Michael Doyle objects to the yearly ritual of insisting Christian teachings are socialist. Instead, he says, we’d do better with a more intellectually honest appeal to the religious.
Christmas is a time of many familiar rituals. For some, it is the management of family disagreements at the dinner table, sending Christmas cards and so on. Another familiar occurrence is the spate of articles from left media on the supposed congruence between socialism and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Only at this time of year are the teachings of Jesus interrogated to find that socialism and Christian theology are complementary ideologies. This tendency is part of an ongoing attempt by some on the left to engage in ideas at the level of culture, and to persuade conservatives (real or imagined) to realise that their messiah would in fact repudiate their politics.
This particular ritual may be yet another import from the United States, where Christianity is somewhat more important in public life. There, both sides selectively choose parts of the scripture to justify diverging political commitments.
From both sides, this is a crass display. It misunderstands the nature of belief, its sources and motivations, and the status of contemporary religion (at least in the UK, religious observance has not only rapidly declined, but also liberalised). But from a socialist perspective, it often seems doubly crass. There’s little evidence that anyone is fooled into thinking that radically materialist philosophical attitudes like Marxism are really the standard bearers of Christ’s teachings. In the end these appeals don’t seem to serve any practical purpose, and only misrepresent the philosophical basis of socialism.
To put my cards on the table, I am agnostic on religion, though I lean more towards the atheist end of the belief spectrum. However, I have always been repelled by the obnoxious behaviour of the ‘new atheists’ towards religious believers and their own obscurantist creed of reactionary liberalism. For example, the late Christopher Hitchens envisaged a crude Kantian ‘perpetual peace’ in which the Middle East is comprised of liberal democracies, imposed by the military force of US imperialism.
Nor do I share the view held by the most prominent new atheists that religion is the source of all evil and wrongdoing in the world. Global capitalism has done far more damage and harm, as have various forms of class society, from which religion has repeatedly sprung throughout history. This latter point indicates the deeper philosophical reasons why religion does not complement socialism.
Marxism is a materialist philosophy; religion is an idealist philosophy. Friedrich Engels cogently outlined this dichotomy in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy:
“The great basic question of all, especially of latter-day philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being… The question of the position of thinking in relation to being…in relation to the church was sharpened into this: did God create the world or has the world existed for all time? Answers to this question split the philosophers into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of the mind over nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other…comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.”
One of the small tragedies of the ‘Socialist Jesus’ cartoon, is that it obscures the very real relationship between Marxism and Christianity, and the intellectual debt owed by the former to the latter.
Marxism cantrace its lineage to the thought of Hegel, the last really great Christian philosopher. Hegel believed that religion and philosophy couldbe reconciled, believing that philosophy concretised what religion apprehended via imagination. Marx was a part of an intellectual group called the ‘young Hegelians’ who underwent a process of rethinking Hegel’s position on religion. One of the fundamental breaks Marx made from the Hegelian system was his criticism of the relationship between philosophy and religion, arguing that “philosophy makes no secret of it. The proclamation of Prometheus: in one word – I hate all gods.” Marx overcame the contradictions and rationalities of Hegel, replacing his idealism with Materialism. But he still retained key elements of the Hegelian system: the dialectic – Hegel’s attempt to understand the dynamic of history. Against a metaphysical ‘spirit’ advancing history, Marx asserted class conflict performed this role.
There is, here, the starting point for an honest intellectual engagement with Christianity and with Christians, that takes both our own traditions and others seriously. There are plenty of Christian socialists, like Terry Eagleton, who freely accept the tensions between Marxism and Christianity and enquire into them fruitfully.
But what about the practical implications for politics in all this? What does it imply when socialists appeal to Christians on the basis of morality? A recent Tribune article asserts: “The roots of Tony Benn’s understanding of Christian socialism lie in his identification of the deep divide that has always existed between religious institutions as bastions of the status quo and the revolutionary promise of Christian spirituality — best exemplified in the communistic ways of living practiced by the earliest Christians.”
What have the contradictions between Christian ideas and supposedly Christian politicians wrought in practice? In the home of this dispute, the wantonly immoral and obviously atheistic lifestyle of Trump has left him in almost sole charge of the evangelical community. By his own admission, Boris Johnson is a “very very bad Christian” and does not even put up a pretence of living as Jesus did.
Consider the religious injunction to ‘love thy neighbour’, an honourable proposition highly unlikely to be realised in a capitalist society that elevates the principle of competition between atomised economic agents. The Christian claim is precisely that moral practice, and the promise of salvation, transcend the material world. Ideas are the driving force of history because they come from the mind of God. These apparently solidaristic attitudes are themselves a powerful rebuke to socialist ideas about material change driving consciousness, as any clever theologian will be happy to remind the Christians in his flock.
The give in these debates is one sided. The version of socialism we end up with resembles an NGO/Band-Aid form of politics. Christian socialism as a derivative of secular liberalism, overlooking the patriarchal God for a heavenly Liberal Democrat who is sad that the capitalist system creates victims and seeks to slightly alleviate their suffering.
The point here is not that Marxist socialists cannot appeal to Christians, or that believers do not play full part in modern social movements. Indeed, many currents of socialist and radical working class politics emerged in Europe from, and alongside, Christian tradition. But Marxists do actually have something distinctive to say about the world, and to Christians as well. Pandering and obfuscating differences is unlikely to communicate respect, or radical intent, like honesty can.