Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Working Class and Social Change


The Working Class and Social Change

According to Marx the working class or proletariat is ‘the only really revolutionary class’ [The Communist Manifesto] and ‘The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself’ [The Rules of the International Working Men’s Association] and between capitalism and socialism there will be a transition which ‘can only be the dictatorship of the proletariat’ [The Critique of the Gotha Programme].

This conception of the revolutionary role of the working class was described by Lenin as ‘historically the main thing in Marxism’ but it is the idea many people find hardest to accept. On the one hand there are intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse and T.W. Adorno of the Frankfurt School who identified with much of Marx’s critique of capitalism but concluded that the working class was hopelessly bought off and indoctrinated by the system. On the other hand there are ordinary people, workers themselves, who simply say, ‘It will never happen’.

This is not surprising. The notion that working class people are obviously not capable of liberating themselves and running society is an absolutely central pillar of bourgeois ideology – the capitalist view of the world that pervades the media, the education system and our whole society. It is an idea that is particularly appealing to middle class intellectuals and is reinforced by their conditions of life. It also reflects much of the life experience of working class people who, from early childhood on, are treated as subordinates and have their confidence sapped.

Nevertheless, Lenin was right; the self emancipation of the working class is the main thing, the key idea in Marxism. Without it all the economic and historical theory becomes at best a passive commentary on the world rather than a means of changing it, or, at worst, as in Stalinism and Maoism, an ideology masking the interests of a different class [typically the state capitalist bureaucracy}.So let us look at Marx’s reasons for identifying the working class as the principal agent of social change and examine whether they still apply today.

We should begin by noting that Marx’s view was NOT based on the existing consciousness of the working class. Marx was well aware that the dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class and that most of the time most of us are subordinate to them. For the mass of workers it would not be socialist consciousness that produced revolutionary struggle, but revolutionary struggle that produced socialist consciousness. Nor was it based on workers’ suffering and oppression. Of course, workers do suffer grievously under capitalism and Marxists fight against this, but not more so than the peasants, serfs and slaves whose poverty and oppression stretch back to the dawn of civilisation and who history shows were not able to abolish class divisions or create socialism .Rather it was based on their potential power deriving from their economic position in capitalist society that made the working class the revolutionary class.

As Marx showed, workers in capitalism are not just badly paid but exploited. Wealth, Marx called it surplus value, is extracted from their labour. This surplus value is the source of all the profits of the capitalist class and of the bulk of wealth in capitalism as a whole. The bourgeoisie therefore needs the working class (not as individuals, of course, but as a class). The working class is the special product of capitalism and at the same time it is the producer of capitalism.

Exploitation also puts the working class into an antagonistic relationship to capitalism; it creates an ongoing conflict of interest between labour and capital over wages, hours, conditions, and ultimately every other issue in society and this conflict turns into industrial and political struggle which is ‘now hidden, now open’ as Marx put it. Most of the time victory in these struggles goes to the bourgeoisie, who have at their disposal both far more wealth and state power (the law, police, judiciary, army etc) but no matter how many times they defeat the working class they cannot escape their dependency on its labour. As capitalism grows so the working class grows too, until it becomes the large majority of society.

In addition to increasing its numbers capitalism also concentrates the working class in large workplaces and great cities. This gives the modern working class far greater potential political power than the scattered peasantry or the old artisans employed in small workshops.

This is not only a negative power AGAINST capitalism but also a positive force FOR socialism. The working class is, by virtue of its economic and social position, a collectivist class. It can only resist the employers and improve its conditions of labour by collective action and it can only take possession of modern industry collectively i.e. by turning it into social property. When peasants seized the land from the feudal lords they could divide it up into small farms; this cannot be done with modern industry. Moreover, political power in all modern societies is based in big cities where the key means of production are also located. The urban industrial character of the proletariat enables it to exercise political power [the dictatorship of the proletariat] while also remaining the principal producing class. In this way it fundamentally undermines the division between rulers and ruled, thus opening the way to a fully classless socialist society.

Such, in essence, was the case made by Marx more than 150 years ago. Since then there have been many actual instances of the working class playing a revolutionary role, such as the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the German Revolution of 1919-24, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Portuguese Revolution of 1974. However it is clear that there is now no shortage of commentators, pundits and academics eager to pronounce Marx out of date.

As an aside I have to note that when I first became a Marxist 40 years ago the academics and pundits all said Marx was out of date then. But what I’ve never been able to find is a moment when most of these thought he was in date. Nevertheless we should look at the arguments.

They say that the working class has lost its revolutionary character because it is no longer poverty stricken as it was in Marx’s day. It is true of course that living standards have risen substantially for many, though by no means all, of the international working class, including in Europe and South Korea, but what is key is not the absolute level of pay but the conflict of interests involved in securing that pay. Relatively well paid workers can be forced into collective struggle in order to defend their high wages and that struggle can lead to revolutionary action and consciousness.

They also say that with the demise of the old industries such as mining, steel and the docks, the working class in the advanced capitalist countries is fast disappearing and certainly no longer the majority. But this argument is based on a false and superficial view of the working class as defined by certain traditional forms of work In reality what counts is not the nature of the work, manual or white collar, but the relations of production. Employees of call centres, supermarkets, hospitals and schools are just as much forced to live by the sale of their labour power as miners and car workers, are also exploited and also possess great collective power. For example call centre workers and supermarket workers who went on strike could have a devastating affect on their bosses’ profits.

Finally the notion that the working class is disappearing is the reverse of what is happening in the world as a whole. In reality the second half of the 20th century saw a huge spread of the working class in the great cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America such as Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Cairo, Johannesburg, Mexico City and Sao Paulo now even further augmented by the dramatic economic growth of China (and to a lesser extent, India). The global working class is today infinitely larger, more internationally integrated and potentially more powerful than it was in either Marx or Lenin’s day. Now more than ever it is the force than can change the world.

John Molyneux

1 December 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Liberty of Appearing- the photographs of Yasser Alwan

The Liberty of Appearing –

the photographs of Yasser Alwan

This essay was written for 'The Liberty of Appearing - photographs of Egyptian working people', the catalogue for Yasser Alwan's travelling exhibition of photographs which opens at FOYLES BOOKSHOP, Charing Cross Rd, London on Friday 7 November at 7.30pm (all welcome) and runs till Thursday 20 November, and then at THE ELDON GALLERY, Portsmouth University, Winston Churchill Ave., Portsmouth on Thursday 27 November 5pm - 7pm running till Fri 5 December.

This beautiful catalogue, containing over fifty of Yasser Alwan's wonderful photographs, was designed and published by Richard Peacock, and is available, for £10 + postage from


Yasser Alwan’s photographs express a profound humanitarian egalitarianism that is rare in the long history of art as a whole and almost unique in the relatively short history of photography. ‘Photographs of Egyptian working people’- already this bare factual description raises a multitude of issues and announces an artistic and political stance.

We live in a culture – and by this I mean the total culture of global capitalism and the total historical culture of western and non-western civilisations - in which working people (peasants, agricultural labourers, slaves, artisans, manual and non-manual proletarians) are massively underrepresented. For the last 5000 years working people have been the immense majority of humanity, but in the world’s poetry, drama, novels, film, TV, visual art etc – music and dance may be a partial exception – their presence is marginal.

From Homer to Hollywood working people are the extras, the walk on parts. For every painting of peasant life by Brueghel, for every etching of a beggar by Rembrandt, there are a hundred, maybe a thousand portraits of emperors, kings, queens, aristocrats and bourgeois. This is not prejudice but a simple reflection of reality. In class divided societies, i.e. every society after the transition from foraging to agriculture, the upper classes are few but important and the working classes, the common people, are many but unimportant. Against this background any artist who, like Yasser Alwan, turns this hierarchy upside down and places working people centre stage, is making a political statement.

Add the designation ‘Egyptian’ to the class category and the magnitude of the under representation increases many fold. This is something that applies not just to Egypt, though Egypt has its particularities in this narrative, but to all ‘non-western’ societies and cultures. The Eurocentric view of history, developed alongside racism, as an ideological accompaniment to material conquest, credits Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt with the birth of civilisation and then moves swiftly to Ancient Greece and Rome, from which point the non-European world simply disappears except, exclusively, as an object of European discovery and military engagement. The result is a profound ignorance. The ONLY figures from Egyptian history between Cleopatra and Nasser, known, at all, to the Western public are Salah ad -Din (Saladin) from the Crusades and, perhaps to a few, Mohammed Ali. Ask a British university class (I have tried this often) to name three non- Western artists, three non- western scientists, three poets, three philosophers, and you are setting a test which the large majority are destined to fail – the odd ‘Frida Kahlo’ and ‘Confucius’ and the rest is blank. Results would not be much better among the faculty.

Of course it is a question of the nature of the representation as much as its quantity. Racial, gender, orientalist and colonial stereotyping have all been substantially explored in academic and cultural circles in recent decades, but class has received less attention. However, we should remember that while Shakespeare gives us Othello, Shylock, and Cleopatra (each, incidentally, an achievement of genius) his ‘common people’ are rendered in prose and offer only comic interludes, albeit pointed ones. And what John Berger wrote about Dutch genre painting (painting of ‘low life’) of the 17th century applies to many subsequent representations of working people.

The purpose of the ‘genre’ picture was to prove – either positively or negatively – that virtue in this world was rewarded by social and financial success. Thus, those who could afford to buy these pictures … had their own virtue confirmed. Such pictures were particularly popular with the newly arrived bourgeoisie.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin 1988, p.103

Even artists and writers avowedly sympathetic to working people have often produced representations of them that were highly problematic. Thus George Orwell, who broke with his middle class public school background to the extent of living (for a time) with the poor and down and out, and fighting with the POUM in the Spanish Civil War, and who wrote in 1984 that ‘If there is hope…it lies in the proles’, nevertheless depicted those proles as narrow, animalistic creatures more or less incapable of consciousness and higher feelings, while in Animal Farm they were represented by the carthorse Boxer, who was congenitally stupid. Even Brecht never produced a play foregrounding working class characters. (I say this not to criticise Brecht – possibly the greatest playwright of the century- but to show the difficulty of the task.)

This, then, is the general context, in which Yasser Alwan’s photographs of Egyptuian working people demand ‘the liberty of appearing’. But, of course, Alwan’s work also exists in the specific context of the history of photography, which to some extent constitutes a special case. On the one hand, the relative cheapness and availability of its means of production (the camera) and the ease of mechanical reproduction of its output, gives photography a democratic character absent from its adjacent art forms, painting and film .As a result there is a substantial tradition of the sympathetic photography of working people running from early photographers such as John Thompson, through the Americans, Lewis B.Hine, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, the German August Sander, Brassai and Cartier Bresson in France, to the contemporary Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, and in which Alwan consciously stands.

On the other hand, there is in photography –due to its mechanical and instant character – a potential for domination, coldness and cruelty not present, or not present to the same degree, in painting or drawing. This is manifested in its language – the photographer ‘captures’,’ shoots’ and ‘snaps’ her subject; in its role in social control (mug shots, ID, passports etc) and as handmaiden of imperialism and colonialism (lucidly analysed and illustrated by Alwan himself in his superb study of the photographs of Lehnert and Landrock, Imagining Egypt, Cairo, 2007) and in the paparazzi phenomenon. In the world of art photography it has given rise to the elements of the freak show, objectification, mockery and exploitation, found in varying degrees in the work of Diane Arbus, Joel-Peter Witkin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Martin Parr- a tendency to which Alwan is consciously opposed.

One way of grasping the stature of Alwan’s work is by means of comparison with some of his photographic forebears.

Lewis Hine photographed child labour in the US at the beginning of the last century to expose it and promote social reform. He photographed workers building the Empire State, suspended in the sky above Manhattan, to demonstrate the extraordinary skill and courage of working people in their daily lives. Alwan is also opposed to child labour, supports social reform and is aware of workers’ amazing feats in their work, but this is not the driving force of his photography.

The driving force of Brassai’s photography is the evocation of an atmosphere – the atmosphere of nighttime Paris in the thirties, of Montmartre and Montparnasse. There are some photos of working men at Les Halles, but they are subordinate to the prostitutes, carnival performers, lovers, and petty gangsters of bohemia, and the individuals in the pictures are subordinate to the overall ambience.

Cartier Bresson is certainly interested in ordinary people but what governs his photography is capturing the ‘decisive moment’ when those ordinary people can be configured in a brilliant composition. August Sander, who has been a big influence on Alwan, set out to document the German people of the twenties by ‘type’ according to a systematic classification, rather as in Engels’ classic prescription for realism,’the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances’. At first sight it might appear that Alwan is trying to do something similar for Egypt but any attempt at system is subverted by his interest in the particular subject, as a person, and this gives his work a human warmth lacking in Sander.

In fact there are echoes of all these photographers in Alwan but his work is distinguished from all of theirs by its greater engagement with and representation of the personalities of his subjects.

Take, for example, the photographs of the woman trader at Umm Reda, Waily and the Incense Man at Dar al-Salaam. Both are obviously poor – everyone at that level of society in Egypt is poor – but neither is photographed to represent poverty; nor are they there for their typicality. Rather it is their individuality, their respective specific spirit, that has drawn Alwan, and that Alwan has communicated in his superb photographs.

Alwan is interested in individual people. It sounds like a cliché, and a bourgeois cliché at that, but the moment you insert class into the statement – individual working people – it becomes artistically and politically highly charged. An intellectual who, who, in life, is genuinely interested, as an equal, in specific working class people is a rarity, and one who is interested in them artistically is even more rare. The notion that working people are simple, that they have simple ideas and emotions, compared to the complexity of the middle classes, is a prejudice with five millennia of class society behind it. Breaking with it as Alwan has done, not just in theory but organically as an artist has to do if the break is to be realised in their work, speaks of an art and a politics far more radical than that of social reform, the New Deal, or the Popular Front.

Two political points need clarification here. The first concerns the suffering of working people. In the world today, working people suffer relentlessly, unforgivably and on an unimaginable scale, but those for whom, in the words of Marx, ‘the proletariat exists only as the most suffering class’, miss the main point which is the capacity of working people to resist, to end their suffering, and to emancipate themselves and humanity.

The second concerns the relation between the individual and the collective. It often assumed that an emphasis on the individual is bourgeois and right wing, while stressing collective interests and collective struggle is proletarian and left wing. There is an important element of truth in this in that the working class must struggle collectively to defend its interests and change society, but it can easily be overstated and becomes damaging if it is understood as opposition to the individual, individual development and freedom. This was not Marx’s view. For Marx there was always a dialectical interaction between the individual and the social.

The communists do not put egoism against self-sacrifice or self-sacrifice against egoism…they are very well aware that egoism just as much as self-sacrifice is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self assertion of individuals. Hence the communists by no means want …to do away with the “private individual” for the sake of the “general” self-sacrificing man. (The German Ideology, London 1991. p105)

What is to be avoided above all is the re-establishing of “Society” as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual. The individual is the social being. (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Moscow 1967, p.98)

In place of the old bourgeois society… we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all. (The Communist Manifesto.)

How do these theoretical points translate into the language of photography and how do they relate to Alwan’s photographs in particular? The capacity of workers for resistance and self emancipation can, of course, be shown in photographs of strikes, picket lines, demonstrations etc. Such photographs are absolutely necessary, just as leaflets, banners and posters are necessary, but they are also artistically limited. (Artistically, the best demo photos I have seen are by Tina Modotti, but they tend to sacrifice the demonstrators and their aims to the achievement of a brilliant almost abstract composition). Another possibility is to produce idealised images of well toned workers gazing determinedly into the future. This was the Stalinist way and it was politically and artistically false. Yasser Alwan’s way is to show that working people, despite poverty and toil, remain complex and dignified human beings, damaged but not utterly defeated, with their own take on life and the world.

Consider for example the photos taken in the Tanneries. These show men and boys working in hellish conditions, that probably condemn them to early graves, and this is an essential part of their story but not the whole story. The key photographs in the series – the boy looking out from beneath the hides on his head, and the seated young man squarely facing the camera with a cigarette in his fingers – say more than this. In the eyes of the boy, almost welling up with tears, we see BOTH pain at the almost unendurable weight (physical and metaphorical) pressing on his shoulders AND determination to carry on, with just a glint of hope for the future. A similar contradiction beats in the breast of the seated young man as he bites his lip and looks quizzically at the camera, trying to make sense of his oppressive world.

Then there are the pictures of the limestone quarry diggers at Helwan, south of Cairo – I have been to Helwan, it is an aptly named place. The long shot gives us the overall scene and the sense of the searing heat of the desert. The close ups show us the specifics of their work, bent double, wielding their axes with pinpoint accuracy, releasing precisely cut blocks of great weight to be shouldered and shifted by hand. Then, suddenly, there is the picture of the single digger with the white turban, poised with his pickaxe ready to strike. Of course it is a work picture, he is about to smite the limestone not the international bourgeoisie… and yet…! It is an astonishing photograph.

It might seem that the photographs taken at the Gezira races don’t fit this argument. Not so. Throughout the world the poor gamble – even though gambling increases their poverty. The rich gamble too but in a different way and for different reasons, to show off, to display their wealth or their masculinity, to inject risk into their risk free lives. The poor, especially the older poor, gamble for the right to dream .For the price of a lottery ticket they buy the right to a secret fantasy life for a day or a week. For the price of a few betting slips they purchase hours of intense engagement with life, hours when they can pit their wits against the system and ‘win’, get something for nothing, get paid without working! Of course they don’t really win, but sometimes they do. And where else in poor people’s lives do they ever win, where else can they take on the man and not be instantly crushed? The gambler is not a man resisting politically, but he is a man resisting in his own way, refusing to give in completely and he is a person not just a type. He is the white haired man in photo no? about to put a cigarette to his lips (what a great photograph this is) who, at least outwardly, has kept his dignity, even a little of his authority and certainly his manners. He is the wiry old man with a strange peaked cap and a sheet of paper in his hands (a list of runners, a form guide?) What has he been in life? Where did the hat come from and what does it signify? The hopes of the man in the white jellabiya who screws up his eyes to gaze at the results board (photo no?) may be reduced to the outcome of the 3.30 but they are hopes none the less.

Everyone who appears in an Alwan photograph is shown in a social context that constrains and shapes them, but does not totally define them. Each is a person and personality in his or her own right, making their lives albeit in circumstances not of their own choosing. This is what I mean by the ‘profound humanitarian egalitarianism’ of this work.

‘The Liberty of Appearing’, the title of this exhibition, is a double reference. It is taken from a sentence in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man ‘But such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.’ But this quotation also appears in The Family of Man, the book of Edward Steichen’s famous photography exhibition from 1955. Both references are appropriate for these photographs but the phrase also points in a third direction.

At the beginning of this essay I spoke of the cultural invisibility of working people, especially working people in the poorer parts of the world. In recent years however the working people of Egypt have been making themselves steadily more visible. Paradoxically, working people make themselves most visible when, together, they stop working i.e. when they go on strike. This, Egyptian workers have been doing with increasing frequency. Earlier this year food riots caused by rising prices were followed by a wave of strikes emanating from the Mahalla textile factory, the largest workplace in the region. In political circles the name Mahalla has become symbolic of working class struggle internationally.

The objective political importance of Egyptian workers is also becoming ever clearer. This is the largest and potentially most powerful working class in the whole region between Europe and India, that is in the central battleground for control of energy supplies and the front line between imperialism and anti-imperialism. It holds the key to the defeat of the brutal Mubarak regime and hence to the overthrow of the other pro- US dictatorships in the area, which in turn would open the door to the defeat of Zionist Israel, in a way that is beyond the power of the Palestinians acting alone.

There is a photographic/artistic reference point here as well as a political one. The photographer whose work might seem to precede, and even preempt Alwan’s is Sebastiao Salgado. but there is a fundamental difference. Salgado’s photographs of the Serra Palado gold mine in Brazil are brilliant but his study of workers as a whole, Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, is premised on the mistaken (though widely held) notion that the working class is in the process of disappearing. This affects the photography. Salgado, deliberately I think, gives his pictures a grainy elegiac quality as he commemorates this dying breed and so engages in a kind of romantic mythmaking. There is none of this in Alwan whose working people are insistently present in the here and now and have no need of idealisation.

And in fact the world working class is here, is present, in Korea and China, Indonesia and India, the Middle East and South America, in larger numbers than ever before in history. Concentrated in great cities like Sao Paolo, Mumbai, Canton, Mexico City, it possesses awesome potential power. Cairo is one of the greatest of these cities and the Egyptian working class is a key contingent in this international army.

Yasser Alwan’s photographs do not give us the demos, strikes and uprisings, but they give us the people in all their human contradictions. It is highly appropriate that this exhibition should appear at a time when these people may be about to take ‘the liberty of appearing’ on the centre of the world stage. There is a chance, only a chance but a real chance nonetheless, that the young brick and shingle maker who shoulders a bucket the size of his torso and whose face is obscured by his own arm (photo no ?) and the boy with folded arms who is on the front cover of this book will grow up to make history.

John Molyneux

27 August 2008

3,264 words

Some thoughts on the Crisis


Some Thoughts on the Crisis

This month it is very hard for a Marxist to write about anything other than the astonishing crisis that has swept through world capitalism in the last six weeks or so, especially as this crisis is now beginning to have a serious impact in South Korea. However knowing that Candlelight Resistance (along with every other newspaper) will already have been analysing this crisis I will offer only some Marxist observations on the situation rather than an overall account.

Watching the crisis unfold I have wanted both to laugh and to cry. To laugh at the contradictions and contortions the western ruling classes and their political and ideological representatives have fallen into as they have been forced to abandon all the economic doctrines they have been proclaiming with such certainty over the last twenty years or so. To cry at the misery that, without a shadow of a doubt, will be inflicted on the working people and the poor of the world as we are expected to pay up the bill for their crisis.

There has been plenty to laugh about. For example George Bush’s right wing neo- conservative neo-liberal government being forced into the biggest nationalisation in history, with the takeover of mortgage firms, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, followed by a series of other nationalisations. But isn’t that … socialism? Well actually it is state capitalism not socialism but Bush and co. would have denounced it as socialism a few months ago. In Britain it was particularly funny to see the British government complain about the Irish government guaranteeing deposits in Irish banks on one day (unfair competition you know, distorting the market i.e. people would take their money out of British banks and put it in Irish ones), only to complain equally bitterly the next day about the failure of the Icelandic government to guarantee British deposits when the Icelandic banks went bust.

Then there was Alan Greenspan, former head of the US Federal Reserve Bank and the Pope of the free market, admitting there was a ‘flaw’ in his ideology. In truth the whole spectacle of Lehman Brothers, AIG, Merrill Lynch, HBOS, Wachovia, - these giants of capitalism, masters of the universe with centuries of accumulation and exploitation behind them - falling like nine pins and going cap in hand to the state has made schadenfreude impossible to resist [if this wont translate put ‘ has afforded a degree of pleasure’]

But, of course, we know that their embarrassment is going to be followed by real suffering for ordinary people. Wage cuts and job cuts, unemployment and poverty, house repossessions and homelessness – these are the inevitable consequences of recession. Cuts in welfare benefits and social services, in health and education – these, before long, will be the responses of capitalist governments. In the poorest countries there will be famine and starvation, in the developing countries their development will falter and some will collapse, and even in the richest, most advanced countries the working class will feel the pain.

Torn between laughter and tears I am reminded of the motto of the great 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, ‘Neither laugh nor cry, but understand!’. And as a contribution to understanding this crisis I want to make three points. First it is not some natural disaster or weather calamity. Greenspan described it as ‘a once in a century tsunami’, and the media is full of phrases such as ‘economic typhoon’ or ‘hurricane’. This is nonsense: the crisis is neither natural nor an act of god but entirely man made; it was, in broad outlines, predictable and predicted for example by Marxist economists such as Chris Harman and Robert Brenner; and, pace Greenspan, these crises recur a lot more frequently than ‘once in a century’.

Second, it is not basically a crisis of confidence. The capitalist media and its commentators always try to suggest that these crises are fundamentally just a question of investors, speculators and even manufacturers’ confidence. Sometimes they try to get away with the old claim that ‘the underlying real economy is sound’. Now obviously confidence does play a role: if you are worried that a bank is going to go bust you will be tempted to take your money out of it, thus making it more likely to go bust. If you anticipate a low rate of return on your investment in a company you are likely to invest elsewhere, and if you anticipate a general recession you will probably put your money in gold, and this in turn contributes to the depth and length of the recession.

BUT this ‘confidence’ or lack of it is not arbitrary or random. It doesn’t just float into the minds of investors from the ether. It is based on evidence and experience from the real world. For example the problems in the US sub-prime mortgage market, which initiated the credit crunch, were not just problems in people’s heads, they were real problems of people who really couldn’t keep up their mortgage repayments, and from the standpoint of the mortgage lenders the real problem of not being able to sell repossessed houses profitably in a falling house market.

One of the great achievements of Marx’s economics was to show that all wealth creation depends ultimately on the application of labour to nature, and all [exchange] value rests on the expenditure of socially necessary labour time. If prices in the elevated worlds of stock exchanges, hedge funds and currency speculation depart too far from these real material values then, sooner or later, they will spring back like overstretched elastic.

Which brings me to my third point, namely that this is not just a crisis caused by greedy bankers and financiers on Wall St etc. This is not to excuse the bankers and financiers who are undoubtedly greedy, and whose greed is an important component of the dynamic of the crisis. But let’s be clear, in their relentless pursuit of maximum profits the bankers were only following the same logic that drives Exxon and Shell, Wal-Mart and Samsung and every other capitalist company in manufacturing, retail or any other sector, i.e. the inherent logic of capitalist competition. ‘Accumulation for accumulation’s sake’ as Marx put it. The over lending by banks is only a variation on the general tendency towards overproduction in booms, long ago identified by Marx.

Moreover the roots of the present crisis lie not just in the financial sector but in the so-called ‘real’ economy. In Britain figures have just been released showing that the British economy moved into recession in the July-September quarter, the quarter BEFORE the financial meltdown. Clearly it has been problems in the ‘real’ economy that have triggered the banking crisis and brought about the loss of confidence referred to above, particularly the underlying decline, in recent, in the overall average rate of profit.

What lies behind all three of these myths- of the crisis as bad weather, as loss of confidence, and as caused by greedy bankers – is the desire of politicians, and of the media and its tame pundits to pin the blame for the collapse on relatively superficial aspects of the system and avoid any analysis which points to capitalism itself as the culprit.

And that reminds us that Karl Marx went one step further than Spinoza when, in 1845, he wrote, ‘The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it!’. Changing the world, in the present circumstances, means two things: mobilising the working class to resist the job cuts, wage cuts, house repossessions, welfare cuts, tax increases and all the other attacks that will come our way, and ,at the same time, building a movement and a party which understands that the only ultimate escape from capitalist crisis lies in the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by production for need not profit.

John Molyneux

28 October 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

Why is Bacon's Pope Screaming?


Francis Bacon: major retrospective at Tate Britain, 11 September – 4 January.

For Socialist Review magazine, October 2008.

Reviewing an exhibition is an invitation to comment both on the exhibition as such and on the art presented.

Since performing both tasks satisfactorily is impossible in the space available I shall concentrate on questions raised by Bacon’s work and say only this about the exhibition. Bacon is now widely proclaimed the greatest British artist of the 20th century and this show offers a selection of his best paintings from each phase of his career – it contains all the really ‘iconic’ works such as the Screaming Popes, the ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, the Dyer triptychs, the Self Portraits etc. For anyone interested in modern art this is definitely a show to be seen.

Regarding Bacon’s overall standing I would say that he is not one of those artists, like Picasso, Duchamp, Mondrian, or Warhol, who drove modern art forward to new forms of visual representation, and changed it so fundamentally that it became possible to conceive of an athlete sprinting through the Tate Britain as a work of art. He is, however, one of those like Soutine or Giacometti, who, while using relatively traditional methods, i.e. figurative oil painting, made images of exceptional emotional power.

The source and nature of this emotional power remains much debated. One can point to a number of influences – Michelangelo, Velazquez, Goya, Picasso, Giacometti, the photographs by Muybridge etc – and to certain repeated techniques and devices. For example, the way he uses cage structures to suggest his subjects are prisoners or creatures on display; the way, often, they are placed on plinths, or beds, with a sense of space around them, so that they appear served up like meat or specimens on a dish; or the way he used cubist forms, in his portraits, to knead the flesh round the bones of the skull. But if these are some of the means by which Bacon achieved his effects they leave the driving force of those effects unidentified.

In other words, why is Bacon’s Pope screaming? Alternatively, what or who is he screaming at? I pose this question not just as a means of interrogating Bacon’s best known image but also as a way into discussing the general purport of his work.

We don’t get a clear answer from Bacon himself. Like many artists he preferred to let his paintings speak for themselves, and his response to questions of this nature was to cite the visual sources of his imagery (Velazquez’ Pope Innocent X, the nurse’s scream in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin etc.) while saying nothing about its emotional sources.

Nevertheless, there is a range of plausible answers on offer. The Pope is Bacon himself screaming at the fear and loneliness of being a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still a crime. The Pope is the Pope/Bacon screaming at the horrors of the world at the end of the war (Auschwitz, Hiroshima, etc.) The Pope is the Pope screaming at the wreckage of his faith in a godless world. The Pope is Papa, Bacon’s brutal father, who attempted to beat his homosexuality out of him. – this is the obvious Freudian interpretation and was put to Bacon directly by the art critic, David Sylvester in one of their famous interviews; Bacon simply deflected it. The Pope’s scream, like the figures at the base of a crucifixion, is Bacon’s visceral response to the human condition in toto – a world of violence and despair, hopelessness and terror, essentially meaningless, in which we are all simply ‘meat’. There is probably truth in all these answers. Artists often choose images precisely because they are overdetermined and carry multiple associations.

However there is no doubt that the final reading is the one favoured by the art establishment and by the Tate Britain. This is because it enables them to assimilate Bacon to Michelangelo, Rembrandt etc. as a producer of ‘timeless’ truths about life and because it dovetails with the notion of an unchanging human nature. The bourgeoisie has a place for art that shows the horribleness of life, so long as they can also claim it shows that nothing can be done about it.

For this reason many on the left, including John Berger, have long been suspicious of, even hostile to, Bacon. And, it has to be said that much of Bacon’s outlook was reactionary: he was a kind of Nietzschean, adhering to a sort of ‘exhilarated despair’ and a positive supporter of social inequality as part of ‘the texture of life’ (see the final Sylvester interview).

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the left should reject Bacon’s work, as opposed to his views, and I’m pleased that Berger has recently revised his judgment (in his book Hold Everything Dear). The horror Bacon so powerfully expressed is in reality a product not of human nature but of alienation, in all its aspects, internal and external, and that can be changed. Moreover those artists, such as Kafka, Beckett and Bacon, who look into the abyss, who take on the horror and stare it down, do, through their work, make a form of resistance, a defiance, from which we can benefit and draw hope, whether they did or not.

John Molyneux

Are the Media all Powerful?


Are the Media all Powerful?

One of the immediate problems faced by socialists everywhere is that everywhere the vast bulk of the mass media is hostile to socialism and uses its considerable power to defend the status quo i.e. capitalism.

Sometimes this bias is absolutely blatant and includes not only pro- capitalist but also pro –government propaganda as in most of the world’s dictatorships or Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in America. Sometimes it more subtle and, as with the BBC, hidden beneath a veneer of impartiality and commitment to political neutrality and the representation of different points of view. But always the fundamental stance is the same: capitalism is the sensible, natural and inevitable way of organising production. Anyone who thinks otherwise is at best an eccentric and most likely a wicked ‘extremist’ because ‘everyone knows’ that ‘moderates’ are good and ‘extremists’ are bad and that anyone who wants to abolish capitalism is an extremist by definition.

Where television, the most important mass media, is concerned this basic stance affects not only news bulletins but also the choice of panellists on discussion programmes, the themes of and commentary on documentaries, the story lines and characters in soap operas and drama series, the nature and tone of game shows- in short the total output. And obviously it is the same with newspapers. Their pro-capitalist standpoint is reflected, first and foremost in what is and, most importantly, in what is NOT reported, as well as in how it is reported, how it is commented on in editorials, and opinion pieces, and again it runs all the way through to the cartoons and the sports coverage. Nor is the basic position any different in thefilm industry, radio or any of the other forms of mass media.

This should not surprise us. Mass media are forms of communication which enable small groups of people to communicate simultaneously with vast numbers of other people. They all involve considerable capital outlay and are therefore owned either by people with lots of capital i.e. capitalists or by states which at bottom represent the interest of the capitalist class. The pro-capitalist bias of the media is therefore, under capitalism, absolutely inevitable. It is one part of the general phenomenon of ruling class ideological dominance noted and explained by Karl Marx in 1845 (before most of the modern mass media even came into existence)

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. (The German Ideology).

The questions that arise therefore are how much does this ruling class control of the media matter, and how can it be challenged? Let’s take the second question first. It is obviously vital that socialists should develop their own means of communication - newspapers such as Counterfire or other forms such as posters, leaflets, magazines, websites, blogs, films etc – and they should also try, wherever possible, to get their ideas across in the capitalist media. However, while capitalism exists and the capitalist class remains in power, socialist media will not be able to displace the bourgeois media, and socialist ideas will not be able to obtain more than marginal representation , anymore than it is possible for socialist education to replace state schools and bourgeois universities. Thus the crucial issue becomes how strong is the grip of the bourgeois media on the minds of the majority of working people and how can that hold be broken?

Clearly the media, taken as a whole, are very influential and sometimes it seems like they can manipulate people at will, stirring up xenophobia and racism one minute, whipping up war fever the next, and always blotting out any challenge to the system. But it is important to understand there are always definite limits to the media’s power.

For a start there are always some people in society (albeit a minority) who reject the media view of the world pretty much as a whole. If you are reading this article it is likely that you are part of this minority. Moreover, we (I am part of it too) are not in any fundamental or innate way different from other people who don’t (as yet) reject the dominant view – it is simply that we have had experiences that have led us to question the system more than others.

Secondly, the vast majority of people who accept much of what the media says, nevertheless remain sceptical of some of its messages. For example, in Britain, throughout the twentieth century the large majority of newspapers supported the Conservative Party and only a small minority backed the Labour Party but this did not stop Labour winning a number of general elections. And in America today the media is overwhelmingly behind the Bush administration’s $700 million bail out of Wall St. but this doesn’t stop it being highly unpopular with the American public.

Then there are things which are so unpopular that the media themselves know they would be wasting their time trying to sell to people - for example, mass unemployment. There are times when the ruling class, privately, thinks that a dose of mass unemployment would be just the thing to undermine the unions and break working class resistance, but they know they can’t say this openly. The best they can hope for is to convince people that some scapegoat (immigrants, refugees, greedy trade unions etc) is to blame, but they always have, at least to pretend to care about unemployment.

In general it is clear that where media influence is at its weakest is when reality diverges most radically from its preferred message and especially when the issue is one which affects people directly as part of their everyday experience. One of the reasons why capitalist economic crisis creates opportunities for socialism is not just that workers are radicalised by the suffering inflicted on them but also because the crisis dramatically exposes and undermines the story the capitalist class wants to tell about itself.

However, the circumstance in which working people are particularly likely to see through and reject the lies of the media is when they are engaged in collective struggle, because then they themselves become the news and their own actions and experiences are what is being lied about. When the collective struggle is also a MASS struggle, when it starts to involve the majority of the majority of the working class in action, for instance in a general strike, then the hold of the mass media really starts to break down., especially as this is also a situation in which the working class gets a sense of its own power and develops the confidence to look for alternatives.

Combine conditions of crisis with mass struggle and one further ingredient is needed, the mass revolutionary workers party with its own media to articulate an alternative socialist worldview. Include that in the equation and we will break not only the grip of the media on the minds of working people but the power of the capitalist class as a whole including its power over the media.

John Molyneux

29 September 2008

Should workers cooperate with employers to make their firms successful?


Should workers cooperate with employers to make their firms successful?

In times of economic difficulty or recession employers frequently turn to their workers and say something like this: ‘Times are hard; we all need to tighten our belts and sacrifice a bit at the moment, but if we all pull together the company will soon return to prosperity and that will benefit us all in the long run’.

This is an extremely popular argument which virtually unanimous support – among employers. In fact I doubt there is an employer on the globe that doesn’t claim to want the cooperation of its workforce.

This is hardly surprising. Oppressors through out the ages have urged their victims to cooperate. Doubtless the Egyptian Pharaohs were pleased when their slaves cooperated in hauling the vast stones that built the Pyramids. The slave owners in the Americas showed their appreciation of cooperative slaves by making the ‘house’ slaves and granting them small ‘privileges’ relative to the ‘field’ Negroes. The SS secured the Jews’ cooperation in boarding the cattle trucks by not telling them their true destination.

The problem with the ‘cooperate with company’ argument, however, is that it is widely accepted not just by bosses (and their allies in government and the media, of course) but also by many workers. Evidence for this can be seen in the way trade union officials so often bend over backwards to appear ‘reasonable’ and to stress that it is the management who are being uncooperative. Indeed the argument can be made to sound like simple ‘common sense. Let us confront it in its strongest form.

Company X, which makes widgets, is in trouble. It has just announced huge losses for the last two quarters and the management admit they are on the verge of bankruptcy. It is a multinational company and there is also the possibility it will close its operation in South Korea and shift production to the Philippines where wages are lower. If, however, the workers will accept a pay cut of 10% and a no strike deal for two years, management pledge to keep the factory open and say they are confident of winning new orders. The Government is backing the deal and there are rumours, if it is accepted, of massive investment. Besides unemployment is high and if Company X closes its workers will struggle to find new jobs. Surely, in these circumstances, it makes sense to cooperate?

There are parts of this argument, which as any decent trade union representative will know, have to be challenged immediately. How real is the threat to move production overseas? Multinationals are always trying to blackmail their workers this way, when often the costs and disadvantages of relocation are prohibitive (which is why they are in South Korea, not the Philippines, in the first place). What guarantees are there for the promises about the future? What is stop the management from coming back in six months time and saying we are very sorry, we meant what we said at the time, but things have changed and now we are closing anyway, or we want another 10% cut?

PLUS what about management salaries ETC

However these points do not really get to heart of the matter. Let us assume for the moment that the employers are, broadly speaking, telling the truth, at least as they see it and as far as they can know it (I strongly advise against making this assumption in practice). Then let us ask what Company X being ‘in trouble’ and facing closure really means. Obviously it means not making a profit or not making enough profit and the most likely reason for that is either: there is another company, Y or Z, capturing the widget market by making them better or selling them cheaper; or there is a decline in the widget market, due to other companies or the public being less willing to spend their money on widgets; or some combination or variation on both these reasons.

Now let us assume that the workers of Company X agree to the 10% pay cut demanded. This will give the profits of Company X a boost and restore its competitive edge over Company Y. Now it will be Y’s turn to be in trouble and Y’s workers turn to face redundancy. Obviously the Y management will say to their workers, the X workers over there took a wage cut, you must do the same or we will be uncompetitive. But if the Y workers follow the example of the X workers, all it means is that the relative competitive positions of Companies X and Y will be restored with both their workforces earning less. This ‘race to the bottom’ has been the essence of neo-liberal globalisation adopted by ruling classes nearly everywhere in their drive to raise profits.

If we look back over this ‘workers should cooperate argument’ it is clear that workers’ ability to see through it is bound up with their ability to see beyond themselves as workers in one isolated workplace and look also at the workplace and workers down the road and ultimately round the world. For the only real answer to the bosses’ strategy, and it is a strategy as well as an idea, is for the workers of company X to link up with the workers of Company Y (and Z etc) and together reject wage cuts and redundancy. It should also be clear that workers ability to do this is a matter not just of their intellectual understanding, their consciousness, but also of their confidence and organisation. For workers the crucial question is not just the abstract argument, but the calculation: if we here at X resist will the workers at Y and elsewhere fight with us?

This why trade union organisation is so important, so that workers in one workplace, then across different workplaces, and ultimately across the class as a whole are linked to each other and can take action together.

It is also why a revolutionary party is vital. In practice in most workplaces there will some workers whose whole inclination is to accept the bosses’ cooperation argument and others who consciously reject it. Between these two poles there will be those, probably a majority, who are unsure. What actually happens, the course of the class struggle, depends on which pole is able to win over the waverers. The revolutionary party is simply an organisation of the rejectionists, in every possible workplace, across all boundaries, to increase their ability to win the argument against the collaborators and lead the majority of the class in struggle.

Thus we see that this single argument contains in essence the whole logic of the class struggle. Either collaborate with the boss and compete with other workers, or join with other workers to fight the boss. The first road leads, in the end, to racism, nationalism, war and fascism, i.e. to barbarism. The second road leads to socialism.

John Molyneux

1 September 2008

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is Democratic Centralism Anti-democratic?


Is Democratic Centralism Anti -democratic?

Democratic centralism is a principle of party of organisation which combines democratic debate and policy making with united action by all party members to implement the policy.

Since the days of Lenin and the Bolsheviks most Marxist parties have operated, or claimed to operate, on the basis of democratic centralism.

I say ‘claimed’ because in numerical terms the big majority of so-called Marxist parties have, in fact, been Stalinist parties loyal to the Soviet Union and in such parties the centralism was overwhelming, with every party and every individual expected to toe the line decided in Moscow, while the democracy was virtually non- existent. Not surprisingly this experience has given democratic centralism a bad name.

Now, it is clear that if we reject Marxist concepts or practices on the grounds that they were used, perverted or discredited by Stalinism then we have to reject Marxism and socialism in their entirety, but it also clear that hostility to democratic centralism is not confined to its Stalinist incarnations. There are many on the left – left reformists, libertarians, autonomists, anarchists etc. - who criticise Trotskyist and other strongly anti-Stalinist parties over this issue.

For example, in Britain, the Respect MP George Galloway, attacked the Socialist Workers Party for its democratic centralism, saying its members were like ‘Russian dolls’. (If this ‘Russian doll’ metaphor is circulating on the left in South Korea it is doubtless because it was picked up from Galloway). However, leaving George Galloway aside, there is clearly a widespread view on the left, that democratic centralism is a deeply flawed, inherently anti-democratic organisational model.

Despite this I intend to argue a) that democratic centralism is ESSENTIAL for a revolutionary workers party to perform effectively as a leader of the working class in struggle; b) that far from being anti-democratic it is really the MOST democratic form of party organisation.

To grasp the importance of democratic centralism it is necessary to understand that the attempt to combine democracy and centralism is not some arbitrary organisational principle dreamt up by Lenin or any other Marxist, but is rooted, in embryonic form, in the very nature of working class struggle. The working class struggle is a struggle from below, a struggle of ‘the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority’ From its earliest days (for example, the Chartists in Britain) one of its most important demands was for political democracy, the democratic republic. When workers realised that political democracy was not enough to change society they demanded not less but more democracy, democracy extended to production and society as a whole, hence social democracy. It was therefore natural and inevitable that workers’ organisations, trade unions, associations, parties and the like adopted – at least at first – democratic constitutions and procedures.

But there is also an element of centralism inherent in workers struggle. The power of capital is by its nature highly centralised Decision making in any capitalist enterprise is top down, from the owner or the Board of Directors, and enforced with virtually military discipline. As capitalism ages and the ownership of capital becomes more concentrated, so this centralisation becomes ever more extensive and intense. If Samsung, Ford or Exxon, make a strategic decision on pricing, plant closure or dealing with an industrial dispute, they will expect that decision to be implemented by every manager in the company across the world. To assert their rights against this power, workers have no choice but to combine their forces, to agree to act together.

Consider the most basic form of the class struggle, the strike. The workers of a particular workplace, company or industry decide, democratically (ideally through voting at mass meetings) whether or not to go on strike, but that decision is then binding on everyone. If the decision is against striking and some individuals still walk out, they will almost certainly simply be sacked. But if the decision goes in favour of the strike then every worker involved is expected to come out and anyone who does not is a scab and a traitor. This is democratic centralism in embryo. And to those who rail against democratic centralism it is worth pointing out that bourgeois liberals have always denounced trade union solidarity and discipline as an infringement of the sacred rights of the individual, but have never even noticed how the centralised power of capital affects the rights of working people.

The democratic centralism of the revolutionary party is based on the democratic centralism of the astrike, but there is also a difference. In the strike it applies, and is limited, mainly to the economic struggle. In the party it applies also to the political and , to an extent, to the ideological level. This is because the revolutionary party is a voluntary, minority organisation, within the workers’ movement as a whole, whose aim is to lead the working class in the conquest of political i.e. state power and which, in order to achieve that aim must, wage a many sided ideological struggle against the dominance of bourgeois ideas in the working class and against rival political tendencies (reformism, Stalinism etc) who experience has shown, will hold back the workers’ struggle and betray it to the bourgeoisie.

The necessity of this political democratic centralism can be seen if one replaces the example of the strike with the example of a revolutionary situation i.e a situation where the masses are in action, where the old state machine has been undermined, where, perhaps, there are elements of dual power – workers’ councils, occupied workp[laces etc. – and the fateful decision has to be made, for or against insurrection. How can such a decision be taken in the middle of the most intense class warfare?. Some kind of national referendum is not possible, nor can there be a series of parliamentary style public debates, not without alerting the class enemy and inviting counter-revolutionary repression. In fact only a party with roots in every section of the working class and a strong tradition of internal democratic debate will be able to assess correctly the mood of the masses and the chances of success. But once the decision has been made it must obviously be carried out in unity (in Seoul, Gyeongju and Busan, or London, Manchester and Birmingham) if the revolution is not to be crushed.

Be that as it may, the critics will say, we are not in a revolutionary situation, and the trouble with democratic centralism is that it too easily manipulated by bad leaders in the hear and now. In fact anti - democratic manipulation is always possible, whatever the formal constitution of a party, but democratic centralism makes it more difficult not easier. This is because it disciplines not only the rank and file of the party but also the leaders.

Imagine a party with, apparently, a high level of democratic debate and discussion but very little centralism. Such a party was the old British Labour Party before Tony Blair got his hands on it. Its annual conferences were full of passionate debates, criticisms of the party leadership, and resolutions democratically proposed and voted upon. Yet it all counted for nothing . Because there was no centralism the party leadership, especially when it was in government, simply ignored the decisions of the party. Without centralism there was no democracy because the working class majority of the party had no means ensuring its views were acted upon.

At bottom the question of democratic centralism is a class question. The working class needs both democracy and centralism because it is a movement from below which can succeed only by acting together.

John Molyneux

27 July 2008

Monday, July 07, 2008

More than Opium: Marxism and Religion


About twenty years ago I spoke on ‘Marxism and Religion’ at the SWP Easter Rally in Skegness. I began, roughly, with the words, ‘Today, in Britain, religion – fortunately – is not a major political issue’. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. Today religion, or rather one religion in particular, namely Islam, is at the centre of political debate.

Scarcely a day passes without a news item raising the alarm about alleged ‘hate preaching’ imams or a mosque being taken over by ‘fundamentalists’, or an opinion piece about the deeply flawed nature of Islam, or a radio discussion about whether ‘moderate’ Muslims are doing enough to combat ‘the extremists’ and prevent Muslim youth from being ‘radicalised’, or a TV programme on the plight of Muslim women, or a scare story about some stupidity committed in the name of Islam somewhere in the world. As I start to write this article I see the following report in The Independent on Sunday:

Islamic extremism creates 'no-go' areas, says bishop

By Jack Doyle

Published: 06 January 2008

Islamic extremism in Britain is creating communities which are "no-go areas" for non-Muslims, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali warned yesterday. Bishop Nazir-Ali says non-Muslims face a hostile reception in places dominated by the ideology of Islamic radicals.

Regardless of the merits or accuracy of the individual story or claim, and this is a particularly absurd one, the relentless flow of this kind of comment and coverage, has turned Islam into a religion under siege. This incessant problematisation of Islam and demonisation of Muslims has created the phenomenon now widely referred to as Islamophobia.

For readers of this journal there should be no mystery as to why this has occurred. It is not an expression of some visceral Christian hostility to Islam stretching back to the crusades or the conflict with the Ottoman Empire. (even though these atavisms are sometimes mobilised ideologically).It is because the majority of the people who happen to be sitting on the world’s most important reserves of oil and natural gas happen to be Muslim and, secondarily, because, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, much of these peoples’ resistance to imperialism has found expression in Islamist form. If the people of the Middle East and central Asia had been predominantly Buddhist or Tibet held oilfields comparable to those of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, what we would be dealing with would be ‘Buddhophobia’. Seeping out from The White House, the Pentagon, the


CIA and Downing St., and coursing through the sewers of Fox News, CNN, The Sun and the Daily Mail would be the notion that, great religion though it undoubtedly was, there was some underlying and persistent flaw in Buddhism. ‘Intellectuals’ such as Samuel Huntington, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis would be on hand to explain that, despite its embrace by naïve hippies in the sixties, Buddhism was really an essentially reactionary creed characterised by its deep seated rejection of modernity and western democratic values and its fanatical commitment to feudalism, theocracy, misogyny and homophobia.

However, the fact that it has happened; the fact that Islamophobia has been developed, nationally and internationally, as the principal ideological cover and justification for imperialism and war (as straightforward racism was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) has enormously increased the importance of a correct theoretical understanding of, and political orientation towards, religion in its many different forms. Indeed it can be said that a deficient, mechanical or one sided understanding of the Marxist analysis of religion has been at least a substantial contributing factor to a number of left individuals and groups completely losing their former political bearings and ending up as left apologists for imperialism.

The most notorious example of this is, of course, Christopher Hitchens, who has written a book on religion, God is Not Great (of which, more later) and whose trajectory from leftist intellectual and radical critic of the system to ‘critical’ supporter of George Bush has been precipitous and extreme – though in Hitchens’ case one cannot help suspecting that material inducements have played a larger role in his race to the right than any mere theoretical error. There are also some members of the Euston Group such as Norman Geras, and Quentin Hoare, and among the left groups, the sorry case of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, and the French socialist organisation Lutte Ouvriere, whose hostility to the hijab turned them ,temporarily, into objective allies of the French imperialist state against its most oppressed women citizens.(NOTE See Antoine Boulange ‘The hijab, racism and the state’, International Socialism 102, )

At the same time, and not by coincidence, there has arisen in the US and Britain, a verbally militant anti religious, pro-atheist campaign, spearheaded by the science writer Richard Dawkins and accompanied by the aforementioned Hitchens, the philosopher Daniel Dennett and others. A critical examination of how these people present their arguments against religion will, by contrast, bring out important features of the Marxist position. But first I want to set out the fundamental principles underlying the Marxist analysis of religion, beginning not with Marx’s direct comments on religion but with the basic propositions of Marxist philosophy.


Marxist philosophy is materialist. According to Engels 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.

[K.Marx and F.Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow 1989, pp366-67]

Marxism, argues Engels, not only stands firmly in the materialist camp but is where, ‘the materialist world outlook was taken really seriously for the first time and was carried through consistently … in all relevant domains of knowledge.’ [ibid. p.382]

Marxist materialism, reduced to its essentials, involves commitment to the following propositions:

  1. The material world exists independently of human (or any other) consciousness.
  2. Real, if not total or absolute knowledge of the world is possible and has, indeed, been attained.
  3. Human beings are part of nature, but a distinct part.
  4. The material world does not derive, in the first instance, from human thought, human thought derives from the material world.

Propositions 1 and 2 correspond to the presumptions and findings of modern science and have attained the status of common sense. This is because they are confirmed in practice, millions or billions of times every day, as are most of the findings of science. Proposition 3 also corresponds to the findings of modern science, especially Darwin and modern paleontology and anthropaleontology ( see for example Richard Leakey, The Origins of Humankind) but, as it happens, was articulated by Marx before Darwin.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature….The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.[ K.Marx and
F.Engels, The German Ideology, London1991, p.42]

Proposition 4 is the most distinctively Marxist and the least widely shared. Many people who take a materialist view of the relationship between humans and nature, take an idealist position on the relationship between ideas and material conditions and on the role of ideas in society, history and politics.. Almost without thinking they such things as ‘The Cold War was fundamentally a clash of ideologies’ or ‘Capitalism is based on the idea of economic growth’. For this reason proposition 4 is the one Marx and Engels insist on most strongly and repeatedly.

Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces…Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence…

In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrate, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process… Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence… Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. [ibid. p.47]

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?

[K.Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto,]

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure

and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

[K.Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion etc,; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation on which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case. [F.Engels, Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx]

Thus it is clear that a definite attitude to religion is present, both implicitly and explicitly, in the most fundamental ideas of Marxism. Moreover it should also be clear that this attitude has a dual character. On the one hand, for the thorough going and consistent Marxist, as for the thorough going and consistent materialist, religious faith, in all its many forms, is excluded. Religious ideas, like all other ideas, are social and historical products, i.e. produced by human beings, and this necessarily precludes religious belief since it is precisely their claim to transcendence and priority over nature, human beings and history that make religious ideas religious. By the same token philosophical idealism and religion are intimately linked. If mind has priority over matter whose mind can that be but the mind of God? If ideas are the ultimate driving force in history, where do those ideas come from if not the mind of God? And is not God, as in the terminology of Hegel, ‘the absolute idea’? As the Bible puts it, ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was God’. This is why Trotsky, at the very end of his life, wrote that he would die ‘a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist (my emphasis)’. [L.Trotsky, The Age of Permanent Revolution, New York, 1964 p.361.]

On the other hand the same Marxism clearly demands a materialist explanation of religion. It is not enough to view either religion as a whole or any particular religion as simply a delusion or folly that happens to have gripped the minds of millions for centuries. A common habit of less thoughtful religious believers (especially religious believers in imperialist countries) is to mock or dismiss as superstition the religious beliefs of others (especially so-called ‘natives’) on the grounds that they are obviously irrational or contrary to well known laws of nature, without realising that exactly the same applies to their own beliefs – in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the feeding of the five thousand or whatever. But Marxism does not just generalise this mistake by pointing to the equal stupidity of the cargo cultist and the Catholic, the Rastafarian and the Anglican. It requires an analysis of the social roots of religion in general and of specific religious beliefs; an understanding of the real human needs, social and psychological, and the real historical conditions, to which such beliefs and doctrines correspond. A Marxist needs to be able to understand why a belief in the divinity and immortality of Haile Selassie could inspire a musician of the calibre of Bob Marley in Trenchtown, Jamaica in the 1960s, while a belief in the divinity and immortality of Jesus inspired an artist (and mathematician) of the calibre of Piero della Francesca in 15th century Florence.

If we now turn to Marx’s most important statement directly on religion, the first couple of pages of The Introduction to A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, we find it to be a condensed expression of all these elements. It begins with the assertion that:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed , and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism

By this Marx means that the combined work of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, especially the French encyclopaedists, and the Bible criticism of German secular Left- Hegelians has demolished the claims of religion (Christianity/ The Bible) to offer a factually true account of nature or history, or even an internally coherent theology. Moreover this work was necessary and progressive because a genuinely critical analysis of the world was not possible until human thought was liberated from the fetters of religious dogma. But this single sentence is all Marx says on this aspect of the question. Taking the factual refutation of religion as given he proceeds rapidly to his main point, the analysis of the social basis of religion.

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: man makes religion, religion does not make man

This is the starting point. What follows is paragraph of exceptional density, typical of Marx, in which a PhD’s worth of insights are compressed into a few sentences

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But, man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man — state, society. 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, it 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.

Thus religion ia a response to human alienation – man who has ‘lost himself’ – but this not an abstract or ahistorical condition, rather it is a product of certain specific social conditions. This society produces religion, an inverted view of the world in which humans bow to an imaginary god of their own making, because it is an inverted world in which people are dominated by the products of their own labour. But religion is not just a random collection of superstitions or false beliefs, it is the ‘general theory’ of this alienated world, the way in which alienated people try to make sense of their alienated lives and alien society. Therefore it performs the rich array of diverse functions listed by Marx: ‘encyclopaedic compendium’, ‘logic in popular form’, ‘spiritual point d’honneur’,‘moral sanction’, etc. And therefore to struggle against religion is to struggle against that world ‘whose spiritual aroma is religion’, this world of alienation in which people need religion.

Two points need to be made about this passage. The first is that it almost universally ignored by commentators offering summaries or explanations of Marx’s views on religion. This may be because they haven’t read it (which seems unlikely) or haven’t understood it (more likely) or, most likely, because it is radically incompatible with the attempt to reduce the Marxist theory of religion to a simple one or two dimensional analysis as in, ‘ Marx argues that religion is a tool of the ruling class’, or ‘According to Marx religion functions to pacify the toiling masses’. Of course, Marx does say this kind of thing about religion, but he says much else besides and to reduce the complex totality of his theory to just one of its strands is effectively to falsify it. The second is that Marx is so keen on its conclusion that he repeats it again and again in a veritable storm of metaphors and aphorisms.[‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness… The criticism of religion is… the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo…Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower …The criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of earth’ etc. etc.]

However, before concluding his argument on religion, Marx inserts one more highly significant paragraph.

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 circumstances. It is the opium of the people. [Marx’s emphasis}

This passage is much better known than the previous one but that is largely because of its much quoted final phrase (often presented as the essence or the totality of Marx’s analysis), whereas it is the first sentence that is probably the most interesting and most important for understanding the political role of religion. Marx’s insistence that religion is both an expression of suffering and a protest against it, is the key point, giving the lie to any analysis which focuses only on religion’s narcotic and soporific effects. It also points in the direction of the important historical fact (to which I shall return) that there have been many progressive , radical and even revolutionary movements that have either taken a religious form, had a religious coloration or been led by people of religious faith.

Marx then concludes his analysis of religion with a series of epigrams – ‘the criticism of religion [ is transformed] into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics’, in such a way as to move on to his main theme, the current state of affairs in Germany.

In the course of their immense oeuvre Marx and Engels made numerous references to and analyses of religion In particular the young Marx wrote On the Jewish Question, a polemic in favour of Jewish Emancipation [FOOTNOTE This rather obscure text has been particularly controversial because it has been cited as evidence of Marx’s anti-semitism. Refuting this false charge and dealing with some of the text’s other difficulties would divert me too far from my central theme . Fortunately it is discussed elsewhere in this issue by John Rose whose article should be read in conjunction with Hal Draper, ‘Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype’(1977) at and Anindya Bhattacharya, ‘Marx and Religion’ Socialist Worker, 4 March 2006.] and Engels contributed a number of interesting studies of the historical development and role of Christianity, particularly in The Peasant War in Germany, Anti-Duhring, The Introduction to the English Edition of Socialism:Utopian and Scientific, Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity, and The History of Early Christianity.( all of which can be accessed in Marx and Engels On Religion, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1957 or via the Marxists Internet Archive at However all these comments have one thing in comment: they never take religious doctrines, sects, churches, movements and conflict at face value, nor treat them as simple follies or deceptions practiced by the priests, but regard them always as distorted reflections and expressions of real social needs and interests i.e. of the class struggle. A few extracts will illustrate the point:

The German ideology of to-day sees in the struggles to which the Middle Ages had succumbed nothing but violent theological bickerings…In the so-called religious wars of the Sixteenth Century, very positive material class-interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by conditions of the time Germany)

The revolutionary opposition to feudalism was alive throughout all the Middle Ages. According to conditions of the time, it appeared either in the form of mysticism, as open heresy, or of armed insurrection. As mysticism, it is well known how indispensable it was for the reformers of the Sixteenth Century. Muenzer himself was largely indebted to it. The heresies were partly an expression of the reaction of the patriarchal Alpine shepherds against the encroachments of feudalism in their realm (Waldenses), partly an opposition to feudalism of the cities that had out-grown it (The Albigenses, Arnold of Brescia, etc.), and partly direct insurrections of peasants (John Ball, the master from Hungary in Picardy, etc.). We can omit, in this connection, the patriarchal heresy of the Waldenses, as well as the insurrection of the Swiss, which by form and contents, was a reactionary attempt at stemming the tide of historic development, and of a purely local importance. In the other two forms of mediaeval heresy, we find as early as the Twelfth Century the precursors of the great division between the middle-class and the peasant-plebeian opposition which caused the collapse of the peasant war.(The Peasant War in Germany)

Calvin's creed was one fit for the boldest of the bourgeoisie of his time. His predestination doctrine was the religious expression of the fact that in the commercial world of competition success or failure does not depend upon a man's activity or cleverness, but upon circumstances uncontrollable by him. It is not of him that willeth or of him that runneth, but of the mercy of unknown superior economic powers; and this was especially true at a period of economic revolution, when all old commercial routes and centres were replaced by new ones, when India and America were opened to the world, and when even the most sacred economic articles of faith – the value of gold and silver – began to totter and to break down. (Introduction to the English Edition, 1892, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)

Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome…

These risings [of oppressed peasants and town plebeians- JM], like all mass movements of the Middle Ages, were bound to wear the mask of religion and appeared as the restoration of early Christianity from spreading degeneration….But behind the religious exaltation there was every time a very tangible worldly interest. This appeared most splendidly in the organization of the Bohemian Taborites under Jan Zizka, of glorious memory; but this trait pervades the whole of the Middle Ages (The History of Early Christianity)

And, incidentally, the following footnote on Islam:

. Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, i.e., on one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the "law." The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required, a new Mahdi arises and the game starts again from the beginning. That is what happened from the conquest campaigns of the African Almoravids and Almohads in Spain to the last Mahdi of Khartoum who so successfully thwarted the English…. All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; (ibid)

It should go without saying that the point here is not the historical truth or falsity of all or any of these specific observations, but the consistent methodology underlying them.


Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who first came to prominence with his book The Selfish Gene, and thereafter built himself a considerable reputation and career as a populariser of science. In 2006 he published The God Delusion, a full frontal assault on religion and defence of atheism, which became an international bestseller, generated huge controversy, especially in the United States, and attracted plaudits from sources as diverse as Ian McEwan, Michael Frayn, The Spectator, The Daily Mail and Stephen Pinker.

I should say at the outset that I do not at all share the apparently widespread admiration of Dawkins’ style and intellect. Reading Dawkins after Marx is like going from Tolstoy or Joyce to Kingsley Amis or Agatha Christie, i.e. moving down several divisions. Where Marx packs a book into a paragraph, Dawkins expands a short essay into a large book. In fact all 460 odd pages of The God Delusion do not take us intellectually beyond what Marx summed up in the first sentence of his analysis in 1843, namely that the criticism of religion is essentially complete. What Dawkins offers is an ‘enlightenment’, empiricist, rationalist, refutation of religion – a ‘scientific’, i.e. positivist demonstration that there is a complete lack of factual evidence to support what he calls ‘the God hypothesis’ and that on the contrary the evidence makes it almost (if not absolutely) certain that God does not exist. This is supplemented by logical refutations of the various arguments advanced for God’s existence ranging from the venerable ‘proofs’ of Thomas Aquinas and Pascal’s Wager to the bizarre recent speculations of one Stephen Unwin, and numerous examples of the follies and crimes perpetrated in the name of religion. I suppose there are some people for whom this will be revelatory and others who may enjoy it because it makes them feel smarter than the ignorant masses who swallow these superstitions, but theoretically there is nothing new here, indeed very little that isn’t at least two hundred years old.

The only real exception to this lies in Dawkins’ attempt to explain why religion is so widespread in human society but this attempt is a rather miserable failure. Being a committed evolutionary biologist he feels obliged to frame his explanation in evolutionary biological terms, i.e. in terms of genetic advantage in the process of natural selection. Unfortunately his blanket hostility to religion also obliges him to deny that religion can be advantageous for individual or social survival. He tries to wriggle out of this contradiction by suggesting that religion is a side-effect of a characteristic that he claims is advantageous in the struggle for survival, namely a propensity for children to believe what they are told by their elders. Clearly this doesn’t withstand criticism. First it is highly debatable the extent to which youthful suggestibility outweighs youthful skepticism, especially into adolescence. Second, it is equally debatable whether such suggestibility is on balance advantageous. Third, it seems highly likely that both the extent and advantageousness of suggestibility is massively socially conditioned and very different in different societies. Finally, like any theory that explains the behaviour or beliefs of children by the behaviour or beliefs of their parents, it is left with the problem of explaining the parents’ disposition in the first place or is caught in an infinite regress. As Marx pointed out,‘the educators themselves must be educated’ [Theses on Feuerbach:3]. In other words Dawkins’ explanation turns out to be no explanation at all. Moreover it is symptomatic of his whole approach that neither in this section nor any anywhere else in The God Delusion’s 460 pages does the author find time seriously to consider the Marxist theory of religion.

However intellectual unoriginality and mediocrity is by no means the main objection to this book.( It would be churlish to cavil so over a work that was second rate but reasonably sound). The main objection is to the reactionary political conclusions that flow from the weak methodological basis. As Marx argued in relation to Feuerbach, mechanical materialism invariably leaves the door open to idealism, and Dawkins is a particularly clear example of this. Without noticing it he flip flops from a vulgar materialist genetic determinism in his view of human nature and behaviour in the abstract, to a rampant idealism in his view of the role of religion in concrete historical circumstances. Again and again he makes the mistake of assuming that when people do something in the name of religion it really is religion that is determining their behaviour. The following passage from his essay ‘The improbability of God’ epitomizes his approach:

Much of what people do is done in the name of God. Irishmen blow each other up in his name. Arabs blow themselves up in his name. Imams and ayatollahs oppress women in his name. Celibate popes and priests mess up people's sex lives in his name. Jewish shohets cut live animals' throats in his name. The achievements of religion in past history - bloody crusades, torturing inquisitions, mass-murdering conquistadors, culture-destroying missionaries, legally enforced resistance to each new piece of scientific truth until the last possible moment - are even more impressive. And what has it all been in aid of? I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that the answer is absolutely nothing at all. There is no reason for believing that any sort of gods exist and quite good reason for believing that they do not exist and never have. It has all been a gigantic waste of time and a waste of life. It would be a joke of cosmic proportions if it weren't so tragic (‘The improbability of God’ Free Inquiry Magazine, Volume 18, Number 3.)

In fact this no more than a souped up version of the familiar nostrum that lots of wars are caused by religion and it will not stand a moment’s critical scrutiny. Let us take the example of Ireland. The view that conflict in Ireland was essentially or primarily about religion is both manifestly false and plainly reactionary. It is false even in terms of the declared statements and consciousness of the principal protagonists. If many, though by no means all, Republicans were Catholics, no Republican would have said (or believed) that they were fighting for Catholicism; they fought for Ireland, i.e. for an independent united Ireland. Things were less clear on the Unionist side where religious bigotry played a much larger role, nevertheless the principal declared goal was a ‘national’ one, namely remaining ‘British’. Moreover it abundantly clear that behind these conflicting national aspirations lay not religious differences about the doctrine of transubstantiation or the fallibility of the Pope but real economic, social and political issues of exploitation, poverty, discrimination and oppression. To see the conflict as basically about religion was reactionary because it fitted with the racist stereotype of the Irish as primitive and stupid (after all ‘we’ gave up fighting about religion centuries ago) and helped to legitimate the presence of the British army and British rule as a neutral arbiter between warring religious factions.

To his credit Richard Dawkins opposed the Iraq War and politically he is no friend of George Bush, but, in the context of the War on Terror, his approach to religion becomes, even if unintentionally, even more reactionary. For it is central to the Bush/Cheney/ neo-con/ Blair/Brown ideology that Muslim hostility to ‘the West’ is unprovoked and unjustified. It is not a reaction or response to Western imperialism, exploitation and domination, but rather a religion-based offensive campaign aimed at destroying, conquering, or perhaps converting the non-Muslim world. To some this hostility is inherent in mainstream Islam {Dawkins seems to hold this view or something like it –see The God Delusion pp.346-7); for Bush/Blair and co it derives from an ‘evil’ misinterpretation or perversion of Islam, but in both cases the motivation is religious. It is an interpretation which flies in the face of the declared statements of both Al-Quaeda, who made explicit political demands such as the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia , and the 7/7 bombers in London, who said they were motivated by what was being done to Iraq, and which also defies reason. The notion that America, or Britain or any big western nation, could be destroyed, conquered or, indeed, converted by planting bombs on the underground or flying planes into a couple of tall buildings is so utterly absurd that it cannot be the real motive for any sustained campaign. The idea that the US could be induced by a terrorist campaign to stop supporting Israel or to get out of Afghanistan is also mistaken but it is not completely implausible. For Bush/ Blair and co,, however, the ‘religious’ interpretation is mandatory, as without it they would be forced to concede the culpability of imperialism and of their own policies, and the Dawkins approach dovetails with this and reinforces it.

. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalising of a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on September 11… It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. [Richard Dawkins, ‘Religion’s misguided missiles’, The Guardian, 15.09.01]

Similar to Dawkins, but worse, is Christopher Hitchens. His book, God is Not Great, is on an even lower intellectual level than The God Delusion, with a more arbitrary combination of self serving personal anecdote and rambling journalistic polemic. Its adaptation of the atheist case to Islamophobia is embodied in the title ( a mocking reference to the Muslim cry, ‘God is Great!’) and blatant throughout. I suppose out of deference to his radical past, he actually quotes, approvingly, a couple of the key paragraphs of Marx on religion and then proceeds to ignore their meaning completely. In the key ‘Religion Kills’ section of the book he takes us on a whistlestop tour of six strife torn cities – Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad – in each case offering a swift summation of the conflict exclusively in terms of religious hatreds without any reference to history, imperialism, oppression, or class. It is a travesty of socio-political analysis. The ‘analysis’ of Palestine is especially striking.

I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel's more polished and

thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The

first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he

said, was the ease of its solubility. From this arresting start he went

on to say, with the authority of a former foreign minister and UN

representative, that the essential point was a simple one. Two peoples

of roughly equivalent size had a claim to the same land. The solution

was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something

so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass? And so it

would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs

and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to

god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further

stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on

the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have

made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the

position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear

war. Religion poisons everything.

This is risible, but when Hitchens says, and I quote verbatim from You Tube, ‘ I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion’*, he is also saying it is not the material fact of capitalism, not imperialism, not inequality, not exploitation or class conflict, just a mistaken idea people have lodged in their heads.

[* NOTE Its not easy to grasp how far Hitchens has gone . Again I quote from him on You Tube, debating with Rev. Al Sharpton, ‘You see, I don’t love our enemies, and I don’t love people who do love them. I hate our enemies and think they should be killed…And I’m absolutely sure there should be no other country that has a budget that threatens ours, and I’m not sentimental about it.’ And by ‘our enemies’ and ‘our budget’ he means the enemies and budget of US imperialism.]

Vigorously opposing the arguments of Dawkins and Hitchens does not, however, involve diluting in any way the classical Marxist critique of religion or opening the door to some kind of theoretical compromise with religious ideas.At this point we need to leave the odious Hitchens for the far more congenial Terry Eagleton, who provides an example of what should be avoided. Eagleton is an eminent cultural and literary theorist, friendly to Marxism, who, in the past, attacked the racism and other bigotries of Philip Larkin, and who recently distinguished himself [in my eyes] by denouncing the Islamophobia of his colleague, Martin Amis. In 2006 he wrote a highly critical review of The God Delusion for the London Review of Books but although he advances some of the same arguments as this article, for example in relation to Ireland, the general terms of his critique are not Marxist. His principal argument is that Dawkins has attacked fundamentalist religion, Christian and Islamic as if it represents all religion, while ignoring more sophisticated ‘liberal’ theology of which he (Dawkins) is largely ignorant

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?


As a criticism of Dawkins book this has some validity, but there are also serious problems here. First, it is not reasonable to argue that it is necessary to master all the ins ands outs of Christian (or Buddhist, or Zoroastrian ) theology before one can make an intellectually sound case for atheism and for rejecting theology as such. Second, in demonstrating his understanding of the liberal theologians’ concept of an immaterial, impersonal god of love and tolerance, in contrast to the Old Testament god of vengeance espoused by Falwell and attacked by Dawkins, Eagleton leaves decidedly open the possibility that this liberal god may actually exist, or be worthy of worship. He does the same when he offers his picture of Jesus as proto – anti- imperialist revolutionary.

Jesus did not die because he was mad or masochistic, but because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy and justice, as well as at his enormous popularity with the poor, and did away with him to forestall a mass uprising in a highly volatile political situation. [ibid.]

For a Marxist the loving caring impersonal god of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the radical Jesus of Terry Eagleton are both just as much human creations, illusory projections, as the unpleasant bigoted gods of Ian Paisley or Osama bin Laden.


To conclude this article I shall outline a brief and rather schematic summary of the principal political conclusions that flow, and have flowed historically, from the foregoing analysis.

First, and contrary to widespread opinion (fostered by widespread misrepresentation), Marxist socialists are absolutely opposed to any idea of banning religion. This is not some new position but was explicitly stated by Engels as far back as 1874 in response to a proposal by some Blanquists. The reasons given by Engels remain valid to this day.

In order to prove that they are the most radical of all they abolish God by decree as was done in 1793:

“Let the Commune free mankind for ever from the ghost of past misery” (God), “from that cause” (non-existing God a cause!) “of their present misery. There is no room for priests in the Commune; every religious manifestation. every religious organization must be prohibited.”

And this demand that men should be changed into atheists par ordre du mufti is signed by two members of the Commune who have really had opportunity enough to find out that first a vast amount of things can be ordered on paper without necessarily being carried out, and second, that persecution is the best means of promoting undesirable convictions! This much is sure: the only service that can be rendered to God today is to declare atheism a compulsory article of faith and to outdo Bismarck’s Kirchenkulturkampf laws by prohibiting religion generally....


Far from banning religion Marxists argue that religion should be a private matter in relation to the state and complete freedom of religion should prevail both under capitalism and socialism. Lenin spelt this out unambiguously in his article on ‘Socialism and Religion’ in1905

Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated.

( Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1965, Moscow, Volume 10, pp84-5 )

The only sense in which Marxists contemplate the elimination of religion is through its gradual withering away as a result of the disappearance of its underlying social causes – alienation, exploitation, oppression etc. Marxist socialists are, however, opposed to any state privileges for religion and call the disestablishment of any or all official state churches (like the Church of England).

Inevitably the general perception of the Marxist attitude to religion is considerably influenced by the experience of the Stalinist regimes in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea etc. A systematic investigation of this experience is impossible in this brief article and,hopefully, readers of this journal are well aware that the policies of these regimes were in no way representative of genuine socialism or Marxism Nevertheless certain observations are worth making. Stalinist repression of religion is often both exaggerated and misunderstood. It is exaggerated in that in general the Stalinist regimes did not repress the main religions or churches but tolerated them and even formed alliances with them, on condition that these churches were politically compliant ( which they mainly were).It is misunderstood in that where religious groups or individuals were persecuted it was primarily because they were politically troublesome, rather than because of their faith as such, but then these were societies in which all political opposition was suppressed. A broad overview of the communist states’ treatment of the religious can be found in the last chapter of Paul Siegel, The Meek and the Militant – Religion and Power Across the World, [Zed Books, London and New Jersey 1986] and an especially useful case study of the Russian Revolutions dealings with its Muslim minority is provided in Dave Crouch, ‘The Bolsheviks and Islam’ in International Socialism 110. Crouch shows how in the early years of the revolution the Bolsheviks adhered strictly to the Leninist principles outlined above and thus met with considerable success in winning over Muslims, whereas the rise of Stalin led to the adoption of increasingly top-down authoritarian policies, including the assault on the veil, which proved disastrous.

Second, in determining their attitude to popular movements with a religious coloration, which are many and varied, Marxists take as their point of departure not the religious beliefs of the movement’s leaders or of its supporters, nor the doctrines and theology of the religion concerned, but the political role of the movement, based on the social forces and interests which it represents.

To put this in perspective consider the respective historical roles of Catholicism and Protestantism. In the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period Catholicism was essentially the religion of the feudal aristocracy and therefore almost universally reactionary. In contrast radical Protestantism tended to represent either the rising bourgeoisie or the plebeian elements below and to the left of it. The great rebels and revolutionaries of those times, the Thomas Muenzers, John Lilburnes and Gerard Winstanleys, were passionate Protestants – extremists and fundamentalists in the language of today. BUT the moment these bourgeois rebels came to power, in the Netherlands and England, they became participants in what Marx called ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’ and thus vicious colonists and slavers. Cromwell, the revolutionary and regicide in England became Cromwell the oppressor in Ireland (where his name still lives in infamy), and specifically of the Catholic peasantry. Similarly the Dutch protestant burghers were the heroes of Europe in the Dutch Revolt but the villains of Africa with apartheid. The strongly reactionary role of the Catholic Church continued in Europe, especially southern Europe, well into the last century, witness its active support for Franco in Spain and its deals with Mussolini and Hitler, and still survives in attenuated form in the main conservative parties in Italy, Spain and southern Germany. BUT the countries in Europe where Catholicism and religion in general remained strongest were Ireland and Poland where the church was able, very moderately but powerfully, to identify itself with opposition to national oppression. Any socialist looking back to the seventeenth century will identify immediately with the Protestant rebels and against the Catholic monarchs and emperors. Any socialist looking at Ireland in 1916 or Belfast in the 1970s will identify with the ‘catholic’ Nationalists not the ‘protestant’ Unionists.. Any socialist who saw the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland as a conflict between the ‘backward’ Catholics of Gdansk and the ‘progressive’ atheist communists of the Soviet State ended up on the side of the imperialist oppressor. The same applies today to the Tibet/china conflict and above all to the War on Terror and the struggles in the Middle East.

Many other cases can be adduced to reinforce this argument. Where would a socialist be who decided their political attitude to Malcolm X on the basis of his crackpot and reactionary religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam, or to Bob Marley on the basis of his belief in the divinity of that old tyrant Haile Selassie, or even to Hugo Chavez, self proclaimed Catholic and admirer of the Pope? Unfortunately some would- be socialists

who have no difficulty grasping this in relation to Chavez or Marley, under the pressure of intense bourgeois propaganda arre unable to apply the same approach when the religion in question is Islam. To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports (even critically) Zionism.

It also follows that Marxist socialists do not accept the idea that any of the major religions is inherently, or in terms of its doctrines, more or less progressive, than any of the others. For a religion to become ‘major’, that is survive over centuries in many locations and different social orders, it is a precondition that its doctrines be capable of almost infinite selection, interpretation and adaptation. Once again what is decisive is not doctrine but social base in the specific social situation. Thus in the US we find a right wing racist imperialist Christianity in the Moral Majority or the Mormons and a left wing anti-racist anti-war Christian tradition as in Martin Luther King. In South Africa there was a pro-apartheid Christianity and anti-apartheid Christianity; in Latin America there has been a rightwing, pro-oligarchy, pro-dictator Catholicism and a leftist ‘theology of liberation’ Catholicism; and, of course, there are a multitude of different, often sharply conflicting, versions of Islam, ranging from the anti- imperialist Islam of Hezbollah to the pro-imperialist Islam of Hosni Mubarak.

The main argument used to justify the notion of Islam as a specially backward religion is, of course, the attitudes to women and homosexuality prevalent in Muslim countries. Those who put this argument need to be reminded that much the same attitudes were prevalent in Western societies until very recently and are still present in the teachings of many Christian churches. But the fundamental flaw in this argument takes us back to the basics of Marxist materialism – the secret of the Muslim Holy Family lies in the earthly Muslim family. It is not Muslim religious consciousness that determines the position of women in Muslim society, but the real position of women that shapes Muslim religious beliefs. Islam was born in the Arabian peninsular and spread horizontally, west across North Africa and east across Central Asia. For centuries this great belt has been largely poor, underdeveloped and rural, and to a considerable extent remains so today. Other societies, from Ireland to China, with similar levels of development and similar social structures but different religions, exhibit similar oppression of women and gays.

Finally, there is the question of the relationship of the revolutionary party to religious workers. Any such party operating in a country where religion remains strong among the mass of the population, which is much of the world, must reckon with, indeed count on, the fact that the revolution will be made by workers, many of whom will still be religious. The vast mass of workers will be liberated from their religious illusions not by arguments, pamphlets or books, but by participation in the revolutionary struggle, and beyond, in the building of socialism. In such a situation it is incumbent on the party to ensure that religious differences, or differences between the religious and the non-religious, do not obstruct the unity of working class struggle. Moreover in so far as the party becomes a truly mass party, leading the class in its workplaces and communities, it will inevitably find in its ranks a layer of workers who remain religious or semi-religious. To reject such workers because of their religious illusions would be sectarian and non-materialist. It would be to share the religious/ idealist mistake of regarding religion as the most important element in consciousness and consciousness as more important than practice. At the same time the party must not become a religious party, or party whose policy, strategy or tactics is shaped by religious considerations. Revolutionary victory requires that the party should be guided by the theory that expresses the collective interests and struggle of the working class, namely Marxism. Therefore the party must ensure that on this matter it educatesc and iinfluences its religious members rather than vice versa.

One revolutionary party working in such a situation was the Bolshevik Party and its leading theorist, Lenin, wrote on these matters with insight and clarity in his 1909 article ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion’. Here are a few extracts:

Marxism is materialism. As such, it is as relentlessly hostile to religion as was the materialism of the eighteenth-century Encyclopaedists or the materialism of Feuerbach. This is beyond doubt. But the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels goes further …for it applies the materialist philosophy to the domain of history….. It says: We must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion.

Why does religion retain its hold…? Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view, the view of narrow bourgeois uplifters. It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way. In modern capitalist countries these roots are mainly social. The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism

Does this mean that educational books against religion are harmful or unnecessary? No, nothing of the kind. It means that Social-Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task—the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.

The proletariat in a particular region …is divided, let us assume, into an advanced section of fairly class-conscious Social-Democrats, who are of course atheists, and rather backward workers …who believe in God, go to church, or are even under the direct influence of the local priest... Let us assume furthermore that the economic struggle in this locality has resulted in a strike. It is the duty of a Marxist to place the success of the strike movement above everything else, vigorously to counteract the division of the workers in this struggle into atheists and Christians, vigorously to oppose any such division. Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be both unnecessary and harmful—not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle, which in the conditions of modern capitalist society will convert Christian workers to Social-Democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda.

We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social-Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it.

[Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1973, Moscow, Volume 15, pages 402-413]

What these extracts confirm is what this whole article has argued, namely that handling correctly the issue of religion – so vital in the present political situation- is not just a matter of ad hoc judgments or tactics, still less of electoral opportunism , but of understanding the most basic ideas of Marxist dialectical materialism

John Molyneux

7 July 2008