Marxism and religion
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

Marxism and religion

Published in Religion

Richard Clarke outlines how religion, like any other cultural activity, is capable of both promoting political and social liberation, and being manipulated and controlled by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

Most Marxists would say that it is none of their business to judge or comment on any individual’s sincere and deeply-held religious beliefs, provided that these do not encourage prejudice, intolerance or result in harm to others.

Some religious groupings, notably the Quakers, have been prominent in the peace and anti-war movement. Many Jews – not just secular Jews but ultra-orthodox religious Jews as well – oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Catholic ‘liberation theology’ has been a feature of progressive movements in South America.  Many individuals – of all faiths – have managed to combine their religious conviction with a commitment to socialism, even Marxism.

In Britain, the fusion of Marxist theory and Christian beliefs called Christian socialism has a long and honourable tradition. Keir Hardie (1856-1915), the founder of the modern Labour Party declared that “Any system of production or exchange which sanctions the exploitation of the weak by the strong or the unscrupulous is wrong and therefore sinful.” And Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury (1931-1963) was a supporter of the October Revolution, a life-long friend of the Soviet Union, and a chair of the Board of the Daily Worker, the predecessor of today’s only socialist national newspaper, the Morning Star.

Religion in and of itself is no indicator of people’s political orientation or of their personal qualities. At the same time Marxists would challenge the liberal exhortation to ‘celebrate all faiths’. The ‘faiths’ that are purportedly celebrated are not, of course, just matters of individual conviction. They are institutionalised belief systems. Religion is primarily a social and historical phenomenon. As Marx observed, ‘Humanity makes religion, religion does not make humanity.’ Britain’s own Head of State is, after all, also the head of the ‘established’ Church of England.

On a philosophical level, Marxism questions the truth of any religion that assumes the existence of a supernatural being not subject to the laws of nature but who responds to the adulation and entreaties of his/her/its worshippers. In engaging with religious believers, however sympathetically, Marxists do not conceal their materialist belief that everything that exists is part of nature and subject to laws which – in principle at least - can be discovered by human action and used by humanity to shape our own future.

However, notwithstanding the gendered language of his time, Marx’s position on religion is a lot more subtle and sympathetic than is commonly thought:

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state and this society produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a 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 realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Probably the best known observation of Marx on religion is that it is the ‘opium of the people.’ This is sometimes taken to mean that he saw it as a mechanism of control from above, prescribed by those in power to secure compliance and docility. To the extent that this is true it is only part of Marx’s analysis. The full passage from Marx makes his own meaning clear:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

As Roland Boer points out, Marx used opium himself to give some relief from a variety of ailments including toothache, ear aches and carbuncles; the opium metaphor had some meaning to him. Religion, in his view, provided at least some comfort and hope to the oppressed. In an uncertain world it promises a degree of certainty; it provides an apparently alternative authority to corrupted secular institutions, and to those suffering physical or psycho-social distress, it offers comfort. Above all, it offers hope, however illusory. Marxists understand this, which is why they don’t challenge genuine individual faith.

Marxists realise the limitations of individual good works, and question those that are driven primarily by expectations of a better life hereafter. More than a century ago, the communist organiser Joe Hill’s ballad ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ (popularised by Woodie Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen amongst others) challenged the ‘pie in the sky when you die’ of organised religion. ‘It’s a Lie’ goes the final line of each stanza.

As Marx concluded in his ‘opium of the people’ passage: ‘challenging religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.’ John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ tries to do just this ‘imagine there’s nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too; imagine all the people, living life in peace… no possessions… no need for greed or hunger…’ And of course, the Internationale declares ‘No saviour from on high delivers.’

Institutionalised religion can impose its own form of alienation on its adherents. That alienation is expressed wonderfully for one individual in Dire Straits’ song Ticket to Heaven (ironically taken by some to be an endorsement of religious faith rather than a critique of it). The ‘narrator’ of the song gives more than she can afford to ‘save the little children in a far country’ – sending money to ‘the man with the golden ring. – a reference to evangelical Baptist ministers like Billy Graham, spiritual adviser to a number of American presidents including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and a significant influence on Donald Trump). As a consequence she has ‘nothing left for luxuries, nothing left to pay her heating bills’ but ‘the Good Lord will provide’ – she has her ‘Ticket to Heaven’.

Religion can also be a cloak, a justification for greed and avarice. TV evangelists in the US (and elsewhere) promote the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich, inverting Feuerbach’s assertion that ‘only the poor man has a rich God’’ and reimagining the life of an itinerant Jew who believed that you couldn’t serve God and mammon to be ‘a poster boy for the super-rich.’

As Giles Fraser (former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre) has pointed out, Donald Trump is both a product and a perpetuator of the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich: ‘Being “blessed” has become a moral alibi for America’s greed. It is a nauseating smile of faux-gratitude that says: God gave this to me, so it’s not about me having too much.’’

In Britain the Alpha Course, that gospel’s more restrained, English equivalent, promotes a parallel message of personal fulfilment or quiescence, devoid of any notion of collective social progress.

All religions demand a degree of submission in religious observance – attendance at mass, praying five times per day, acceptance of a higher authority than one’s own conscience. And most are accepting of the status quo – on this earth as well as the next. That lovely hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ has for its third verse:

The rich man in his castle,/ The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,/ And ordered their estate.

But religions are not ‘all the same’. Religion presents a world of contrasts and contradictions both between and within faiths. It would be difficult to conceive of an Islamic liberation theology, for instance. The prophet of Christianity – a poor single man who ‘turned the other cheek’ and gave what he had to the poor contrasts with the prophet of Islam – a trader and military leader who accumulated wealth and power through war. Pope Francis’ 2017 encounter with Donald Trump (who arrived at the Vatican in a motorcade; the Pope came in a Ford Focus) spoke volumes. The Pope had previously suggested that Trump’s threat to build a Mexican wall meant he could not be a Christian (Christians build bridges) to which Trump responded by calling the Pope ‘disgraceful’ for doubting his faith.

For some, religious conviction offers comfort, disengagement, a shelter from the world. For others, it offers a justification for greed, bigotry and even violence. And for some it is the route to social action, challenging injustice, exploitation and evil.

Marxists need to take a careful, dialectical view on religious belief. Like any other cultural activity, it is capable of promoting political and social liberation. But it is always subject to manipulation and control by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

Meanwhile, what about socialism?
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

Meanwhile, what about socialism?

Published in Festivals/ Events

Conrad Landin introduces the AV Festival in Newcastle. 

When the AV Festival lost its funding in the latest round of Arts Council awards, there was little outcry in the national press. The fact that the festival is defiantly not London focused — connecting as it does north-east England with art projects the world over — could well point us to why. But though the festival which opened last week could well be the last, it shows no signs of abating in its boldness, vibrancy and originality.

This year's AV is the second to be titled Meanwhile, What About Socialism? The first, staged two years ago, explored the history of industry and left-wing institutions and the festival's formidable director Rebecca Shatwell says that 2018’s programme is all about presenting “new work by artists and film-makers that consider the future.”

AV Lucy Parker Apologies 2016 film still. Courtesy the artist 2

Lucy Parker, Apologies, 2016, film still. Courtesy the artist

Its highlights include a new commission from New Delhi’s Raqs Media Collective, Provisions for Everybody, which follows the path of George Orwell from his Indian birthplace to the north of England, Catalonia and Burma. Lucy Parker’s video installation Apologies comes from extensive work with the Blacklist Support Group, a campaign well familiar to Morning Star readers. But rather than simply dwelling on the crimes of the past, it questions the worth of public apologies and examines the continued campaign for a public inquiry.

At Newcastle’s Mining Institute, Prabhakar Pachpute has connected England and India across mining landscapes, mechanics and trade unionism, while Jeamin Cha’s Twelve reimagines the work of South Korea’s clandestine minimum wage commission, bringing the limits of arbitration to the fore.

AV marx

Raoul Peck, The Young Karl Marx

In its opening weekend, the festival hosted the British premiere of Raoul Peck’s film The Young Karl Marx, which charts Marx and Engels’s collaboration up to the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. It was followed by an enlightening post-screening discussion on the relevance of Marx’s writings today, which I took part in, with Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs arguing that the film’s strongest message was “the communism of everyday life” through adopting a broader perspective than the classic biopic. Instead, it examines Marx’s collaboration with Engels and the influence of other intellectuals such as the anarchist Proudhon. Equally key, with a lot of welcome creative licence taken, is the supportive role played by Marx’s aristocratic wife Jenny and Engels’s working-class Irish partner Mary Burns. Both are shown to be fierce intellectual minds in their own right.

“It’s a network of people who argue, support each other, fight and fall in love,” Sengupta said. And he contended that the “lively maturity” of the film’s intellectual exchanges is something today’s left should be seeking to emulate.

I welcomed the British left’s renewed interest in ideas. Under new Labour, social democratic politics rejected debate and intellectualism while embracing the worst aspects of the academic world — technocratic management, think-tank wonkery and the fetishisation of selective aspects of the new. The new generation of left activists, freed from the shackles of cultish Trotskyite sects thanks to Labour’s transformation into a mass movement, is instead embracing political education.

In my new home town of Glasgow, Scottish Young Labour has set up a night school to train activists in the basics of theory and practice, while in Manchester the newly established Chorlton Socialist Club is attracting huge crowds for gigs and political discussions alike. At Sunday night’s screening, Newcastle city councillor Nigel Todd said that, as a veteran Labour activist, he welcomed the change in political culture. “The past 30 years have been like living in a coffin,” he said. Another audience member, a striking lecturer at Newcastle University, urged fellow viewers to join the picket lines and teach-ins this week.

Once again, the AV Festival was using the past to look to the future and using the ideas of far away to think about fault lines far closer to home. It’s a massive shame, though not surprising, that Britain’s arts establishment isn’t interested.

The AV festival runs until March 31, details: This article was first published in the Morning Star.

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling

Published in Poetry

To mark the 170th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, Peter Raynard presents his new poem, a 'poetic coupling' based on the text of the Manifesto.

Counting in at around 12,000 words, has there ever been a more influential book containing so few words, than the Communist Manifesto? The 21st February, 2018 is the 170th anniversary of its publication. Written in a six-week rush, after the Communist League imposed a deadline on Marx, its take up and influence has been phenomenal, and it is as relevant today as it ever has been. 

Much is planned to mark the occasion, especially as it is also the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth on May 5th. I have read the Manifesto a number of times over the year. However, as a poet, I hadn’t given it much thought in my writing until I was introduced to a poetic form called ‘coupling’, devised by the poet Karen McCarthy Woolf. Coupling is a line by line poetic response (that includes rhyme, repetition, and assonance) to an existing text. It can be applied to any text but I think works very well with political writing, either as a way of making it relevant to today’s readers, or as a (satirical) polemic against it. In writing a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto I took the former approach but - in the spirit of Marxism - with a critical as well as creative eye.

I hope to complete the poem over the next few weeks, and the plan is that Culture Matters will then publish it in May in time for the 200th anniversary. Below is my coupling of the infamous ‘preface’ of the book, as well as Marx’s ten ‘commandments’ of communism.

The Communist Manifesto: A Poetic Coupling

by Peter Raynard (with Karl Marx)

“In accordance with my state of mind at the time lyrical poetry was bound to be my first subject, at least the most pleasant and immediate one….Poetry however, could be and had to be only an accompaniment; I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.” [Marx’s letter to his Father, November 1837]


A spectre is haunting Europe
               innit though

 — the spectre of communism
               that loose blanket in need of tucking in

All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre
            this unholy spectre come to remove the opium and Xanax flow from the ennui of its existents

Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
            Pope and President, Merkel Macron, autoimmune free radicals of capitalism, each playing I spy with my belittling eye

Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?
               Karl saw a gap in the market before the market had been fully formed

Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism
               no-one likes us, no-one likes us, no-one likes us, we don’t care, we are commies, new-born commies, we are commies from over there

against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?
               we are coming with sickles and fists, hammers and molotovs, balaclavas and masks, & pen and paper (just in case)

Two things result from this fact:
I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power
               albeit a power with a crackly track record of misuse, one dictatored by substance abuse

II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world
               come out and tell it how it is FFS, it has been 170 years but it’s never too late!

publish their views, their aims, their tendencies,
               they tend to hang to the left, last I heard, but added ingredients can make it absurd

and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself
               ring a ring a roses you pocketful of posers, atishoo, atishoo, we will knock off your crown

To this end, Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London
               to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, to honour his will, to update his worth

and sketched the following manifesto
               give him a deadline and he’ll give you a tract, the theory, the practice, revolutionary acts

to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages
               & Bakunin translated it into Russian, and we all know how that turned out

PR Workers by Peter Kennard

Workers, by Peter Kennard

Marx’s Ten Commandments of Communism

            ……… most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable
                       behold, the secular ten commandments, scribed in the original Manifest der kommunistischen Partei   

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purpose
                 I suggest we begin with cutting the hedge funds, the casino capitalism, the prospecting close your eyes and pick a card path to prosperity

    2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax
                in the heated climate of today’s reprobates, they’ll not be much need for public debate

    3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance
                Can I keep my granddad’s watch, it’s broken, it’s worthless, it means a lot?

    4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels
                there’ll be no more capital flight, those runways closed at midnight

    5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly
                credit where credit is due, an economy not founded on a global debt of $233 trillion, phew!

    6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State
                yes traveller I’m just putting you through, can you believe it, no trains overdue

    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State
                of factories, mere metal filings remain, big data now is the name of the game

    the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan
                I sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/ Shall I at least set my lands in order (TSE)

    8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture
                you might need a little marketing advice, industrial armies doesn’t sound nice

    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country
                the green with the grey, cosmopolitan hue, no borders, no hoarders, no get in the queue

    10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
                with child labour/girls denied education/born into sex work we mustn’t forget this is not done-and-dusted, those wheels have not come off yet, though they may be a little rusted

Marx’s Final Words

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            With links made of debt, disease, war, racism, sexism, capitalism, and more

They have a world to win
            and win it they will, for as Prometheus was Bound to say, ‘defy power which seems omnipotent’

Working Men of All Countries, Unite
            and women as well, and all those between

PR walterbenjamincopy

Portrait, by Peter Kennard

Image by Ignacia Ruiz
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

Religion and capitalism

Published in Religion

In the second essay in the series, Roland Boer discusses the relationship between religion and capitalism. The essay is also available as an ebook, and is part of the Culture Matters mission to reclaim and liberate all aspects of our human culture. Our aim with religious and spiritual life is the same as our aim in the arts and other cultural activities: to unearth and mobilise the radical meanings in religious thought, teaching and practice. For details, please go here.

What does the Marxist tradition have to say about the relationship between capitalism and religion? In this booklet, I deal with four topics: the suggestion that capitalism itself is a religion; the ‘economics of religion’ approach, which seeks to apply neo-classical economic theory to religion; Marx’s observations on religion in the bourgeois state; his development of the theory of the fetish to understand the inner workings of capitalism. Since this final topic is the most important, I devote the bulk of what follows to the fetish. For Marx, capital itself becomes a fetish in which money seems to produce money without mediation.

Capitalism as Religion

A proposal doing the rounds of late suggests that capitalism has replaced traditional religion as the faith of many people around the globe. The emphases and sources vary – ranging from Walter Benjamin’s fragment from 1921 called ‘Capitalism as Religion’ to Buddhist criticisms – but the outline is largely similar. Thus, capitalism requires one to believe in an all-powerful being. Some suggest it is money, which can give one power over others, if not determining who dies and who lives. Others draw on Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to point out that the mythical ‘market’ is a wise and all-knowing entity that knows what is best, without human interference. (It is worth noting that Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ operates at the intersection between religious and secular meanings, which enables people to read it in both ways.) Some go do far as to suggest that the capitalist market economy will eventually lead human beings to a paradise of plenty for all. Milton Friedman, whose work influenced Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was one of the more well-known proponents of this image of a market-based heaven on earth. He called it the ‘fecundity of freedom’ (Friedman and Friedman 1980, 3).

The mention of Friedman brings us to another feature of the capitalism-as-religion hypothesis: the economic specialists who function in a way very similar to ‘theologians’. Not only do they debate the core doctrines of capitalism, and not only do they develop new ‘schools’ or ‘churches’, but they also advise governments in much the same way that priests, ministers and theologians used to advise European governments of the past. And where you have doctrines and theologians, you also have sacred places for worship. These places may vary – stock markets and banks come to mind – but one must show due reverence to them and engage in the appropriate acts of worship. Individual life too has its rituals of this new religion, focused on spending and saving, on buying and selling.

I have said enough to show how this proposal works, but I must admit that I see some problems. The main problem is that it uses an argument from analogy: the fact that capitalism is analogous to or like a religion in some respects leads some to suggest that it is a religion. Why is this a problem? First, the step from analogy or likeness to being the same is not obvious. Second, it assumes the priority of religion. It begins with the historical reality that religion is much older than capitalism – true in itself – to the problematic suggestion that religion causes and shapes what follows it. Third, it leaves out the possibility that capitalism and religion may appear to be like one another in some ways because they share features common to large-scale organisations, movements and systems. Let me use another example: one could argue that political movements and religion are analogous to one another, but this does not mean that a political movement is a religion in and of itself. We might be able to ‘translate’ (the basic meaning of this word is to ‘carry across’) some terms from one side into the language of the other side. But this does not mean that they speak the same language.

Economics of Religion

The overall tone of these proposals concerning capitalism-as-religion is mostly negative. Against the assumption that capitalist economics is in some sense a ‘science’, those who propose that capitalism is a type of religion want to undermine the scientific claim. You may think you are exercising a ‘science’, say the critics, but you are no better than religious believers who have a blind faith in God or the gods. However, there is another approach that is more positive. It may be called the ‘economics of religion’, with the assumption that one can apply the dominant economic theories of capitalism (neo-classical economics) in order to understand religious activity (Witham 2010).

So we find the deployment of the supposedly neutral ‘supply and demand’, in which a specific religion might offer something that people want in a way that is better than other religions. Or the presence of many gods and religions is seen as a type of capitalist market: one has many products from which to choose, but which one will you choose? A prevalent assumption is that you will choose the one that gives you the most advantage in life, in comparison with other religions. This assumption relies on the curious idea that human beings ultimately make rational choices about what is best for themselves (Stark 1996). And it also assumes a very individualist idea of how human beings function in the world. It should not surprise us that this approach has been used to argue for the economic rationality of Christian dominance.

However, this economic approach to religion relies on a whole series of assumptions concerning economic analysis. Together they may be described as ‘economics imperialism’ (Milonakis and Fine 2009, Fine and Milonakis 2009). This type of economic analysis begins with the classical economic theory of capitalism and follows it through to the development of neo-classical economics. In this situation, the moral and political frameworks of earlier classical theory (Adam Smith was, after all, a moral philosopher) were dropped in the name of ‘science’. Mathematics was applied, numbers were crunched, tables produced and seemingly scientific models were developed (Weintraub 2002).

The result was an academic discipline that migrated from humanities to the sciences, or at least wanted to claim that it had made the transition. It sought to explain the world as it is rather than suggest a world that should be. Of course, it could do so only when capitalism was well established in many parts of the globe (Adam Smith made his moral arguments for laissez faire when it was clearly not the dominant approach). As Immanuel Wallerstein puts it, this type of economics, along with other disciplines such as sociology and political science, took the form of a university discipline in which ‘the Western world studied itself, explained its own functioning, the better to control what was happening’ (Wallerstein 2011, 264). This is precisely the point: in presenting itself as a descriptive and scientific approach, this particular type of economic analysis was really another dimension of the dominance of capitalism.

Through this whole development, three crucial steps were taken. First, the economics in question was de-historicised. In other words, it systematically forgot its own origins and historical process of development. If we forget our origins, it is a small step to assuming our assumptions are universal. Second, it was de-socialised. The social realities of any economic system were denied and blocked out. Rather than a market – of whatever type – relying on inescapable interactions between social beings, the ‘market’ became an entity unto itself. Third – and obviously related – this approach to economics became thoroughly individualised. The private individual became the primary actor in the market, making choices based on an ultimate rationality that would benefit the individual in question. Stripped down in this way, with history and society banished and the individual raised to become the primary focus, economics imperialism was born.

As it did so, it took on an air of neutrality and universality. After all, without its specific historical and social circumstances and focused on the individual, it became easy to apply this approach to economics to all sorts of human activities. It was applied to human behaviour (Becker 1976) and especially religion (McCleary 2010). This could happen only in light of the developments I have already outlined. Until now, I have insisted that this is a specific approach to economics. It is actually neo-classical economics, a revision of classical economics that sought to turn it into a universal ‘science’ that could be applied to all human activity. Tellingly, its claim to universality is reflected in the claim to be simply ‘economics’. There is no describing term, no epithet – such as ‘neo-classical economics’ or ‘economics imperialism’. Just ‘economics’, with the assumption that there is no other type. By now, it should be obvious that there are profound problems with this approach. It may seem to be a more positive approach to religion within the framework of capitalism, but it has profound problems in the way it universalises a specific approach to economics.

Marx on Religion and Capitalism

In light of these developments, it is worth returning to Marx to see what he has to say about religion and capitalism. These appear in different phases of Marx’s works. The first comes from an early piece, ‘On the Jewish Question’, which is a response to a piece by Bruno Bauer. The latter had been Marx’s teacher at the University of Berlin and they had once worked closely together. But by this time they began to have serious differences. For our purposes, one feature of Marx’s argument is important, although we should remember that this early text by Marx is heavy with dialectical theory and specific historical moments. Marx is responding to Bruno Bauer’s claim that ‘political emancipation’ would be achieved when everyone gave up their particular religious claims, the ‘Christian state’ was abolished and a thoroughly secular and atheistic state established (Bauer 1843b, 1843a). Marx responds by arguing that the ‘Christian state’ – the final form of the absolutist state after the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) – does not disappear with the secular bourgeois state, but that the bourgeois state is the full dialectical realisation of the ‘Christian state’.

To back up his argument, he looks not to France or elsewhere in Europe, but to the United States, which many saw as the first glimmers of the future. Here, argues Marx, religion has become a private affair, exercised by any citizen while the state itself is ostensibly secular. Now Marx becomes fully dialectical: this secular state is not a negation of the ‘Christian state’, but its full realisation. Indeed, the so-called ‘Christian state’ – proclaimed in Europe in the nineteenth century – was not Christian at all. Instead, the fully realised Christian state is ‘the atheistic state, the democratic state, the state which relegates religion to a place among other elements of civil society’ (Marx 1844, 156). Or as Marx and Engels put it in The Holy Family, ‘the politically perfected, modern state that knows no religious privileges is also the fully developed Christian state’ (Marx and Engels 1845, 111).

Marx’s argument in this case is more political than economic, so let us extract the economic point. The bourgeois state is Marx’s concern, which he already found emerging in the United States. And this form of the state appears only with the establishment of capitalism. Crucial to this state is the separation of religion and politics: one religion, or indeed one form of religion, is no longer supported by the state to the exclusion of others. Is this the death of religion? Not at all, for religion becomes the private affair of each individual in the realm of ‘civil society’. In your private life, you can practice whatever religion you like. This private practice is what characterises ‘civil society’. For Marx – and here he borrows from Hegel – this ‘civil society’ is not a neutral term, designating all that is outside the state’s control. Instead, it is bürgerliche gesellschaft, bourgeois society, a creation of capitalism and the bourgeois state. In this context, with its cult of the private individual, religion becomes a private affair.

Capitalism and Fetishism

However, the most substantial contribution by Marx to understanding capitalism appears elsewhere – with his lifelong interest in fetishism. This argument requires some careful and detailed analysis. I make no apologies for this, since it is crucial to understanding not only Marx’s arguments concerning capitalism and religion, but the very nature of capitalism itself. Many will perhaps know the section of Capital I called ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’. Fewer will know that he constantly reworked the idea of the fetish over four decades, or indeed that his completed argument in relation to capitalism appears in the third volume of Capital. Since I will focus on Marx’s arguments in the volumes of Capital, let me summarise his four decades of working with the idea.

The story of the fetish itself begins further back, in the fifteenth century (Pietz 1985, 1987, 1988). When the Portuguese began sailing tentatively down the West-African coast in their tiny caravels in search of a way to the ‘East’ that managed to get around the Muslim-dominated lands of the Middle East, they encountered local people with their own cultures and religious practices. As the Portuguese established forts, refuelling stations and slaving posts, they also attempted to understand cultures that were vastly different from their own. In particular, the amulets and objects, endowed with super-human powers and keys to social exchange, had to be understood. They found the term ‘idolatry’ inadequate, for it had become an elaborate term in the Christian tradition. Church fathers and theologians had developed a complex understanding of idolatry that went far beyond its initial biblical framework: idolatry had become a mirror of ‘true religion’, requiring a cultic practice, institutional structure, clergy, sacred objects, architecture and tradition.

This understanding of idolatry seemed not to apply to the practices of the West Africans. Instead, the Portuguese used the term fetisso, the origin of which is still disputed. But they played a double game: on the one hand, the term was used to suggest that the primitive Africans were irrational, for they attributed super-human and magical powers to simple objects of wood, stone or metal; on the other hand, the Portuguese also would swear by and even consume a fetish (where needed) to ensure a commercial exchange. In short, they looked own on the claim that the fetish had powers in social networking and yet they recognised such powers in their everyday interactions with the Africans.

The term ‘fetish’ caught on. The Dutch, French and English Protestants used it to describe Roman Catholic practices, while Enlightenment intellectuals used it in the eighteenth century as the basis for a general theory of religion. One of these intellectuals was Charles de Brosses, who published a work on fetishism and ancient Egypt (Brosses 1760). I mention this work, since Marx was deeply influenced by it when he read it as part of his early research into religion and art (Marx 1842). In fact, Marx wrote – as part of his collaboration with Bruno Bauer – a manuscript called A Treatise on Christian Art. But the manuscript is now lost!

Even without the manuscript, we can trace the development in Marx’s ideas of the fetish, whether in terms of criticising the decisions of the Rhine Province Assembly, in his early deliberations on the alienation of labour, as well as his reflections on the mediating role of money. What did Marx find so useful in the idea of the fetish? The core was that the fetish entailed a transfer of powers: human beings attributed to the fetish certain human powers, so much so that the fetish itself came to determine human lives. At the same time, human beings were diminished, giving up powers that they originally had. This core idea would run through Marx’s reflections, coming to fruition with his efforts to understand capitalism.


This effort appears above all with the three volumes of Capital. This requires some careful analysis, since it is important understand how Marx develops his argument in his search for the secret of capitalism. We begin with the most well-known treatment, concerning commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital  (Marx 1867a, 81-94). Here Marx attempts a dialectical leap: he argues that the transferral of powers in the commodity-form – the notion that everything, no matter how different, may be exchanged in terms of its value – is both illusory and real, both mystified and concrete. The best way to see how Marx attempts his massive leap is to focus on the following passage:

There [with commodities] it is a definite social relationship between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of the relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the product of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (Marx 1867a, 83).

At first, Marx assumes the position on fetishism with which he has worked until now: the fetish signals a transferral of attributes from human social relations to the fetish (now the commodity-form) and vice versa. In earlier texts, he used this argument in relation to labour, alienation and money. The first sentence in the quotation makes the same point: the social relation between men assumes a fantastic form in the relation between things.[1]

Now Marx faces a problem: how does the transfer of the fetish take place? Is this transference real or illusory? Three answers have been offered: a) the transfer is, like religion, illusory; b) the analogy with religion is misleading; c) Marx attempts to move dialectically beyond the opposition. The first answer argues that we suffer from a mistaken belief that the products of labour, like the fetish, gain such powers. In this case the political response is straightforward: all we need to do is indicate why those beliefs are mistaken, show what the object really is – a product made by human hands – and the task is done. At times Marx seems to assume such a position, sprinkling his text on the fetishism of commodities with phrases such as ‘grotesque ideas’, ‘mystical character’ and ‘unsubstantial ghost’.

The problem with this argument is obvious, since it would make commodities, labour, money, exploitation, and suffering a grand delusion. Is Marx then misguided in his use of the idea of fetishism, especially in light of its religious ties? Some would suggest so, arguing that the understanding of how powers are transferred to the fetish is illusory, a product of the imagination, but that those gained by the commodity are real. Marx was really showing that the perception of how those attributes are passed over to commodities is mistaken; he sets out to correct the mistake. Marx would have done better – so the argument goes – to have used an analogy other than religious fetishism.

How exactly does the transfer take place between fetish and human beings? Marx may well argue that workers, processes of material production, social relations and the product made are real; indeed, he argues that the powers transferred and thereby gained by the product are also real and materially grounded, which then means that the effects on human beings – exploitation, suffering, ruined bodies – are equally real. But are the perceptions of this process held by workers illusory? No, for the transferral of powers between commodities and human beings appear to those producers as ‘what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things’ (Marx 1867a, 84).

Their bodies know perfectly well what is going on. Yet their perception of how this process works is illusory and mystified: commodities do not have this power in themselves, for it comes from the labour power of those who produce commodities. It is both/and rather than either/or. Marx pushes at the edge of language to explain what is going on. For example, the qualities of the products of labour ‘are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses’ (Marx 1867a, 83)

Once again: although one may reveal the process of transferral and thereby show how value appears in the product of labour, that value appears ‘just as real and final, as the fact that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered’ (Marx 1867a, 85). In order to express what he is trying to argue, Marx formulates a curious phrase to express this dual character of social relations and the transferred relations between commodities: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms’ (Marx 1867b, 90).[2] Not only does this apply to the theories of bourgeois economists; it also applies to the very process of fetish transfer itself.

In other words, the process of transferral is a thought form that has become objective, utterly real. The commodity-form and the value of abstracted labour it attracts are both products of thought and objective, imaginary and real, mysterious and concrete. As with the fetish, or indeed the idol of the religious believer, the gods may not be real, but the transfer of powers to the object made, along with the resultant effect on the worker, is very real indeed.

On three other occasions in Capital and its preparatory materials, Marx returns to fetishism – in the third draft of Capital and then twice in the third volume of Capital. In these texts, Marx works away at the question of fetishism, exploring the various means by which more and more elements of capitalism end up ‘confronting living labour power’ (Marx 1894, 802) as alien, abstracted, all-powerful and utterly dominating. As he does so, the idea undergoes a process of expansion and distillation, so much so that the discussion of commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital becomes an ‘introductory framework’ (Dimoulis and Milios 2004, 29). Initially, he expands the fetish to include virtually all of the dimensions of capitalism but then he distils this variety to three and then one essence.


In the only extant section of the third draft of Capital, Marx identifies a whole series of items that are both the products of labour power and yet become powers independent of it. Apart from noting money, commodities, and even use and exchange value, he is particularly interested in abstractions from the social process of labour. Thus, the social forms of labour are inverted and now appear as the forms of the development of capital. So also, the productive powers of social labour look like the productive powers of capital – specifically as the social combination of individual labour capacities in the workshop and as the objective conditions of labour (including machinery, fixed capital and the application of forces of nature and science).

All of these seem to be contained within the capital-relation and appear to be independent of the worker. We also find the capitalist as a personification of the social character of labour, of the workshop, of capital itself, as well as items such interest, rent, wages and profit, until the development of society as such turns out to seem as though it is the development of capital itself. All of them face the labourer as pre-existing, objective, alien realities that rule his life; they ‘stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confront him as “capital”’ (Marx 1861-63, 457-58).[3]

In this treatment two developments have taken place. The first is to argue that the very process of ‘capitalisation’, which involves the extraordinary shift of properties from the social conditions of productive labour to capital, is itself a form of the fetish transfer. The significance of this initial move should not be under-estimated. Let me use the example of use value, which is usually understood to be outside the zone of the fetish (at least on a reading of the first volume of Capital). However, once use value too becomes a fetish, it throws into relief the fact that use value is an abstraction as well, that it does not have a material existence in the conventional sense of the term, that the value so attained by the product is a transfer of human powers to it. All of which means that the end of capitalism does not mean the restoration of some primal use value; rather, use value too must be destroyed in the revolution.

Second, Marx is moving to the position that the whole of capital is itself fetishised. When we arrive at the third published volume of Capital, more items are added. Some are familiar, such as interest, profit, the capitalist as the personification of capital, the products of labour in all their various manifestations, or the form of the conditions of labour, which is ‘alienated from labour and confronting it independently’ (Marx 1894, 812). But others are relatively new: land as an independently producing entity, specifically in terms of ground rent; the landlord who personifies both land and this process; the abstraction of labour, which is a ‘mere ghost’ (the Holy Ghost, the third person of the trinity) that somehow produces wages; those wages themselves, as a portion of the product of labour power; surplus labour -> surplus value -> surplus product, and thereby profit; the circulation process, since it seems as though commodities emerge from within circulation; and the collection of the world market, movements of market prices, credit, industrial and commercial cycles, alternations of prosperity and crisis – all as ‘natural laws’ and as ‘blind necessity’ (Marx 1894, 801-18).


Thus far, I have traced the way Marx expands the category of the fetish to include ever more items involved in capitalism. By now, he has moved well beyond commodities and the commodity-form to include almost every component of capitalism. He is fully aware of the shift, mentioning that his earlier treatment of the fetish transfer in commodity production and money really dealt with only ‘the simplest categories of the capitalist mode of production’ (Marx 1894, 813). At the same time, he also begins a process of distillation, focused initially on a threefold pattern: capital, land and labour (Marx 1894, 801-18).

Marx calls this the ‘Trinity formula’, which actually has three components: capital–interest, land–ground rent, and labour–wages. The key to this trinity is that relations between these terms have been concealed, specifically under the conditions of capitalism. The concealment produces the perception that capital simply produces interest in and of itself, without any need to consider labour power, surplus labour, surplus value, commodities, production, circulation and so on. Similarly, land produces ground rent in its very nature, masking the role of labour. And labour itself produces wages, for all one need do is turn up for work and wages are – naturally – forthcoming.

In each case, the fetish, or ‘capitalisation’, is in full operation. The trinity represents, from the point of view of capitalism and classical political economy, the pure and natural essence of capitalism. In the process, the specific and particular forms of these modes under capitalism become universalised: capital is thereby equated with the means of production, land with land monopolised through private ownership, labour with wage-labour. Even more, the process of personification applies not merely to the capitalist, but also to the landowner, who is now the embodiment of land, which – in a favoured metaphor – ‘likewise gets on its hind legs to demand, as an independent force, its share of the product created with its help’ (Marx 1894, 811).

Marx concludes:

In capital–profit, or still better capital–interest, land–rent, labour–wages, in this economic trinity represented as the connection between the component parts of value and wealth in general and its sources, we have the complete mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the conversion of social relations into things, the direct coalescence of material production relations with their historical and social determination. It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time directly as mere things (Marx 1894, 817).

In all this, I suggest that the primary feature is the first, concerning capital–profit (interest). The other two are subordinate to it, focused above all on the extraction of surplus value. So let us focus on this primary formula.

The Core of Capitalism

'The relations of capital assume their most external and most fetish-like form in interest-bearing capital’ (Marx 1894, 388). So begins the twenty-fourth chapter (in section five) of Capital volume three. Marx’s concern here is the externalisation of the relations of capital, especially in the most extreme form in which social relations are left far behind. And that most ‘fetish-like form’ is what is now known as the financialisation of the market, in which capital creates its own surplus value, money creates money, expanding of its own accord without the mediation of the commodity. Invoking the beautifully simple formula of M–C–M’, Marx argues that interest-bearing capital operates in terms of M–M’. The former at least gives the appearance of depending on social relations (the production of commodities), but the latter has dispensed with that: profit is now ‘the product of a mere thing’ (Marx 1894, 388-89).

Note what has happened to the fetishism of commodities, let alone all of the other instances of fetishism that I discussed above. In light of this argument, each of them has become a localised instance of fetishism, an example of a much more basic operation. In its pure essence, the fetish is nothing other than capital itself, and the fetish relation operates in terms of M – M’, which Marx describes as ‘the original starting-point of capital’ (Marx 1894, 389). Capital apparently produces surplus value in and of itself, unassisted by the processes of production and circulation.

All of this is only the first step beyond the fetishism of particular elements within capitalism. The next involves expanding the very notion of fetishism, for now Marx is interested in the logical extreme of the fetish. If the fetish involves the shifting of the powers and values of human social interaction to the relations between objects, then the full realisation of that transfer will result in the complete elevation of those things and the complete abasement of human relations, so much so that those relations simply disappear from the scene. The analogy with the transfer of human powers to the gods should be obvious: ‘In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, is brought out in its pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birthmarks of its origin’. In this pure, ‘essential fetish form’ (Marx 1894, 390), capital embodies the whole process of production within itself, a ‘mysterious’, self-creating and self-generating source of its own increase (Marx 1894, 389). It may have various manifestations or even incarnations perhaps, as commodity, money, value, social forms of productive labour, capitalist, landlord, profit and so on, each of them with properties acquired but now regarded as inherent, but at its heart capital is a fetish.

Once again, Marx must deal with the tension between illusion and reality, between concealment and transparency, surface and depth, external and internal, absurdity and rationality. On the one hand, capital-as-fetish is due to a topsy-turvy world. M–M’, whether manifested in the form of money or commodities expanding their values independently of reproduction, is a ‘perversion’, a ‘meaningless form’ of capital, mystification ‘in its most flagrant form’, in short, ‘the fetish form of capital and the conception of fetish capital’ (Marx 1894, 390). Why? While interest appears to be a primary and inherent feature of capital, it is actually a portion of the surplus value, manifested as profit, extracted from the labourer. The problem is that the real source of this surplus value is now regarded as secondary, a by-product of the supposedly primary nature of capital. That is, what is unreal is the way this pure formula of capital assumes that capital produces surplus value in and of itself – money generating money, financial speculation, and volatilised markets and so on. At the same time, the process is very real, once we bring out of concealment the process of production that generates such surplus value. But Marx goes further: M–M’ may be a ‘meaningless condensation’, but it is also the ‘original starting-point’, the ‘primary and general formula’, the moment when the unity of production and circulation ‘appears directly’ (Marx 1894, 389). Capital itself has become an ‘objective thought-form’ with power to oppress.

In the remaining part of this important chapter, Marx cites approvingly Luther’s critique of usury and then the amusing fancy of a Dr. Price and his Jesus Christ sinking fund,[4] but the argument concerning fetishism has expanded far beyond that initial foray in the first volume concerning commodities, let alone Marx’s earlier journalistic writings. Now all that has gone before, the full range of items from commodities through to the personification of the landlord, have become incarnations of capital’s ‘pure fetish form’ (Marx 1894, 801-2). Capital can exist only as parasitic, as transferral – for which the terms capitalisation and fetishisation equally apply – in which the means of productions are transformed into capital. Or, as he now writes towards the close of this chapter, capital and fetish elide to become one word, ‘Capital-fetish’.

This insight into the core of capitalism is crucial and to get to it Marx found that the most useful tool was the fetish. He had discovered it many years before, had experimented in using it to analyse a range of economic features, and then made it a centre-piece of his analysis of capitalism. He may have begun with the basic idea of the fetishism of commodities, but soon enough he expanded the fetish to include all of the features of capitalism. Once he had done so, Marx was then able to distil the idea to locate the central fetishistic function of capitalism: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Only a complex theory of fetishism can explain why ‘capital thus becomes a very mystic being’, especially ‘since all of labour’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labour as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself’ (Marx 1894, 814).[5]

In this sense can we say that capital becomes the ‘religion of everyday life’ (Marx 1894, 817).


Bauer, Bruno. 1843a. 'Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden'. In Einundzwanzig bogen aus der Schweiz, edited by Georg Herwegh, 56-71. Zürich und Winterthur: Zürich Verlag des Literarischen Comptoirs.

Bauer, Bruno. 1843b. Die Judenfrage. Braunschweig: Otto Wigand.

Becker, Gary S. 1976. The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brosses, Charles de. 1760. Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Égypte. Paris.

Dimoulis, Dimitri, and John Milios. 2004. 'Commodity Fetishism vs. Capital Fetishism: Marxist Interpretations vis-à-vis Marx’s Analyses in Capital'. Historical Materialism 13 (2):3-42.

Fine, Ben, and Dimitris Milonakis. 2009. From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics: The Shifting Boundaries between Economics and Other Social Sciences. London: Routledge.

Friedman, Milton, and Rose Friedman. 1980. Free to Choose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marx, Karl. 1842 [1976]. 'Exzerpte aus Charles de Brosses: Ueber den Dienst der Fetischengötter'. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 4:1, 320-29. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1844 [1975]. 'On the Jewish Question'. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 146-74. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1861-63 [1994]. 'Economic Manuscript of 1861-63 (Conclusion): A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy'. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 34. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867a [1996]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 35. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867b [1972]. Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Erster Band Buch I: Der Produktionsprozeß des Kapitals. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 23. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1894 [1998]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 37. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1845 [1975]. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, 5-211. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

McCleary, Rachel, ed. 2010. The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Milonakis, Dimitris, and Ben Fine. 2009. From Political Economy to Economics: Method, the Social and the Historical in the Evolution of Economic Theory. London: Routledge.

Pietz, William. 1985. 'The Problem of the Fetish, I'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9:5-17.

Pietz, William. 1987. 'The Problem of the Fetish, II'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 13:23-45.

Pietz, William. 1988. 'The Problem of the Fetish, III'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 16:105-23.

Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weintraub, E. Roy. 2002. How Economics Became a Mathematical Science. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Witham, Larry. 2010. Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] More fully, this transferral is a ‘mysterious thing, simply because the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour’ (Marx 1867a, 82-83).

[2] My translation and emphasis, with thanks to Jan Rehmann for this point (personal communication). The English translations try various formulations that do not capture the sense of Marx’s text.

[3] Or: ‘They confront the workers as shapes of capital itself, as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities, belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it’ (Marx 1861-63, 458).

[4] For Price, ‘One penny, put out at our Saviour’s birth to 5 per cent compound interest, would before this time, have increased to a greater sum, than would be contained in a hundred and fifty millions of earths, all solid gold’. The upshot: a state would be able to ‘spirit away the national debt through the mystery of compound interest’, even borrowing against the future (Marx 1894, 392-93).

[5] Or as he puts it elsewhere: ‘All forms of society, in so far as they reach the stage of commodity production and money circulation, take part in this perversion. But under the capitalist mode of production and in the case of capital, which forms its dominant category, its determining production relation, this enchanted and perverted world develops still more’ (Marx 1894, 814).

200 years young
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

200 years young

Published in Films

Scott McLemee reviews The Young Karl Marx, which, on the eve of 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, contains themes of economic crises and inequalities that remain relevant today.

Released last year but receiving as yet very little English-language press coverage, Der Junge Karl Marx is a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man. That said, I cannot vouch for the chase scene. Regarding which, more anon.

First a couple of circumstances that bode well for the film's chances of reaching a wider audience once The Young Karl Marx (the title I saw it under at a film festival recently) becomes available on DVD and via streaming. Its director is Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker whose I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin, was nominated for the Oscars last year. And the timing is good: This coming May 5 will mark the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth. Add, say, the findings in World Bank report released this week, The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018, and the potential for interest in the film looks promising. Over the past two decades, global wealth grew "grew an estimated 66 percent," the report says, "from $690 trillion to $1,143 trillion in constant 2014 U.S. dollars at market prices," while "per capita wealth declined or stagnated in more than two dozen countries in various income brackets."

If anything, those figures understate the gap. It was defined more starkly two years ago by Oxfam: "[T]he richest 1 percent have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together…. Meanwhile, the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years."

As the middle-aged Marx put it when writing for The New York Tribune in 1859: "There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery." His understanding of that system identified tendencies towards economic crisis and breakdown as inherent in the normal functioning of capitalism itself. The tweaks and patches improvised to keep things moving become, in due course, sources of turbulence. (How to square stagnating wages with the need for constantly renewed household purchasing power? With more and more consumer credit - plus the chance for investors to wager on securities tied to mortgage failure! That'll fix it.) These are insights it is unfortunately necessary to recover from time to time.

Peck and his screenwriters have availed themselves of very few of the imaginative liberties usually permitted in the making of a biopic. The Young Karl Marx sticks closely to the record, with some of the dialogue adapted from correspondence or memoirs and the casting director clearly working from portraits of the original figures. It can be difficult to imagine that there was ever a young man beneath the iconic Marx, with his prophetic and imposing beard. But August Diehl bears a striking resemblance to a drawing of Marx in his early twenties, and depicts him with just the confrontational edge that comes through in his letters to Friedrich Engels. The latter is played by Stefan Konarske - and again the likeness to pictures of the young Engels, especially in demeanor, shows more attention to the biographical sources than the genre necessarily requires.


The film opens in 1842 with Marx and his fellow philosopher-journalists at the Rheinische Zeitung being arrested for Marx's scathing coverage of debates in the local parliament - in particular, his articles on new laws taking away the traditional right of peasants to gather deadwood on a landowner's property. Marx himself later wrote that reporting on such grubby matters had been his first push towards studying economic issues. On screen, it appears as Marx's breaking point with the Young Hegelians (not a circle I ever expected to see on film) and the beginning of a series of clashes with government officials and hurried moves from country to country with his wife and children - living the life of an impecunious political exile that continues long after the end of the movie, which coincides with publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. For the record, the final scene contains the only significant factual mistake I noticed: Marx tells Engels he will be writing for The New York Tribune, though in fact he was only offered the job in 1851.

Now, a film that begins with its hero writing for one newspaper and ends with him taking a position at another newspaper is going to need a lot more than verisimilitude going for it. And that is also true even - or perhaps especially - when intervening developments largely concern the shaping of a political doctrine. What The Young Karl Marx has working to its advantage is that the 1840s were an exceptionally lively decade. Cold War-era accounts sometimes made it sound like Marx was a misanthropic recluse, scribbling diatribes read mostly by other fanatics. Peck stands that myth on its head in the first scene of Karl and Jenny in Paris, attending a political banquet addressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Such banquets were a big part of the oppositional political scene in France at the time. In reading about them, I've always imagined a big hall with waiters bringing food to large tables -- nothing like the event depicted in the film. What we see is more like an open-air rally during the daytime, with booths for food and books for sale. Proudhon takes the stage to speak about the need for an economy that won't grind the people into the dirt. He's surrounded by what looks like an entourage of co-thinkers who don't look especially happy about it when Marx throws "the master" a hard question, though both he and the audience seem to enjoy the exchange. And it so happens that some of that audience is black - a nice touch and Raoul Peck's reminder that his ancestors were part of French history even if historians have sometimes written them out of it.

In short, we get a glimpse at a culture of political debate - the first of several. In later events, the audience consists more and more of working men and women, some of them devoted to Proudhon, others drawn to the religiously-tinged radical vision of Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor of great eloquence. In time, Marx and Engels find themselves both working and arguing with these comrades, with Marx in particular proving constitutionally incapable of politesse. Of course, he's even less diplomatic upon meeting a British industrialist who insists that if child labor is abolished, he won't be able to turn a profit.

Textbook boilerplate has it that the Manifesto launched an international revolutionary movement. But The Young Karl Marx shows what that truism leaves out: Marx and Engels were part of, and were shaped by, a movement from below of people who fought not for ideals but for survival. The point of the manifesto was to give that movement an analysis of some breadth and depth. Whatever the failings of Marx and Engels's shorter-term projections, the lines read in voice-over concern something closer at hand than 19th-century social conditions.

I failed to note down exactly which passage was used, but in looking over the text, I am struck once again by the lucidity and precision of what the authors saw:

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.

This vision of hybridity applies to The Young Karl Marx itself - a film in German, French and English, directed by a Haitian in a medium well suited to communicating across wide cultural differences. Which brings me back to how in the film, shortly after Marx and Engels meet and begin exchanging ideas, they soon run into police who are hassling immigrants. They try to escape, and the chase is on! I've checked the biographies and find no indication that this actually happened. But maybe the director is tipping his hat to American cinema by imagining Marx and Engels in a buddy movie.

This review first appeared here, at the U.S. website Inside Higher Ed.


......and its name is Communism
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

......and its name is Communism

Published in Poetry

On the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Jenny Farrell introduces Brecht’s poetic re-writing of the Communist Manifesto, with its ‘spectre of communism, which continues to be a threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth.’

In February 1848, Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto” (TCM). It remains to this day a remarkable piece of literature, a lucid and powerful explanation of politics, economics and culture. It outlines the central importance of class in understanding human history, and a programme to guide our struggle for a more humane, communist society with no class-based divisions.

Almost one hundred years after its first publication, on 11 February 1945, German communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht noted in his diary the plan to re-write this text in verse. He was still living in exile in Santa Monica. The end of WWII was approaching and with it the question concerning the future of Germany. Brecht recorded in his journal on 10 March1945: “terrible newspaper reports from Germany. Ruins and no sign of life from the workers”.

Brecht hoped to infuse the original text with “new, armed authority”. The past century had witnessed ever-deeper crises and two horrendous wars. It had also seen for the first time in history a successful revolution, in which the proletariat had taken power. Armed with this historical perspective, the awareness of later Marxist theory, and the need to revive the idea of communism as the only alternative to barbarism, Brecht resolved on this spectacularly ambitious challenge.

With Lucretius’s didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in mind, and the added challenge of hexameters, he began writing a didactic poem “On the Abnormality (Un-nature) of Bourgeois Relations”. At the heart of four intended cantos, two were to be a versification of the Manifesto, plus an initial one on the difficulties of understanding the nature of society, and a final one to demonstrate the monstrous increase in barbarism. Brecht wrote the second canto first, versifying the first chapter of TCM. This is the only part that Brecht worked on and fully developed. However, Brecht did not publish it during his lifetime, and the poem remained a fragment. Yet “The Manifesto” is awe-inspiring and truly memorable.

In his versification, Brecht follows the original text, often using its terms and famous formulations, but changing some of these around in the interest of dramatic effect and also modernising it. Take the opening stanza: TCM famously begins: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”. Brecht uses the phrase “A spectre is haunting” in the opening line, and marvellously personifies it as present in various places and situations around the world. He withholds the name of the personified spectre until the end of the stanza, creating an arc of tension and adding dramatic emphasis to the word “Communism”.

Here is an extract, translated by Jack Mitchell:

Wars ruin the world and a spectre is haunting the ruins.
Not born in war, seen around in peace too, for some time now.
Nightmare to rulers but friend to the children that live in the townships.
Shaking its head as it peers into half-filled plates in poor kitchens.
Standing in wait then for those that are weary at pit-head and yard-gate.
Visiting friends in the prisons, passing in without pass-card.
Seen even in offices, heard in the lecture-halls, personally
Sometimes mounting giant tanks and flying in death-dealing bombers.
Speaking in various tongues, in all tongues. Keeping silent in many.
Guest of honour in ghettos and slums, the terror of palaces
Some here to stay, and for ever: its name is Communism.

Apart from its friendly and ever-present character, Brecht stresses the fear “palaces” have of the spectre, and its willingness to defend itself. The new world situations enter into the image as the spectre mounts tanks and death-dealing bombers, referring to the Soviet army in WWII defending the Soviet Union from Nazi invasion.

JF EasternFrontWWIIcolage

The difference between the original text and its poetic ‘translation’ is evident in the gentleness with which Brecht describes the spectre’s actions: vivid actions take the place of theoretical explanation. This is not a judgement of better or worse, it is a comment on the specific nature of art and poetry. Art and poetry capture the nature of the world and of society in specific, individualised images, whereas a text like TCM aims to outline some general principles of history and society. Although it occasionally illustrates its points with references to art, it operates on a different, more abstract level.

 Another way in which Brecht departs from the original is that he addresses his readers directly. He also establishes the speaker as intermediary between the reader and the founders of scientific communism:

Much you’ve heard tell of it. This, however, is what its founders say.
If you read history you read of the deeds of immense individuals;
Their star, in its rising and falling; the march of their armies;
Or of the pomp and destruction of empires. For them, for the founders
However, history is foremost the history of conflicts of classes.
They see the peoples internally split into classes and
Warring within. Patricians and knights, plebeians and slaves
Nobles, peasants and craftsmen, proletarians and bourgeois today
Keep in their turn the whole mighty household in motion, creating
And distributing the goods that are needed for living, but also
Fighting their fight to the death, the old fight, the one for dominion.

A central theme in TCM are the modes of production, and production itself. While Marx describes the objective laws of capitalist production, Brecht invests his imagery with the sense of natural laws. While Marx presents facts and outcomes, Brecht focuses on activities:

Never before was unleashed such a wild surge of creation
As that which the bourgeoisie in its epoch of sway has unfolded
One which bowed nature to man and made steam and electrical power
Cleared rivers for shipping and continents ready for tillage.
Never before had humanity guessed that asleep in its womb
Such liberations were lurking and powers of production like these.

Overproduction in capitalism, leads to its reversal, the destruction of commodities. The following quote is from the translation by Darko Suvin (see endnote):

Immemorial hunger had plagued the world when granaries emptied:
Now, nobody knows why, we’re hungry when they’re too full.
Mothers find nothing in the bare pantry to fill the small mouths
While sky-high mountains of grain rot behind walls.
& while bales upon bales of cloth are warehoused, the ragged family,
Overnight kicked out of its rented home, wanders freezing
Through emptied city quarters.

He illustrates the commodity nature of all labour:

Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

He highlights the way capitalist production dehumanises:

Instead of feeding off
Its proletarians, now it must feed them. It needs to employ them
But has no employment for them and yet lets their numbers swell.
And dehumanization wins, marking the victims
and victimizers….

 He also draws on other, later works of Marx, including for example the theory of cyclical crises and the hidden fetishism of commodity economy, adding this to the Manifesto.

The house does not exist for dwelling, the cloth for dressing
Nor the bread for stilling hunger: they must bring Profit.
If the product however is only used, but not also bought
Since the producer’s pay is too small – were the salary raised
It wouldn’t pay to produce the commodity – why then
Hire the hands? For they must produce at the workbench more
Than a reproduction of worker & family if there’s to be
Profit! Yet what then with the commodities? In good logic therefore:
Woolens and grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork
All are consumed by fire, to warm the God of Profit!
Heaps of machines, tools for entire armies of workers,
Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill
All sacrificed, cut up to appease the God of Profit!
Yet their God of Profit is smitten with blindness. He never sees
The victims. He’s ignorant. While he counsels believers he mumbles
Formulas nobody grasps.

 Note how specifics evoke all the senses and make the images more memorable: “Woolens & grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork” appeal to our senses of touch, smell, taste and vision. “Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill” add red heat, the contrasting coolness and paler colour of the sea, the darkness and depth of the mines, the women and children of the textile mills, the sounds of industry.

JF At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub 1942 Art.IWM ART LD 2240

At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub, Henry Moore, 1942

Brecht’s “The Manifesto” is not simply a reiteration of TCM in verse form. It is more than that, it is an expansion of the original based on Marxist theory. Readers in later times will bring their experience to the poem.

Now however those weapons wielded with deadly effect
To shatter the feudal world are turned on the bourgeoisie.
Yes it too has brought forth a class that will bear those death-dealing
Weapons against it, for all through the centuries, bound in its service
Grew with the bourgeoisie also the proletariat of the modern
Workers, living by labour and finding work only so long as they
Work in the bourgeois interest, increasing his capital interests.
Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

“The Manifesto” saw a number of re-workings. Upon his return to Berlin, Brecht went back to the draft several times. Communist composer and fellow exile in the US, Hanns Eisler, later regretted the fact that he and Feuchtwanger had discouraged Brecht in this project. He said:

If we had an epic by Brecht, “The Communist Manifesto”, then this would have gone down in human history as a very rare work of art indeed. (…) we did not consider then that Marxism must be disseminated in many ways, in many areas and in manifold subtleties. (…) much becomes attractive by being poeticised, that is deemed boring in the flatness of everyday life, the difficulties of class struggle, or academic classrooms. Brecht casts a golden sheen.

The world-famous spectre that Marx described so clearly still haunts the world, wherever wars devastate innocent populations, man-made famine stalks poor countries, workers are paid poverty wages, and the powerful oppress the dispossessed. The spectre explains the reasons for such devastation and oppression. It speaks in countless languages, and is expressed in many cultural activities – sport and religion as well as all the arts. Those cultural activities are also the site of continuous struggle, throughout history, as ruling classes seek to control and manipulate them, and veil or corrupt their fundamentally social, co-operative nature in order to obtain consent and maintain social order, so that economic exploitation can proceed unchallenged.

Yet still people fight back, economically, politically and culturally. In short, the spectre of communism continues to be threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth:

Therefore the one class capable of defeating the bourgeoisie
And shattering the fetter its state has meanwhile become
Is, in our time, the working class. It is this by its size and condition.
All that once guaranteed life in the older society now is
Rubbed out, done away with, in the life of the proletariat.
Propertyless, head and provider no longer to wife and children
Hard to distinguish by nation or native place now, for the selfsame
Subjection at the selfsame machine marks him from Essen to Canton
Morals and religion confront the proletarian as fata morganas
Mirroring to him, far off unattainable, Edens in deserts.
His is the movement of the immense majority, and his dominion is
Domination no more but the subjection of all domination.
There oppression alone is oppressed for the proletariat must
As society’s undermost stratum, in rising, completely demolish
The social set-up entire with all its uppermost strata.
It can shake off its subjection only in shaking off all
Subjection from all people.

Works consulted:

Rita Schober, "Brechts Umschrift des Kommunistischen Manifests" in Vom Sinn oder Unsinn der Literaturwissenschaft, Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle Leipzig, 1988.
Hans Runge, "Das Manifest" von Bertolt Brecht, Sinn und Form, Heft 2-3, 1963.
Robert Spaethling, "Bertolt Brecht and the Communist Manifesto", The Germanic Review, Columbia University Press, vol. XXXVII, 1962.
Socialism and Democray online, On Brecht’s “The Manifesto”: Comments for Readers in English, April 11, 2011.
Most quotations used here are from a translation by Jack Mitchell, unpublished.

For the full text of Brecht’s poem in English, please see the translation by Darko R. Suvin 1999, 2001, accessible here.

JF commmanifest

USSR stamp, 1956
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

Our common humanity: Robert Burns and For A' That

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell discusses the focus on our common humanity in Robert Burns's For A' That, and the way it foretells the 'programme which will govern the world of liberated humanity'.

Every so often, history presents us with an amazing affirmation of our common humanity, a sense of continuity, the passing on of the torch. This applies supremely to Robert Burns’s song For A’ That.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759. He lived in an age of revolution: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the anti-slavery and anti-colonial revolution in Haiti and an agrarian revolution in Scotland, to name some landmark events. The capitalist modernisation of agriculture brought with it financial gain on the one hand, and social polarisation on the other – wealthy tenants versus a rural proletariat.

JF Dean Castle in 1790 Ayrshire 3

Dean Castle, Ayrshire, 1790

A class struggle in the modern sense ensued. Those owning the means of production, providing food to the battlefields and the industrial centres, made enormous profits. The poor had too little to live on, and financial crisis, hunger and tuberculosis swept over Scotland.

The dispossessed of Scotland, among them Robert Burns, warmly welcomed the new ideas coming from across the Atlantic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, was joined a few years later by the French declaring a new era of liberty, equality and fraternity. At this time, in 1795, not long before his early death aged 37 in 1776, Burns wrote his most famous song For A’ That, a song celebrating and affirming the idea of the universal brotherhood of the dispossessed:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,  = we pass by the coward who is ashamed of his poverty
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,  = aristocratic rank is only the face stamped on a coin
The Man's the gowd for a' that.        = gold

At the heart of all of Burns’s poetry are the concerns of the ordinary people of Scotland. By addressing the specifics of their lives, Burns achieves a universality that applies to all working people. He gives voice to milkmaids and ploughmen, weavers and farmers’ wives, soldiers and travelling musicians, creating a cosmos in which ordinary folk can recognise themselves as part of a whole community. Such complete and realistic portrayal of the people asserts their common humanity and engenders pride in themselves, and a hatred for their enemies. Depictions like these help Burns’s readers to feel the conflict between their humanity and the misery they endure.

Ultimately, this portrayal of ordinary people points to the need for revolutionary change. This prophecy of communism – in the sense of a common cause, expressing the essential commonality of working people – lies at the core of Burns's poetry, and is perhaps most clearly articulated in For A' That. It reflects a sense of dignity, a scorn for the rich and a longing for universal brotherhood. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity are no abstract slogans, but already extant, rooted in the lives of the people, logical projections of their humanity.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.                = take the prize
For a' that, an’ a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Ferdinand Freiligrath, a poet of the German bourgeois revolution of March 1848 to July 1849 (later a renegade), first translated For A’ That into German (Trotz Alledem) in 1843. Freiligrath, who knew Marx and Engels, was a member of the Bund der Kommunisten (Communist League - founded in London in 1847), and a member of the editorial board of the revolutionary daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published by Marx and Engels between 1848 and 1849.

Freiligrath picked up Burns’s torch of revolution.He changed the text of Trotz Alledem to suit the German situation, whilst retaining the title, rhythm, and main idea, and it was printed in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 6 June 1848. This text survives in the German political song movement to this day.

JF Rheinische

The final edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, printed in red ink. Its editors were threatened with arrest or exile. Marx emigrated to London.

On 8 November 1918, the German sailors’ mutiny in Kiel sparked revolutionary revolt across the country. When it reached Berlin, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a free socialist republic of Germany. On the 9 November, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded a new daily revolutionary paper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) as the paper of the Spartacus League, of which they were the leaders, and shortly afterwards of the Communist Party, founded on 1 January 1919. Two weeks later, on 15 January 1919, both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered.

Liebknecht wrote the editorial for 15 January the previous day. It is his final public statement, and his legacy. The article, seizing the torch of revolution, is entitled Trotz alledem (For all That) and ends:

The defeated of today will be the victorious of tomorrow. (…) The German working class’s way to Golgotha is not over ... we are accustomed to being flung from the peak into the depths. Yet our ship keeps a straight course firmly and proudly to its destination. And whether we will still be alive when this is achieved - our programme will live; it will govern the world of liberated humanity. For All That!

 JF window

This window can still be seen in the former GDR Council of State building in Berlin

For A’ That

by Robert Burns

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

'It is communists who think like Christians': free ebooks on Marxism and religion
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

'It is communists who think like Christians': free ebooks on Marxism and religion

Published in Our Publications

Culture Matters has embarked on a bold new series of essays by the theologian and writer Professor Roland Boer, on Marxism and religion. They will explore the potential for religion to offer both reactionary and revolutionary political meanings, in all their complexity. Our aim with the topic of religious and spiritual life is the same as our aim across the arts and all other cultural activities - to unearth and mobilise the radical meanings in religious thought, teaching and practice. The essays will be published separately in instalments, and when completed they will be published as an ebook.

At Culture Matters, we believe the intersection of religion and progressive politics is a field which merits serious study, especially given the history of the English radical tradition and of Christian Socialism. It is also very topical as the intellectual bankruptcy of neoliberalism becomes increasingly obvious to people, reactionary politicians continue to hide behind a socially conservative interpretation of religion, and as recognition of the need for wide-reaching and progressive change in Britain grows.

Organised religion repels a lot of people these days, because of the perception that it is elitist, dogmatic and socially exclusive. But there is a radical strand in the modern Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths, based on helping the poor, promotion of the common good, respecting the dignity of labour, and practising solidarity with the socially excluded. This radical strand includes political campaigning against the structural causes of poverty and inequality in the name of social justice, as well as encouraging individual acts of charity.

To take a few examples, all of the main Christian groups - Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, United Reformed Church, Baptists, Quakers, Church of Scotland - are supporters of Real Living Wage campaigns, which aim to improve the situation of workers in low-paid, precarious employment. Churches of a variety of denominations have come together to help the victims of recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing. And consider also the critical statements made by Pope Francis about capitalism such as, 'We cannot wait any longer to deal with the structural causes of poverty, in order to heal our society from an illness that can only lead to new crises.' The pope has repeatedly cited the pitfalls of capitalism, decrying global income inequality and equating low-wage labor to a form of slavery. He has even said, in that bitterly ironic tone characteristic of Jesus' voice in the Gospels: 'It is the communists who think like Christians'.

Combining a progressive political strand with a radical application of religion could make a useful contribution to the national conversation about the direction of a future Labour Government. It also could empower people to reclaim their spiritual and moral heritage, and help inspire, motivate and underpin local campaigning activity. Just like art, religion can be a tool of oppression, a means of legitimating unfair distributions of power and wealth – but it can also be a powerful tool for the radical liberation of humanity. 

We hope these essays stimulate critical discussion, and would welcome critical and creative responses to the issues they raise. We invite people to share the booklet via their networks, join us in the debate and contribute ideas about to how advance this agenda. They are being published and distributed widely by Culture Matters as part of our mission to promote a progressive approach to all cultural activities. We hope you find them enjoyable, educational and enlightening. 

In the first essay, Professor Boer discusses Marx's description of religion as 'the opium of the people'. He says:

Marx’s most well-known observation concerning religion is that it is ‘the opium of the people’. The meaning would seem to be clear: opium is a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. So also with religion. The catch is that Marx’s use of ‘opium’ is not so straightforward, for it actually opens the door to what may be called a political ambivalence at the heart of religion.

Go to Religion: the opium of the people? for the first essay.

In the second essay, Professor Boer analyses the various relationships between religion and capitalism, especially Marx's use of the term 'fetish'. he says:

Marx was then able to distil the idea to locate the central fetishistic function of capitalism: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Only a complex theory of fetishism can explain why ‘capital thus becomes a very mystic being’, especially ‘since all of labour’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labour as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself. In this sense can we say that capital becomes the ‘religion of everyday life’.

Go to Religion and capitalism for the second essay.

If you would like to place a bulk order for a (priced) printed version of the complete set when it is published later in the year, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



Nothing to lose but our chains
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

Nothing to lose but our chains

Published in Sport

Looking for a communistic sports event to take part in? As the annual cycling spectacle of the Tour De France begins, Mark Perryman argues the case for advancing to communism on two wheels.

Who would have guessed it? Karl Marx was clearly a bike mechanic when he wasn’t plotting the downfall of capitalism. ‘Nothing to lose but your chains’ is handy advice when the derailleur slips and furious pedalling propels bike and rider precisely nowhere.

OK Marx was more interested in liberating the workers of the world than the freedom of the road, though with committed cycle-commuter Jeremy Corbyn quite possibly in need of a Downing Street bike rack soon, there doesn’t seem a better time to make the case for cycling as the people’s sport.

For those who take an interest in the competitive side Le Tour will be on television for the next three weeks as it weaves its way from the Grand Départ in Germany, through Belgium, a quick detour to Luxembourg  and across France to the traditional finish on the Champs Élysées.

That’s two boxes ticked straightaway in my case for a people’s sport. Firstly, despite Sky’s sponsorship of the premier British team competing, the race is broadcast on terrestrial TV – both live and highlights packages are free to air on ITV4.

And secondly this is a genuinely internationalist event. Fundamentally French of course but shared with all manner of other European countries too in terms of where it may start – the stages too – but never the ending, that will always be Paris.  Not quite the proletarian internationalism of our Marxist dreams but not a bad model for a sporting culture beyond borders! And of course lined up along the route in their hundreds of thousands are the fans, none paying even a cent – or nowadays a Euro – for the privilege.

Nor is there any significant infrastructure to waste huge amounts of money on, leaving stadia and other facilities behind never to be filled again. Instead just about the only spend is to improve the road surface, for the benefit of all. It’s a sporting event not for the few but for the many – pedestrians, cyclists and car-drivers alike.

Of course like previous Tours this one will be mired in an unfolding drugs controversy. It’s particularly  awkward for British cycling fans because the spotlight will fall mainly on Team Sky, on rider and race favourite Chris Froome and Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford.  Allied with both the unresolved drug allegations against Bradley Wiggins and the prolonged furore over sexism and bullying in and around the Olympic Team GB track cycling squad, this has all threatened to dim the golden glow of Britain’s single most successful sport over the past decade.  Cycling has taken a knock, there’s not much doubt about that. But the roots of its appeal are now so deep all the signs are that it will not only survive but continue to flourish too.

MP Cycling chain for tweet

Marx, notwithstanding my spurious claims for his contribution to the art of bicycle maintenance (famously, similar claims have been made for Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance too) is at least partially responsible for the answer. Cycling, like all sport, is socially constructed. It is a leisure activity we can take part in without scarcely even noticing. What other sport can double up as a means of getting to work, to do the shopping, to pop down the pub?  A bike can provide the basis for a family day out too, perhaps best of all it’s a habit we can pick up as children and once we’ve learned not to fall over it’s a skill we never lose. 

It’s true that at the upper end of cycling culture, particularly among men suffering from a midlife cycling crisis, the bikes cost the proverbial arm and a leg. Many observers suggest that this in part explains the decline in golf, and maybe it’s true that middle-aged men who should know better are investing in handbuilt carbon frames with all the gear to go with it, rather than ever-escalating green fees to tee off at the most expensive 18 holes. Yes the recession hurts even the most highly paid, so there’s almost certainly something in this. Still the class enemy on two wheels represents only a tiny fraction of cycling’s growing popularity. 

Likewise with the impact of the drug, bullying and sexism scandals. Elite success, Wiggins and Froome winning Le Tour, bucketloads of Olympic Cycling Gold medals certainly contributed something to cycling’s appeal. It was a bit like Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott’s success on the track coinciding with the late 1970s to early 1980s running boom.

It may be a a factor, but it’s not the total explanation that the media-boosters would like to claim for their coverage. Other more important reasons are implementation of socialist and green policies like increasing investment in safer cycling routes and paths, sunnier summers, and austerity staycation culture. These things help explain cycling’s growing and enduring popularity, not to mention the likelihood of it growing more popular under a genuinely cycle-loving socialist PM. There’s a durability to this appeal which is unlikely to be materially affected by news of dodgy medicines or bullying coaches.

Sport’s core attraction is always assumed to be competition. Wrong. For most this only applies to the spectators, those who watch but don’t do. Being on the losing side bringing up the rear does more to deter the young from sport than virtually anything else. And once deterred, regardless of the presence of compulsory sport lessons, hardly anything else proves effective in reconnecting the inactive with participation.

I think it was Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo, Undersecretary of Justice in Allende's Marxist government, who said this: 'Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.' So I’ll conclude with a quick mention of just about the most communistic sports event I’ve ever taken part in – the increasingly popular cycling sportive. No, the organisers aren’t planning revolution via long rides through the countryside, but to my mind the format unwittingly subverts the competitive instinct, via equalising participation.  There are staggered starts over varying distances, so nobody knows who the winners are – or crucially, the losers either.

For some people, it’s racing against their own individual clock, but for everyone it’s a collective race against the shared distance and terrain. And more often than not, participants are raising money for a good cause. The same prize, wherever you finish – what could be more politically progressive than that?

Not that I’ve ever seen Marx on one mind, he must be back in his bike shed working on unfettering those chains……

Thanks to Hugh Tisdale for both images. The ‘Nothing to Lose but Your Chains’ Cycling T-shirt is now available from Philosophy Football.

Education, Culture and Capitalism
Saturday, 24 March 2018 07:51

Education, Culture and Capitalism

Published in Education

Chris Guiton presents a foundation essay for the education section, sketching out some of the links between education, culture and capitalism.

The purpose of this introductory article is to sketch out the background to some issues around links between education and the general ‘cultural struggle’ which Culture Matters is aiming to support and promote. Education is itself a cultural activity, and is also the main gateway for most people to engage with art and cultural activities, and so education and culture are inextricably linked in the struggle for a better world.

Most people recognise that education plays a crucial role in society, providing people with the skills they need to understand and navigate the world around them as they grow and develop, constructing knowledge in a social context. As John Dewey, the 19th century American progressive educationalist put it, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” But while education can be viewed as a force for positive social change, which encourages children to think critically and challenge authority, it can also be a mechanism for reinforcing the prevailing ideology and strengthening the capitalist status quo. And this is where things start to get interesting.

Mainstream pedagogues (educational theorists who look at the method and practice of teaching) have traditionally taken a ‘functionalist’ view of education, arguing that it performs a number of important functions: promoting social solidarity, encouraging cooperation and developing essential skills such as literacy and numeracy. Progressive and Marxist pedagogues, on the other hand, refute the functionalist view that industrial capitalist societies are meritocracies and that an individual’s position in society is based on talent and hard work. The central challenge articulated by progressive pedagogues for many years is how to make education relevant to everyone, not just a select minority and, how to give it a critical and emancipatory quality that contributes to overturning capitalism, ending exploitation and developing a fairer world.

Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist and one of the leading ‘functionalists’, considered the major function of education as the transmission of society’s core norms and values, binding individual members of society together, creating social unity and using the hierarchies and rules that exist within schools (seen as society in miniature) to encourage conformity and train people to fulfil particular roles in the workplace. Developing this functionalist perspective, Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, believed that schools act as a bridge between the family and society, representing the main agency of socialisation, preparing children for the adult world and underpinning the division of labour. He argued that schools operate on meritocratic principles, based on equality of opportunity, and where people are rewarded by society for their hard work.

This belief fails to tackle the criticism that the values of an education system are those of the ruling elite, or that equality of opportunity is an illusion in an unequal society where wealth and privilege, and access to education, are more important than individual merit. Karl Marx pointed out in The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.

Ideas are presented as universal, politically neutral concepts when in fact they represent the interests of the ruling class. Marx explained that “each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e. to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones”.  Concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’ are defined and deployed by politicians and the media as if they are uncontentious and common-sense expressions rather than ideological constructs which serve particular social interests and which are designed to support the current political order.

There was, of course, no universal state education when Marx was writing. To understand how education can be used for reactionary ends, it’s helpful to look at later Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci who coined the phrase ‘cultural hegemony’ to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. He understood that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that this hegemony is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education, using them to ‘manufacture consent’ and confer legitimacy on the status quo. For Gramsci, education is not part of a conspiracy by the ruling class but one way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed.

Its power lies in its invisibility. The ideology of democracy and liberty, along with beliefs about individual freedom, the role of free markets and competition under capitalism are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. The dominant class controls the subject class not with force but with ideas, concealing the true source of their power and the nature of the exploitation.

A very visible example of this is seen in Britain and other countries today, with the significant shift of political gravity to the right since the 1970s as neo-liberalism, with its evocation of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ and assault on the state, public services and collective provision, became the dominant ideology. As we know to our cost, even social democratic parties lost their raison d'être and subscribed to the new faith in the individual, markets and privatisation. As a result, we are now faced with the spectacle of working class voters not only deserting the Labour Party because it lost sight of working class interests, but failing to recognise the leftward shift represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader. A poisonous combination of internal and external challenges are preventing the message getting across, including: a nakedly hostile media; damaging attacks by the Blairite undead; growing voter apathy; and the disjunction at an individual level between immediate, personal concerns and broader, public concerns which inhibits understanding of the fundamental source of their exploitation. If ever, we needed a Gramscian ‘war of position’ to develop a counter-hegemonic challenge to the neo-liberal status quo, it is now!

Adding his own perspective on how ideological control functions, Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher, viewed state education as part of what he called the broader ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ designed to convey the ideology of the ruling class. In this instance, the aim was to socialise working class children into accepting their subordinate status in capitalist society and produce an efficient and obedient work force, submissive to authority.

In their study, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, which is equally applicable to the British context, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis built on Althusser’s ideas and argued that, “Work casts a long shadow over the education system; education is subservient to the needs of those who control the workforce, the owners of the factors of production.” They believed this happened through the operation of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in schools, which, by replicating the world of work, justifies and reinforces existing social inequalities. This takes place via a number of mechanisms, including: 

  •        - Giving privileges to older students, encouraging respect for elders in later life.
  •        - Using school rules, prizes as well as punishments, to encourage conformity to the rules of society.
  •        - Emphasising the importance of regular attendance and punctuality, in preparation for the workplace.
  •        - Division in male and female education, for example via the subtle encouragement of different subject preferences, underpinning the sexual division of labour.
  •        - Requiring automatic respect for teachers, and forcing students to understand that they have limited autonomy, helping children learn respect for those in authority in the workplace.
  •        - Underlining the importance of completing schoolwork, whether or not it’s boring, preparing children for the essentially dull, repetitive tasks that characterise many  jobs.
  •        - Encouraging competition between pupils, instilling acceptance of later competition for the best jobs
  •        - Using school uniforms and dress codes to teach the importance of looking smart in the workplace.

Of course, many children learn to push back and challenge the norms that schools seek to impose on them by failing to take an interest in lessons, ‘messing about’ while at school or going truant. Ironically, this prepares them for low paid, unskilled jobs in later life as this rejection of the prevailing learning culture becomes a way of coping with the tedium of the workplace. Unfortunately, this implicit rejection of the ideology of individualism and meritocracy does not usually translate into a genuine understanding of the nature of capitalist exploitation or encourage political engagement.

But all is not lost. As Bowles and Gintis understood, the educational system reflects the contradiction between the needs of accumulation and the needs of reproduction. To accumulate profits and develop the means of production, capitalists have recognised that the workforce needs to be trained to cope with the ever-changing demands of technology and capitalist production. This requires people who can think for themselves. But there’s an inherent conflict between so-called ‘democracy’ in the political realm and the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of the workplace. If people have the opportunity to think critically, it is not difficult for them to recognise that the illusion of equality and democratic participation via the electoral system is in stark contrast to the lack of democratic control that ordinary people exert over the economy, ie. what is produced and how it is distributed.

By grouping future workers together, the education system provides the potential for people to use the educational tools they are supplied with against the system itself. Teaching literacy opens the door to books that challenge the status quo. And you cannot encourage creative thinking and understanding of sophisticated intellectual concepts without encouraging people to question the prevailing ideology. This contradiction between what schools promise and what they really deliver, between ideology and the way society actually works, has the potential to radicalise people and spur them into action.

This is the significance of Paulo Freire’s theory of education that goes beyond traditional Marxist thinking and links radical critical theory and the imperatives of progressive struggle, linked to an understanding of the dynamics of domination and oppression and the constraints as well as the possibilities that generates.

Freire was a Brazilian pedagogue and critic of conventional teaching methods. In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed he characterised these as the ‘banking method’ which he saw mirroring and re-enforcing an oppressive society. Under this model of teaching the teacher is viewed as knowing everything and the student nothing. The teacher talks and the student listens. The teacher (or the rather the government!) determines what is taught and how is it is taught. Students are empty vessels and their role is to store the knowledge bestowed on them. Above all, they are not required or expected as a result of their education to change the world by reflection and action (ie. praxis).  Freire recognised that students may come to reject the education fed them and achieve praxis anyway, but what he describes as the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt another approach: problem posing education based on dialogue between teacher and student in which both become responsible for a process in which they both grow. Their aim: to become critical thinkers, questioning and challenging what they encounter in the learning process.

But if state education puts obstacles in the way of the development of critical thinking - driven as it is by the demands of capitalist ‘rationality’, marketisation and endless testing - then we need to rediscover a radical pedagogy that embraces, as Freire puts it, “Liberation [as] a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.” The critical pedagogy proposed by Freire and others in this field such as Henry Giroux offers a route for young people to develop a social awareness of cultural and political alternatives, enabling them to connect their experiences with classroom learning and understand that with knowledge comes power.  

This is why reactionary politicians of all major parties have sought to marginalise such teaching methods as a deeply harmful distraction belonging to “trendy, 1960s progressive educationalists” and of no relevance in a modern education system. Three examples of how this threat has been addressed by governments in recent years bring this into sharp relief and underline the nature of the struggle in today’s education system: the prescriptive method of teaching young children to read using phonics, reducing the narrative content in reading and undermining the development of ‘reading for pleasure’; the attempts to shift teacher training away from universities and teacher training colleges and into schools where, it is hoped, such contaminating ideas as those of Freire won’t be picked up; and the increasingly narrow specification of the curriculum that the Government is forcing through, marginalising the arts and humanities.    

But, as Gramsci recognised, no culture is completely hegemonic. Even the most sophisticated political systems will face pockets of ‘counter-hegemonic’ cultures: perspectives on society that challenge the dominant ideology, and which have revolutionary potential if they can be identified and supported. These might be located in the traditional beliefs held by older people, the shop-floor culture of industrial workers, youth sub-cultures or other groups in society.

In The Long Revolution Raymond Williams defined culture “as a whole way of life”, thereby dissolving the boundary between everyday culture and ‘high culture’. A fully developed cultural education implies opening up our society by means of art and culture. The dialectic between education and culture at a general level - the beliefs, norms and values that condition society - as radical education becomes a mechanism for resistance to and change of a dominant culture in all its manifestations, also applies directly to the more specific area of the arts and humanities. Cultural education in this sense is an indispensable part of the broader education system, and is not a luxury that can be added when other educational goals have been delivered.

Learning is a creative process, and what we learn depends on how we learn. It is well understood that studying the arts opens up spheres of experience and development in people that go beyond the immediate subject studied, developing levels of cognition and emotion that feed into people’s ability to understand the world around them and cope with everyday life and social situations.

The education system plays a decisive role in awakening and encouraging creative potential in people. It has the capacity to develop empathic as well as political engagement. The arts take us into imagined worlds created by different minds and enable us to understand how others live. In addition to giving us aesthetic pleasure, they provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues.

By awakening our imagination, art intensifies and complements our own experience. Art represents people, cultures, values, and perspectives on living, but it does much more. While bringing us pleasure, art also teaches us about life. While reading a poem, listening to music or looking at a painting we are encouraged to look outside ourselves, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world. 

Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, emotional growth and development of cognitive skills, encouraging a commitment to the common good.

Clearly, schools aren’t the only site of struggle. Seeking to change schools without seeking to change wider society is a recipe for frustration and eventual failure. But education as one of the forces for radical change, which goes beyond schools, colleges and universities into a lifelong commitment which reflects the dialectic between an individual and the society around them, and which is delivered via trade unions, local authorities, Further Education colleges, the Workers’ Education Association and other institutions, is clearly a prize worth fighting for.

We hope this article stimulates further contributions on the subject of education and culture.