Saturday, 31 March 2018

The eternal science?



Introduction - (or, how I ended up writing this)

The first time I was ever stopped and searched by the police the most seditious thing they found on me was a copy of Marx's Das Kapital Volume I. I had bought it on the way to an anti-fascist protest. Pleased with the fact that one of them had commented, somewhat negatively, on it I enthusiastically began to read it later that night. 

Over the next few months I trawled through it. I found it obscenely difficult to understand but I persisted, made copious amounts of notes, Googled things that I couldn't understand and eventually came stumbling over the finish line to the end. Soon afterwards I went through it again this time with the aid of a local Marxist reading group and then finally once more accompanied by David Harvey's series of lectures on it via YouTube (found here). 

I was extremely taken with it, it was certainly intellectually stimulating and seemed to offer immensely powerful new tools to analyse the world around me and new ways of answering the question 'what is to be done?'. I went on to read a number of other books and pamphlets by Marx and Engels some by Lenin and a handful of more modern Marxist texts and articles even contributing an article to a Marxist publication on the subject of housing and a blog post on the Marxism and Anarchism in the 21st Centurwhich did the rounds a bit in certain circles online.  

It's been quite a journey. Prior to this I had only really been reading anarchist material for a number of years and whilst I found, and still find, much of it insightful and beautiful in it's ideals none of it quite compares to Marxism for it's scope or for it's brilliance as a unified, consistent and constantly developing theory.  

My trouble has been that I have found my anarchism much easier to reconcile with my Christian faith than my Marxism. I studied a BA-hons in theology at the London School of Theology from 2006 to 2009, my final year project was entitled 'To what extent is the gospel good news to the poor and bad news to the rich?' to which I answered 'very' to both. Along side this I've worked in homelessness and housing from 2005 until present and unavoidably seen how society really works, first hand.

Anarchism is extremely broad and flexible, as long as there is general commitment to oppose hierarchy in society you can pretty much mix it with anything you like. I loved the idea of an anarchist eschatology, the ideal post-revolutionary society of peace, abundance and radical equality as being akin to the Kingdom of God come to earth in all it's fullness. I still do. As I have said though Marxism has been tougher to place. It seems to describe social phenomena so accurately but it is also claimed by many to be a necessarily atheistic philosophy. This, slightly longer, piece of work is the results of my thinking and research on this topic. 

If it's written to anyone I think it's mostly to fellow Christians really but I'd like to think that Marxists would also benefit from reading it. 
Part 1 - Human history as a science


"The challenge now is to develop human history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology"

-Jared Diamond (Ecologist, geographer, biologist and anthropologist)

These are the words written towards the end of what is probably Jared Diamond's best known book 'Germs Guns and Steel' (A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years). Written in 1997 and turned into a documentary by the National Geographic Society which was broadcast in 2005 it has sold over 1.5 million copies and won a number of academic prizes. Diamond certainly intended it to be a seminal work in this new field of 'human history as a science'. It's a decent book and certainly worth a read but what is interesting for the point of view of this blog post is Diamond's apparent unawareness of the historiography of this approach. Marxists have been promoting it through a school of thought known as historical materialism for over 150 years. In 1880 Friedrich Engels wrote his short work, 'Socialism: Utopian and Scientific', about the historical development and the contemporary state of historical materialistic thought:

"The materialist conception of human history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent on what is produced, how it is produced"
- Friedrich Engels (Philosopher, social scientist and journalist)

There is, and there probably always has been, a tremendous amount of confusion about what 'Marxism' really is so in some ways it doesn't surprise me that even someone of Diamond's intellectual stature isn't really aware of it. Some of this is confusion deliberately sown, some is probably accidental. Either way Marx is so great but such a challenging thinker almost anyone who is even vaguely politically conscious has a passionately held opinion about him and the movement that has formed around Marxist thought (despite the fact that so few seemed to have taken the time to read anything he wrote). That aside, the story and the impact of the Marxist movements has been of epic proportions.

(It is well beyond the scope of this blog post to give an adequate account of Marxism, the following short explanation is intended to be functional in order for the reader who is new to Marxism to continue reading but nothing more. Anyone who is interested in a slightly fuller introduction is encouraged to read this: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)

Marx analysed a broad sweep of human history, focusing particularly on the way in which the 'means to support human life' were produced and how they were distributed. He detected that different socio-historical situations had means of production and of distribution associated with them - economic systems. He noted that these were associated with political systems and systems of thought which were layered on top of the economic base system to enforce it and to justify it. He focused particularly on the system of his day (and our day), capitalism. Not as merely a 'free market' but as a system where people with capital invest it in order to extract profits primarily but also rents and interest. Where 'commodities' are produced and exchanged in order to generate profits and, eventually, where the whole of human society becomes shaped around the needs of capital (given it's own agency through the actions of the 'capitalist') and it's constant drive to expand - a dictatorship of capital.

But Marx didn't simply describe capitalism, he also looked to a brighter future:

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it"
- Karl Marx (Philosopher, economist, historian, revolutionary socialist)

He never attempted to give anything like a detailed prophesy but a rough guide as to where the major forces operating in society might be taking us next. I'll let him explain in his own words (from Capital Volume 1):

Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

Marx wrote very little about communism. If communism was anything to Marx it was a society in which these 'means of production' that produce things that support human life would be managed collectively and that goods and services would be distributed according to needs. He did not try to justify it by suggesting that capitalism was 'evil' and communism would be 'good' or 'moral' in comparison. For Marx, communism was simply the future, and it was in the direct interests of the great mass of impoverished suffering working class to speed it's arrival.


Part 2 Christianity and historical materialism in theory

Now that we have, hopefully, busted a few myths about what Marxism is and established it as an attempt to give a scientific basis for socialism (whether or not you believe it was successful or that this was a worthwhile endeavour or not is irrelevant at this stage) we are ready to look at the interaction between Christianity and Marxism, specifically focusing on the science of 'historical materialism' and how Christians can approach it (read here for more on historical materialism if I haven't explained enough).

The history of relations between Christianity and Marxism has been almost totally antagonistic. It is no exaggeration to state that in most cases where the political movements of the working class who associated themselves with Marxist thought made an impact, the church rushed to the side of the capitalist class and to defend the capitalist order. In return, on those occasions where 'communism' emerged victorious the church was often brutally persecuted as an enemy of the working class. As a Christian and as someone who is heavily inspired by Marxism I find this embarrassing and tragic and I won't use much space in this blog post to go over it, what I will do in the next chapter is look at some of the exceptions where we both have done better.

Most practitioners of Marxist historical materialism are atheists. They approach it not simply as a tool for scientifically analysing human history but as an all encompassing philosophy. It should be clear though that if one were to come at historical materialism on it's own terms; as a science, we already have some well developed theological approaches for how Christians can approach science which, whether or not they are palatable for an atheist are satisfying to many Christians.

Putting aside the anti-science and fundamentally anti-intellectual approaches of some Christians we have real distinguished scholars like Alister McGrath (who holds doctorates in both molecular biophysics and in theology) who can speak to this issue with authority on both sides. In his book challenging the new-atheism of Richard Dawkins (Dawkins' God) he writes:

"The interaction between science and religion has been influenced more by their social circumstances than by their specific ideas"
Alister McGrath (Theologian, scientist)

If you've grasped a flavour of historical materialist analysis and you think you might note hints of it in the above quoted sentence and you'd probably be right. McGrath has stated in an interview when asked about his own intellectual background:

"I still use Marxism – it’s very good at social analysis – but there seemed vast areas of life where it didn’t give good answers"
  
McGrath's is saying that science and religion may not be so intrinsically opposed as it may seem. Whilst a Christian will never expect it to answer the ultimate 'why?' questions it's perfectly fine to expect it to answer the 'how?' questions. He goes on:

"Underlying these essentialist accounts of the interaction of science and religion is the unchallenged assumption that each of these terms designates something fixed permanent, and essential, so that their mutual relationship is determined by something fundamental to each of the disciplines, unaffected by the specifics of time, place and culture. But this is simply not so. The relation of science and religion is historically conditioned, bound to the social and intellectual conditions of the age. What we are seeing at present is a growing interest, on both sides of the divide, in seeing how the two disciplines can illuminate and even assist each others efforts"

As with Marx's work, if you're interested in more than my basic functional accounts of McGrath's arguments, buy the book. The point is Christians are capable of embracing science, not as an independent holistic philosophy maybe, but as valid, true and holding an important place within our own theology. Christian theology, even historically, has held that a rational ordered universe which can be understood by the human brain is linked to a God who also loves rationality and order and has both ordered the universe this way and placed within us a desire to study it and even an appreciation of the beauty of science. Theology itself is undoubtedly something of a rationalistic project. 

Most Christians have been able to gradually accept new scientific knowledge as it is diffused out into society much as the general public has done; sometimes inconsistently, often lagging behind the experts but still bumbling along forwards with everyone else. One troubling tendency has remained though, an idea known as 'the God of the gaps' (mainly to it's detractors). This idea holds that those things that science cannot explain, that's where God can be located. So, we don't believe that conception is supernaturally miraculous any more because it's a generally scientifically accepted and understood process, on the other hand, since scientists have been unable to give a clear reason for why we yawn... that MUST be God! If nothing else, the problem with the God of the gaps is that he is constantly shrinking as science discovers more and more about the universe around us. A much better approach is to consider science as revealing the amazing universe that God has created and to see God in everything, not just those things that are not yet understood.

So, when we apply a scientific perspective to human history we've got to choose the approach we want to take. Do we as Christians wish to try to keep science out believing that by doing so we are protecting God's role as the force guiding humanity throughout the ages towards our eventual destiny of reconciliation with each other, with creation and with God himself.

Or, are we going to be able to accept that historical materialism can beautifully illuminate the rationalistic way in which God often works (whilst of course allowing for the fact that he sometimes chooses to break his own rules). If we feel that are able to do the latter then Marxism must be met on it's own terms and debated as a science, does it explain phenomena we see around us satisfactorily? Is it able to make accurate predictions? etc. I have already stated my bias on this. It does and it can. To accept it is to ensure one's place on the right side of history and avoid being stuck clinging to a decaying order which has no stake in the future and which God and his science has no stake in now.

The Bible regularly describes God as being 'on the side of the poor'. Marx claims that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" that is the struggle between an oppressor class and and and oppressed class, the rich and powerful and the poor. But Marx also shows, through the scientific analysis of historical materialism that history is bending towards victory for the poor. So to claim that God is using scientific processes for his purposes, in order for the poor to 'inherit the earth' (Psalm 37:11) can hardly be considered inconceivable.

Those who can't be bothered to read Marx and understand the thinking behind the movement which has been the hope of much of the world's oppressed peoples (and this is a deliberate challenge) don't really deserve to have their opinion about Marxism taken seriously.

To those Marxists whose insistence on atheism causes them discomfort with notions of Christians attempting to wield historical materialism whilst retaining their faith I will only say that we all live in the same universe. Intelligent Christians are quite capable of studying science and indeed have been leaders in certain scientific fields (I will briefly mention Francis Collins  leader of the human genome project who is a Christian as an example) but it's how we choose to interpret the evidence which is the point where we part company. The association of Christianity and irrationality belongs to certain situations in certain historical periods, clearly not to all time and everywhere.


Part 3 Christianity and Marxism in practice

Christianity and socialism are old friends, many Christian movements have taken on forms of utopian socialism (meaning; socialism based on their ability describe a different idealised version of society which is 'better' than whatever oppressive social order they were working under). It's not in the slightest bit difficult to read in the prophets of the Old Testament and the gospels and letters of the New Testament to find clear demands and practices that we could label as socialistic moral demands and practices today.

Come now, you who are rich, weep and wail for the misery to come upon you. Your riches have rotted and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and consume your flesh like fire.You have hoarded treasure in the last days. Look, the wages you withheld from the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.
(James 5: 1-4)

The reference to unpaid wages even sounds decidedly Marxist. Throughout church history communities have attempted to put these moral ideas into practice but this blog post is not about them, noble as their attempts were and as deserving of attention as they were.

Marxism as a specific, modern form of socialism has never sat quite so easily with the church. Firstly, as mentioned above Marxist political movements and the church have often found themselves on opposite sides of very real conflicts, but exceptions can always be found.

Liberation Theology

Liberation theology has been the main vehicle for working towards a synthesis of Christianity and Marxism. Pioneered in Latin America in the 1950s to 1970s but since having spread and applied to a wide variety of situations of oppression and exploitation around the globe there exists; black liberation theology, feminist liberation theology, Palestinian liberation theology, Dalit liberation theology and more. Again, better to let a few of them speak for themselves, enough maybe to whet some appetites to discover a bit more about this rich tradition:

James H Cone has been keen to establish a discourse between Marxism and the Black church in the USA.

Marxism may be understood as a scientific tool for analyzing the economic, political and social 
structures of this society so that we will know how to actualize in the world the freedom that we affirm in faith.
James H Cone - The Black Church and Marxism, what do they have to say to each other (link)

Leonardo Boff spoke about how Marxism could be a useful tool in the hands of liberation theologians but only if it were carefully subjugated to the gospel: 

'Therefore, liberation theology used Marxism purely as an instrument.  It does not venerate it as it venerates the gospel.  And it feels no obligation to account to social scientists for any use it may make - correct or otherwise of Marxist terminology and ideas...To put it in more specific terms, liberation theology freely borrows from Marxism certain 'methodological pointers' that have proved fruitful in understanding the world of the oppressed.'
Leonardo Boff

Liberation theology is also currently being actively put into practice through movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo:

For example, liberation theology will refer to Mathew 10:34, in which Jesus states: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Additionally, liberation theology will turn to Matthew 26:51-52 and Luke 22:35-38, in which Jesus refers to the “sword,” and interpret these passages as motivation for revolutionary mobilization (Samarajiwa). In relationship to social uprising and revolution, liberation theology is also largely tied to Marxist doctrines, particularly the concept of the incessant class struggle.
Abahlali baseMjondolo (link)

Obviously, I could go on and on.

The point really of all this though is to show that I am far from the first person to have considered how Marxism and Christianity might interact much more positively. It is also to pose a question; to those who insist on essentialist accounts of religion and Christianity and their place in the social order, what is it that makes the conservative establishment church hierarchies of the West the 'true' expression of the Christian religion and these not?

The Sandinista revolution and the church

The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 must occupy the level of prestige for Christian Marxists that the Russian Revolution or the Spanish revolution do for socialists in general. It must be studied and critically reflected upon. What went right, what went wrong, what lessons can we learn from it in our own time.

In short this was one shinning example of a socialist revolution in the 20th Century where sufficient ground work had been done within the church that when revolution came much of the church was ready to support it and the Marxist revolutionary FSLN movement which eventually gained power in turn found it perfectly possible to work with the Nicaraguan Church.

I have not yet done enough research to say much more at this stage but I will and at some point I plan to write more on it.

Conclusion

So, to sum up:

  • Marxism is a school of thought which attempts to give a scientific basis for socialism. 
  • Christians don't have to be anti-science and so can and should look into whether or not Marxism succeeds or fails in it's quest on it's own terms and should not simply denounce it because someone told them it was 'bad'. 
  • There are decent examples of Christians using Marxist insights through liberation theology all around the world. They claim it has helped. There is even a real life example of the church assisting in the overthrow of a capitalist regime hand in hand with a bunch of Marxists. These things ought to be studied further.
Thanks for reading.