Communism, religion and atheism
Tuesday, 12 December 2017 00:57

Communism, religion and atheism

Published in Religion

Professor Roland Boer continues his series with a discussion of religion and membership of communist parties.

Is it possible to join a communist party as a religious person? The answer, we would expect, is ‘no’. After all, Marxism is a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or for reactionary religious institutions. The problem is that communist parties in different parts of the world have often permitted religiously committed people to become members.

Let us go back to the First International (or International Workingmen’s Organisation). Founded in 1864 from a diverse array of left-wing movements, Karl Marx soon became its leader and it took a clear communist direction. On the one side, it was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist, he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’ As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.

What are the reasons for this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’. The third reason is that they would simply be copying bourgeois anti-religious programs, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International (1889-1916) took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democratic Party: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’. A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.

What about Lenin and the Bolsheviks? Did they demand atheism from party members? Not so, for Lenin took the position of the Erfurt Program. To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. [Russian Social Democratic Labour Party] have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.

Have communist parties today taken a different approach? As for the Cuban Communist Party, it initially banned religious commitment for its members. Even then, many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ for anyone who sought to become a member. In the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.

Few are the communist parties that require atheism of their members – apart from the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’. At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and does not propagate them. Thus, one might be a believer without belief.
Jesus and Marx
Tuesday, 12 December 2017 00:57

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, http://www.basisgemeinde.de), 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.

Metanoia

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.
Tuesday, 12 December 2017 00:57

Ghostly Communism - Provocative Documents for Thought

Published in Culture Hub

Several pieces on both the arts and culture hubs express, creatively and critically, what communism might mean. It's touched on in the poetry of Salena Godden, David Betteridge and others; the articles by Roland Boer on religion and by Andy Croft on poetry; and in the art of Ai Wei-Wei and others in the visual arts section. In this outstanding article, Andrew Brown picks up on the theme, and contributes a stimulating discussion of the notion of 'ghostly communism', and also some photographic images which illuminate the text in true Blakean fashion.

So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled

(Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, Verso Books).

Today, when words have lost their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air, a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can submit those images as a document to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative documents for thought’

(Manifesto of the “Provoke Group” (1968) signed by Kohi Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama)

 childrenlaughing31jan

As someone involved in left politics in one way or another since my mid-teens in the late 1970s, one of the most disturbing realisations of recent times is, as Boris Groys observes, to see how the force of language has been annulled. Once upon a time I was able to converse and argue with all kinds of people in the public space about ideas concerning human life and our fate; today, wandering through the cultural and social wreckage of neoliberalism’s stealth revolution, I find I am “fundamentally mute” because the economization and financialization of everything has occurred. I, and my friends, comrades and even old adversaries, have found to our cost that “one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring.”

Like everyone else I have been forced to adapt my behaviour—though, as you’ll see, not in the way neoliberalism would like. This is because I am all too aware of how the language of politics, the language of the demos (as in democracy), now no longer has the power effectively to encourage people in any significant numbers critically to examine what is happening in our lives and how our fate is so tightly held in the hands of those who are driving along the neoliberal agenda. Try as I like, whether in my role as a political activist or as a minister in a radical, free-religious, democratic tradition, I find it impossible to persuade people, as a whole, to rise up against their chains as a neoliberal homo oeconomicus and become, once again, homo politicus. I may point to the cry in the Communist Manifesto that the “proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” but the genius of the neoliberal stealth revolution has been to make its chains appear flower-decked. I may be able to point out, along with Marx, that neoliberalism’s flowers are “imaginary” but, what I cannot do at the moment, being fundamentally mute, is to persuade my fellow humans the value of “throw[ing] off the chain[s] and pluck[ing] the living flower” that is a genuine democracy.

This is a tragedy because, as Wendy Brown observes in a recent interview:

Democracy requires that citizens be modestly oriented toward self-rule, not simply value enhancement, and that we understand our freedom as resting in such self-rule, not simply in market conduct. When this dimension of being human is extinguished, it takes with it the necessary energies, practices, and culture of democracy, as well as its very intelligibility.

It is here that, for me, photography enters into the picture. Recognising that my words have lost “their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air” the Japanese Provoke movement’s 1968 manifesto came to me as an epiphany and began to inspire my own work, some of which you can see in this piece. Their insight suddenly offered me a way to continue the struggle for socialism and against barbarism in a very different way. They helped me see that, yes, it might be possible as a photographer to “capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is” and that the images I captured by my lens could be submitted as documents “to be considered alongside language and ideology”—photographs could be “provocative documents for thought” in a way that, at this moment in our culture’s life, our old political (and religious) words cannot.

I’ll return to the photographs found in this essay in a few paragraphs but, firstly, it is important to address the commonly expressed feeling that my words above may seem to express a typical leftist, defeatist attitude. However, two things can be cited to show this is not, I think, the case. The first is a parable told by Lenin and the second is the conception of a “weak” or “hermeneutic” communism as envisaged by Gianni Vattimo.

Man lying in sun 800x800

In 1924 Pravda (No. 87, April 16, 1924) published a short piece Lenin had written two years earlier at the end of the hugely destructive Russian Civil War called Notes of a Publicist that bears as one of its subtitles: “On ascending a high mountain.” In it Lenin imagines a man “ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain” who has “overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit.” The problem is that the mountaineer has got himself into a place where he can go no further and, if he is to succeed, he must turn back and seek another route. But, as is so often the case, descents prove to be more dangerous and difficult than any ascent. As Lenin notes,

. . . it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. . . . one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit.

To the people looking up at the climb from below, this descent causes them to shout all kinds of abuse “with malicious joy” about to the foolishness of the whole attempt to reach the summit. In Lenin’s parable he notes that,

Happily, in the circumstances we have described, our imaginary traveller cannot hear the voices of these people who are “true friends” of the idea of ascent; if he did, they would probably nauseate him. And nausea, it is said, does not help one to keep a clear head and a firm step, particularly at high altitudes.

Alas, as we descend from our first attempt to scale the mountain and, thereby, achieve socialism, the malicious joy of voices around us are today only too audible. Nauseating though this may be the important point to hold on to with a clear head is that even the great hero of the Russian Revolution saw there are moments in any struggle where you have no choice but radically to retrace the route you initially chose. In truth, this is always highly likely to occur because the mountain has not yet been conquered; you have absolutely no way of knowing beforehand what is going to be the successful route to the peak.

Reflection 530x800

It is clear that, due to external contingent circumstances, and too often our own foolishness, folly and occasionally brutality, we find ourselves in a place on the mountain that require us to retrace so many of our steps by undertaking a dangerous and very risky descent.

One person who has, to my mind, bravely and successfully done this to reach a place where we may have genuine hopes of mounting a more successful, gentle and humane attempt on the summit (though it is a very different kind of “summit” than the one imagined by Lenin and the kind of communist thinking he inherited) is the Italian leftist thinker and philosopher, Gianni Vattimo.

What appeals to me about Vattimo’s thinking is his feeling that, were communism to have any chance today of contributing to the improvement of world in healing, healthy and creative ways, then it needed to be in the full-time business of weakening all dogmas and ideologies—including, of course, its own. This idea of weakening all dogmas and ideologies may seem strange to many traditional leftists, but think about it. History has surely taught us that all strong totalising ideologies (whether religious, political, economic or financial) are deeply problematic and ultimately destructive as well as being profoundly anti-revolutionary. All such ideologies—including those once held by communists—fail properly to see that the world is always-already way more anomalous, complex, rich and revolutionary than can be dealt with by any single, totalising world-view. As Vattimo says in his highly influential 1983 essay “Weak Thought”, today it is possible to see clearly that:

. . . the world plays itself out in horizons constructed by a series of echoes, linguistic resonances, and messages coming from the past and from others (others alongside us as well as other cultures).

In other words, there is never going to be an end (a peak or summit) to the ongoing complex, multi-layered conversation between people and ideas and, therefore, there is also no such thing as ideological purity and certainty. Our world is, through and through, ceaselessly dialectical and this always means that new and revolutionary interpretations and insights are constantly being showing-up—there are theses and antitheses, yes, but there is no final, stable synthesis towards which we are ineluctably moving. The single, simple “summit” of the mountain Lenin and the early communists thought we were climbing disappears in Vattimo’s thought (and “weak” communism) to be replaced by a much more complex, shifting and interesting landscape that requires us always to flexible in our thinking and action. Perhaps this is also what John Storey is hinting at in his article 'What Do We Mean By Culture and Why Does It Matter?' elsewhere on the site: that to hold with absolute certainty any predetermined single ideology or doctrine, to be ideologically pure, is nothing less than to close oneself up to life itself.

With this thought of a life of ever-unfolding conversation we come to the nub of the matter, namely, what is now the best strategy available to us to change ourselves and the world for the better? How might we be truly true to the original revolutionary communist ideal with all its transformative energy and vision?

Well, we can start with Marx’s famous words “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” As we know most of these grand attempts to change the world were rooted in strong ideologies and doctrines and, without exception, they unfolded in some very, very bad ways. As Vattimo says in his 2010 essay “Weak Communism” this means that:

Thinking about a weak communism means rejecting not only Marx’s message, but also Lenin’s definition of communism as ‘soviet power plus electrification’ (assuming it was ever like this).

In consequence, in their recent book, “Hermenutic Communism”, Vattimo and his colleague Santiago Zabala feel, and I agree with them, that, today, Marx’s eleventh thesis should be rewritten thus:

The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.

Related to this thought, in a 2002 interview Vattimo notes that:

In a strong theory of weakness, the philosopher’s role would not derive from the world ‘as it is,’ but from the world viewed as the product of a history of interpretation throughout the history of human cultures. This philosophical effort would focus on interpretation as a process of weakening, a process in which the weight of objective structures is reduced.

The claim being made here is that the best way to affect change the world is firstly (and primarily) to change our interpretations of the world. In “Weak Communism” Vattimo states that to do this

We need an undisciplined social practice which shares with anarchism the refusal to formulate a system, a constitution, a positive ‘realistic’ model according to traditional political methods: for example, winning elections (who believes in them any longer?). Communism must have the courage to be a ‘ghost’ — if it wishes to recuperate an authentic reality.

A strikingly similar idea was expressed in the British context by Eric Hobsbawm who, in an interview towards the end of his life, suggested that the communism of the 21st century must become first and foremost

. . . a critique of capitalism, a critique of an unjust society that is developing its own contradictions; the ideal of a society with more equality, freedom, and fraternity; the passion of political action, the recognition of the necessity for common actions; the defence of the causes of the poorest and oppressed. This does not mean anymore a social order as the Soviet one, an economic order of total organisation and collectivity: I believe this experiment failed. Communism as a motivation is still valid, but not as programme.

Supermarket 27 March 2015 800x800

 

All of which allows me, finally, to turn to the photographs in this piece. They are “weak” images in the sense that they do not express any substantive political content but, for me, they do function as strong “provocative documents for thought.” Looking at them I am provoked to ask many questions, such as whether these laughing children are leading better and more fulfilled lives than their forebears or not?; whether the man sunbathing is engaging in a moment of resistance (bunking-off from exhausting and underpaid work for a while) or is he simply enjoying a well-earned and happy retirement?; whether the man reflected in the shop window surrounded by dozens of other reflections celebrating the omnipresent consumer culture through which he walks is elated and improved by this, or is he merely being crushed and erased by it?; whether the man in the supermarket is delighted by this huge range of commodities on the shelves before him or merely weighed-down by pointless choice?

As I say, these are just a few of the questions one might ask about these images and they all serve to keep me fully engaged in a political dialectic that will not be silenced by the neoliberal status quo.

 

 

For me taking these photos is part of my continuing activism as a “ghostly communist”, as someone still able to be engaged in resistance even though it is a kind of “spectral resistance” (a la Giorgio Agamben). Taking them helps me find a way of haunting every nook and cranny of the neoliberal culture in which I find myself mostly made mute. But, for all that I still have faith and hope that, along with my many ghostly comrades, we can ensure that the spectre of communism will continue to haunt not only Europe, but the whole world, our common home and treasury.
Content, Form and Universality
Tuesday, 12 December 2017 00:57

Content, Form and Universality

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon introduces some book reviews.

Lenin was clear as to the purpose of literature. He saw it as the cogs and wheels of the revolutionary cause. Dismissing bourgeois concepts of the ‘’absolute freedom’’ of the writer, literature only has value to the socialist when it is directly connected to the liberation struggles of the working class. As he said in Party Organisation and Party Literature 'one cannot live in society and be free from society. The freedom of the bourgeois writer, artist or actress is simply masked (or hypocritically masked) dependence on the money-bag, on corruption, on prostitution'.

Building on this clear sense of purpose, Anatoli Lunacharsky, the Soviet Union’s first Commissar of Education, outlined the role of the socialist critic in evaluating literature. In his Theses on the Problems of Marxist Criticism, he states 'everything that aids the development and victory of the proletariat is good; everything that harms it is evil'.

Lunacharsky identifies three key criteria that upon which the socialist reviewer should focus his or her efforts: content, form and universality. Obviously the material facts of our present world are quite different to those of 1928 when the Theses were written. Although the prospects for a wider working class revolution were uncertain by then, socialist means of production, distribution exchange and thought were being consolidated in the Soviet Union itself.


In the twenty first century, the over-arching dominance of capitalism and its myriad tools of control – the rise of e-publishing notwithstanding - mean that the role of the socialist reviewer is arguably more of a defensive rather than an offensive one in reminding readers of the prospect of a better society and possible steps towards it in his or her writings. Therefore, in my approach to literary criticism for the Morning Star, I have somewhat concentrated on a select number of basic questions within each of Lunacharsky’s criteria:

· Content: does the book expose the real nature of society or does it deal with marginal and trivial matters? Does it empower and inspire or immiserate and confuse the working class reader as regards collectivist action?
· Form: does the form naturally and effectively support the content or does it detract from it? If the form is innovative, to what extent do its innovations reflect a working class perspective?
· Universality: regardless of differential cultural references, does the work demonstrate the existence of similar realities for readers irrespective of their backgrounds or does it merely exaggerate differences? Does the work appeal equally to different types of workers or does it differentiate between them and so fragment its appeal?

Lunacharsky also – rightly – warns against the socialist reviewer getting above him or herself. Reviewers should not be cast as the sole arbiters of the correct response to a novel or short story. That is why I am thrilled at the existence of this section of this website, which allows a more collectivist evaluation of contemporary literature. I hope you enjoy my reviews, and I look forward to reading yours.