Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rob Clements - Marxism and the God Question: Perspectives from the Frankfurt School

NB: an interesting essay, although only the Judeo-Christian tradition is under consideration. Pagan religiosity would have given us more material to think about. Here too, it would have been more complete had the author taken up Hegel's understanding of Christianity as the unhappy consciousness, a precursor of Marx and Nietzsche's critique of religion. DS

In the contemporary theological and political order, the Frankfurt school of critical theory receives scant attention. This is unfortunate as it provides useful tools for the critique of religion and a useful framework to explore the possible dynamics between religious and so-called progressive social movements. Since the 1960s the school, or the institute as it is sometimes referred, has taken a turn toward issues of language and culture, most notably in the work of Jürgen Habermas. In its most prolific phase, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the school consisted mainly of dissident Marxists who believed that orthodox Marxist theory could not adequately explain the turbulent development of capitalist societies in the twentieth century, particularly with regard to the rise of fascism as a working-class movement. 

This led many of these dissident Marxists to take up the task of reappropriating Marxism in light of conditions that Karl Marx himself had never considered. The school has a clear genealogy, appropriating elements of Marxist materialism, Hegelian philosophy, German idealism, Gestalt psychology, and atheistic Jewish Messianism. This synthesized analysis gave expression to a transdisciplinary, anticapitalist intellectual tradition with both immanent (material) and transcendent (metaphysical or spiritual) themes.

In this essay I focus on the literature of the Frankfurt school, with attention to Marx and the neo-Marxist scholars Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Block. Through a theological examination of these contributors, I will show that religion and Marxism are not antithetical but that both draw upon a common ground in the struggle against totalizing forms of capitalist power which leave the vast majority of the world’s population in misery. Both Marxism and Christianity have at their center a prophetic messianism, which is the belief in social transformation through action or event. Both share a belief in an alternative future whereby every tear will be wiped away and justice and equality will be achieved. By bringing the two together, I suggest that they may collaborate in serving those who experience the tyranny of advanced capitalist most severely.

Marx: A Re-examination of the Opium of the People
Orthodox Marxists have tended to dismiss religion, extracting a militant atheism from Marx’s writing. In contrast, a number of commentators have located Marx within a messianic tradition or within the utopian projects associated with the Judeo-Christian West. Such writers tend to be drawn to the dense and varied set of references and allusions to religious texts in Marx’s writings. Sympathetic Christian scholars have tended to soften Marx’s critique of religion by acknowledging his rejection of Christianity as an assault on the fetishism of religion and its use by elites rather than religion itself.

The premise of a Marxian analysis of religion is the oft-quoted “opium of the people.” However, what does it mean to equate opium with religion? A popularist reading drifts toward literalism, whereby opium is the drug that numbs pain, distorts reality, and provides an artificial source of solace. In that sense, one may conclude that religion functions as a panacea, an alter-reality construed by ruling elites to dull the people’s critical and revolutionary capacity. But such a reading is inconsistent with Marx’s intent. As the sociologist Andrew McKinnon suggests, this interpretation of the metaphor is inaccurate, missing the different and contradictory ways in which opium was understood in the nineteenth century. A historical analysis thus encourages us to “encounter the text dialectically, including the dialectic text that is the heart and spirit of Marx’s analysis of religion.”

McKinnon argues that in the middle of the nineteenth century opium was largely used medicinally by Europeans and was considered an unquestioned good. Toward the end of the century, its medicinal use had been largely supplanted by other medicines, and it was becoming increasingly demonized by moral puritans. Furthermore, its use was becoming increasingly “luxurious” and commodified (and therefore profitable). Opposition to opium grew, especially from the “public health” and “temperance” movements. It was between these two eras that Marx penned opium as his metaphor for religion, a usage that McKinnon describes as “an ambiguous, multi-dimensional, and contradictory metaphor, expressing both the earlier and later understandings of the fruit of the poppy.” Several connotations, then, would have been relevant at the time: medicine, a source of profit, and a source of utopian vision. For the purposes of this essay, the image of religion as a utopian vision is of particular interest.

Marx’s critique of religion owes an intellectual debt to Ludwig Feuerbach, yet his conclusions are very different... read more: