Towards Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 20:33

Towards Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith reviews Tony McKenna's latest book, Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art

This is the third of Tony McKenna’s collections of essays in which he aspires to demonstrate that a Marxist framework is the best way of comprehending the cultural and political challenges being generated in the era of late capitalism. Like his previous two similar volumes, Toward Forever is a dazzling display of erudition and insight that never fails to offer stimulating lines of thought on a remarkable breadth of topics.

McKenna’s achievement in his previous collections has been to persuasively argue that a dialectical method, rigorously but deftly applied, can explain the potency of many of the pre-eminent cultural products of our time. He has analysed how the successes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Hunger Games to name but a few are explicable in terms of the peculiar anxieties and tensions of the post-2008 crash world.

McKenna has also usefully revisited more traditional subjects that have received attention from other Marxist commentators such as the Greek myths, the novels of Balzac and Hugo, and the art of Rembrandt and Blake. In addition, McKenna has supplied valuable analyses of some of the key political personalities that have shaped 21st century politics so far such as Chavez, Corbyn and Trump. 

The most striking quality of McKenna’s overall approach is the ability to contextualise this remarkable variety of subjects within the prevailing relations of production of a particular era without undermining the crucial role of human agency.

He should also be commended for a willingness ‘to boldly go’ into areas of concern that more hidebound analysts on the left might regard as unworthy of attention. Whatever we might subjectively think about the comedy of Ricky Gervais or film versions of Batman, they are hugely popular cultural artefacts that evidently tap into some element of the zeitgeist that a coherent Marxist world-view should feel obligated to explain. McKenna’s mentality is an appropriate adaptation of Gramsci’s famous exhortation that the left should consider ‘everything that concerns people’ if it wishes to retain relevance in the crowded digital marketplace of theoretical paradigms that compete for our attention.  

Toward Forever replicates the tried and tested formula that McKenna utilised in his first two collections. He covers a stunning diversity of topics including The Sopranos, The Wizard of Oz, the art of Goya and the epidemic of suicides in contemporary Japan! There is also a sympathetic and moving account of the rise and fall of the Syrian Revolution that, for a time, looked like it might able uproot the callous brutality of the Assad regime before being overwhelmed by the intervention of regional and global players with their own opportunistic agendas.

A historical materialist approach to culture

The breadth of McKenna’s range in no way affects the depth of his analyses of these subjects; in fact, the cumulative effect is to powerfully show that a non-reductionist version of Marxism is unrivalled in terms of explanatory power by any other theoretical framework. In a piece on contemporary art in this volume, he touches on this unique capacity of historical materialism, in the right hands, to illuminate the scope of human activities:

The truth which resonates in this type of art is the same truth which lives in the pages of Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The difference is that the truth of art in an emotive and intuitive manner; a semi-conscious and fantastical way which reduces the forms of social reality to the interplay of imaginary characters in a novel or colours on a canvas. (179)

McKenna’s conception of the role of culture within historical materialism is a compelling reformulation of Kantian aesthetic theory. The great German philosopher of the Enlightenment theorised the power of art as its ability to take us tantalisingly close to the noumenal realm, or those aspects of the universe such as God or the infinite which we can sense but never truly access.

In McKenna’s more grounded version, cultural products of the highest calibre help us tune into the subterranean dynamics of the historical process which are often clouded by our quotidian concerns but which can be discerned with a wider perspective. In his characteristically elegant words:

Art is the expression of the truth of the political consciousness which has not, yet, descended from heaven to earth; it contains the truth of the social world but only through the distorting prism of its fantasy. (180)

The other refreshing quality of McKenna’s output is a writing style that is a sheer pleasure to read even if the subject is not necessarily what a reader may be interested in. He unpacks ideas with a crystalline clarity and fluency that puts to shame other Marxist cultural commentators who appear to think cluttering up their text with academic jargon is an indicator of merit. McKenna is one of the best writers on the British left today as he makes the effort to understand why certain cultural products are popular and then communicates his analysis in a way that any reasonably educated person could comprehend.

The need to make sense of history and the hope of changing it

Dan Brown’s best-selling 2004 novel The Da Vinci Code may seem like an unlikely choice for such an exploration of the utopian undercurrents in contemporary capitalist culture. However McKenna’s analysis of the book here is the perfect illustration of his ability to analyse examples of popular culture in a way that sheds light on the historical process and explains why a book about Christianity could have such a huge impact in our long-established secular society.  

da vinci code 3 

Of course, most Marxist aestheticians would probably dismiss the novel as throwaway trash to be picked up in airport terminal to kill a few hours on holiday and nothing more. McKenna is not blind to Brown’s notorious literary limitations and he effortlessly skewers the wafer-thin characterisations and plodding style of the prose. Nevertheless, The Da Vinci Code sold millions, has been translated into forty languages and spawned a booming sub-genre of semiotic mysteries set in a shadowy world of cryptology, religious cults and charismatic historical personalities.

So why would a poorly written potboiler with two-dimensional characters about the early history of Christianity become a smash hit in the first decade of the 21st century? McKenna’s persuasive answer is that the book provides putative answers in a world that appears to be spiralling out of control, run by politicians who are pitifully short of solutions to its multiple problems.  Those answers in DVC may be untenable and little short of ridiculous to many, but at least they provide a narratalogical coherence to thousand years of history.

The notion that the Catholic Church and the Priory of Zion have been fighting out an ideological contest for hegemony within Christianity is based on the flimsiest of historical evidence, but for millions of readers it allows for the apparent carnage and chaos of world history to be reconfigured and made comprehensible.

The postmodern aversion to grand narratives that has permeated our discourse since the 1980s has created a vacuum in the heart of Western culture that leaves many people longing for an over-arching understanding of a world that appears to be accelerating towards the precipice. The Vatican might not be everyone’s choice for the guiding brain of  two millennia of history but it is easy to see why any form of purposeful intelligence could be more comforting than the uncontrolled playing out of blind historical forces. The Da Vinci Code cleverly manipulates not just this elemental need to make sense of the past but also our hope that human beings in the present have the ability to alter the trajectory of events.

At the climax of the story, the character of Sophie Nevue comes to a realisation that her estrangement from her grandfather is linked to a conflict which has been taking place on an ideological plane for centuries. McKenna argues this conjoining of the micro and macro levels of analyses is profoundly affecting and chimes with a longing for an understanding of our place in history that all human beings feel. The fact that this device occurs in an apparently disposable piece of pulp fiction only adds to the book’s underrated achievement.

McKenna sums up the appeal of DVC:

It contains within its aesthetic a profound truth about the reality of history and ourselves as historical beings-immersed in its flux, shaped by its rhythms and yet often unaware of its elemental pulse and presence in the backdrop of our lives, until suddenly the stability of the present seems to fissure and history erupts once more, and new epochs, new adventures and new freedoms are born. (136)

This linking of the personal and the political is what McKenna finds to be decisively absent from the critically acclaimed and multi-Oscar winning 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh, the movie centres around a quest for justice by bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, played with searing power by Frances McDormand.

Three Billboards 1147x326 

After her daughter is raped and murdered, Hayes launches an uncompromising attack on the defective local police department which has conspicuously failed to make progress in the identification of the culprit. This brings her into conflict with the cancer-ridden Chief of Police Willoughby, portrayed movingly by Woody Harrelson.

McKenna insightfully contends that although the premise and the collision of wills between the two protagonists are intringuiling poised, the film’s potential cinematic greatness is squandered as Willoughby’s unexpected demise before the halfway point robs the storyline of a level of complexity that it might have attained if their relationship had played out fully. The police chief takes his own life, unwilling to endure the crumbling of his physical and mental powers as the cancer spreads within his body.

Inevitably, Willoughby is posthumously sanctified in the story and the opportunity is lost for his character to confront the misogyny and racism of the institution he has represented for decades. McKenna uses this misstep on the part of McDonagh to argue an essentially dialectical process of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict is the root of great stories in any medium:

This film throws light on the most fundamental task for any writer; that is, to unspool the thread of necessity which runs through both character and plot. Aesthetic skill lies in the ability to create characters which are grounded in fundamental social-historical contradictions and whose lives attain a richness such that, after a while, it feels as though you-the writer-are simply a passive observer, merely recording the details of those lives as they unfold out in front of you in the form of an independent existence. (190)

Arguably the greatest stories ever produced by the human race are the cycle of mythological adventures based around the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Our appetite for re-enactments and updates of the dramatic lives of characters such as Oedipus, Achilles, Jason and Helen of Troy is seemingly never-ending and has produced some creative iterations in the 21st century already.

In an essay on the novels of Madeline Miller, McKenna perceptively notes how fourth wave feminism, expressed in the global MeToo movement, provides the essential ideological context for the success of recent fictional recreations of female Greek protagonists such as Penelope and Briseis, by authors such as Emily Wilson and Pat Barker.

circe madeline miller 

Miller has added to this distinguished sub-genre with two books, Song of Achilles and Circe. In the latter, published in 2018, she takes a relatively marginal character from Homer’s Odyssey and re-imagines Circe’s backstory and life after her encounter with the famed king of Ithaca, Odysseus. The key to Miller’s evident resonance with millions of readers, McKenna argues, is a nuanced exploration of the dialectical conflicts that occur within the psyche of every human being. In Circe’s case, she is psychologically torn between the world of the immortals that she is raised in, and the world of mortals such as Odysseus that she encounters as she grows up. In McKenna’s words:

Miller carefully cultivates an ideological opposition between the manual labour of the oppressed and the pronounced aristocratic parasitism of the oppressor-an opposition which opens up between the human world and the world of the divine. Such an opposition, in fantasy form, has a real and historical resonance in the ancient Greek world. (148)   

Such an opposition is no longer central in our era but an alternative clash between the prevailing patriarchal capitalism and the liberated sexuality of an embryonic postcapitalist society is evident on a regular basis in the news headlines. As an American author, Miller has spoken explicitly of how she was traumatised by the elevation to the White House of a crassly racist and sexist President in 2016; but also how she has been inspired by the political resistance that Trump has provoked in the forms of Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other figures of a rejuvenated US left.

McKenna justifiably explains that these expressions of anti-capitalist insurgency are the context to the powerful impact of Miller’s evocative renditions of archaic Greece:

Looking at the American political landscape, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Slut Walks, Occupy Wall Street, it is difficult, for me at least, not to feel in Circe’s ancient, epic struggle something of the form and the impetus of these broader political movements which were also shaped by those who have been in some way exiled from the political mainstream and who begin to develop their own powers of freedom and self-determination in response. (159)

In his closing chapter on the art of Goya, the author optimistically describes a detail from a painting from the 1820s called The Milkmaid of Bordeaux, the Spaniard’s last masterpiece:

in the far-right corner there is a retreating patch of shadowy cloud, but directly outlining the young woman’s head – creating a halo-like effect – is a burgeoning blue fissured with delicate white light. It feels as though a night-time storm has come and gone and now, breaking through, comes the silvery, morning light of a brand new day. (236)

As the world continues to groan under the dark shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, it is to be hoped that McKenna’s thesis that great cultural products presage the coming of a more enlightened social order turns out to be valid. Even without viral threats, climate change and global immiseration mean that the mass of humanity is becoming increasingly desperate to see that silvery, morning light breaking through.

Lively, incisive and erudite: Marxist Literary Criticism Today, by Barbara Foley
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 20:33

Lively, incisive and erudite: Marxist Literary Criticism Today, by Barbara Foley

Published in Cultural Commentary

Tony McKenna praises Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto Press, £19.99) for its clarity, coherence, and insightfulness 

For the last few decades the world of ‘Marxist’ literary criticism has been dominated by a tiny coterie of elite thinkers, figures like Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, ‘top-flight intellectuals’ whose tortuous, indecipherable language and pretentious linguistic philosophies often say a great deal about themselves but next to nothing about the literature they purport to analyse. For this reason I didn’t have high hopes for Barbara Foley’s new book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today, because I felt it might well be more of the same.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Foley is what someone like Jameson will never be. She is an authentic teacher – genuinely concerned with the type of clear and patient explanation which is designed to uplift the student and allow them to delight in the quirks and idiosyncrasies of her subject matter.

For this reason, part one of the book does not explicitly address the field of literary criticism at all. What it does do, is to give a clear and coherent account of some of the central concepts in Marxist philosophy and economics – concepts which one has to get a handle on, as they provide the optics through which great works of literature can be read. Foley outlines clearly some of the fundamental ideas in the Marxist lexicon: Class, Commodities, Capital, Surplus Value, Alienation, Reification, Totality, Base and Superstructure, dialectics and so on. These are often the subjects of fascinating discussions which are gradually integrated into literary concerns throughout the course of the book.

In the discussion on class, for example, Foley mobilises a classically Marxist understanding of the proletariat as the ‘universal class’ and emphasises that because of its structural position – as a social relation of production – it is the ‘“primary” analytical category for explaining social inequality and leveraging revolutionary and social change’. (17)  Historically speaking, patriarchal relations and relations of racist oppression have grown out of the structural dimensions of class exploitation, and therefore resistance to and destruction of the latter is, ultimately, bound up with the dissolution of the former and the mission of the proletariat in the modern age.

This might seem a little removed from the subject of literary theory. But when you understand that texts by ‘Shakespeare, Shelley and Brecht’ create their characters and describe their relationships in the context of ‘social forces constraining freedom in class-based inequality’ (106) and awaken in the reader ‘a universal need for freedom from alienation and oppression’ (106) thereby – you also come to understand that the universality which great literature projects is the aesthetic echo of the universality which is crystallised in and through the struggle for freedom that is part and parcel of the broader historical unfolding of the class struggle. (106)

Understanding and accepting this approach provides a significant tonic to the more fashionable ‘intersectionalist’ approach which often ends up ‘segregating’ different groups into the boxes which accord with their oppression; i.e. the notion that only people from particularly groups, ethnicities and genders are qualified to write about those same groups, or that ‘a dead white male’ like William Shakespeare can have nothing to say to a young black man growing up in a Harlem project.

At the same time, however, Foley never falls into ‘economism’ – that is, the belief that every aspect of social life is determined directly and mechanically by a set of class forces, without mediation or qualification. In fact, Foley argues, racist and sexist forms of oppression can often gain a near ‘autonomous’ life which throws up a myriad of complex and contradictory set of behaviours – behaviours which don’t always correspond neatly to the class interests which are at work underneath the surface of society, and which are responsible for directly producing and reproducing the means of social existence.

tmck ap

That tension between the fundaments of class universality at the level of social being, and the richness and complexity of the myriad forms of cultural and political life, is one Foley brings out in a masterful analysis of the Ann Petry 1946 short story ‘Like a Winding Sheet’. This is the story of a black man (Johnson) living in same period, who is both economically exploited as a worker and racially oppressed as a person of colour. The story chronicles how he is racially abused at work by his boss, a white woman, and that the sense of such commonplace cruelty, along with the withering, debilitating physical conditions of his working existence, leaves him both smouldering and downtrodden. On arriving home one evening, an innocent remark from his wife (Mae) ‘causes’ him to beat her savagely. In one way, the action is baffling and nonsensical – he attacks his wife, another working-class person, another black person, and someone who has only shown to him affection and love. But Foley moves through the layers of society-wide oppression and exploitation in order to mine a deeper explanation:

As proximate causes, sexism and racism constitute the principal psychological motivators of the physical violence that Johnson enacts upon the body of Mae. Petry complicates her portrayal of causality, however, by supplying a further level of motivation to Johnson’s actions….Johnson’s lack of control over his hands, coupled with his lack of control over his conditions of work, signals a root cause of his anger in his alienation, construed in a classically Marxist sense, as the severing of mental from manual labor…his living labor is controlled by the dead labor embodied in the cart he pushes around, rendering him half-dead, indeed zombie-like all day long. The home, the site of the daily reproduction of labor power, is invaded by alienation; rather than functioning as a haven in a heartless world, it becomes the place where he can exercise the only freedom he has – the freedom to beat and kill, the freedom to reproduce in this own actions, in the seemingly private sphere of marriage and home, the dynamic of the intrinsically violent social relations of capitalism. (203-4)

Foley is able to show how the forces of sexism and racism interweave within the context of the broader class structures of capitalism. In other words she derives the ‘soul’ of the story from the forms and structures of social existence, but does so in a way which is neither mechanical or didactic, but clear and profound. Foley’s book is full of examples like this, meticulous fragments of analysis which capture the historical contradictions which abound in a given work of literature.

Thus Foley contrasts the medieval legends of King Arthur with the ‘rags to riches’ stories of young-adult author Horatio Alger as a means to elucidate ‘the supersession of feudal-era notions of obligations and dependency…by capitalist-era notions of individual freedom and autonomy’. (20) She employs a quirky and brilliant analysis in order so show how the English fairy-tale Jack and the Beanstalk hints at the specific and temporary nature of capitalism itself as a historical form: ‘Jack’s trading of the family’s sole cow for a handful of magic beans is a blatantly foolish act of exchange given the desperate poverty in which he lives with his mother. But the ability of the seeds to generate wealth far beyond the market value of the cow – through Jack’s ascending the giant bean stalk…testifies…also to the historical existence of markets where value and exchange value were not automatically seen as equivalent.’ From this one can derive the sense that our ‘present-day habit of quantifying exchange based upon the socially necessary labour time embodied in commodities is neither natural nor trans historical.’ (37)

Her analysis of the horrifically awful Fifty Shades of Grey is also rooted in the concept of Capital, only whereas Jack and The Beanstalk can be considered an expression of longing for pre-capitalist forms, Fifty Shades provide a paean to Capital. It is in many ways the idealised form in which Capital perceives itself – in as much as Capital is presented as a glittering, pristine creation entirely abstracted from the misery and suffering of the social exploitation which sets the basis for it:

There is no exploitation of labor in the world of Christian Grey, only capital willing to place itself on the market and, through creative application, expand itself indefinitely…The helicopter, the sheets, the glass-encased high-rise apartment: these commodities are so far removed from the labor processes generating them that capital cannot be thought of as a vampire sucking the blood out of living labor. (200)

And in the figure of dynamic billionaire Christian Grey, Capital as a charismatic force of progress abstracted from any social cost is personified:

Christian is himself Capital as pure money in seductive human form. And although…we are told he “works” so hard that he has little time for sleep – he is shown to be more concerned about the activities of his Gates-style philanthropic foundation, which is busy saving countless lives in Africa, than with overseeing the business empire which magically generates his wealth.’ (201)

Foley is also attuned to the silences between words, the invisible subtext, the things which are hinted at but not explicitly referenced in the gaps on the page. In an illuminating analysis of The Preamble to the US Constitution, Foley, in her rather Socratic manner, asks a series of pertinent questions. The document makes reference to ‘the People of the United States’ who are to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty’, but ‘the people’ is a remarkably nebulous concept. Who are these people? Do they include the enslaved blacks? The women who didn’t have the vote? The poor white men, equally disenfranchised? ‘The people’ becomes a rather slippery stand-in for the real social group whose liberty and power the constitution enshrines, i.e. ‘white men possessing enough property to qualify them’. (171)  

The mirage being generated is that created by every ruling class which, ‘while promoting and articulating its own interests, proclaims its outlook to be a universal one.’ (172) At the same time, the cracks in the surface begin to poke through – the Constitution makes reference to the need to form ‘a more perfect Union’ (172) and thus implies the imperfections of the current arrangement while the exhortation to ‘insure domestic Tranquillity’ (172) obliquely hints at the political unrest of the vast majority of people who have been excluded from the remit of the Constitution – ‘there persists revolts of the less privileged like the recent Shays’s rebellion’. (172)  

Foley’s analysis of the Preamble to the Constitution is paired with an account of a 1987 poem by Gloria Anzaldúa, ‘We Call Them Greasers’ which offers the first-person perspective of an unnamed settler as he subjugates an indigenous group by means of rape and murder, ultimately driving them from the land:

I found them here when I came.
They were growing corn on their small ranchos…
smelling of woodsmoke and sweat…
Weren’t interested in bettering themselves,
why they didn’t even own the land but shared it
Wasn’t hard to drive them off,
cowards they were, no backbone…
And the women – well I remember one in particular.
She lay under me whimpering…
Afterward I sat on her face until her arms stopped flailing,
didn’t want to waste a bullet on her….
I walked up to where I had tied her man to the tree and spat his face.
Lynch him, I told the boys. (172-3)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

It is a stark and harrowing poem which ‘encapsulates a genocidal narrative in which sexism, racism and contempt for indigenous peoples are shored up by the nationalist dogmas proclaiming the supremacy of individualism and private property…In this phase of primitive accumulation called pioneering, the state is defined by the naked power of wealth; violence is the principal historical and geographical presupposition of the expansion of capital.’ (174)  

What is particularly intriguing and provocative in the pairing of the Preamble to the Constitution and the poem, is that Foley is able to show how ‘a historically materialist understanding of the role of the state in capital accumulation invites us to link the eminently civilized and rational prose of the Founding Fathers with the crude brutality evinced by the speaker in Anzaldúa’s poem. The realities of slavery, class struggle, rape, and genocide are masked in the enlightened language of the Preamble: yet one “we” leads to the next “we”.’ (174)

There is the odd occasion when the reader is tempted to take issue with some of the analysis. For example, Foley’s analysis of the great William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ is intriguing and well-argued, but flawed in my view. Foley detects a certain aristocratic longing to the poem – ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ – which alludes, in her words, to ‘the hierarchical order associated with feudalism’ (168) of the past, an order which has been overwhelmed by the chaos of the present. ‘The “best’ (presumably those responsible for maintaining order) have not risen to the occasion, while the “worst” (presumably those responsible for the “anarchy” have taken command, “loos[ing] the blood-dimmed tide” and drowning the innocent’. (168)

According to Foley, the use of phrases such as ‘blood-dimmed tide’ in conjunction with social ‘anarchy’ ‘links the purposiveness of destructive human agents with the uncontrollability of natural forces’. (168) For Foley, the poem provides a ‘naturalisation’ of the human essence which essentially ‘bypasses the necessity for historical analysis’ (168) and thus the poem presents us with an ahistorical depiction of a generic humanity which inevitably tilts toward barbarism.

Of course the aristocratic tenor of Yeats's own politics – a certain anti-democratic and even fascist inflection – has a bearing on some of the themes in the poem. And the way in which social and historical relations are naturalised; the way in which the specific character of the capitalist social order is transmuted into an eternal fetish of human nature impervious to historical change – is important not only to help comprehend the ideological mechanics of political philosophies which aim to defend the status-quo, but in the literary arena it can give you a sense of why a certain work is aesthetically poor.

Rather than living flesh-and-blood characters who have grown out of the social relations of a particular phase of history and are, therefore, in some way imbued with the contradictions of the age, literary characters in which some kind of generic, eternal human nature is posited (be it a good or evil one) are inevitably aesthetically poorer, because they remain unchanging archetypes which cannot develop in a realist fashion in response to the pressures and demands of the social world they inhabit. They cannot fundamentally change in historical time – or in the case of the novel, they cannot fundamentally change in the course of the plot. If Anna Karenina had been born fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, the mainspring of her personality would not flow from the social contradictions of the society she inhabited; her tragedy would not flow from being a woman whose burgeoning self-determination in the context of a rapidly changing social world was nevertheless thrown into contradiction with an ossified and feudal hierarchy specific to 19th century Russia.

Guernica canvas Pablo Picasso Madrid Museo Nacional 1937

The ‘naturalisation’ critique can’t be so easily applied to a poem because a poem does not describe events in historical time in any coherent or linear detail (epic poetry being one possible exception). The poem is rather more fleeting and fragmented. This is something poetry shares with painting. If, for example, you consider Picasso’s Guernica – the bombs dropping on the small Spanish town during the civil war and the cataclysmic fragmentation and destruction of civilian life which ensues – there is no progressive historical development. We don’t see the citizens of Guernica as they are in the aftermath of the event, rebuilding their lives. But even though we are not made witness to a living historical development which is in some way embodied in the painting’s aesthetic – even though all the painting does show us is fragmentation and implosion – would it be fair to conclude that Picasso’s freeze-frame of civil war destruction represents an eternalisation of human nature according to the principles of savagery and destruction? I would say not; the painting offers up a snapshot of reality which evokes the ‘mood’ of a specific epoch rather than elaborating several moments in the historical trajectory of a given character or period in the way a novel might.

The Picasso painting gives some sense of what it means to be an individual walking through the remnants of a twentieth-century world which has been smashed by global and civil wars, the disorienting feeling of moving through the ruins in the aftermath. In the same way, ‘The Second Coming’ uses archaic, apocalyptic language and imagery – ‘beast…slouches toward Bethlehem’ – as a way of capturing the almost apocalyptic power and inevitability of modernity – in the words of Marx, all that is solid melts into air. But rather than ‘bypass’ the necessity of history in favour of a principle of naturalisation, Yeats’s poem, with its grotesque and funereal grandeur, captures the moment of modernity in all its sweeping, disorientating violence.

So the question of abstraction – i.e. to what level of clarity and concreteness can different forms of literature address social and historical contradictions – is one that Foley fails to address, and it is important here. But even if one were to accept that ‘The Second Coming’ is, in the last analysis, a poem which offers up an ahistorical view of human nature which privileges aristocratic hierarchy and power, then one is at a loss to explain just why it has such a moving and dramatic charge.

Likewise, the poem which Foley contrasts the Yeats poem to – Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’ – is a worthy and affecting piece which deals in a far more coherent, politically conscious and revolutionary way with the concrete forms of oppression which human beings face in the twentieth century. However, it does not have anything like the level of aesthetic truth and power of Yates’s poem.

Perhaps because the subject matter is so broad, the range of works and concepts that Foley covers so diverse, there is the odd occasion when she spreads herself a little thin. For example, her discussion of the great Hegelian-Marxist Georg Lukács is weak at certain points, especially her explanation (74) of the ‘identical subject-object of history’ concept which Lukács puts forward, and which is so integral to an understanding of the proletariat in Marxist terms as the ‘universal class’.  

As for her categorisation of one ‘Tony McKenna’ as somebody who believes that the essence of art lies in the ‘transcendence of its class origins’ (144) – well…ahem…as bizarre as the thinking of that particular individual sometimes is, I can quite categorically confirm this is not his perspective.

Needless to say, these are but minor points. The major one is simply this: Foley has produced a work of great erudition which spans a colourful and vast selection of examples from literature past and present. In addition, her analysis is informed by a strong understanding of Marxist philosophy and economics which shows how the works she explores are shaped by the necessity and the contradictions of their historical origins. Finally, all this is brought across in the lively and incisive style of a teacher who genuinely enjoys the ebb and flow of discussion and debate. I think it is fair to say ‘Marxist Literary Criticism Today’ is an excellent work of literature in its own right.

Capitalism, Communism, Christianity - and Christmas
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 20:33

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 Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 20:33

The Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou

Published in Poetry

The Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou

by Chris Norris

We know that communism is the right hypothesis. All those who abandon this hypothesis immediately resign themselves to the market economy, to parliamentary democracy – the form of state suited to capitalism – and to the inevitable and 'natural' character of the most monstrous inequalities. - Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis

 I would say, if you like, that the party is like an out-moded mathematics. That is to say, the mathematics of Euclid. We need to invent a non-Euclidian mathematics with respect to political discipline. - Badiou, The Concept of Model

Without mathematics, we are blind. - Badiou, Short Treatise on Transient Ontology

First lesson: there's a truth as yet unknown
In every situation, and its place
Is marked out by some problematic zone,
'Evental site', or looming crisis-space
Where – after all the errors that postpone
Discovery – the truth of what's-the-case
Stands clear to view. For now the signs have grown
Quite unmistakable and bear the trace
Of bygone struggles that faint-hearts are prone
To call 'defeats' but communists embrace
As their instructive past. That way they'll hone
A sharpened sense of how the long-haul race
Goes not to those who'll eagerly disown
Old causes vanquished but to those who base
Their hopes on revolutions overthrown
Yet yielding truths no setback can efface.

Lesson the second: lesson one applies
Across as many disciplines as find
Sufficient room for truth, or recognise
How states of knowledge always lag behind
New truth-procedures. These we must devise,
Through thought and force of circumstance combined,
To meet unlooked-for issues that arise
In truth's domain, or forms of double-bind
That current thinking struggles to disguise
Since, by its nature, always pre-inclined
To save appearances. So what complies
With common sense wins credence of a kind
Withheld from that which radically denies
The truth, consistency or sense assigned
By expert lore to those ideas we prize
As if by timeless intellect divined.

Third lesson: mathematics is the key
To thinking through those issues in the spheres
Of science, politics and art that we
Old compartmentalisers must shift gears
To think about at all. What links the three
Is how a grounding in set theory clears
The way to truths which those alone can see
Who understand how each domain appears
Dilemma-prone and without guarantee
Once Cantor's infinite breaks old frontiers.
This shows the mirage of consistency
To license our discounting all that veers
From any norm where those allowed to be –
To count as subjects, citizens, or peers –
Are just those who, the ruling powers decree,
Can best ensure the counting-scheme

CN GC 338px Georg Cantor2

Georg Cantor, inventor of set theory

Fourth lesson: it's anomalies like those
That plagued set theory which gave rise to its
Great revolutions, just as tests expose
An unknown problem with the working fits
In some machine, or analysts disclose
How certain logic-systems fall to bits
If rigorously quizzed. This also goes
For sites where some state apparatus pits
Its power against the multitude yet throws
The system into crisis when it hits
One non-included multiple that grows
In number, size and force. This then permits
No mere adjustment of the ratios
To ease the deadlock or to call it quits
Since such anomalies entail who knows
What threat to all the state's survival-kits.

Lesson the fifth: we communists will err,
And seriously so, if we should take
A vulgar-Marxist line and so declare
Ourselves resolved in principle to break
With all that 'abstract', 'formal', or 'armchair'
Philosophising. Such a view would make
Small sense of my expending so much care
On laying out events in Cantor's wake,
Or my erecting castles in the air
Around them. All these efforts for the sake –
So grumble the innumerate – of their
Enabling me to claim an active stake
In the ongoing struggle. Yet my share
Involves (they say) procedures so opaque
And technical that very few would dare
To call me out as muddle-head or fake.

Sixth lesson, just for them: if it's concrete
Reality you want, then nothing's more
Entirely up your preferential street
Than all those numbers you'd have us ignore
As 'merely abstract'. Fact: the balance-sheet
Of every corporation shows they store
Our fates and futures like a trick-or-treat
Run wild. Truth is, the further we explore
Their complex ways, the better chance we'll meet
Those horrors that left-moralists deplore
With sharp analyses of how the cheat
Works out in detail. That's just when the lore
Of capital serves handily to beat
Off challenges, so our best way to score
Max points against it is to turn the heat
Up mathematically: wage number-war!

CN corporate greed 2

Another Day Under Corporate Control, by Clay Bennett

And that's my seventh lesson: we should choose
Our ground with utmost care, make sure we play
Our cards right tactically, but also use
Strict thought-procedures that insist we pay
The past due heed. They point to what ensues
From our hypothesis when, come the day,
Some mounting perturbation puts the screws
On every link that held revolt at bay
Until things took this turn. We look for cues,
Us communists, in what the papers say
About such happenings. But – please excuse
My coming back to it – we need a way
To link whatever piece of current news
Grabs our attention with the dossier
Of past (don't call them 'failed') popular coups
Wherein we read hope’s mixed communiqué.

For lesson eight's the truth that Cantor showed
And that's borne out implicitly by all
Attempts to crack the errant master-code
Of politics. It says that off-the-wall
Procedures, like events, might just explode
All bounds and show how change goes epochal
By yielding some unguessed-at episode
That far exceeds thought's finite wherewithal
Or drives its systems into overload
At every point. Hence Cantor's Saul-to-Paul
Conversion on the long Damascus road
That started out from scruples deep in thrall
To fear of all the paradoxes stowed
In the bad infinite. Yet soon they'd fall
Like bread from heaven as thinking overflowed
All limits that the finite would install.

So, lesson nine: no crisis-point so taut
With future possibility as that
Which comes unnoticed by the expert sort
Of change-predictor out to bell the cat
Of revolution. Fending off that thought
Is just what they're so very expert at,
Like those old dix-huitards who still hold court
On what went wrong in '68, or chat
Dismissively about the battles fought
To save the Paris Commune, or – old hat
To them – have their obligatory sport
With notions of the proletariat
As vanguard class. Close kin to those, in short,
For whom the Cantor great leap forward begat
Such monsters that they did their best to thwart
Its spread with every queasy caveat.

CN May 68 paris

Les evenements, Paris 1968

For lesson ten I leave you to reflect
On Jean Cavaillès whom the Nazis shot
As a résistant, one whose intellect –
Whose work in mathematics – showed him what
It likewise meant in ethics to select
One's axioms and pursue them though you'd not,
At first, decisive reasons to expect
They'd see you through. That fatal trouble-spot
Makes him a case apart, but helps connect
The truth-procedures scientists have got
To follow lest their errors go unchecked
With those that once convinced the sans-culottes
To let no bourgeois allies redirect
And skew the course of their self-scripted plot.
Agreed: ten lessons drawn from Marx and Brecht,
But think how Cantor cut the Gordian knot.

CN Jean Cavailles


Jesus and Marx
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 20:33

Jesus and Marx

Published in Religion

Through exploring points of contact between Jesus of Nazareth, Karl Marx, and Lenin, Roland Boer finds new and richer layers of shared meanings betwen the Bible and communism, and between theology and politics.

I am by no means the first to compare Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx. Actually, I am somewhat wary of such comparisons, not because I do not think there are some striking intersections or likenesses, but because those who undertake such comparisons tend to assume that Jesus is the source and Marx the borrower. This trap is an easy one, since Jesus of Nazareth existed some 1800 years or more before Marx. Yet temporal priority does not necessarily mean logical, political or ontological priority. In other words, rather than assuming that religion provides the absolute fount of ideas and practices, it is really only one code, one language for expressing these ideas. Politics may provide another language, philosophy another, and so on.

This translatability has a number of ramifications, of which I can mention two. First, the absolute claims of any language disappear and they become relative to one another. Second, the translations overlap only partially, for their fit is never complete. They have some elements of an idea in common, but other elements lie beyond the overlap. Thus, in each case meanings in one language extend beyond the translated term in the other language. This situation leads to both the enrichment of the idea in question, but also to potential losses as the idea moves from language to language. With these preliminary thoughts in mind, I would like to explore five points of contact, five translatable terms between Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx.

From Each … To Each …

To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to each according to his ability (Matthew 25:15)

And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need (Acts 2:45)

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need! (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

At the heart of both Christian communism and Marxian communism is this basic precept: that we should contribute according to our ability and receive according to our need. Simple enough in its formulation, it is exceedingly difficult to put into practice. Christian communist groups continue to exist today in many parts of the world (see, for instance,, and their precepts may be outlined easily enough: a common belief in the resurrection of Christ; communal living; communism of goods and production, with the proceeds of any production allocated throughout the community according to need. Often meals are held in common, although private space is acknowledged. All of this is based on both the sayings of Jesus and the depictions of early Christian communism in Acts 2 and 4.

Marxian communism initially attempted to define itself over against Christian communism by arguing that the latter concerned only a communism of consumption. By simply selling property and redistributing the wealth, as in Acts 2 and 4, they did not change the system at all, as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg argued. Marxian communism would therefore take the next step and make the means of production communal along with consumption. Since then, however, Christian communists have responded by emphasizing the need for communal production as well.

Private Property

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:24; see also Matthew 19:24 and Luke 18:25)

The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

The scathing criticisms of private property that we find in the mouth of Jesus are well known. “Go, sell what you have,” he tells the rich man who asks for the secret of eternal life (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; see also Luke 12:33). Again and again, we encounter the polemic against property, the possession of which is regarded as an evil and as a massive hindrance to joining the kingdom of God. Jesus valorises simplicity over luxury and forgoes the influence and power that comes with wealth. In short, everything about him stands against the deep values of the Hellenistic propertied classes. In the words of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix’s magisterial The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, “I am tempted to say that in this respect the opinions of Jesus were nearer to those of Bertholt Brecht than to those held by some of the Fathers of the Church and by some Christians today.”

Why oppose private property, which had been invented by the Romans a little over a century before the time of Jesus? The reason is that private property, as the Romans first defined it, is based upon slavery. More specifically, private property (dominium from dominus, master) relies on the reduction of one human being to the status of thing (res) that is “owned” by another human being who has absolute, inalienable power over that thing. With this basic meaning, the Romans then extended the sense of private property to cover most things in our lives. And this is the sense of private property that has come down to us, through a complex history in which the meaning of private property was lost and was then recovered to become the basis for capitalism. As for Jesus, his implacable opposition to private property is clearly due to its basis in slavery.

Marx comes to a surprisingly similar conclusion via a different path. For Marx, private property arises in the context of alienated wage-labour, in which workers sell their labour power to another in order to make products that are not the worker’s. These products become commodities that are then sold in order to generate profit for those who do not work. We need to remind ourselves that the unemployed for Marx are not those at the bottom of the economic pile, but those at the top, the capitalists who do not work but make their wealth on the backs of those who do. In many places, Marx speaks of wage-labour as nothing better than slave labour – which brings us back to the critique of property in the Gospels.

From Below

So the last will be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16; see also Mark 10:31 and Luke 13:30)

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists … express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

Marx is famous for championing history “from below,” from the perspective of the working class, of the poor, of everyday people who show not merely a remarkable ability to take the initiative, but who are actually the prime movers of history. Peasants, slaves, serfs, colonised people, workers – these and more are the real causes of what happens in the world. The “big men” – so often the focus of history and politics – are constantly trying to respond to these real causes. They may seek to express their deepest wishes, but more often than not they try to curtail the radical demands of ordinary people.

In the Gospels, Jesus wishes to spend far more time with the despised and dregs of society – prostitutes, winos, “sinners’ and so forth. These are the “little ones” (Matthew 10:42; 18:6-14; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2), the “least” (Matthew 25:40-5), the “last.” In the thorough shakeup of the “kingdom of God,” these are the ones who will be raised up and made first. A distinct angle on this approach from below may be found in a spatial analysis. Palestine at the time of Jesus was arranged in terms of polis and chora. The former designates the Hellenistic city, with its Greek architecture, language, culture, religion and practices. The polis was the location of power, wealth, the ruling class and the colonizing army of the Romans. By contrast, the chora was the countryside around about the cities. Here the language was Aramaic, the culture Palestinian, and the villages operated according to tried and true practices of communal agriculture. The chora was also poor, overworked and yet living on the edge of starvation, for the polis drew all its requirements from the chora, irrespective of whether the latter could in fact do so without affecting its own livelihood. What is noticeable about the Gospel stories is that Jesus’ whole concern is with the people of the chora. Apart from his final turn to Jerusalem, he studiously avoided the polis. This was a thoroughly consistent concern with those from below.


I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to metanoia (Luke 5:32)

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change (verändern) it (Theses on Feuerbach)

Here there seems to be a great gulf between Jesus and Marx. The traditional way in which the Greek metanoia has been translated is “repentance.” Given the way “repentance” has been interpreted and framed by the church, Jesus here seems to be referring to the need for “sinners” to confess their “sins” and to begin leading a righteous life. Repentance becomes an individual act in which one turns away from debauchery, revelry, dishonesty and the pleasures of life in order to turn towards God. This seems far indeed from the sense of social, political and economic transformation that is embodied in Marx’s famous thesis I quoted above.

Let us look at this biblical text again, since the individualised interpretation of modern, evangelical Christians is far from the truth. Recall that the “sinners” are actually those rejected by society, the “little ones” among whom Jesus feels at home. They are rejected by the self-described “righteous,” the ones whom Jesus criticises, condemns and avoids. But what about metanoia? Its basic meaning is a change of mind, or rather a change of existence, a complete about-turn in life – in short, a thorough transformation that begins from below. Now the meaning of the last becoming first, and the first last, takes on a somewhat different meaning. Here the words of Mary also take a deeper, political resonance: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52). We have come rather close to Marx’s revolution, except that the one propounded by Jesus includes a religious revolution.

Miracles Can Happen

And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34)

In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle (Lenin)

For my final point, I wish to be a little provocative and bring together Jesus and Lenin on the question of miracle. As is well known, the Gospels are full of cures (for blindness, deafness, lameness, leprosy and flows of blood), of exorcisms, and of miracles in which nature itself performs in a unique fashion. Far less well-known is the fact that Lenin often described a revolution in terms of a miracle. But what does it mean for Lenin to say that revolution is a miracle?

First, miracle is not, in Hume-derived terms, an event that is inexplicable according to the “laws” of nature, nor is it a moment or an event that changes the very coordinates of existence. Rather, a miracle is a point of contact between two seemingly incommensurable worlds. In theological terms, a miracle is a touching between heaven and earth, or the moment when transcendence is bent towards immanence. In the Gospels, a miracle occurs when heaven touches earth, or, more appropriately, when earth draws heaven down to its level. For Lenin, the two worlds are not so much heaven and earth but the expected and the unexpected. No matter how much one may devote to organisation in preparation for the revolution, whether in terms of party structure, publicity organs, propaganda, parliamentary involvement, agitation on the streets or military training, the actual moment of revolution inevitably occurs without forewarning, a spark that turns instantaneously into a conflagration.

After the revolution in 1917, Lenin’s usage increases even more. The new government was faced with impossible challenges. They were systematically attacked by the “white” armies, which were supported by an international consortium (United Kingdom, France, USA, Japan etc.). The country was ruined after the First World War, in terms of industry, transport, and grain production. And the new government sought to build a new social, political and economic order. In this context, Lenin speaks again and again of miracles, of “miracles of proletarian organisation,” of miracles “without parallel.”. He is not averse to designating an individual a “miracle worker,” such as Miron Konstantinovich Vladimirov, the Military Commissar Extraordinary of the Railways. If he can, in the face of a chronic shortage of materials “perform a miracle” by repairing two railway lines instead of one, he “will indeed be a miracle worker.” All of which may be summed up: “The history of our proletarian revolution is full of such miracles.” Here the word “miracle” has been enriched in an unexpected direction.

Together Again

From each according to his or her ability, to each according to need; sustained critique of private property; understanding the world from below, from the perspective of ordinary people who are the real history makers; the radical potential of metanoia; the political translation of miracle as revolution itself. I have suggested that in each case we find a point of contact between Jesus and Marx (and Lenin). That contact sets off a whole series of new layers of meaning, enabled by the translation of terms between the Bible and communists, between theology and politics. And both are richer for it.
The Fall of Adam and Eve
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 20:33

Marx's revolutionary reading of the Bible

Published in Religion

Roland Boer continues his series on Marxism and religion with a look at some examples of how Marx interpreted the Bible.

The mention of Marx and the Bible will evoke in many readers the famous family Bible in Capital, where it becomes a commodity – along with the piece of linen and the coat. Marx wrote:

Let us now accompany the owner of some commodity – say, our old friend the weaver of linen – to the scene of action, the market. His 20 yards of linen has a definite price, £2. He exchanges it for the £2, and then, like a man of the good old stamp that he is, he parts with the £2 for a family Bible of the same price. The linen, which in his eyes is a mere commodity, a depository of value, he alienates in exchange for gold, which is the linen’s value-form, and this form he again parts with for another commodity, the Bible, which is destined to enter his house as an object of utility and of edification to its inmates.

I cannot help wondering whether these examples were actually drawn from the Marx family’s daily experience. They may well have been the objects regularly taken to the pawnbroker to meet immediate costs of food and rent. Yet, the Bible is far more pervasive in Marx’s works than this reference in Capital. Allusions and references appear in many different guises. They appear in efforts to outwit censors; to attack the ruling class; to attack opponents in the communist movement; as personal references; and as economic allusions. Out of these myriad references, I would like to give three examples.

A Bullet for the Prussian King

In mid-1844, the Prussian king – Friedrich Wilhelm IV – wrote a public letter. It dealt with a recent assassination attempt, which he had survived. Marx offered a sustained criticism of this letter, full of theological allusions. For example, the king wrote: ‘when the hand of the Almighty cast the deadly bullet away from My breast to the ground’. In response, Marx comments:

It does not seem altogether appropriate to cause the ‘bullet’ to be warded off directly by the hand of God, since in this way even a slight degree of consistent thought will arrive at the false conclusion that God at the same time both guided the hand of the criminal and diverted the bullet away from the king; for how can one presume a one-sided action on the part of God?

Of course, God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the righteous and unrighteous (Mathew 5:45). But Marx’s polemic – in the Rheinische Zeitung which he edited in the early 1840s – was dangerously subversive. Further, the Prussian king states that he always goes about ‘while looking upward to the divine Saviour’. Marx responds:

That His Majesty ‘goes while looking upwards to God’ ‘to complete what has been begun, to carry out what has been prepared’, does not seem to offer a good prospect for either the completion or the carrying out. In order to complete what has been begun and to carry out what has been prepared one must keep one’s eyes firmly fixed on what has been begun and prepared and not look away from these objects to gaze into the blue sky.

Moths and Rust

A second example concerns a favoured biblical text, dealing with moths and rust and treasure in heaven. Marx writes:

Thus political economy – despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance – is a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour [den weder Motten noch Raub fressen] – your capital.

The reference is to the Gospel of Matthew 6:19-21 (see also Luke 12:33-34), where Jesus says:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Marx’s sense of the biblical text is quite astute. The text itself is situated in a collection of sayings concerning prayer, fasting and avoiding worry. Indeed, we should not concern ourselves about food and clothes and dwellings, since birds and lilies care little for such things since they receive them from God (Matthew 6:25-34). In other words, our hearts are so often where our treasures are. Yet Marx also gives it one of his typical turns: he speaks not of the treasure in heaven but of the treasure on earth. This is no ordinary treasure, a collection of material possessions which may rot, mould or be eaten by vermin. It is nothing less than the ‘eternal’ treasure of capital.

I would add here that this passage in Marx should also be understood in light of personal circumstances. Marx was hopeless with money, for he spent what little the family had without thought for the morrow. He was usually in debt, with he and Jenny continually fighting off creditors. They could hardly afford to sing, dance and go to the theatre. One wonders whether this passage also expresses a utopian wish for what they could not do.

The Devil and the Truth

My third example is an interpretation of Genesis 3 – the story of serpent and eating of the forbidden fruit. In the early 1840s, while he was the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx mercilessly attacked the activities of the Rhine Province Assembly (largely filled with nobles). On one occasion the speaker of the Assembly quoted the words of the serpent, addressed to Eve, in Genesis 3:4-5: ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’.

Marx replies that ‘the devil did not lie to us then, for God himself says, “Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil”’ (Genesis 3:22). With this observation, Marx has picked up a long tradition that recognises the truth of the words of the serpent (who is usually understood as the devil, but is not so designated in the biblical text). In this crucial story at the beginning of the Bible, it is the serpent and not God who speaks the truth. Indeed, the fact that the woman listens to the serpent was understood by some alternative (or ‘heretical’) groups, as a genuine rebellion against an oppressive god. In this light, other references in the Bible to serpents were seen in a new way: Moses’ staff turning into a serpent (Exodus 4:2-5; 6:8-12); the bronze serpent set up by Moses in the desert for healing (Numbers 21: 4-9); or John 3:14 in the New Testament, which reads: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. At this point, Marx’s satirical response actually touched on a revolutionary reading of the Bible.
Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 20:33

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.
Universalism, People and Song: A Last Toast to Burns
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 20:33

Universalism, People and Song: A Last Toast to Burns

Published in Poetry

Below is the text of Chris Bartter's address to the Socialist Correspondent Burns Supper held in the UNISON, Glasgow City branch office, February 2015. It was on the theme of What Makes Robert Burns Immortal?

An Immortal Memory? That’s some claim, isn’t it? Particularly for a 37 year-old failed farmer and exciseman. But it is said that only the good die young. Or should the saying be reversed – only those who die young are good? For they don’t have the opportunity to renege on their youthful idealism, or for their early promise to be unfulfilled. However, Burns has had a huge impact on the literary, political, and musical world – not just in Scotland - but across the globe. In some circles that would be enough to consider his memory immortal, but you’re not going to get away as easily as that! Following the eloquent contribution of last year’s speaker, David Kenvyn, I am pleased to still be able to add the views of a fellow countryman after the febrile debate of the last two years – and hopefully I will not be considered as a ‘settler’ or even worse a ‘colonist’.

Invention or Necessity?

Of course we are all products of our background – and to deny one’s upbringing seems to me to be not only a futile exercise but also a self-damaging one. In these days of avatars and false identities it may be sometimes tempting like Jeffrey Archer to invent a beneficial back story, but, I suggest, would probably have as much long term success to ones reputation as his had! Of course literature has more than its fair share of invention – indeed it is an essential part of the genre – and I’ll deal with that later.

One of the myths generally noised abroad – particularly current in Scotland for some reason - is that the English do not know about Burns. If that was once true – and I don’t think it was, I remember learning Burns’ songs at school, at least as much, and probably more than I learnt Shakespeare’s – it certainly has changed and continues to change. Due to the influence of Burns within politics – especially socialist politics, the advocacy of expatriate Scots and literary studies, a basic knowledge of Burns’ life and works in England is at least equivalent to that of Shakespeare, certainly outwith the academic industry that surrounds Shakespeare.

It is, of course, a false comparison on merit, in any case. A comparison between a sixteenth century dramatist and poet and an eighteenth century poet and songwriter is probably as valuable as comparing, say, Oscar Wilde and Adrian Mitchell. But there are now many Burns studies, Burns suppers, Burns admirers and even Burns marketing opportunities – there is even a specially brewed Burns Ale that is made by Shepherd Neame, brewers from Faversham in Kent!

Who was Burns?

So who was Robert Burns? And what makes his legacy immortal? A poet, songwriter and a young man who had an impact both during his short life, and subsequently. He was no ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ – in fact he was taught by both his own father, and by university graduate, John Murdoch. His parents attached great importance to their sons’ education. However he was no stranger to following the plough, and was born and brought up in poverty. This had a significant impact on his life, both in his search for a career that gave him the financial stability to write, and in the empathy he always had with his fellow workers.

It's hardly in a body's pow'r
To keep, at times, frae being sour,
To see how things are shar'd;
How best o' chiels are whiles in want,
While coofs on countless thousands rant,
And ken na how to wair't;
- Robert Burns: Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet.

The ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ myth, of course is one that was invented by the Edinburgh literary (and indeed political) establishment of the time, so they could create a Scottish Bard who was acceptable to them. Burns, of course went along with this myth in public, creating almost a dual personality, while he was in Edinburgh anyway. Not that this kind of duality is unusual in the literary and artistic world. One of the main influences on Burns, James MacPherson, purported to act as an amanuensis for the Gaelic Bard ‘Ossian’ of whom there is no evidence for his existence. And one can give other examples of the creation of characters, and names to cloak actors, writers and musicians throughout history – from Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, Mary Ann Evans, Eric Arthur Blair, through to Jimmy Miller and Richard Starkey. (A special prize for anyone who gets all of the better known names for these!)

International impact

Burns was and is hugely important in the international literary canon, influencing, apart from Scottish writers as diverse as Scott and MacDiarmid, writers the world over. American Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was reputed to carry a book of Burns in his pocket and wrote these lines about Burns’ verses.

No more these simple flowers belong
To Scottish maid and lover;
Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.
- John Greenleaf Whittier, On Receiving a Sprig of Heather in Blossom

This particular reference to song is one I intend to return to. His influence continued in the US – John Steinbeck quotes him in the title of his book Of Mice and Men and JD Salinger deliberately makes Holden Caulfield misquote Burns in The Catcher in the Rye. Burns’ impact is also particularly strong in Russia and especially the Soviet Union, where he was dubbed the ‘People’s Poet’ and where the first ever Burns commemorative stamp was issued in 1956 –the 160th Anniversary of his death. A Russian translation of his work by Samuel Marshak sold over 600,000 copies. And who of that generation will forget the astounding Scotland/GDR Friendship Society Burns Suppers, organized by the late Peter Smith!

Even in China Burns was celebrated – apparently the marching song of the Chinese resistance in WW2 was a translation of My Heart’s in the Highlands

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
- Robert Burns, My Heart’s in the Highlands

You can hear the Chinese Resistance in these lines, can’t you! Interestingly this was also an indication that Burns was quite prepared to write in standard English as well as Scots, when he thought the need arose.

The struggle against oppression

Possibly as pertinent, although less politically charged is the influence of Burns on English writers. He is an important (if not the main) forerunner of the romantic movement – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, all acknowledged their debt to Burns. Well I said ‘less politically charged’, but maybe that isn’t so true. Both Wordsworth and his contemporary, Southey were strong early supporters of the French Revolution as was Burns.

When Brunswick’s great Prince cam a cruisin’ to France
Republican billies to cowe,
Bauld Brunswick’s great Prince wad hae shawn better sense,At hame wi his Princess to mowe.
- Robert Burns: When Princes an Prelates

And if anyone is wondering over a translation of the word ‘mowe’ in the above quote, let us just say, that it is taken from the Merry Muses of Caledonia – the verses of Burns that polite society tend to gloss over! Of course both Southey and Wordsworth changed their views latterly – Southey dramatically so. No-one can of course say what Burns’ subsequent view of the French Revolution was, as he died in 1796, after the period known as The Terror, but before Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor. One might as well claim to know how he would have voted in the recent referendum!
Personally I’m with the 20th Century Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, who when asked what he thought about the French Revolution is reputed to have replied “It’s too early to say.”!

But support for uprising and ordinary working people is a clear Burns trait. His political writings show his sympathies with people struggling against oppression – the French revolution, The American War of independence, and here, from The Slave’s Lament.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

Indeed Abraham Lincoln himself was a big Burns fan – apparently memorising much of Burns by heart. Of course Lincoln was a friend of Scottish Presbyterian minister, James Smith – who he appointed consul to Scotland and who is buried in the Calton Burial Ground in Glasgow.

Music opens doors

Burns’ influence on the development of music and on many later musicians too, are many and varied. Bob Dylan has cited ‘My luve is like a red, red rose’ as the lyric that had the biggest effect on his life. A majority of folk-based musicians acknowledge their debt to him. One of them, Dick Gaughan, along with Dave Swarbrick and a Canadian band formed by Jason Wilson have been exploring Scottish and Jamaican musical links recently. There is some fertile ground to be covered here, as the Scottish links to Jamaica are considerable, and, of course, almost included Burns himself at one point, though I’m far from sure that just adding No Woman, No Cry, to the end of A Red Red Rose is particularly successful. Auld Lang Syne is recognized by the Guiness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English Language – somewhat ironically!

Indeed a copy of the manuscript version of Auld Lang Syne was commemorated on a £2 coin. The manuscript I’m glad to say, currently resides in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow in the foremost collection of Burns-related material in the world. It resides there due to the work of my partner, Doreen Kean. It was Doreen’s work in pulling together the finances that allowed the city to purchase the MS from Christies in New York.

The immortal threads

So, What ARE the things that make Burns’ memory immortal? There are three clear threads that run through Burns’ work that I think ensure his immortality – threads that are linked but separate. Firstly, his ability to use specific personal images to allow us to visualize the scene, but more than this – to use an individual event or scene to shine a light onto general and universal truths. This needs the talent to both visualize the scene in a way people can relate to – the first lines from Tam O’Shanter for example:

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,

Immediately that shows me a scene at the end of the working day where people are on the lookout for a drink after work – something that I’m sure we’ve all experienced! And it also needs the talent to relate these events to general principles – later in Tam O’Shanter for example Burns has the “glorious” Tam

O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!

Haven’t we all put the world to rights over a drink? As a former colleague of mine once said: ‘The difference between us and Marx, is that Marx remembered to write it down!”

This use of the everyday to throw light on general principles is a major part of Burns’ genius, in To a Louse for example, where the sight of a louse on a lady’s bonnet in church takes us via concern, outrage and humour to the realization that she is about to fall foul of the gossip and fingerpointing that he himself has had to suffer –

Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin’.
And finally it ends in the general truth,
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
Now Westlin’ Winds as well, where a fairly standard romantic nature ballad suddenly leads to a condemnation of man’s attack on nature
Avaunt, away, the cruel sway
Tyrannic man's dominion
The sportsman's joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion

This universality is something that has separated the genius from the good throughout literature. Recently we have had to put up with a good deal of nonsense talked about the Great War. But if we go back to the poets who wrote about it at the time, we can see clearly that those that were able to ‘universalise the suffering’ about them – to broaden their vision like Wilfred Owen, ultimately made more long term impact with their verse than did the impressively sharp personal barbs of Siegfried Sassoon. Perhaps we should draw a veil over Jeffrey Archer’s favourite First World War poet (Rupert Brooke) but can I briefly put in a plea for a Scottish poet who seems to me unfairly ignored? Charles Hamilton Sorley may have died very early in the war, but his poems do seem to me to have that broad universal vision.

Art in the Community

Secondly, this ability mostly comes from writers who are close to, or based in, a community. Writers who have an empathy and understanding of the motivations of ordinary people are able to universalize the personal, far better than those who are brought up to look at life as something that is purely something for their personal exploitation and their individual pleasure. This is obviously a strength of Burns’. He wasn’t keen on the Edinburgh establishment, and his poems and songs based in his local communities have a life and reality about them. I’ve already mentioned Tam O’Shanter, here’s the opening of The Cotter’s Saturday Night:

The toil-worn Cotter frae his labor goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

Thirdly, artists who use and understand music – especially but not only – folk music are also more likely to have this talent. Music and song is a superb way to identify a concern, clarify an issue, to open doors. Folk songs – and that’s what many of Burns’ songs are – deal with the lives of ordinary working people, their trials and struggles, and also gives a voice to those people. Music and song too, are important for their ability to spread words and ideas into different environments – as Whittier had it

Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.

Burns was, in my view, as important for his songs as for his poems – possibly more so. He spent much of his short life working to collect lyrics and tunes, to write, and write down, traditional songs he heard at home and on his travels. He was involved with two collections of Scottish songs, and by far the most important is Johnson’s Scottish Musical Museum.

Burns came across James Johnson, and his massive project, when he visited Edinburgh the first time in 1786. He was immediately fascinated with the idea, and began to collect and seek out local people's songs, eventually contributing around 200 songs in total, about a third of the whole work. Obviously this kind of work predated the kind of work that Cecil Sharp, Frank Kidson, AL Lloyd and of course Hamish Henderson did much later. In reality, however, Burns is probably closest to another songwriter and collector - Ewan MacColl - as he often rewrote old songs and introduced new songs to old tunes. Amongst the songs he added to The Musical Museum were:- Auld Lang Syne, My love is like a Red, Red Rose, The Battle of Sherramuir, Scots Wha Hae, Green Grow the Rushes, O, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, The Winter it is Past, Comin' Thro the Rye and John Anderson, My Jo, and many more.

An immortal legacy?

So then – what is Burns’ legacy? Is it immortal? I refer those of you still listening back to Zhou Enlai! But what we can clearly see is that Burns’ work contains the key factors to maintain its own, and his immortality. It rests in his work. He could pick up and describe the lives of ordinary people. He could relate those incidents to the great principles of life. He could (and did) stand on their side, speak up for their struggles, and call for a better world (incidentally, not a bad philosophy for a political party!). Those talents and his use of song and lyrics mean that his verse has been accessible to other talents – both literary and musical. Especially musical – for ‘the soil of song’ is the key factor that has meant Burns’ work has ‘bloomed the whole world over’ Then raise your glasses and drink a toast to Robert Burns – to his immortal memory!

This text was first published in Socialist Correspondent Issue 22, Spring 2015.