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Marxism and A Secular Age?

By Duncan Roper

 

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the other events of the extraordinary collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union heralded the end of an era.  This era may not have been identical with secularism, but it certainly was a very large part of it. Karl Marx began his scholarly endeavours as a left-wing Hegelian who progressed along the materialist path - coming under the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach, the author of The Essence of Christianity, a book that was translated into English by George Eliot. His dialectical materialism emerged as the resulted of a major critique of Feuerbach that found its expression in his Theses on Feuerbach.

 

In a major TV series accompanied by a book with the same title, Heaven and Earth - the rise and fall of socialism the author, Joshua Muravchik, prefaces the book by a quote from Moses Hess, another Left-wing Hegelian contemporary of Marx, saying 'The Christian.....imagines the better future of the human species...in the image of heavenly joy...We, on the other hand, will have this heaven on earth.'

 

You are probably aware that Karl Marx himself, spoke of religion as ‘an opiate of the masses’ – meaning that the hopes and faith of the masses in a heavenly existence devoid of the pain, hardship and suffering on earth beyond the grave – induced a false consciousness as to the possibilities of human secular life in this world.  Fundamental to the revolutionary implications of this secularist creed was the idea that the economic materialistic basis of human social life – in the ownership of the means of production – involved the forces of capitalism crushing the lives of workers to the point that they would spontaneously rise up in revolt, seizing the communal ownership of the means of production that ushered in a communist utopia.

 

A significant factor undermining Marxist ideology was the fact that the material conditions of the ownership of the means of production were clearly insufficient, in and of themselves, to bring about their revolutionary overthrow.  Many, if not most people – including the members of ‘the working class’ - held beliefs that predisposed them toward trying to improve their current social and economic conditions in a much more piece-meal fashion.  Indeed, there is a story that the fall of communism in Russia can be told as the parable of a train.  'Stalin is reputed to have shot the train driver, Krushchev to have replaced the driver, but with insufficient coal to keep it moving.  Brezhnev then gave instructions to the members of Party to rock the stationary train from side to side so that everyone would believe that it was still moving toward the social goal of communism.  Gorbachev finally called a halt to the pretence so that the movement of the train might be rejuvenated.  However, such now was the level of disbelief in the vision of this train going anywhere anytime soon that they decided to abandon it and look for another one.  Word has it that they are still looking.” 

 

Materialism is a doctrine that supposedly undermines the significance of ideas, spirituality and beliefs for human life.  Yet somehow, the success of the socialist vision in the Soviet Union became dependent upon the strength of the beliefs and the commitment of ‘true believers’ to overcome the very real human ‘weaknesses’ in the deficiency of the ‘inner spiritual motivation’ necessary for the achievement of these ‘materialist’ social objectives.

 

In this respect it is significant that Joshua Muravchik entitles the prologue of his book 'Heaven on Earth, ' Changing Faiths, saying that 'Socialism was the faith in which I was raised. It was my father's faith and his father's faith before him.'  The Muravchiks were Russian Jews, and it is to a modern version of Judaism to which Joshua Muravchik  has reverted after the fall of the utopian socialist faith in the country of his forbears.

 

Karl Marx, in his critique of Ludwig Feuerbach, had pointed to the materialist conditions of the ownership of the means of production providing the motor for the movement of human history. Lenin later emphasised the need for a party (later known as the communist party) that was limited in its membership to a tightly-knit group of people whose consciousness had been changed as a consequence of their awareness of the 'objective significance' of the class struggle in the destiny of the ownership of the means of production.'  The role of the actual consciousness of  faith on the part of the bolsheviks (communists) was therefore immensely significant in the way that socialism made its mark upon the history of Russia, its satellites and the rest of the world in the twentieth century. Their rival faction,  the mensheviks, believed that the party organisation should reflect the broader workers class interests regardless of whether or not they were subjectively aware of their role in the class struggle. Hence, it was 'the faith struggle' between the two denominations espousing  Marxism that counts as the source of the conflicting motors of history in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century.

 

In the  continuing quest for universal progress toward achieving a secular utopia, we all – as inhabitants of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries - have become victims of the  faith in the political/economic ideologies of Nazism, Communism and Individualistic capitalism.  As a result of what we might call the spiritual secular primacy of this faith, the Western world in particular, has increasingly earned itself the title of living in  a secular age.

 

What did you say?  The spiritual secular primacy is an object of faith?  Aren’t you talking nonsense?  Spirituality and faith are all about religion, and this may be an option for ‘religious types,’ but not for everyone.  Life is really all about enjoying yourself, earning a living, getting success in the things that you are good at and fulfilling your dream.  These are secular, not religious. They are the same for everyone, and have nothing to do with religion.

 

Let’s look at this a bit more deeply.  It used to be the case – not all that long ago, really – that human life was considered to be in two parts – life in this present world – until we die.  Then we inhabit a new realm – some called it heaven, if we were good enough in the first part, to get there.  This meant that it was generally believed that where we ended up in the next life had quite a bit to do with what we did in this one.  In its own way this is surely saying that this is really saying that what we usually refer to as secular activities – the way we undertake our home and family; out educational life at school, kindergarten and university, the general pursuit of farming, making things and selling them, writing and reading books, making and watching movies, digging and planting the garden – all have significance in the greater scheme of things.  If we were to accept this then surely this is really a way of saying that, because the things and activities that we describe as ‘secular’ in this life have a bearing upon the religious character of our future life, then in some funny way that aren’t they really religious?

 

Let’s take a different tack.  In the ancient world, it was generally believed that there were many gods or manifestations of the divine.  If you know the Bible, you might recall that when the Apostle Paul visited Athens, he was deeply moved and vexed as he saw the many idols that people had erected to represent their gods.  He also noted that someone had erected a shrine to an unknown god, and proceeded to use this as the basis upon which to declare to them the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, risen form the dead after he had been put to death by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. (Acts 17: 16-32).

 

The general word for 'god' in the Jewish Bible – the Tanakh – is Elohim.  As with the English word ‘god,’ it can either mean the one true God who created the world and called Israel to be his special people.  It could, however, also mean something created that human beings took as a focus for the worship and service for the outworking of the very meaning of their everyday lives.  Generally speaking, the created things that were treated as gods in this way, were visualized as personal-like powers that operated in what we call ‘the natural world.’  Now, there is nothing really wrong with the powers of the natural world.  It is the creation of God and functions under his lawful direction and purpose.  As such, some of the creatures of creation certainly threaten – in floods, storms, disease and other things.  For this reason, the gods at the back of these ‘natural powers’ were considered to require sacrifices and obedience if the calamities were to be avoided. 

In our modern world, we often here the claim that, through our modern science and technology, we have learnt to control these powerful forces.  Have we really?  Certainly medical science and technology has accomplished a very great deal in a partial conquest of some of the evils that we humans are confronted with.  However, our neglect to care for the wellbeing of many of our fellow creatures would seem to have unleashed some hitherto unknown powers – such as global warming - that might well threaten us, or children or grandchildren. 

May it not be that the gods of our modern age are not all fashioned from the powers of nature in the way of what we are apt to call ‘the natural world’? (Why don’t we call it non-human creation, for example?).  Instead, might it not be that they are the very skills and powers that form the fabric of the cultural objects and pursuits that we generally to as the various facets of our secular world?  May it not also be the case that we are all in danger of treating our skills, our cars, our houses, our knowledge, our technological knowhow, our sciences and arts as forms of idolatry – in which we worship and serve these creatures rather than the Creator?  Might it not be the case that we are called to worship and serve the transcendent Creator in a way that truly recognises that all these things, gifts and callings that inhabit our secular world, are servants that are all too likely to turn back on us if, unsuspectingly, we bow down to them to worship and serve them?

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