This often results in a vulgar ‘reflection theory’ of culture, in which the politics of a text or practice are read off from, or reduced to, the material conditions of its production (‘It’s Hollywood, so what do you expect?’). After Marx’s death in 1883, Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator, found himself having to explain, through a series of letters, many of the subtleties of Marxism to younger socialists who, in their revolutionary enthusiasm, threatened to reduce it to a form of economic determinism. Here is part of his famous letter to Joseph Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form.

What Engels is pointing to is that the base produces the superstructural terrain (this terrain and not that), but that the form of activity that takes place there is determined not just by the fact that the terrain was produced and is reproduced by the base (although this clearly sets limits and influences outcomes), but by the interaction of the institutions and the participants as they occupy the terrain. What Engels alerts us to are the other things we need to consider when engaging critically with culture. While Marx provides a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.

To take, for example, one of Marx’s favourite writers: it would be impossible to understand the novels of Charles Dickens without paying attention to the historical moment in which they were written. What Marx provides us with is a way of understanding this historical moment; an understanding that enables us to see in the novels examples of power, oppression and exploitation, not as the playing out of an ahistorical ‘human nature’, but as the outcome, directly and indirectly, of the social changes introduced by the capitalist mode of production. A Christmas Carol, for instance, is not just a key work in the invention of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, it also outlines an attempt to build a consensus around a middle class that is able to temporarily accommodate the wants and needs of the working class. The Christmas that was invented, an invention in which the novel plays a key ideological role, was a festival directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; one that was more about hegemony than it was ever about religion. To understand this, we have to do more than consider the novel’s formal qualities; we have to be also aware of its historical moment of writing, ‘conditioned’ as it is by the capitalist mode of production.

During his life in England Marx would have witnessed the emergence of two new major popular cultural forms, stage melodrama and music hall. A full analysis of stage melodrama (one of the first culture industries) would have to weave together into focus both the changes in the mode of production that made stage melodrama’s audience a possibility and the theatrical traditions that generated its form. To understand this new type of theatre we have to take seriously its textuality, while at the same time recognising that its specific form is fundamentally related to the new audience and that without the dramatic changes in the mode of production this new audience would not have existed. While it is never a matter of reducing the cultural text or practice to a simple reflection of the mode of production, we have nevertheless to see it historically before will be able to see how this history is written in its very textuality.

The same also holds true for a full analysis of music hall (another early culture industry). Although in neither instance should performance be reduced to changes in the material forces of production, what should be insisted on is that a full analysis of stage melodrama or music hall would not be possible without reference to the changes in theatre attendance brought about by changes in the mode of production. It is these changes that ultimately produced the conditions of possibility for the performance of a melodrama like Black-Eyed Susan (probably the most performed play in the nineteenth century) and for the emergence and success of a music hall performer like Marie Lloyd. Ultimately, however indirectly, there is a real and fundamental relationship between the emergence of cultural forms like stage melodrama and music hall and changes that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production.

JS Black Eyed Susan Bury St Edmunds

Black-eyed Susan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmund's, 2008

To conclude, as we have seen, Marx argues that ‘the social production of existence’ is always organised around a specific mode of production and that this always provides ‘the real foundations’ on which the superstructure can develop. In other words, the mode of production provides the foundations for cultural production. To understand what Marx’s is claiming in the architectural metaphor of base/superstructure we have to know the limits of what is conditioned.

To put it simply, once foundations are laid a building can take many forms and within each of these forms a whole range of other things can happen. But without the foundations none of these forms, or what takes place within them, is possible. This is why what Marx calls ‘the real foundations’ matter when we are thinking critically about culture; they do not in any simple way determine cultural production, but they are the real foundations on which it begins or begins to be modified and as such they help frame what is culturally possible.

The interplay between base and superstructure
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 06:56

Marx and culture

Published in Cultural Commentary

Professor John Storey outlines Marx and Engels' theoretical contributions to cultural theory.

Although Karl Marx did not have a fully developed theory of culture, it is possible to discover the basis of one in his understanding of history and politics. What this understanding points to is the insistence that if we are to critically comprehend a cultural text or practice, we have to locate it historically in relation to its conditions of production. What makes this methodology different from other ‘historical’ approaches to culture is Marx’s conception of history, contained in the now famous (and often deliberately misunderstood) ‘base/superstructure’ model of historical development.

Marx argues that each significant period in history is constructed around a particular ‘mode of production’: that is, the way in which a society is organized (i.e. slave, feudal, capitalist, etc.) to produce the material necessaries of life – food, shelter, etc. In general terms, each mode of production produces: (i) specific ways of obtaining the necessaries of life; (ii) specific social relationships between workers and those who control the mode of production, and (iii) specific social institutions (including cultural ones). At the heart of this analysis is the claim that how a society produces its means of existence ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society and its possible future development. As Marx explains, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. This claim is based on certain assumptions about the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. It is on this relationship – between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ – that Marx’s account of culture rests.

The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’. The forces of production refer to the raw materials, the tools, the technology, the workers and their skills, etc. The relations of production refer to the class relations of those engaged in production. That is, each mode of production, besides being different, say, in terms of its basis in agrarian or industrial production, is also different in that it produces certain fundamental relations of production (not the only ones, but those from which others develop): the slave mode produces master/slave relations; the feudal mode produces lord/peasant relations; the capitalist mode produces bourgeois/proletariat relations. It is in this sense that one’s class position is determined by one’s relationship to the mode of production.

RC article

The Pyramid of Capitalist System, American cartoon caricature published in Industrial Worker, 1911

The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. The base ‘conditions’ or ‘determines’ the content and form of the superstructure. The relationship involves the setting of limits; the providing of a specific framework in which some developments are probable and others unlikely. Regardless of how we view the relationship, we will not fully understand it if we reduce the base to an economic monolith (a static economic institution) and forget that for Marx the base also includes social relations and class antagonisms and these also find expression in the superstructure. This means we should not think of the superstructure as a series of institutions that produce ways of thinking and acting that simply legitimate the activities of the base.

For example, capitalism is the only mode of production to introduce mass education. This is because capitalism is the first mode of production to require an educated workforce. However, while mass education is a requirement of the system, and it is organised as if it had no other purpose than to prepare people for work, it can also be a threat to the system: workers can be ‘educated’ into active and organised opposition to the exploitative demands of capitalism. In this example, and many others, we can see the superstructure as a terrain of both incorporation and resistance (‘class struggle’). Culture plays a significant role in this drama of legitimation and challenge.

Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the relations between base and superstructure are seen as a mechanical relationship of cause and effect (‘economic determinism’): what happens in the superstructure is a passive reflection of what is happening in the base. This often results in a vulgar ‘reflection theory’ of culture, in which the politics of a text or practice are read off from, or reduced to, the material conditions of its production (‘It’s Hollywood, so what do you expect?’). After Marx’s death in 1883, Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator, found himself having to explain, through a series of letters, many of the subtleties of Marxism to younger socialists who, in their revolutionary enthusiasm, threatened to reduce it to a form of economic determinism. Here is part of his famous letter to Joseph Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form.

What Engels is pointing to is that the base produces the superstructural terrain (this terrain and not that), but that the form of activity that takes place there is determined not just by the fact that the terrain was produced and is reproduced by the base (although this clearly sets limits and influences outcomes), but by the interaction of the institutions and the participants as they occupy the terrain. What Engels alerts us to are the other things we need to consider when engaging critically with culture. While Marx provides a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.

To take, for example, one of Marx’s favourite writers: it would be impossible to understand the novels of Charles Dickens without paying attention to the historical moment in which they were written. What Marx provides us with is a way of understanding this historical moment; an understanding that enables us to see in the novels examples of power, oppression and exploitation, not as the playing out of an ahistorical ‘human nature’, but as the outcome, directly and indirectly, of the social changes introduced by the capitalist mode of production. A Christmas Carol, for instance, is not just a key work in the invention of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, it also outlines an attempt to build a consensus around a middle class that is able to temporarily accommodate the wants and needs of the working class. The Christmas that was invented, an invention in which the novel plays a key ideological role, was a festival directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; one that was more about hegemony than it was ever about religion. To understand this, we have to do more than consider the novel’s formal qualities; we have to be also aware of its historical moment of writing, ‘conditioned’ as it is by the capitalist mode of production.

During his life in England Marx would have witnessed the emergence of two new major popular cultural forms, stage melodrama and music hall. A full analysis of stage melodrama (one of the first culture industries) would have to weave together into focus both the changes in the mode of production that made stage melodrama’s audience a possibility and the theatrical traditions that generated its form. To understand this new type of theatre we have to take seriously its textuality, while at the same time recognising that its specific form is fundamentally related to the new audience and that without the dramatic changes in the mode of production this new audience would not have existed. While it is never a matter of reducing the cultural text or practice to a simple reflection of the mode of production, we have nevertheless to see it historically before will be able to see how this history is written in its very textuality.

The same also holds true for a full analysis of music hall (another early culture industry). Although in neither instance should performance be reduced to changes in the material forces of production, what should be insisted on is that a full analysis of stage melodrama or music hall would not be possible without reference to the changes in theatre attendance brought about by changes in the mode of production. It is these changes that ultimately produced the conditions of possibility for the performance of a melodrama like Black-Eyed Susan (probably the most performed play in the nineteenth century) and for the emergence and success of a music hall performer like Marie Lloyd. Ultimately, however indirectly, there is a real and fundamental relationship between the emergence of cultural forms like stage melodrama and music hall and changes that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production.

JS Black Eyed Susan Bury St Edmunds

Black-eyed Susan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmund's, 2008

To conclude, as we have seen, Marx argues that ‘the social production of existence’ is always organised around a specific mode of production and that this always provides ‘the real foundations’ on which the superstructure can develop. In other words, the mode of production provides the foundations for cultural production. To understand what Marx’s is claiming in the architectural metaphor of base/superstructure we have to know the limits of what is conditioned.

To put it simply, once foundations are laid a building can take many forms and within each of these forms a whole range of other things can happen. But without the foundations none of these forms, or what takes place within them, is possible. This is why what Marx calls ‘the real foundations’ matter when we are thinking critically about culture; they do not in any simple way determine cultural production, but they are the real foundations on which it begins or begins to be modified and as such they help frame what is culturally possible.

Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 06:56

Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism

Published in Cultural Commentary

Roland Boer continues his series of article on Marxism and religion, with an examination of the relationship of Marx and Engels to the Theological Young Hegelians: Strauss, Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner.

In order to develop their own system of thought, Marx and Engels had to distinguish themselves from the overwhelming theological frame in which German thought operated in the 1830s and 1840s. This framework was embodied above all in the work of the Young Hegelians, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. Let me say a little more about these crucial engagements.

Ludwig Feuerbach’s Projections

Alongside David Friedrich Strauss’s controversial Life of Jesus (1839), Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity from 1841 was one of the most significant texts of the time. Marx saw the idea that religion and the gods were projections of human beings as a huge breakthrough. He used and extended what may be called the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ at a number of points in his own work. Feuerbach’s idea is an inversion since it argues that previous thought about religion began at the wrong point, namely in the middle. God was not a pre-existing being who determined human existence; rather, human beings determine God’s existence, whom they then assume to be all-powerful over human beings.

Marx took up this argument and claimed that it marked the end of the criticism of religion: ‘For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism’. He went on to suggest that the first great phase of criticism – the criticism of religion – began with Luther and ended with Feuerbach. The next revolutionary phase began after Feuerbach and Marx saw himself as part of this new phase.

For Marx, Feuerbach was the last word on religion. Statements such as the following are pure Feuerbach:

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.

However, Marx also wanted to go beyond Feuerbach on two counts. First, since human beings project religion from within themselves, the place to begin analysis is not in the heavens, but here on earth with flesh-and-blood people. Second, the fact that people do make such projections was a signal that something was wrong here on earth. If people placed their hopes and dreams elsewhere, then that meant they could not be realized here and now. So the presence of religion becomes a sign of alienation, of economic and social oppression. That needs to be fixed. We find this theme very strongly in the famous Theses on Feuerbach, especially the fourth and eleventh theses:

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Marx would go on to use the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ in a number of ways, not least to argue that Hegel’s position on the state was exactly the same as theology: it began with abstracted ideas such as state, sovereignty, constitution and tried to make human beings fit. Much later on, in 1886, Engels filled this picture out in his lucid prose and showed why Feuerbach was so important for the development of historical materialism.

Bruno Bauer’s A-Theology

Given Feuerbach’s importance, it is not for nothing that the first section of The German Ideology should be devoted to his work. But there is also a section given over to Bruno Bauer. After the joint work of The German Ideology, Marx would come back to Bauer in a number of writings, initially to defend him but then later to attack him mercilessly. Why? The basic reason was that Bauer had achieved a radical republican and democratic position through his biblical criticism and theology. Marx in particular was thoroughly opposed to such a possibility: theology dealt with heaven and was not concerned with earth – that was the task of the new historical materialism.

For Marx, Bauer was far too much under the influence of Hegel’s idealist method and in many respects Marx’s distancing from Bauer was an effort to come to terms with Hegel. So we find the repeated and often heavily satirical criticism (especially in the joint work with Engels, The Holy Family) that ‘Saint Bruno’ Bauer left matters in the realm of theology and thereby stunted his critical work. Marx was also excising the influence of someone who had been a close friend, first as joint members of the Young Hegelian Doktorklub from 1837, later as a teacher of the book of Isaiah at the University of Berlin in 1839 and as one who might have gained Marx a position.

The problem was that Bauer was dismissed from Berlin in 1839 for his radical theological and political positions. He argued that the church was ossified and dogmatic, for it claimed universal status for a particular person and group. In the same way that we find a struggle in the Bible between free self-consciousness and religious dogmatism, so also in Bauer’s own time the religious dogmatism of the church needed to be overthrown. In its place Bauer argued for atheism, a democratic Jesus for all and republicanism.

Max Stirner’s World History

So we find Marx and Engels at the point where Feuerbach’s inversion has enabled them to step beyond the criticism of religion and focus on the criticism of the earthly conditions of human struggle, and Bauer’s radical theology had to be negated since religion cannot provide – so they argued – a radical critique. The engagement with Max Stirner was different. Most people do not bother with the endless pages of The German Ideology given over to a detailed refutation of Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, preferring to stop after the early description of the new historical materialist method.

However, the Stirner section is crucial for the following reason: Marx and Engels developed the first coherent statement of historical materialism in response to Stirner’s own theory of world history. The way they wrote the manuscript (which was never published in their lifetimes) is important: as they wrote sections on Stirner they found that increasingly coherent statements of an alternative position began to emerge in their own thought. Some of these statements remained in the Stirner section, while others were moved to the beginning of the manuscript and placed in the Feuerbach section.

As these responses to Stirner became longer and more elaborate, we find the following: in contrast to Stirner’s radical focus on the individual, Marx and Engels developed a collective focus. Instead of Stirner’s valuation of spiritual religion, they sought an approach that was very much of this world. Above all, Stirner wanted to provide a schema of world history that was pitched against Hegel. The reason why Marx and Engels devoted so much attention to him is that they too want a schema of world history that overturns Hegel.

The catch is that the very effort at producing a theory of world history was still very much engaged with religion. One only has to look at the structure of Marx and Engel’s criticism – which moves through the major books of the Bible, quotes the Bible ad nauseam, and criticizes Stirner’s prophetic role and theological dabbling – to see that what is at stake is religion. In the same way that the final edited form of the Bible moves from creation to the end of history and the new Jerusalem, so also does Hegel offer a theory of world history in terms of the unfolding of spirit, and so also does Stirner do so in terms of the ego. But what about Marx and Engels?

I suggest that the content of their proposal – with its collective and materialist concern with modes of production – is quite different from the proposals of the Bible, Hegel and Stirner. But the form of their proposal is analogous. By this I mean that the construction by Marx and Engels of a new historical narrative was based on a crucial lever: the Bible may have had Christ, Hegel may have had the world spirit, and Stirner may have had the ego. For Marx and Engels it was nothing other than contradiction, or rather, the contradictions within modes of production, contradictions that manifest themselves as class-conflict and revolution. In other words, the engagement with Stirner was the crucible of historical materialism, from which emerged a new approach to history that turns on contradiction.
Lizzie Burns, 1865
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 06:56

Book review: Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea

Published in Fiction

Gavin McCrea was inspired to write this fictionalised account of Lizzie Burns by the fleeting references to her in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. Obviously, had he read the superior description of the latter’s life by John Green, he would have learnt a little more about her. Nonetheless, the relative lack of information about both Lizzie and her sister Mary, an earlier lover of Engels, provides the spaces within which McCrea has been able to imagine her voice, her body and her character in this exceptionally absorbing and satisfying novel. And in so doing, McCrea gives flesh and feeling back to not only Engels, but also Karl Marx, his family and a host of others associated with the birth of scientific socialism. These are the poster boys of our movement taken down from the banners we carry and placed firmly in the midst of their own challenges and triumphs.

The action alternates between London in 1870/1 and Manchester in the 1860s. In the former, Lizzie and Engels are establishing themselves, with varying degrees of success, in Primrose Hill so as to be nearer to the Marx family and the centre of the nascent International during the tumultuous times around the rise and destruction of the Paris Commune.

The mood progressively darkens, not only because the Engels’ household becomes the target of state agents and brick-wielding thugs, but also due to Lizzie’s declining health. In the earlier period, there is an equal sense of tension, but in this case largely confined within the domestic sphere as Lizzie’s ambiguous and at times downright suspicious attitude to Engels and his treatment of Mary is played out. Engels comes across as being genuinely concerned with both of them, but all too frequently distracted by his wider work and relationship with Marx.
The Lizzie created, or maybe more accurately re-created, by McCrea is an expression of her class and nationality’s growing sense of their own subservient situation.

‘Mrs’ Engels emerges as a no-nonsense Sancho Panza to her partner’s Quixote. She is better by far in dealing with the nuances and stresses of straddling two quite distinct social worlds, although this didn’t extend to building a mutually respectful relationship with her domestic workers – wonderful Moliere characters both better with the back chat than with the breakfast. Whilst only tangentially interested in the fate of continental revolutionaries, Lizzie maintains her old Irish contacts and involves herself in providing a safe house for those involved in the daring but ultimately failed attempt to rescue two Fenian freedom fighters, Kelly and Deasy, from their fate at the hands of British justice.

Purists might dislike and recoil from descriptions of Engels’ penis or Marx’s carbuncles, but McCrea re-creates such a detailed sense of turbulent times and turbulent people that the reader is engaged and enthralled by both the personal and revolutionary worlds colonised by his characters no matter what. Lizzie Burns emerges from it all as a working class woman to be admired and loved, not only because of her loves and friendships, but because of her unsentimental courage and determination to build a better world.

This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.