Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 9, 2007

Liberation theology

Filed under: religion,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

(This is part 5 of a series on “Does Socialism Have a Future?”. There will be one more installment on socialism and religion after this, focusing on political Islam.)

Is Marxism hostile to liberation theology? One might get that impression from Alexander Saxton’s MRZine article (an excerpt from his book “Religion and the Human Project”) that this is so:

Marx and Engels both portrayed early Christianity as driven by the desperation of enslaved and exploited populations in the Roman empire; Engels represented the Hussites and Anabaptists as religiously inspired rebels fighting to liberate peasants from feudalism. Why might not religion then inspire working-class rebels against industrial capitalism? The fact is it has done so — a dramatic (and recent) example being that of liberation theology in Latin America.

I for one find the idea that socialists are somehow “missing the boat” when it comes to the use of religion as a weapon of struggle somewhat mystifying. As somebody who belonged to the SWP, one of the more rigidly dogmatic Marxist groups in the USA during the 1960s, I don’t recall a single attack on the African-American churches that were involved in the civil rights struggle in our party press. Nor do I recall any criticism of Martin Luther King Jr. as “mystifying” his followers with faith-based appeals. There was criticism to be sure, but it had mostly to do with King’s connections to the Democratic Party. This is not to speak of the party’s earlier support for Malcolm X, whose Muslim beliefs were never questioned.

Two years after dropping out of the SWP in 1979, I got involved with Central American solidarity and for most of the following decade, this brought me into contact with a wide range of Catholic support groups in the USA and with “liberation theology” in Nicaragua. Delegations to Nicaragua inevitably included a visit to a cathedral in Managua where services were conducted along “liberation theology” guidelines. (That being said, nobody could ever miss the fact that most of the attendees were foreigners.)

A careful reading of the socialist press will reveal very little prejudice against liberation theology, except predictably from the lunatic fringe. Take Bob Avakian for example:

I often find myself wondering: why don’t these “liberation theology” people–if they’re really interested in uprooting oppression and getting rid of poverty and standing up for the interests of the poor and oppressed and abolishing war–why don’t they give up this religious stuff? Why do they hang on to that when it’s objectively a hindrance? And the answer–or a big part of the answer–is that, to the degree that people are as yet unwilling to give this up, to make this radical rupture, it reflects the fact that they have not become convinced that these changes can be brought about or should be brought about by the actions of conscious human beings themselves. They are clinging to the idea that such changes require some sort of divine intervention or some divine rule to make this possible and to make sure it goes the right way.

Except for this unreconstructed Mao/Stalinist, I can find absolutely no evidence of any sort of pervasive and ongoing hostility to liberation theology on the left. It would be fair to say that the typical Marxist, me included, was very happy that such a trend existed even if we didn’t spend much time reading the literature or thinking a whole lot about it.

Of particular note is Fidel Castro’s embrace of religion, which was the subject of a 23 hour dialog he had with Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto that was published in 2006 by Ocean Press as “Fidel and Religion”. At one point, Castro states that there are “ten thousand more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism.” However, theologian Harvey Cox can’t help but wondering in the book’s introduction whether this is only “a clever gambit by a wily and resourceful politician who knows that he needs to have Christians on his side.” One can never imagine Bob Avakian stooping to such “wily” measures.

Not only did Castro reconcile himself to liberation theology, he also opened the doors to Pope John Paul II, who had cracked down on the very leaders of the Catholic left in Latin America.. Along with Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope, the two had written attacks on the Catholic left and appointed rightwing flunkies as Archbishops when the opportunity arose. After Archbishop Romero was murdered by US-backed death squads in El Salvador, the Pope replaced him with Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, a member of Opus Dei and a foe of liberation theology. Shortly after becoming Archbishop, Sáenz accepted the honorary title of brigadier general from the Salvadoran armed forces.

When Pope John Paul II accepted an invitation to visit Cuba, he had already pulled back from the right. To an extent, this can be explained by the demise of Communism. Without such an enemy, he had no need to beat the drums as loudly as in the past. Instead, more and more of his energy was devoted to criticizing the abuses of capitalism. This was understandable. Since poor Catholics everywhere were being battered by the forces of globalization and neoliberalism (i.e., capitalism), he had to shift gears and give the appearance of being on their side–a move that Harvey Cox might describe as “wily”.

In 1998, long before I had begun to think about the challenge posed by Alexander Saxton, I had no problem with the Cuban government inviting the Pope. On the mailing list that preceded Marxmail, however, there were more than a couple of people who tended to think along the same lines as Bob Avakian, not the least of which was Adolfo Olaechea, the well-known supporter of the Shining Path in Peru. Olaechea denounced the trip in his trademark 1930s Moscow Trial fashion:

It is clear that come January, Castro is to show himself alongside his long sought and finally encountered Living “Marx” on Earth: The preacher Wotjila and his Sermon from Mount Havana!: Teach the ignorant, dress the naked, bury the death, feed the hungry, console the suffering, because the poor will always be with you! – that is the ideology of the Sermon of the Mount, and that, according to Castro, is what Marx would have subscribed to!.

Ours is the ideology of the revolutionary proletariat, bequathed to us by Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Chairman Mao. Ours is an ideology of revolutionary overthrow, of harnessing and organising poverty for the overthrow of opression and exploitation, not for acts of charity and the distribution of alms. What do we have in common with that ideology of consolation and “alms giving”?

We are communist fighters for the abolition of class society, not a tropical version of the Good Samaritan, nor Marxian socialism has anything in common with clerical rubbish!

I responded at the time with the following, although my formulations might be a bit less strident today (I was obviously reflecting the madhouse environment of those days.):

Finally, a word on the Pope’s trip. This one really boggles the mind. Cuba was not a particularly Catholic country even before the revolution. I had a friend named Gabriel Manfugas who fled Cuba in the mid 60s with his father, mother and brother. His dad was a sergeant in Batista’s army and served time in prison. Gabriel was a big-time anti-Communist when I first met him, but shifted to the left through arguments he heard from me and anthropology professors at CCNY.

One of the things we used to talk about a lot was “santeria”, the Afro-Cuban religion influenced by the Yoruba rituals brought to Cuba during the time of slavery. Santeria in its pure form was extremely popular in Cuba. Most Cubans are of African descent and have deep ties to the Yoruba deities. Even Gabriel’s family was in tune to these rituals, despite their nominal Catholicism. When you looked around his parent’s apartment in Washington Heights, you would see the oddest mixture of religious artifacts. Pictures of saints with herbs scotch-taped to them. Gabriel once told me that his mom prayed for him every night, but it wasn’t to Jesus that the prayers were directed. He said that he never pried into her beliefs.

However, these are typical Cuban beliefs. Cuba is not like Poland, where the Catholic Church has had a vise-like grip historically. Furthermore, the younger generation of Cubans could be less interested in going to church. They have consumerist, not Christian hang-ups.

The Pope made visits to Poland in order to prop up Solidarity, an anti-Communist outfit that many Trotskyites supported on the mistaken assumption that this had anything to do with socialism. There is no equivalent in Cuba. What the Cuban government has done is opened Cuba up to a visit from the Pope that is part of the buzzard’s trip through the Western Hemisphere. There is some good that can come of this, since a visit from the Pope will tend break down Cuba’s isolation somewhat, especially among countries with a Catholic population. Better trade relations and even some foreign aid might come about.

There is absolutely no other way to interpret this affair.

This is pretty much the way I regard any interaction with religious institutions today. If this might sound “wily”, that’s just the way I intended it for in the final analysis the only way to make sense of the relationship between religion and socialism is political. If it advances the revolution to burn down a church or two, so be it. If you need to reverse course and invite the Pope to Cuba in order to gain some breathing room, so be it. Everything else is immaterial.

January 8, 2007

Our Daily Bread

Filed under: Film,workers — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Last night Turner Classic Movies (TCM), a cable station that features vintage films, aired “Our Daily Bread,” a 1934 film that I had heard about but never saw before. Directed by silent film veteran King Vidor who worked into the late 1950s, it is the story of unemployed men taking over a Midwest farm and running it like a commune. Considering his penchant for pulp material like “Stella Dallas” and “Ruby Gentry,” it is a testament to the depth of the 1930s radicalization that he decided to write and direct “Our Daily Bread.” It is no accident that United Artists produced the film. This company was founded by Charlie Chaplin and run as a cooperative by leading directors and actors who sought an outlet for non-commercial works like “Our Daily Bread.”

The two main characters are a young married couple John and Mary Sims (played by Tom Keene and Karen Morley), who are months behind on their rent. John is unemployed and can’t even get an interview. Their luck takes a turn for the better after Mary’s well-off uncle turns an abandoned farm over to them. Whatever they lack in farming experience, they hope to make up for with sheer enthusiasm.

A few days after arriving at the farm, they begin to realize how little they know about farming. But once again, fortune smiles on them in the form of a Swedish farmer and his wife who are fixing a flat just beyond their gate. When John learns that the two have just lost their Minnesota farm, he invites them to come live with them on the farm. In exchange for their expertise, they can stay there for free.

The goodhearted Swede has to chuckle at John’s inexperience. He catches him in the act of discarding some “weeds” that turn out to be carrots. Before long, the two couples begin to make some real headway on the farm and their hopes are raised. This gives John a brainstorm. He will put up a string of signs outside the farm, like the old Burma Shave ads, that call for jobless skilled tradesmen to join them. In exchange for their labor, they will get a place to live and an opportunity to share in the sales proceeds from the harvested crops.

Eventually, their ranks grow to include both skilled and unskilled. John doesn’t have the heart to turn anybody away, including a pants presser named Cohen, an undertaker and a professor. It also includes a bank robber named Louie Fuente, who despite his gruff exterior believes totally in the commune. So much so in fact that he decides to turn himself into the law just so that the $500 reward will go to his co-workers.

Not everybody’s motives are so pure. They are soon joined by Sally (Barbara Pepper), a sexy blonde who just regards the farm as a temporary place to crash until something better turns up. She spends much of her time in her room listening to jazz, a sure sign that she is up to no good! The TCM website reports that Sally was included just to sell tickets, a sign that even United Artists had to make compromises.

The climax of the film revolves around the effort of the communal farmers to dig a three mile long irrigation ditch to the farm in a race against time. A severe drought threatens to destroy their corn crop and make them destitute. The sight of the men working together with picks and shovels is quintessential 1930s New Deal iconography. It is also a reminder of how close the USA was to Stalin’s Russia in cultural terms. Notwithstanding King Vidor’s past, he seems to have absorbed the imagery of Soviet poster art into his bloodstream.

It should be mentioned that at least one member of Vidor’s cast had Communist sympathies. Karen Morley, who played Mary Sims, was “named” by actor Sterling Hayden as a CP’er and blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She never made another film.

When watching “Our Daily Bread,” I was reminded of my visits to farm cooperatives in Sandinista Nicaragua. There is something truly inspiring about men and women working together to produce for their common good. It is one of the great contradictions of American society that with every increase in abundance since the 1930s, there has been a concomitant decrease in the potential for group solidarity. Workers used to think in terms of their collective power. Now they see themselves more as individual actors looking for ways to benefit themselves and their family. Although nobody can predict when this will change, we can be sure that as economic insecurity grows working men and women will once again be forced to look to each other for mutual aid.

UPDATE: A comment from Michael Hoover posted to Marxmail:

Chaplin’s financing of “Our Daily Bread” was later used against him when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (he decided to leave the US rather than testify). Vidor’s film won Moscow’s Lenin Film Festival prize. Vidor himself eventually became a conservative.



January 4, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Today the temperature is forecasted not to go above 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12.7 degrees Celsius) in New York City. For the entire month of December and now into January, the coldest month of the year, there has not been a single day beneath freezing to my knowledge.

Those conditions obviously reflect the subject of Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” that I viewed last night. Despite my political opposition to Gore and despite my qualms about the documentary’s refusal to follow through on its implications, I can recommend it as a very good introduction to the problems of global warming. It is also a fascinating document on the divided psychology of a ruling class politician as he tries to cope with a threat to the capitalist system, but without allowing himself to break from that system. As the 21st century wends its way toward certain disaster, more and more such politicians will be challenged to respond to grave threats to the environment. To Gore’s credit, he has stepped out in front. It will of course be up to the class that has nothing to lose to go all the way.

The film is basically a recording of one of Gore’s lectures to a college audience interspersed with personal reflections about how he became an environmentalist and film footage of the consequences of global warming (melting glaciers, disappearing snow, drought, hurricanes, etc.) While Gore can come across as an insufferably pedantic slow-talker at times, he does manage to maintain a lively pace and a refreshing candor as well as poke fun of himself from time to time.

As might be expected, the film is laden with facts that are integrated into Gore’s Powerpoint-type presentation. From the film’s website, we can some of the kinds of points that are made:

  • The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled in the last 30 years.
  • Malaria has spread to higher altitudes in places like the Colombian Andes, 7,000 feet above sea level.
  • The flow of ice from glaciers in Greenland has more than doubled over the past decade.
  • At least 279 species of plants and animals are already responding to global warming, moving closer to the poles.

We learn that when Gore was a student at Harvard, he was strongly influenced by Professor Roger Revelle. Revelle was the founding chair of the first Committee on Climate Change and the Ocean (CCCO). In a 1957 article, Revelle and Hans Suess asserted that the oceans would absorb man-made carbon dioxide at a much slower rate than previously predicted. This was one of the first attempts to come to grips with the “greenhouse effect.” Needless to say, this is not the kind of intellectual background that George W. Bush had, even though he was privileged to have an Ivy education as well.

Gore’s patrician background lent itself to more of a ‘noblesse oblige’ posture than found in the Bush family. His father was a Senator as well, who raised tobacco on his Tennessee farm. After his daughter, a life-long smoker, died of lung cancer, he resolved to stop growing the crop. This leads Gore to think a bit more deeply about the problems of “denial” when it comes to a deadly threat whose tentacles grow out of the bedrock of American industry. If the tobacco industry fought for so many years with the aid of “scientific” experts to deny a connection between lung cancer and smoking, imagine how much resistance will be mounted against any attempts to curtail greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, this is simply beyond the intellectual and political reach of Al Gore. The thrust of his campaign is directed not against the capitalist class but against the individual consumer whose choices must begin to reflect a more enlightened approach. His website includes “10 simple tips” that include planting a tree since “a single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.” As dedicated as I am to ecology, I am not exactly sure how I can follow through on this. I suspect that I would be hauled off in handcuffs if I tried to dig a hole in Central Park for a new sapling. I am also sure that there is not enough room in my apartment for a proper tree. Maybe an avocado plant, but that’s about it.

Gore does recommend that we support the efforts of Conservation International, a group that is dedicated to saving the rainforest, but I sincerely wonder how much help such a group can be when it remains so profitable to hack away at trees in Brazil, Borneo and elsewhere. I also wonder how dedicated such a group can be when it includes Rob Walton from Walmart and Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, on the board. Both of these firms are associated with rampant exploitation of the environment in the pursuit of profit. It is akin, as Malcom X once put it, to putting the wolf in charge of protecting the henhouse.

One can certainly understand why Walmart would lend its shitty name to such an enterprise. They need all the help they can get when it comes to public relations. Yesterday the NY Times reported:

As a way to cut energy use, it could not be simpler. Unscrew a light bulb that uses a lot of electricity and replace it with one that uses much less.

While it sounds like a promising idea, it turns out that the long-lasting, swirl-shaped light bulbs known as compact fluorescent lamps are to the nation’s energy problem what vegetables are to its obesity epidemic: a near perfect answer, if only Americans could be persuaded to swallow them.

But now Wal-Mart Stores, the giant discount retailer, is determined to push them into at least 100 million homes. And its ambitions extend even further, spurred by a sweeping commitment from its chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., to reduce energy use across the country, a move that could also improve Wal-Mart’s appeal to the more affluent consumers the chain must win over to keep growing in the United States.

“The environment,” Mr. Scott said, “is begging for the Wal-Mart business model.”

As it turns out, this is “simple tip” number one on Al Gore’s list: “Replacing one regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb will save 150 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.”

However, this is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the major causes of greenhouse gases, which are inextricably linked to the capitalist mode of production that relies heavily on the burning of fossil fuels. We would have about as much success in chance of curtailing such practices as King Canute had in turning back the ocean’s waves. Capitalism operates on the basis of private profit, not human need. If there is profit to be made in selling a hundred million SUV’s in China, General Motors or Toyota would be happy to see polar bears extinct or Bangladesh submerged under 100 feet of water if that’s what it takes.

For an analysis of why the advanced capitalist countries have been so reluctant to come to grips with global warming, despite the warnings of one of its most powerful politicians, we have to turn to John Bellamy Foster, a Marxist who has written about the contradictions of capitalism and the environment for over a decade now. In an October 2001 Monthly Review article aptly titled “Ecology Against Capitalism“, he points out:

As economic growth occurs in carbon–based capitalist economies the demand for fossil fuels rises as well. Mere increased energy efficiency–as opposed to the actual development of alternative forms of energy–is unable to do much to arrest this process in the face of increasing demand. Insofar as increased efficiency reduces unit energy costs, it tends to lead to increased demand. High demand for fossil fuel use is also encouraged by the high profits to be obtained from this, inducing capital to structure the energy economy around fossil fuels (a reality that is now deeply entrenched). In the United States the Bush administration’s push for coal–fired power plants in response to the California energy crisis, plus its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, played a part in the doubling of U.S. coal prices in just six months (New York Times Magazine, July 22, 2001, pp. 31–34).

The degree to which a carbon–based economy is endemic to advanced capitalism can be seen in the failure of the Clinton administration to keep carbon dioxide emissions from steadily rising; in Japan’s growing emissions over the 1990s despite the stagnation of its economy; and in the European Union’s inability to prevent most of its member states from increasing their greenhouse gas emissions. It is also evident in the Bush administration’s National Energy Policy: Report of the National Policy Development Group (headed by Vice President Dick Cheney) for 2001, which was meant to justify the administration’s call for 1,300 additional power plants to meet projected energy needs. This national energy policy advocated by the Bush administration includes only a very brief reference (six paragraphs in the middle of a lengthy report) to global warming.

In light of a series of articles I have been writing about “Does Socialism Have a Future,” I am reminded in light of Gore’s documentary and Foster’s penetrating analysis that in many ways the real question has been and will always be “Does Capitalism Have a Future.”

January 2, 2007

Socialism and religion: what Marx believed

Filed under: religion,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

(This is part 4 of a series on “Does Socialism Have a Future?”. There will be two more installments on socialism and religion after this.)

An excerpt from Chapter 11 (“Marxism and the Failed Critique of Religion”) in Alexander Saxton’s “Religion and the Human Prospect” can be read on the MRZine website. If the chapter title doesn’t say it all, Saxton makes sure to remind his readers that “Marx and Engels remained nonbelievers and foes of institutionalized religion.” Additionally, we learn that “Marx and Engels themselves had chosen to make criticism of religion the ‘premise’ for their project in revolutionary political economy.”

Alexander Saxton

Although I understand that Saxton is emeritus professor of history at UCLA, I was a bit dismayed to discover a rather unscholarly shortage of citations to support such claims, with the exception of his inclusion of Engels’s observation that “Faulty education saves [the new proletarian] from religious prepossessions, he . . . knows nothing of the fanaticism that holds the bourgeoisie bound. . . .”

I for one am not sure how Engels arrived at this conclusion. It may be true or it might not be true, but it hardly amounts to the sort of thing heard from a Samuel Harris (“The End of Faith”) or a Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”), two thinkers who have made a big splash lately railing against religion. It is simply an empirical observation that is entirely secondary to the purpose of the 1845 “Condition of the Working Class in England,” which is to denounce the treatment of factory workers in places like Manchester.

Furthermore, despite Dr. Saxton’s enormous erudition, we are obliged to remind him that Engels was no Marxist at this point. The work could have been written by a Charles Dickens and demonstrates absolutely no engagement with basic Marxist economics. This is completely understandable since there was no such thing at this point in history. Indeed, it is generally understood that Engels’s idea of socialism at this point in his career owed more to Moses Hess than to Karl Marx.

Although I reserve judgment on Engels’s claims, I did take note of the following:

When Father Mathew, the Irish apostle of temperance, passes through the English cities, from thirty to sixty thousand workers take the pledge; but most of them break it again within a month.

As somebody who has enjoyed listening to Christian talk radio over the years late at night, this sounds fairly consistent with the average caller who is trying once again with the help of Jesus to beat alcohol or drug addiction.

Turning from Engels to Marx, there is ample evidence of a philosophical struggle against philosophical idealism, which in the 19th century overlapped to a great degree with theology. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx turns Hegel on his head and looks at all ideas, including religion, as a reflection of more earthly matters:

This material, immediately perceptible private property is the material perceptible expression of estranged human life. Its movement– production and consumption — is the perceptible revelation of the movement of all production until now, i.e., the realisation or the reality of man. Religion, family, state, law, morality, science, art, etc., are only particular modes of production, and fall under its general law. The positive transcendence of private property as the appropriation of human life, is therefore the positive transcendence of all estrangement — that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i.e., social, existence.

Whatever else one wants to say about this, it hardly amounts to a declaration of warfare on religion. If so, then Marx can just as easily be categorized as an enemy of art and science since they too are regarded as being in conflict with a true social existence. That being said, Marx began to evolve away from philosophical reflections of these sorts and to focus more on economics and politics. If he was “against” religion, it was only in the broadest theoretical terms and hardly amounted to a call to boycott Sunday services.

Oddly enough, Saxton does not bother to take up Marx’s famous dictum about religion being the opiate of the people. When I was in junior high school in the 1950s, one of the first things we learned about Marxism is that its founder hated religion so much that he compared it to taking drugs. His followers in the Soviet Union interpreted this to mean that churches and synagogues should be shut down like opium dens. (Since at the time I had my fill of being forced to go to synagogue, I made a mental note to myself to check out this communism thing the first chance I had.)

This business about religion as the opiate of the people can be found in the introduction to the 1844 “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” another early work. It is certainly worth reexamining, especially since it is anything but the manifesto of a “foe of organized religion,” as Saxton puts it.

Demonstrating the influence of Feuerbach, Marx writes:

This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

This is a rather roundabout way of saying that man creates god rather than the other way around. I imagine that except for places like Oral Roberts University, this is rather uncontroversial. The notion that God created the Universe seems rather unscientific nowadays, but in the 1800s it was necessary for people like Marx, Darwin et al to stake out such a position for the sake of intellectual and scientific progress. Unfortunately, this struggle seems to be ongoing.

In the following paragraphs, Marx articulates his famous position:

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.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

However, Marx does not advocate an assault on these illusions in the manner of Samuel Harris or Richard Dawkins. Instead, he urges an attack on the conditions that make such illusions necessary:

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

If there is any confusion about what Marx was calling for, it can be cleared up by simply referring to the body of work that followed these early philosophical ruminations. Once Marx began to focus on political economy and the living class struggle, there is not a single instance of anti-religious polemics. Although Marx certainly must have been disgusted by the hypocrisy of the Anglicans or German Protestantism, he did not waste time “exposing” the utterances of their leaders. He devoted himself into “the criticism of Earth” rather than the “criticism of Heaven”.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that some of the towering figures of classical Marxism saw things in exactly the same way. Rather than attacking religion, they understood the need for working people to gain sustenance from their faith until the economic insecurity that breeds such faith is terminated. In the 1905 “Socialism and the Churches,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

But never do the Social-Democrats drive the workers to fight against clergy, or try to interfere with religious beliefs; not at all! The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience and personal opinions as being sacred. Every man may hold what faith and what opinions seem likely to him to ensure happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. That is what the socialists think. And it is for that reason, among others, that the socialists rally all the people to fight against the Czarist regime, which is continually violating men’s consciences, persecuting Catholics, Russian Catholics[1], Jews, heretics and freethinkers. It is precisely the Social-Democrats who come out most strongly in favour of freedom of conscience. Therefore it would seem as if the clergy ought to lend their support to the Social-Democrats who are trying to enlighten the toiling people. If we understand properly the teachings which the socialists bring to the working class, the hatred of clergy towards them becomes still less understandable.

Lenin, who had the reputation of being far more of a ferocious proselytizer against religion than Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Marx, was capable of seeing things in a far more nuanced fashion. In the 1900 article titled “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion,” he writes:

At the same time Engels frequently condemned the efforts of people who desired to be “more left” or “more revolutionary” than the Social-Democrats, to introduce into the programme of the workers’ party an explicit proclamation of atheism, in the sense of declaring war on religion. Commenting in 1874 on the famous manifesto of the Blanquist fugitive Communards who were living in exile in London, Engels called their vociferous proclamation of war on religion a piece of stupidity, and stated that such a declaration of war was the best way to revive interest in religion and to prevent it from really dying out. Engels blamed the Blanquists for being unable to understand that only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion, whereas to proclaim that war on religion was a political task of the workers’ party was just anarchistic phrase-mongering.

As is so often the case with Lenin, you can find a quote that seems to contradict another quote by him. Those who are anxious to group him with Samuel Harris and Richard Dawkins would dwell on his 1922 article “On the Significance of Militant Materialism“, where he writes:

The keen, vivacious and talented writings of the old eighteenth-century atheists wittily and openly attacked the prevailing clericalism and will very often prove a thousand times more suitable for arousing people from their religious torpor than the dull and dry paraphrases of Marxism, almost completely unillustrated by skillfully selected facts, which predominate in our literature and which (it is no use hiding the fact) frequently distort Marxism. We have translations of all the major works of Marx and Engels. There are absolutely no grounds for fearing that the old atheism and old materialism will remain un-supplemented by the corrections introduced by Marx and Engels. The most important thing — and it is this that is most frequently overlooked by those of our Communists who are supposedly Marxists, but who in fact mutilate Marxism — is to know how to awaken in the still undeveloped masses an intelligent attitude towards religious questions and an intelligent criticism of religions.

It is of course necessary to understand Lenin’s comments in context. The revolution had to contend with a grim reality. The vast majority of the Soviet population was made up of poorly educated peasants who retained all sorts of superstitious beliefs and tended to accept authority. In the early 1920s there was a heroic attempt to revolutionize all aspects of culture, as well as the mode of production. Looking back in retrospect, some of these efforts seem utopian if not foolish today. Within a year or so, there was a gradual retreat all along a number of fronts, including the economy.

Real foes of organized religion

1819 caricature by British George Cruikshank. Titled “The Radical’s Arms”, it depicts the infamous guillotine. “No God! No Religion! No King! No Constitution!” is written in the republican banner.

Whatever excesses are reflected in Bolshevik literature or policy in 1922, they are understandable given Marxism’s affinity with earlier revolutions, particularly in France 1789. Since Lenin and other socialist leaders saw themselves as latter-day Jacobins, it was almost inevitable that they would bend the stick in the direction against organized religion. But in comparison to their French brethren, the Bolsheviks were relatively tame. During the September Massacres of 1792, thousands of Roman Catholic priests were slaughtered by sans-culottes. For a time France was “de-Christianized” by official decree and a deep wave of anti-Clericalism swept the country:

Anti-church laws were passed by the Legislative Assembly and its successor, the National Convention, and by département councils throughout the country such as in Indre-et-Loire, where in November of 1793 the very word dimanche (“Sunday”) was abolished. The Gregorian calendar, an instrument decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, was replaced by the French Republican Calendar which abolished the sabbath, Saints’ days and any references to the Church. Anti-clerical parades were held, and the Archbishop of Paris was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre with the red “Cap of Liberty.” Street and place names with any sort of religious connotation were changed, such as the town of St. Tropez which became Héraclée. Religious holidays were banned and replaced with holidays to celebrate the harvest and other non-religious symbols. Robespierre and his colleagues decided to supplant both Catholicism and the rival, atheistic Cult of Reason with the Cult of the Supreme Being. Just six weeks before his arrest, on June 8, 1794 the still-powerful Robespierre personally led a vast procession through Paris to the Tuileries garden in a ceremony to inaugurate the new faith.


Now that’s what I call really being a foe of organized religion.

(In my next post, I plan to look at liberation theology.)


January 1, 2007

3 Scary Future Movies

Filed under: Film,immigration,repression — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

From the very beginning, mainstream movies have often been set in a future world that exhibits many of the ills found in the contemporary. This allows the film to adopt a critical stance but without risking a confrontation with the powerful financial interests that dominate mainstream movie-making, who don’t seem to mind a bit of subversion tucked away in a science fiction subgenre.

The future as dystopia can assume one of two guises. It can be a world in which there is material abundance and sybaritic pleasures but one governed by strict rules that prohibit personal expression, even on the level of sexual intimacy. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is an inspiration for these sorts of movies, ranging from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” to Sylvester Stallone’s “Demolition Man.” Both of these include a comic scene in which the protagonist, who has woken up from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, is shocked to discover that sex in the future does not involve actual intercourse, but electromechanical substitutes. In all other respects, the citizens enjoy the good life despite being tightly controlled by a paternalistic state.

The other model is George Orwell’s “1984”, which is far less pleasant across the board. There are harsh living conditions, force-fed propaganda messages and brutal repression directed against dissidents. Obviously, Orwell’s future is a lot closer to the one that late capitalist society seems to be evolving toward.

The very first foray into a scary future was Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a film that featured factory workers slaving away in the bowels of the city under the control of a master class that lived in luxury on the surface. They ultimately rebel against their conditions in a manner that must have resonated with the average worker in Weimar Germany, where the film first appeared. Despite its ostensibly radical vision, Marxists did not exactly greet the film with open arms. They were repelled by a class collaborationist message that involved the tyrant’s son interceding on behalf of the workers after he wakes up to the system’s injustice. While one might quibble with a certain kind of dogmatism that failed to recognize a great work of art on its own terms, the critics were hitting on something that pervades all such films. That is the tendency to feature a kind of super-hero who liberates the oppressed rather to depict the oppressed liberating themselves. The latter message would appear to defy long-standing studio parameters, even more so than those involving sexual taboos.

These considerations provide a context for evaluating three recent films that are of ascending interest, both cinematically and politically: “V for Vendetta”, “District B13”, and “Children of Men”.

1. “V for Vendetta”

The screenplay for this 2005 film was written by Larry and Andy Wachowski, who wrote and directed the Matrix series. Before they made films, the Wachowskis wrote comic books for Marvel, the publisher long associated with super-heroes and pushing the envelope of the genre. Marvel Comics have spawned a number of blockbuster films in recent years, including the X-Men and Spiderman series. Its proclivity for making money attracted the interest of corporate raider Carl Icahn who fought Ron Perelman, another corporate raider, for control of the 3 billion dollar comic book empire in 1989. Icahn’s goal was to move Marvel into the film-making business. Eventually, the value of Marvel stock suffered a huge loss in value, despite being “hot” in the mid 1990’s.



Stenberg Brothers poster

In 1993, comic book artist Neil Gaiman gave a speech to an industry gathering in which he compared comics to the tulip mania of the 17th century and accused his audience of selling cases of comics to children who thought they were buying collectors’ items, the equivalent in essence of their seniors who bought Enron or Pets.com stock around the same time.

You can sell lots of comics to the same person, especially if you tell them that you are investing money for high guaranteed returns. But you’re selling bubbles and tulips, and one day the bubble will burst, and the tulips will rot in the warehouse.

(NY Times, May 24, 1998)

The Wachowskis are very much a product of this world. They understood that the Matrix films would appeal to the same kind of audience that flocked to other Marvel Comics adaptations. The Neo character played by Keanu Reeves was not that much different from Spiderman or the X-Men, who were plucked from obscurity and thrust into planet-saving roles. What the Matrix offers, however, is an opportunity to be educated in Wachowski thought, which can best be described as a kind of neo-Gnosticism that pits the forces of Light against the forces of Darkness, in this case a network of artificial-intelligence guided robots that have taken over the world. To show that they were some degree sensitive to real-life struggles against injustice, they cast post-Marxist and African-American scholar Cornel West in the final 2 films of the Matrix trilogy.

Larry Wachowski, who went to my alma mater Bard College, had told West that his writings had influenced his work. As it turned out, one of the two sentences the Wachowskis had written for West’s character (“Comprehension is not requisite for cooperation” run counter to West’s socialist beliefs but that did not prevent him from agreeing to play a bit role.

In many ways, “V for Vendetta” seems to be right up the Wachowski brothers’ alley. With a masked, lone-wolf, anarchist-terrorist hero battling the fascist rulers of a Great Britain of the future, the story once again places the emphasis on the individual redeemer. To show their affinities with Marxist culture, if on a somewhat superficial level, the promotional poster for the film was done in the style of the Stenberg brothers, two mainstays of Soviet poster art.

The screenplay was an adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. Moore had published with Marvel Comics’s UK subsidiary during the 1980s and later moved to DC comics, a competitor. A number of films had already been made based on his graphic novels, all of which he regarded as a travesty. “V for Vendetta” seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, however. Even before the work began on the film adaptation, Moore said he was not interested. Referring to Larry Wachowski, Moore told the NY Times in March 12, 2006: ”I explained to him that I’d had some bad experiences in Hollywood. I didn’t want any input in it, didn’t want to see it and didn’t want to meet him to have coffee and talk about ideas for the film.”

Joel Silver and wife at Matrix premiere

That did not convince the two brothers and producer Joel Silver, who had collaborated on the Matrix series, from going ahead on the project. (Silver regards himself as an expert on Frank Lloyd Wright, and owns several houses he designed. He added: “I buy art – I don’t make it.”) The principals obviously understood that big bucks were involved.

While Moore’s novel was an attack on the Thatcher regime, the movie is a thinly veiled attack on the abuses associated with the “war on terror”. The British government uses the mass media to control public opinion in an ongoing conflict with domestic dissidents and enemies abroad, including the USA somewhat inexplicably. The atmosphere is very much that of Orwell’s “1984”, with a passive population being force-fed idiotic “entertainment” and political propaganda on a nonstop basis from government-controlled television stations.

In tune with a general sense of suspicion about the government in the post-9/11 period, the “V for Vendetta” plot includes a government conspiracy to unleash biological warfare on an unsuspecting population that in some ways resonates with claims that the American government developed the AIDS virus in secrecy as a weapon against African peoples and gays.

“V”, the hero of Vendetta, who is responsible for a series of Weatherman-style bombings of unoccupied government buildings, styles himself after Guy Fawkes, the Roman Catholic who was hanged in 1605 after being implicated in a plot to blow up the Parliament building. V was the victim of an early experiment in developing an antidote for the virus and now seeks revenge against the people who wronged him. Throughout the entire film, he demonstrates not the slightest inkling how Great Britain ended up in such a state or how his isolated actions will end the dictatorship. Leaving aside these sorts of fundamental questions, V’s character development is hampered by the fact that he is behind a mask the entire film. Although Greek tragedy and Jean Genet utilized masks, I found this device utterly counter-productive. Then again, the Wachowskis are no Sophocles.

In the climax of the film, V succeeds in blowing up Parliament with the help of Evey, his acolyte who can best be described as a yuppie TV junior employee that he recruits to his plot in a variation on the Stockholm syndrome. After simulating a rat-infested dungeon that Evey originally assumes was inside a state prison modeled after Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, V somehow pressures her into becoming an anarchist-terrorist like himself.

As implausible as this sounds, it is nothing compared to the final moments of the film when thousands of ordinary citizens converge on the Parliament just before it is blown up. They are wearing Guy Fawkes masks that he has sent out in the mail. Apparently, just receiving such a mask is sufficient to get them to turn against the system. What a fool I was to sell socialist newspapers throughout the 60s and 70s. I would have been better off blowing up buildings and sending out Karl Marx masks to complete strangers, I guess.

2. “District B13”

Thankfully, this 2004 French film now available in home video lacks the pomposity of “V for Vendetta”. It is a straightforward action film strongly influenced by Hong Kong cinema that depicts a Paris in 2010 divided between haves and have-nots. Uncannily anticipating the 2005 suburban rebellion mounted by North African and Arab youth, District B13 refers to the area where have-nots reside that is cordoned off by guards functioning like the Israeli army. Its citizens are subject to a continuing decline of jobs and social services. The main economic activity in the ghetto is selling drugs.

In the opening scene, a drug gang stages an assault on the top-floor apartment of Leito, who is washing drugs that he has stolen from them down his kitchen drain. Leito (David Belle) has decided to launch a one-man crusade against people selling drugs on his block. The gangsters chase him across rooftops in a gravity-defying scene that is equal to anything I have seen coming out of Hong Kong in recent years.

Leito, a Portuguese name although his nationality is not identified as such, eventually takes drug kingpin Taha Bemamud (Bibi Naceri) into custody and turns him over to the cops who release him. It turns out that the cops are just as bad as the criminals they are sworn to oppose. It is of course no accident that the top gangster is a North African. Although the film clearly takes the side of the victims of racism, it is not beyond a bit of stereotyping.

Naceri co-wrote the script with Luc Besson, the producer of “La Femme Nikita” and a host of other action films. On December 12, 2006 Besson announced that he is ending his film career and starting a foundation to aid youths in poor French neighborhoods. For some reason, it is hard for me to imagine Joel Silver or the Wachowskis following suit.

Leito is framed by the cops and sent to prison for a long stretch. After the authorities discover that Taha has acquired a neutron bomb on the black market, they decided to send Capt. Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli), an undercover cop, into District B13 to wrest control and defuse the device. Since nobody knows the byways of the district as well as Leito, they team him up with the cop, who is a martial arts expert like him. The remainder of the film consists of kick-ass action without the kind of idiotic trick camera work that has marred recent Hong Kong movies and sharp attacks on the hypocrisy and racism of the French police and politicians.

Highly recommended.

3. “Children of Men”

Like “V for Vendetta,” this is a dystopia set in a future Great Britain that has many of the characteristics of the contemporary 9/11 political landscape.

The screenplay is an adaptation of P.D. James’s 1993 novel of the same name, whose plot is based on the premise that the entire human race becomes sterile in 1995. Since women can no longer conceive, they concoct elaborate baby-naming ceremonies for kittens, etc. Set in the year 2022, everything about Great Britain is still the same despite the fact that it is dying.

In Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation (co-written with Timothy J. Sexton), elements of James’s plot are retained but are overlaid with many aspects of contemporary British and American reality, including most of all an all-out war on immigrants from Arab and North African lands and elsewhere, who are rounded up like cattle and transported to detention camps where they are humiliated and tortured. In a conscious evocation of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we see them in cages and covered by hoods.

When a young African woman becomes pregnant, an underground group devoted to defending immigrants’ rights decides to use the baby as a propaganda symbol for their struggle. Julian Taylor, one of their leaders (played by Julianne Moore) decides that the baby should rather be allowed to grow up in a commune run by something called Humanworld and enlists Theo Faron (Clive Owen), her lover from years earlier, to spirit mother and child away from the group.

Like Bogart in Casablanca, Faron is not really inclined to sacrifice himself for any cause even though he–like Bogart–has an activist past. Also, like Bogart, he has contacts inside government circles that will furnish transit papers to the mother and child that will allow them to escape the deadly net that all immigrants face. From the minute that Faron decides to take part in this risky mission, the film hurdles forward with the speed and power of a runaway locomotive.

Cuarón, who has directed films as varied as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Y tu mamá también” in the past, brings an entirely new perspective into this genre. His future Great Britain has very little of the high-tech feel associated with what essentially amounts to science fiction material, but instead consists of a series of riveting images of what the future holds in store, largely drawn from the present-day. We see stacks of burned cows in the countryside, evoking the aftermath of the “Mad Cow” outbreak. People still travel about in railway cars, but the windows are covered with steel mesh that protects them from rocks thrown by gangs of feral youth who wander about like characters in a Mad Max film, but without the tricked-up costumes and vehicle gadgetry. And everything is covered in filth and decay. This is a Great Britain that has the bombed out look of contemporary Baghdad. The message seems to be that as long as Great Britain carries out an assault on foreign lands, it is destined to bring ruin on itself.

Although the sheer movie-making talent exhibited in “Children of Men” makes me reluctant to subject its ideas to scrutiny, a word or two about this is in order, especially given the obvious seriousness and sincerity of its writers and director. It has to be said that the underground rebels come across as little better than the fascists they are fighting to overthrow. They are utterly ruthless in their methods and seem bent on nothing except achieving power, despite mouthing slogans and jargon about the downtrodden. One imagines that the original material by P.D. James was not very much help to start with, since one of the principal demands of her rebels was the closing of porn shops!



While film-makers’ imaginations run wild when it comes to the future, they seem a bit limited when it comes to the current day. Despite 5 years of a war on terror and growing repression against domestic dissidents and undocumented workers, there has not been a single movie that takes on these questions without flinching (there of course have been powerful documentaries.)

When somebody like Oliver Stone decides to make a movie draped in the “remember our heroes” iconography of 9/11 rather than one about the victimization of Muslims in America, it is not too hard to figure out the mood of Hollywood. Like the Democratic Party it orients to, it has lacked the guts to take the system on full throttle. Instead it prefers to bankroll movies that dance around the edges like “Babel” or “V for Vendetta”.

Unlike novel-writing, which ultimately costs nothing more than the time of the author and the reams of paper it takes to complete his or her work, a motion picture requires millions of dollars of up-front funding. That kind of project, like running candidates for major office, is highly reliant on the deep pockets of individual investors. Perhaps the definitive statement on the current period will have to come from a novelist, although the prejudices against an old-fashioned novel of ideas seem to dictate against that outcome. But with the ever-increasing tide of injustice and cruelty manifested by a system in decay, one can only hope that an artist will step forward and accept their role as unacknowledged legislators of mankind, as Shelley once put it.

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