Dialectical Materialism vs. Bourgeois Rationalism: A Marxist Critique of the “New Atheists”
In recent years, atheism has gained a certain currency among liberal-minded members of the American petty bourgeoisie. Atheist and secular humanist clubs have been formed not only on college campuses but also in small towns in the South. Atheist activism is also found in rather unlikely social milieus. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sgt. Justin Griffith and a few cothinkers have established the Military Atheists and Secular Humanists and extended the organization to other military bases. Griffith and others objected when in the fall of 2010 the Ft. Bragg commanders sponsored an on-base event by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. In response, Griffith proposed to organize an atheist event featuring such speakers as Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion (2006), the best-known exposition of what is called the “new atheism.”
Sgt. Griffith’s views and activities highlight a seemingly contradictory situation. Adherents of the self-styled Christian right regard proponents of atheism as an abomination, a dire and insidious threat to the supposedly unique greatness of the American nation. On the other side, most atheists and other freethinkers in the U.S. today view themselves as good citizens and upholders of the American way of life and traditional political system. A 20,000-strong “rally for reason” in Washington, D.C., earlier this year was heavily promoted by Dawkins as a means to further the acceptability of “freethinkers” in political life.
What we have here is a particular manifestation of the changed political-ideological contours of the post-Soviet world. Since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, atheism is no longer so strongly identified in popular consciousness with communism or other forms of left-wing social radicalism. The intellectual promoters of the “new atheism,” which emerged in the mid 2000s, are and have always been hostile to Marxism. Dawkins as well as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, two other leading “new atheists,” are prominent exponents of “sociobiology,” a form of biological determinism used to justify reactionary garbage such as male dominance and black inferiority.
During the Cold War, a shared enmity toward the USSR and Communism muted the hostility of religious-minded rightists to irreligious liberal intellectuals. But especially over the last two decades, Christian fundamentalists, believing that international Communism was vanquished with the fall of the Soviet Union, have turned their fire against the secularist “enemy within” and the entire tradition of Enlightenment humanism and scientific rationality.
For evangelical preachers like Pat Robertson, it was no longer Karl Marx but rather Charles Darwin who was the main inspirer of the enemies of the “American Christian nation” (see “Hail Charles Darwin!” WV No. 854, 16 September 2005). In an essay explaining the origins of the “new atheism,” Victor Stenger, one of its leading figures, complained about “Christian attempts to force others to behave according to their beliefs; to set public policy based on faith rather [than] reason; and to transform America into a theocracy” (“What’s New About the New Atheism?” Philosophy Now, January/February 2011).
Then Came 9/11
The core canon, so to speak, of the “new atheism” consists of five works: Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2007), Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) and Stenger’s The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009). While the similarities among the five authors are more important than their differences, there are differences in emphasis, that is, in their main concerns and foils.
Dawkins, Dennett and Stenger were primarily responding to the political ascendancy of the Christian right under the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Reactionary religious forces received a major boost from the “faith-based” Bush regime, whose often demented policies flowed from America’s continued position, based on its overwhelming military strength, atop the world order even as its economy stagnated. Dawkins & Co. were reacting in particular to the campaign to make creationism (“intelligent design”) an officially recognized alternative to Darwinian evolution. Their books mainly polemicize against arguments that aspects of the natural world (the origin of the cosmos, the origin and diversity of living organisms, human consciousness) cannot be explained except by the existence of a transcendent supernatural power.
The main concerns of Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens were different. They were basically responding to the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001 by Islamic fundamentalists. Their books would not have been written (at least in their main content) had that event not occurred. Hitchens also edited the 2007 The Portable Atheist, which for the most part consists of representative irreligious thinkers, beginning with the materialist philosophers of Greco-Roman antiquity. Four of the final six selections are specifically directed against Islam.
Harris and Hitchens represent that current of liberal intellectuals who supported the global “war on terror” on the grounds that Islamic jihadism had become a mortal threat to Western civilization. Harris was positively apocalyptic: “A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.” The British-born Hitchens, who died last year a U.S. citizen, was notorious for slinging mud on behalf of the Bush administration during the Iraq war, captured in his trashing of the antiwar country music band Dixie Chicks as “f---ing fat slags.” Having spent some of his youth in the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers Party), Hitchens went on to wave the Union Jack during Britain’s squalid war with Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands in 1982 on his way to becoming a full-bodied pro-imperialist pig.
As Jeff Sparrow aptly put it in “The Weaponization of Atheism” (CounterPunch, 9 April), “the New Atheism was turbocharged by 9/11.” That goes for Dawkins as well as Harris and Hitchens. Dawkins, who along with numerous bourgeois liberals opposed the invasion of Iraq, has been on his home turf a voice of the Islamophobia that has been whipped up by and helped drive the “war on terror.”
Dawkins outraged Muslim groups in Britain two years ago by insultingly likening the Muslim women’s burqa to a trash-bin liner. The burqa is indeed both a symbol and instrument of women’s oppression. But Dawkins’ fulminations against Islam are those of a British chauvinist and shot through with class bias. While correctly denouncing “faith schools” for propounding anti-scientific nonsense, Dawkins reserves his main fire for Muslim schools, where children are “having their minds stuffed with alien rubbish,” not those following Church of England precepts (Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2011). Nor is the Anglican state church on the receiving end of the ridicule that Dawkins likes to dish out against Catholic dogma. As any Irishman could tell you, such ridicule is mighty common fare in the land of the bloody butcher’s apron (Union Jack).
Reading Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, one is reminded of the old watchword of British colonialism: “the white man’s burden.” These intellectuals promote the notion that the U.S. and West European states could and should use military force to bring the benefits of “secular democracy” to the benighted peoples of the Islamic world. Thus do the “new atheists,” from different points on the bourgeois political spectrum, act as apostles for Western (Christian) imperialism.
A Historical Materialist Understanding of Religion
Despite his reputation as “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Dawkins is remarkably tolerant toward the Church of England, which has been described as “the Tory party at prayer.” In a recent televised “debate,” he told the Archbishop of Canterbury that he preferred to call himself an agnostic rather than an atheist and that he was “6.9 out of seven” sure of there being no god, evoking gasps on Twitter. Writing in the 1920s about Henry Brailsford of the Independent Labour Party, a self-described agnostic, Marxist revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky observed:
“This word is sometimes used in Britain as a polite, emasculated, drawing-room term for an atheist. Even more often, it characterizes a diffident semi-atheism—i.e., that variety of idealism which on the question of God, to use parliamentary language, abstains from voting. And so we see here the force of cant, of conventionality, of the half-truth, the half-lie, of philosophical hypocrisy.”
Combating religious obscurantism is an integral part of the struggle by the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, to forge a revolutionary workers party that can provide political leadership of the working class, beginning with its most advanced elements. In the words of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin:
“The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism, which has fully taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century materialism in France and of [philosopher Ludwig] Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany—a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion.”
At the same time, we oppose all forms of religious persecution and oppression and defend the separation of church and state—a fundamental gain of the American Revolution that is increasingly honored in the breach by the U.S. capitalist ruling class. Our comrades of the Spartacist League/Britain fight for the abolition of the state churches as well as the monarchy and the House of Lords as part of their struggle for a socialist federation of the British Isles.
Karl Marx’s attitude toward religion is popularly identified with the phrase “the opium of the people.” However, the passage in which this phrase is used is rarely quoted in its entirety. And when it is, it is usually interpreted in a sense contrary to Marx’s intent:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
“To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.” [emphases in original]
— “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction” (1843-44)
Marx’s aim here was not to convince the faithful to abandon their religious beliefs. He was addressing contemporary exponents of Enlightenment rationalism, in particular his fellow left Hegelians Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. The latter maintained that belief in Christianity, since it is based on the illusion of a benevolent and omnipotent supernatural being, could be dispelled by rational argumentation. Marx understood that religious beliefs—especially divine intervention in one’s earthly life and heavenly bliss in an afterlife—served as a solace for the exploited and oppressed masses. They are responding to the privation and injustice they suffer in class-based society while feeling powerless to change their objective condition.
Religion, therefore, will not disappear unless and until these conditions are overcome in a future communist society—an egalitarian and harmonious society in which economic scarcity has been eliminated through the further progressive development of scientific knowledge and its technological application in a world planned economy. As Marx explained in Capital, Volume I:
“The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature.
“The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. This, however, demands for society a certain material ground-work or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development.”
For early man, religion was a response to a feeling of helplessness in the face of the often destructive forces of nature. Scientific studies of pre-class, pre-literate societies have shown a causal connection between religious beliefs and practices and the struggle to wrest a livelihood from the natural environment. One of the founding fathers of modern anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, observed that appeals to supernatural forces take place at the point where existing techniques cease to be reliably effective:
“In a maritime community depending on the products of the sea there is never magic connected with the collecting of shellfish or with fishing by poison, weirs, and fish traps, so long as these are completely reliable. On the other hand, any dangerous, hazardous, and uncertain type of fishing is surrounded by ritual. In hunting, the simple and reliable ways of trapping and killing are controlled by knowledge and skill alone; but let there be any danger or uncertainty connected with an important supply of game and magic immediately appears.”
— “Culture,” Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1931)
With the emergence of class-based society, religion underwent a significant change in character and function. Religious doctrine was manipulated and enforced by the dominant (property-owning) class and its priestly agents to sanctify wealth and power, while offering solace to the exploited classes. Thus, Lenin wrote with respect to the Russian Orthodox state church:
“What a profitable faith it is indeed for the governing classes! In a society so organised that an insignificant minority enjoys wealth and power, while the masses constantly suffer ‘privations’ and bear ‘severe obligations,’ it is quite natural for the exploiters to sympathise with a religion that teaches people to bear ‘uncomplainingly’ the hell on earth for the sake of an alleged celestial paradise.”
— “Political Agitation and ‘the Class Point of View’” (February 1902)
On the History of Atheism
Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, all currents of thought in Europe, however antagonistic, were confined within the bounds of Christian doctrine (leaving aside the small Jewish communities and Muslim Spain). Those considered disdainful toward religious authority were condemned for “impiety,” a term that implied lack of reverence, not outright denial of a supreme being. It was in the 16th century that the term and concept of atheism (derived from ancient Greek philosophy) became a factor in the European intellectual universe. For example, in 1611 Cyril Tourneur, a playwright in Renaissance England, published a work titled The Atheist’s Tragedy, a subject that would have been inconceivable a century earlier.
The new intellectual challenge to traditional Christian belief coincided with and was conditioned by the birth of modern science. A liberal intellectual historian, Jonathan I. Israel, observed: “It was unquestionably the rise of powerful new philosophical systems, rooted in the scientific advances of the early seventeenth century and especially the mechanistic views of Galileo, which chiefly generated the vast Kulturkampf between traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction” (Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 ).
There has been a decades-long debate among intellectual historians as to the extent of actual atheism in the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Underlying this debate are a number of factors. To openly profess atheism was to invite torture and execution by the state authorities that enforced Christian orthodoxy. As late as the 1690s in Scotland, a university student, Thomas Aikenhead, was hanged for the capital crime of “blasphemy.” Evidence of this “crime” was verbal discussions he reportedly had with fellow students. In some cases, the personal writings of those accused of atheism were burned at the stake along with their authors. Few clandestine or posthumous manuscripts explicitly arguing against the existence of god in any sense have been found.
The accusation of atheism was promiscuously applied to anyone who questioned or challenged the locally dominant Christian orthodoxy. In fact, Catholics and Calvinists engaged in mutual recriminations that the rival doctrine logically led to atheistic conclusions. In many (possibly most) cases, the ideas of those accused of atheism who did reject Christianity corresponded more closely to deism, pantheism, agnosticism or an eclectic amalgam thereof.
An additional complicating factor was that the term atheism was used in two different senses. “Practical” atheists, who were assumed to be very numerous, were those who lived as if there were no god. They therefore supposedly engaged in all manner of vice and crime to satisfy their worldly desires without fear of eternal damnation. “Speculative” atheists, who were assumed to be very rare, were those who denied the existence of a supreme being on intellectual grounds. When heterodox thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza emphatically repudiated the charge of atheism, they were in part denying that they were morally depraved egoists indifferent to the needs of their fellow man.
Whether a particular heterodox thinker was a self-considered and consistent atheist is not a historically important question. What is significant is that the concept of atheism became an important and integral part of intellectual discourse in early modern Europe and in Britain’s American colonies. Moreover, almost all thinkers who rejected Christianity maintained that the betterment of mankind depended on the extension of scientific knowledge, not divine revelation.
The interrelationship between philosophical materialism and the new world of scientific discovery and experimentation was exemplified by Spinoza who, whatever the ambiguities of his actual thought, was viewed as the intellectual fountainhead of atheism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. After he was expelled from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in the 1650s as a heretic, Spinoza earned his living by making high-quality lenses for microscopes and telescopes. In that capacity, he entered into a working relation with Christian Huygens, one of the greatest physicists of the era.
Spinoza maintained that there was no supernatural being or power separate from and transcending the material world. The material world was eternal (it had no beginning) and was governed by immutable laws. There was no spiritual component in human beings and therefore no immortal soul. Some scholars, such as Jonathan Israel, have argued that Spinoza was in effect an atheist. However, most intellectual historians and philosophers categorize him as a pantheist, that is, one who identifies god with nature. Why so? Spinoza believed that the natural world was imbued with a benevolent harmony that, if understood, would lead to harmonious relations among men. He was an early and outstanding representative of Enlightenment rationalism: the view that the well-being of humanity should be based on knowledge of and conformity with the laws of nature.
Significantly, the first published work (in 1770) openly expounding atheistic materialism was titled System of Nature, or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World by its author Baron d’Holbach (Paul Henri Thiry) and his collaborator Jacques-André Naigeon. These French philosophes believed that underlying all phenomena, including human thought and action, was matter in motion. They maintained that this matter in motion was governed by immutable laws that were in principle knowable through scientific investigation and experimentation. A present-day scholar, Alan Charles Kors, commented on the social implications of Holbach and Naigeon’s atheistic materialism:
“They believed that whatever the purposes to which theism and immaterialism had been put historically, these views ultimately arose from the natural desires of mankind to allay and deflect the helplessness that was felt in the presence of the awesome powers of the whole—nature—relative to the part—man. The tragedy of mankind, for them, lay not in those desires, but in the dysfunctional mode of their expression.”
— Michael Hunter and David Wootton, eds., Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (1992)
Atheism and Bourgeois Society
For a century after Holbach and Naigeon’s seminal work, atheism remained the province of a small minority of the intellectual elite. Those bourgeois intellectuals who propagated atheism, such as Feuerbach in mid 19th-century Germany and Charles Bradlaugh in Victorian England, gained political notoriety precisely because of how exceptional their beliefs were.
Atheistic materialism could and did acquire a mass following among exploited workers only when industrial capitalism had developed to a point that overcoming economic scarcity became a realistic historic prospect. Although particularly in Britain religion would continue to play a significant role in the labor movement, in Europe the de-Christianization of the proletariat was an integral aspect of the development of progressive working-class consciousness and organization, at the trade-union and the political level. Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, mass parties were formed expressing the aspiration of the most advanced elements of the working class for a socialist reconstruction of social and economic life based on material plenty for all.
In Germany, the Austro-Hungarian state and tsarist Russia, Marxism was the official doctrine of the workers movement. Not only leftist students but also politically advanced and thoughtful young workers acquired a materialist worldview by studying such works as Friedrich Engels’ Anti-Dühring and Georgi Plekhanov’s The Development of the Monist View of History. Even in countries such as France, where Marxism was not the official doctrine of the workers movement, its principal leaders (e.g., Jean Jaurès in the pre-1914 Socialist Party) were usually rational humanists who were hostile to the established churches. Conversely, right-wing bourgeois parties (e.g., the English Tories) appealed to the authority of traditional and often state-sponsored religion—and continue to do so.
The persistence and extent of religious belief and anti-materialist ideology ultimately reflect the condition of the class struggle, in particular the political consciousness of the working class. The late J.D. Bernal, a Marxist and prominent British biologist, commented in Science and History (1954):
“The very persistence of the struggle, despite the successive victories won by materialist science, shows that it is not essentially a philosophic or a scientific one, but a reflection of political struggles in scientific terms. At every stage idealist philosophy has been invoked to pretend that present discontents are illusory and to justify an existing state of affairs. At every stage materialist philosophy has relied on the practical test of reality and on the necessity of change.”
As a British intellectual, Dawkins recognizes that religiosity is much more important in American society and Christian fundamentalists are more politically influential than is the case in Europe. However, his attempts at explanation are in the main fatuous, claiming, for example, that rival denominations employ the “aggressive hard-sell techniques of the marketplace.” One of the “hypotheses” he provides in The God Delusion points in the right direction, but not for the reason he gives: “America is a nation of immigrants,” who, “uprooted from the stability and comfort of the extended family in Europe, could well have embraced a church as a kind of kin-substitute on alien soil.”
America’s capitalist rulers have long thrived by sowing ethnic, religious and racial animosities—“Anglo-Saxon” against Irish, Protestant against Catholic immigrant, and, above all, white against black—in order to divide workers, weaken their struggles and retard the understanding of their common class interest. This is a major reason why the U.S., uniquely among advanced capitalist countries, has never seen the development of a workers party, even of a reformist sort, such as the British Labour Party. The lack of independent class political organization has in turn served to reinforce religion’s hold among those exploited and oppressed by the capitalist system. Religious belief and affiliation are especially strong not only among immigrants but also in the black population, for whom the churches have been the only organizations with a continuous existence dating back to the days of slavery.
Correction: In our articles “Hail Charles Darwin!” (WV No. 854, 16 September 2005) and “A Marxist Critique of the ‘New Atheists’” Part One (WV No. 1007, 31 August) we incorrectly cited J.D. Bernal’s 1954 four-volume work as Science and History. The correct title is Science in History. (From No. 1009, 28 September 2012.)
With the decline of religiosity and the authority of the Christian churches in the working class in late 19th-century Europe, a current of bourgeois intellectuals sought to justify the capitalist system on supposedly scientific (materialist) grounds. An influential expression of this current in Britain as well as the United States was “social Darwinism” as expounded by T.H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer. They held up the “survival of the fittest” as the primary engine not only of evolutionary “progress” but also of human society. The bankruptcy of small, family-owned businesses and farms was likened to the extinction of species of birds or mammals that had failed to adapt to a changing natural environment. For Huxley and Spencer, a worker who became a foreman was analogous to a strong male tiger besting a weaker rival in fighting to mate with a tigress.
In the present-day English-speaking world, a somewhat similar intellectual niche is occupied by sociobiology. It is, as they say, no accident that leading “new atheists”—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris—are strong proponents of this doctrine and its offspring, evolutionary psychology. Adherents of sociobiology have made outrageous claims regarding supposedly innate racial and sexual differences. Steven Pinker, a member of the advisory board of Harris’ Project Reason Foundation, praised the “clear historical discussion” of IQ in Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein’s grotesque, pseudoscientific tract asserting black inferiority, The Bell Curve (1994). (For a debunking of this racist tract, see “The ‘Bell Curve’ and Genocide U.S.A.,” WV No. 611, 25 November 1994; reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 12, February 1995.) Similarly, when Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, infamously declared in January 2005 that women have less innate aptitude for the hard sciences, Pinker declared that there was “enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously.”
While Dawkins, Dennett and Harris steer clear of Pinker’s more outrageous claims, they all indulge in some variant of biological determinism, the view that genes dictate behavior. In The Selfish Gene (1976), the book that first brought him to prominence, Dawkins wrote that a society based simply on a genetic “law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true.” Such statements earned Dawkins sharp criticism in Not In Our Genes, a work of prominent scientists attacking the racist, pseudoscientific field of sociobiology, particularly its defense of bogus studies upholding the inheritability of IQ.
Even as he distanced himself from the racist arguments about IQ, Dawkins’ foam-flecked review of Not In Our Genes accused its authors of presenting a “bizarre conspiracy theory of science” simply for having argued that scientific research (like everything in class society) may be influenced and at times distorted by ideological biases. In The Mismeasure of Man (1981) and other works, the late, renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould exposed in great depth how “scientific” racism based on consciously or unconsciously twisted data is used to justify the lording of one class, sex or race over another (see “Science and the Battle Against Racism and Obscurantism,” WV No. 797, 14 February 2003). Gould was also among those evolutionary biologists who refuted the fallacy that Darwinian evolution by natural selection can be applied to human social development.
Where Dawkins and Dennett really indulge their pseudo-materialist itch is in discussing the basis of religious belief. Asking in his book Breaking the Spell why religion “means so much to so many people, and why—and how—does it command allegiance and shape so many lives so strongly,” Dennett answers with a confused and confusing hodgepodge, jumping back and forth between the animism of primitive hunter-gatherer bands and the Christian churches in present-day America. He relates later religious doctrine to universal psychological behavior that supposedly originates with our early hominoid precursors, such as the need for young children to accept the authority of their parents. One could just as well argue that a child’s awareness of the relation between cause and effect (e.g., kicking a ball with the front of one’s foot makes it move forward) predisposes him to scientific rationality in later life.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that religious behavior can be called “a human universal” demanding “a Darwinian explanation.” His “explanation” is the absurd notion of a religion “meme,” an obscurantist term defined as a unit of cultural inheritance. This concoction is presented as an analogue of the gene, supposedly replicating, mutating and responding to selective pressure. Dawkins asserts that “memetic natural selection” offers “a plausible account of the detailed evolution of particular religions” without indicating why one religious “meme” might be selected over another, or even the rules whereby such “memes” are transmitted. Here Dawkins has crossed over into the realm of vulgar pseudoscience. Unlike memes, genes actually exist—they can be sequenced, spliced, transplanted and traced. Memes are pure idealist sophistry.
Sociobiology purports to provide a materialist explanation for the inequalities, injustices, ideological currents and brutalities of modern society while rejecting the historical (dialectical) materialist understanding that these are fundamentally rooted in class divisions and class struggle. V.I. Lenin observed in “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” (March 1913) that “man’s social knowledge (i.e., his various views and doctrines—philosophical, religious, political and so forth) reflects the economic system of society” (emphasis in original). Protestantism, for example, arose as an adaptation of Catholicism in 16th- and 17th-century Europe along with the growing economic weight of the capitalist merchant class. This fact, which is accepted by far more than just Marxists, has no value in Dawkins’ realm of “memetic” fantasy.
Nationalism Trumps Religion in the Modern World
By focusing on the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, the “new atheists” disregard and therefore implicitly deny that national chauvinism is the main source of popular ideological support for wars, oppression and social injustice. Racism, too, is given short shrift. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues:
“Religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews v. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians v. Catholic Croats; Orthodox Serbians v. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims v. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims v. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims v. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists v. Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis v. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.” (emphasis in original)
In fact, in the modern world religion is a subordinate aspect of nationalism, the predominant bourgeois ideology. A basic common bond linking all bourgeois politicians—from social democrats to fascists—and all bourgeois intellectuals—from secular humanists to religious fundamentalists—is elevating the interests of their nation-state above all other interests.
Since the 18th century, almost all major wars (excluding some civil wars) have been fought on the basis of national, not religious, divisions. Indeed, coreligionists have often been pitted against one another. In both the First and Second World Wars, young American men who were Protestants, Catholics and nonbelievers fought and sought to kill young German men who were Protestants, Catholics and nonbelievers. And vice versa. The primacy of national identity over religious affiliation is also evident in wars in the Islamic world. In the almost decade-long war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, Arab Shi’ite Muslims fought against Persian Shi’ite Muslims.
The “new atheists” ascribe a religious character to what are actually national conflicts. Like Harris, Dawkins contends that religious fanaticism is the main factor underlying the “Israeli/Palestinian wars” and the Northern Ireland “troubles.” The state of Israel was founded in 1948 by Jewish settlers from Europe who were perforce culturally European and in most cases physically distinguishable from the indigenous Arab population of Palestine. The Zionist rulers cohered a new nation in the Near East with its own distinct and unique language, modern Hebrew. A large fraction of the Israeli population does not believe in or practice Judaism as a religion. Such non-believing Israelis are for the most part just as virulently hostile to the dispossessed and oppressed Palestinian Arabs as are their religious-minded fellow nationals.
Superficially, the communalist conflict in Northern Ireland does appear to be based on religious divisions, since the antagonistic parties are conventionally called “Protestants” and “Catholics.” In this case, religious affiliation has been an important factor in defining divergent national identities. Nonetheless, there are atheist and other non-believing “Protestants” and “Catholics” in Northern Ireland. What then is the source of the conflict?
In the 17th century, successive English governments promoted settlement in northern Ireland by Protestants (Calvinists), mainly from Scotland, to strengthen their colonial rule over the native Irish inhabitants. The latter retained adherence to the Roman Catholic church. In that era, the language of the Irish people was still Gaelic, not English, a national (not religious) factor differentiating them from the Scottish-derived community in the northern part of the island. In the 18th century, many members of that community emigrated to Britain’s North American colonies, where they were conventionally called “Scots-Irish,” indicating their primary as well as secondary country of origin.
The British bourgeoisie’s rule over its Irish colony was based on its profit-accumulating, imperialistic interests, as the Spartacist League/Britain noted in writing about Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Republic of Ireland last year (“Down With the Monarchy and the ‘United Kingdom’!” Workers Hammer No. 215, Summer 2011). The article stressed “intransigent opposition to all forms of nationalism—first and foremost the dominant English chauvinism” and concluded: “Our programme is for workers revolutions to overthrow all the capitalist regimes in Britain and in Ireland, North and South. The myriad forms of national oppression will be resolved when workers revolution has swept away capitalist rule on both sides of the Irish border and both sides of the Irish Sea.”
Oppenheimer, Heisenberg and the Bomb
Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger all cite with approval an aphorism by prominent American physicist Steven Weinberg: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” As Marxists, we do not share in this moralistic framework. But even on its own terms the statement is wrong, implying that “good people” have never committed atrocities when motivated by nationalism but only when motivated by religious fanaticism.
An instructive counterexample was provided by two world-class physicists during the Second World War: J. Robert Oppenheimer in the U.S. and Werner Heisenberg in Germany. Oppenheimer, a left-leaning intellectual whose relatives, friends and colleagues included supporters and sympathizers of the Communist Party, was the chief scientific administrator for the development of the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project). In leading the work, he was motivated by conventional national loyalty. Also, like many other scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, he was driven by hatred of fascism (falsely conflated with support to the Allied imperialists) and fear that Nazi Germany would first develop and use nuclear weapons to win the war.
Germany surrendered two months before the A-bomb was first successfully tested at Los Alamos, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945. The decision was then made to drop the two bombs the U.S. had available on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one thought that Japan had the capability of building such a bomb, and a few top U.S. government officials and military men (e.g., General Dwight Eisenhower) expressed reservations about using atomic bombs against the Japanese civilian population. But Oppenheimer did not. He justified the mass murder of defenseless men, women and children in the name of liberal idealism. The very destructiveness of these weapons, he contended, would lead to a new, benign world order of peace and international cooperation. In a speech given when he resigned as head of the Manhattan Project in October 1945, Oppenheimer pontificated:
“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.
“The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish. This war, that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand.... By our works we are committed, committed to a world united, before the common peril, in law and in humanity.”
— quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)
This is the language of bourgeois secular humanism in the imperialist epoch. It should be noted that the U.S. dropped the bombs as a message of U.S. military superiority, intended not for Japan and its imperialist rulers, who by that time were all but defeated militarily, but for the Soviet Union, a degenerated workers state.
Werner Heisenberg was one of a small number of top-level German physicists who loyally served the Nazi regime through the war. He was not an adherent of fascist ideology and did not join the Nazi party. He was not an anti-Semite and had closely collaborated with Jewish physicists before Hitler came to power in 1933. During the Nazi regime, he defended the scientific validity of the theoretical work of Albert Einstein and other Jewish physicists against the demented advocates of “German physics.” Heisenberg served under the Third Reich out of conventional German patriotism. In her memoirs, his widow offered the following explanation of her husband’s mindset: “Heisenberg loved the country of his childhood and youth; he did not believe that the picture that was now looming so appallingly was the true countenance of Germany. Within himself he carried the picture of another Germany for which he thought he had to persevere” (Elisabeth Heisenberg, Inner Exile: Recollections of a Life with Werner Heisenberg ).
In 1942, at a high-level conference on armaments attended by Albert Speer and other directors of the German war economy, Heisenberg explained the technical possibility of constructing an atomic bomb (“as large as a pineapple”) that could destroy a city. When Speer questioned him about the feasibility of producing such weapons, Heisenberg expressed uncertainty that it could be done in time to affect the outcome of the war. Speer decided not to pursue such a project. After the war, Heisenberg wrote that German physicists “were spared the decision as to whether or not they should aim at producing atomic bombs.” But he did not indicate that he and the others would have refused to do so out of moral scruples.
The bourgeois-rationalist “new atheists” do not acknowledge the pernicious role of national chauvinism in the world today because they are themselves loyal to protecting the power and position of their “own” capitalist nation-states. While religion has served as an ideological pillar for ruling classes since the advent of class society, bourgeois society cannot exist without basing itself on nation-states. Each of these states serves a nationally delineated capitalist class, which requires state power—i.e., armed bodies of men—to protect its rule and property against challenges from both the working class and capitalist rivals in other countries. Each bourgeoisie portrays itself as representing the entire people, holding that the workers and oppressed social groups share a common interest in preserving and bolstering the national economy and armed forces.
The aims of socialism are counterposed to all variants of nationalism. As Lenin stated:
“Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just,’ ‘purest,’ most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity....
“The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations.”
— Critical Remarks on the National Question (October-December 1913)
Patriotic jingoism in the imperialist (advanced capitalist) states expresses the predatory appetites of the ruling bourgeoisies. Nationalism in the impoverished and oppressed semicolonial countries expresses both the aspirations of the weaker, dependent bourgeoisies to exploit their own working people and their manipulation of the masses’ legitimate hatred of imperialist subjugation. Marxists support the just struggles of oppressed countries against imperialist domination. But in doing so we oppose nationalist ideology, calling instead for the internationalist class unity of the workers in oppressed and oppressor countries against the ruling classes of both.
The “new atheists” vehemently oppose the position of some left-liberal intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky, that there was a causal connection between Al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on the U.S. in 2001 and Washington’s policies in the Arab/Islamic world. In “What’s New About The New Atheism?”, Victor Stenger asserts: “Some commentators have tried to explain this tragic event in terms of social causes, such as the perceived American oppression of Muslim nations.” The term “perceived” implies that U.S. imperialism is guiltless in the oppression of the peoples of the Arab/Islamic world. More generally, none of the main “new atheist” works make reference to, much less condemn, the atrocities committed by the American state, e.g., the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, the razing of Korean cities and villages in the 1950s, the carpet bombing of Vietnam in the 1960s and early ’70s, the lethal economic warfare against Iraq in the 1990s.
A major theme of both Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great is the antagonistic relationship between Islamic fundamentalism and the West. Yet in neither book is there a discussion of European colonial rule over Islamic societies between the 17th and mid 20th centuries. Nor do they take up U.S. dominance and policies in the Near East during the Cold War era between the late 1940s and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. Harris and Hitchens go from excoriating the Koran, written (supposedly) by Muhammad in the 7th century, to fulminating against present-day anti-Western jihadism as if the intervening 14 centuries have no relevance whatsoever. Basically, the “new atheists” view Osama bin Laden and his cothinkers just as the fundamentalists present themselves, that is, as faithful followers of Muhammad carrying out the authentic message of the Koran in today’s world.
Almost all countries where Islam is the dominant religion, from North Africa to Southeast Asia, were subjected to colonial rule by West European states. In some cases (such as what are now Indonesia and Bangladesh), colonial rule lasted for centuries; in other cases (Iraq, Syria), for a few decades. In all cases, the European imperialists utilized Islamic clerics and the native ruling elite to reinforce their domination and exploitation of the mass of toilers. At the same time, they exploited and aggravated all manner of ethnic (tribal), national and religious divisions, for example between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in British India. The state of Pakistan was deliberately created as an Islamic political entity in 1947 when the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent, over which they were no longer able to maintain colonial rule. The Partition resulted in horrific intercommunal slaughter, with an estimated one million dead.
The official ideology of French imperialism demonstrates that a lack of religious motivation is entirely compatible with imperialist subjugation and murderous repression on a mass scale. Because England had a state church, British colonialism had an official Christian sanction. By contrast, French colonial rule was carried out in the name of a secular, democratic republic claiming adherence to the liberal principles of the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.”
Many of the military officers and civilian administrators who governed France’s colonies in Africa, the Levant and Southeast Asia were nonbelievers, and some were strongly anticlerical. The French ruling class, represented by both Catholics and anticlerical secularists, tortured and killed millions of Arabs, black Africans and Vietnamese in seeking to maintain its wealth and power. The fact that the French colonial army was that of a secular republic did not make it in the least a force for progress and enlightenment.
Contrary to both the “new atheists” and Chomsky as well as some leftist groups like the British Socialist Workers Party, there is no basic conflict between Western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism. Notwithstanding both its recent bloody wars and occupations against the Muslim peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. imperialists, as well as their British junior partners, will support fundamentalist regimes and movements when they perceive it in their interest to do so. And, notwithstanding repeated outbursts of angry protest against Western governments (most recently over an Islamophobic film made in the U.S.), the Islamists are, in turn, just as opportunist in their relations with the Western imperialist powers.
For decades, Washington has supported and protected the Saudi monarchy, the mainstay of fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab world. Bin Laden’s outfit—the forerunner of Al Qaeda—was originally funded and armed by the CIA to combat Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Last year the U.S. and its West European allies conducted an air war against the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi in support of tribally based insurgents, including a substantial jihadist component. In Egypt, political power following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak has for the most part been exercised by the military, which has long been heavily financed by the U.S. The military has at times collaborated with the Muslim Brotherhood—the main Islamist organization, which now holds the presidency—against Westernizing liberals. The generals would not have pursued such a policy without at least the tacit approval of the White House. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban to effect a “political settlement” that would allow a drawdown of military forces in a war that increasing sections of the U.S. ruling class recognize is unwinnable.
At a more fundamental level, the domination of capitalist imperialism has arrested the socio-economic and cultural development of North Africa, the Near East and South Asia. Pervasive poverty and social degradation form the material conditions that perpetuate Islamic traditionalism, including the barbaric treatment of women, among the downtrodden masses. The American state is the main external political and military enforcer of a social system from which the jihadist groups derive and on which they depend for their very existence.
Imperialism, Fundamentalism and Anti-Communism
By the late 1940s, the United States had become the dominant imperialist power in the Near East. But that dominance was challenged by the Soviet Union, supported by Communist parties that in some countries (e.g., Iraq and Iran) had attained a mass base of support, centrally in the working class. Despite their Stalinist leaderships and opportunist (class-collaborationist) policies, these parties embraced hundreds of thousands of politically advanced workers as well as leftist intellectuals who aspired to an egalitarian socialist society in which women would be liberated from the hideously oppressive conditions sanctioned by Islamic traditionalism. Almost all of the indigenous forces representing atheistic materialism and rational humanism were concentrated in and around the Communist movement.
In its Cold War against the Soviet Union and international Communism, U.S. imperialism utilized the forces of religious reaction in the Near East and elsewhere in the semicolonial world. This strategy was spelled out in 1950 by John Foster Dulles, soon to become Secretary of State: “The religions of the East are deeply rooted and have many precious values. Their spiritual beliefs cannot be reconciled with Communist atheism and materialism. That creates a common bond between us, and our task is to find it and develop it” (quoted in Paul Baran, The Political Economy of Growth ). The policy outlined by Dulles would be put into effect with important historical consequences to this day.
In Iran in 1953, the CIA organized a coup that overthrew the bourgeois-nationalist regime of Mohammad Mossadeq and replaced it with the autocracy of the Shah. The imperialists’ main target was not Mossadeq but the Communist Tudeh (Masses) party, which they saw as posing an imminent threat of “red revolution.” A major social force actively involved in the CIA-orchestrated coup was the Shi’ite Muslim hierarchy led by Ayatollah Kashani, a predecessor of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In Indonesia in 1965, Washington encouraged a military coup in which the Communist Party—then the largest in the world not holding state power—was physically exterminated. Over a million workers, peasants, leftists and ethnic Chinese were killed, many of them by mobs led by Islamic clerics.
The purging of Communism in the Near East in the early Cold War period was not just the work of U.S. imperialism and indigenous reactionary forces backed by Washington. Just as important, if not more so, were Arab bourgeois-nationalist regimes that were supported by the Stalinist misleaders in the name of “anti-imperialism.” In the late 1950s, the Egyptian regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser—then viewed as the personification of Arab nationalism—crushed the Communist Party, imprisoning, torturing and killing its leaders. In the same period, the once powerful Iraqi Communist Party was broken by the murderous repression of successive bourgeois-nationalist regimes, the predecessors of Saddam Hussein (see “Near East, 1950s: Permanent Revolution vs. Bourgeois Nationalism,” WV Nos. 740 and 741, 25 August and 8 September 2000). The betrayals and ultimate destruction of the once-powerful Communist movement was an important historical factor underlying the present conditions in the Near East: the pervasiveness of Islamic traditionalism in society and the political strength of Islamist parties and movements.
In The New Atheism, Stenger argues that a large fraction of the population in the world today no longer believes in religion. He points in particular to China: “I have seen estimates that there are as many as a billion nonbelieving Chinese alone.” Stenger may well overstate the extent of irreligiosity among the Chinese populace. Given the closed political conditions in China, it’s not possible to gauge the extent to which traditional beliefs and practices, such as ancestor worship, remain current, especially among the peasantry. Additionally, in recent years there has been a proliferation of “underground” Christian churches, which act as a conduit to and from anti-Communist movements in the U.S. and elsewhere. Nonetheless, it is incontestable that not only organized religion but personal religious attitudes and practices are much less important in China than in the Near East or South Asia.
Stenger makes no effort at a historical-materialist explanation of this difference and, indeed, is incapable of doing so. The difference lies in the fact that in 1949 China experienced a social revolution that liberated the country from capitalist-imperialist domination. That revolution and the workers state it created were bureaucratically deformed from the beginning by the Stalinist leadership of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party. Nonetheless, over the past six decades China has undergone a level of progressive socio-economic development and cultural advancement that has eroded the material grounds for religious belief among the populace. This is despite reactionary values fostered by the Stalinist regime, from its inculcation of Chinese nationalism to its sanctioning of “official” Protestant and Catholic churches—a policy that the early Soviet workers state would have considered an abomination (see “The Bolshevik Revolution vs. the State Church” on page 2).
Why after having received U.S. aid in the war against “godless Communism” did a significant current of fundamentalists, self-described as jihadists, turn violently against the West and especially the United States in the post-Soviet period? With the demise of the Soviet Union, fear of Communism among Islamic traditionalists was replaced by fear of “Westernization.” Islamists took the “democratic” ideological posturing of U.S. imperialism—now the self-proclaimed “world’s only superpower”—at face value. In the early 1990s, the Egyptian Islamist Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would become a central leader of Al Qaeda, denounced “democracy” (Western-type parliamentary government) as a sacrilege:
“In Islam, legislation comes from God; in a democracy, this capacity is given to the people. Therefore, this is a new religion, based on making the people into gods and giving them God’s rights and attributes. This is tantamount to associating idols with God and falling into unbelief....
“In democracy, the people legislate through the majority of deputies in parliament.
“These deputies are men and women, Christians, communists and secularists.”
— Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli, eds., Al Qaeda in Its Own Words (2008)
The jihadists’ belief that the U.S. rulers aim to transform the Near East and other traditionally Islamic countries along the socio-cultural and political lines of present-day North America and West Europe is a delusion. There is, to be sure, a broad and influential section of bourgeois intellectuals, ranging from pro-Democratic Party liberals to right-wing Republicans, who think the U.S. government should do just that. Liberals like New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof have agitated for the U.S. government to actively promote “democracy” and “human rights” throughout the world, especially in the Near East. Feminists in academia and the media have also weighed in, pointing to the barbaric treatment of women, especially in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban. On the right, so-called neo-cons like William Kristol and Robert Kagan contended that Islamic fundamentalism had become a serious threat to America’s global interests.
The anti-Western jihadism of Osama bin Laden is the converse of the U.S. “human rights” imperialism expounded by the likes of Friedman, who supported the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 in the name of creating a “secular democratic society” in the Arab/Islamic world. Contrary to both the bin Ladens and Friedmans, the aim of the imperialists is not to create secular democracies in the Near East or elsewhere in the Third World. The shell of “democracy” by which the capitalists disguise their class dictatorship over the workers they exploit is reserved for the wealthier capitalist states. In plundering the neocolonial countries, imperialism perpetuates the backward social, economic and cultural conditions that sustain religion. At the same time, the penetration of these countries by imperialist capital creates elements of a modern infrastructure and a proletariat—the potential gravedigger of bourgeois rule.
In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels devoted a brief section to “feudal socialism,” a current of Christian intellectuals tied to the old aristocracies. These Christians denounced modern bourgeois society—its materialistic values and glorification of individual competitiveness—from a reactionary ideological outlook expressed in an idealized version of medieval European society. By analogy, one can describe Al Qaeda and the other jihadist groups as “feudal anti-imperialists,” opposing Western domination of the Arab/Islamic world in the name of an idealized version of medieval Islamic society and polity.
Resurrecting “Feudal Socialism”
“Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge.”
A present-day version of “feudal socialism” has been propagated by Terry Eagleton, who, moreover, claims to be a Marxist. A professor of English literature in Britain, Eagleton published a polemical book against the “new atheists,” Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), in which he derisively refers to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as “Ditchkins.” This work is a defense of religion, in particular a leftist current in the Roman Catholic church (mainly in Latin America) called “liberation theology.”
Eagleton condemns modern capitalist society as a spiritual wasteland given over to hedonistic individualism and the satisfaction of creature comforts on the cheap:
“The advanced capitalist system is inherently atheistic. It is godless in its actual material practices, and in the values and beliefs implicit in them, whatever some of its apologists might piously aver.... A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics, and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the kind of depth where theological questions can even be properly raised.”
This book came out at the very moment that the capitalist world plunged into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Britain, working people and the poor have been subjected to savage government-imposed austerity carried out in the interests of the financial moguls of the City of London. One would like to see Eagleton go into a working-class pub in London or the Midlands and spout off about the evils of “packaged fulfillment” and “consumer economics.” Barring divine intervention on his behalf, he would encounter a pretty ugly response.
While having a special fondness for Catholic “liberation theology,” Eagleton also has a good word for the moral rectitude and old-fashioned values of Christian fundamentalists: “In the teeth of what it decries as a hedonistic, relativistic culture, Christian fundamentalism seeks to reinstate order, chastity, thrift, hard work, self-discipline, and responsibility, all values that a godless consumerism threatens to rout.” Identifying “true” Christianity with sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, Eagleton willfully disregards “the wealthy are god’s chosen people” ethos of today’s Christian fundamentalism in the one country where its adherents wield real political influence: the United States. American evangelical Protestants have added two commandments to the ten handed down to Moses by Jehovah on Mount Sinai: “Thou shalt not tax the rich” and “Thou shalt not feed and give succor to the poor.”
For Eagleton, the socialist movement, like Christianity, is animated by altruism (love of one’s fellow man), not the material interests of the working class:
“For the liberal humanist legacy to which Ditchkins is indebted, love can really be understood only in personal terms. It is not an item in his political lexicon, and would sound merely embarrassing were it to turn up there.... The concept of political love, one imagines, would make little sense to Ditchkins. Yet something like this is the ethical basis for socialism.”
Yes, organizations claiming to be socialist have attracted idealistic intellectuals, some from very privileged social backgrounds, motivated by sympathy for the exploited and oppressed masses. However, the socialist movement has always been based on politically advanced workers, whose purpose is to qualitatively raise the material conditions (living standards) of their class and all those on the bottom, fighting for an egalitarian society. For Marxists, the ultimate goal is a society based on material superabundance, a necessary condition to fully realize the creative capacities of all its members. Consequently, underlying communism is a level of labor productivity far greater than in today’s advanced capitalist economies.
As Marx explained in Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (1857-58), the development of a collectivized economy would see the “free development of individualities” and hence “in general the reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, to which then corresponds the artistic, scientific, etc., development of individuals, made possible by the time thus set free and the means produced for all of them.”
In Defense of Marxism
The “new atheists” are hostile to Marxism. At the same time, they feel compelled to answer their theistic antagonists who raise the mass murder carried out by the regime of J.V. Stalin in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. That regime claimed atheistic materialism as an important component of its formal ideology. Dawkins and his cothinkers contend that the crimes of Stalin were not motivated by atheism as such but rather by a religious-like belief in Marxist doctrine. Dawkins links Stalin and Hitler, a lying amalgam often made by bourgeois ideologues (see “Black Book: Anti-Communist Big Lie,” WV No. 692, 5 June 1998). He wrote in The God Delusion:
“Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn’t; but even if he was, the bottom line of the Stalin/Hitler debating point is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism. Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things, in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub-Wagnerian ravings.”
In The End of Faith, Harris similarly argues, “Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion. At the heart of its apparatus of repression and terror lurked a rigid ideology, to which generations of men and women were sacrificed.” Like almost all bourgeois intellectuals, the “new atheists” identify Stalinism with Marxism and Stalin’s Russia with the historical embodiment of Marxist doctrine.
V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the other leaders of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution understood that socialism could be achieved only on an international scale. They viewed the October Revolution in Russia as sparking a wave of proletarian socialist revolutions in Central and West Europe, ultimately extending to North America. However, under the conditions of imperialist encirclement and economic backwardness, in the 1920s the Soviet workers state underwent a bureaucratic degeneration, as analyzed by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed (1936). The rule of a parasitic bureaucratic caste was consolidated by Stalin’s murderous regime and expressed ideologically in the anti-Marxist doctrine of building “socialism in one country.”
As Trotsky explained in the 1938 Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International:
“The Soviet Union emerged from the October Revolution as a workers’ state. State ownership of the means of production, a necessary prerequisite to socialist development, opened up the possibility of rapid growth of the productive forces. But the apparatus of the workers’ state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country’s economy. The bureaucratization of a backward and isolated workers’ state and the transformation of the bureaucracy into an all-powerful privileged caste constitute the most convincing refutation—not only theoretically but this time practically—of the theory of socialism in one country.
“The USSR thus embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers’ state. Such is the social diagnosis. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”
In 1991-92, the negative of the two basic historical alternatives projected by Trotsky—capitalist counterrevolution—came to pass.
The “new atheists” not only falsely identify Marxism with Stalinism but also falsify Marxism as such. Daniel Dennett is particularly vulgar and contemptuous in his caricature of Marxism in Breaking the Spell:
“Remember Marxism? It used to be a sour sort of fun to tease Marxists about the contradictions in some of their pet ideas. The revolution of the proletariat was inevitable, good Marxists believed, but if so, why were they so eager to enlist us in their cause? If it was going to happen anyway, it was going to happen with or without our help. But of course the inevitability that Marxists believe in is one that depends on the growth of the movement and all its political action. There were Marxists working very hard to bring about the revolution, and it was comforting to them to believe that their success was guaranteed in the long run.”
As a matter of fact, the beginning of the first section of Marx’s most famous and widely read work, the Communist Manifesto, clearly states that while the class struggle is inevitable, the outcome is not:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
Half a century later, the revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxemburg posed the historical alternatives facing mankind as “socialism or barbarism.” With the development and deployment of nuclear weapons, the profit-driven capitalist-imperialist system threatens to destroy civilization and even exterminate the human race.
It is common for bourgeois-liberal intellectuals, especially those who describe themselves as secular humanists, to argue that Marxism is a form of teleological idealism derived from the philosophy of Hegel. Attributed to Marx is the idea that the historical development of society will necessarily culminate in communism. Marxism is presented and condemned as a kind of secularized religion in which the promise of a future otherworldly heaven is replaced by the promise of a future earthly heaven.
In one of Marx’s first writings, he explicitly argued against a Hegelian-type teleological concept of history. The Holy Family, written in 1844 as Marx’s first collaborative work with Engels, states:
“Hegel’s conception of history presupposes an Abstract or Absolute Spirit which develops in such a way that mankind is a mere mass that bears the Spirit with a varying degree of consciousness or unconsciousness. Within empirical, exoteric history, therefore, Hegel makes a speculative, esoteric history, develop. The history of mankind becomes the history of the Abstract Spirit of mankind, hence a spirit far removed from the real man....
“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth,’ it ‘wages no battles.’ It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” (emphasis in original)
In the political realm, the bourgeois-rationalist “new atheists” offer at best a species of liberal reformism, proferring advice to the rulers of a capitalist order that, at home and abroad, inculcates the reactionary, anti-scientific religious beliefs against which Dawkins et al. rail. Marxists, in contrast, strive to change the political consciousness of the working class in order to effect a revolutionary change in social conditions—i.e., the overthrow of that capitalist order—leading to the erosion and final elimination of all backwardness and superstition. In Marx’s own words: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”