Marxist mysticism, pragmatist idolatries, and other reasons to ask whether religions are ever truly free, part 1
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My colleague Annasoltan’s writing a new series on the freedom of religion and conscience in Turkmenistan, and I know that this is a topic of perennial interest to my boss, Schwartz, who always enjoys giving a metaphysical spin to his topics. And it’s true, because in a Stalinist country like Turkmenistan, you’ve got to get down, dirty, and metaphysical in order to really grapple with issues there. Besides, I love “ontological journalism” too. ;-)
Now, Annasoltan quotes a fellow from Forum 18 who says that Turkmenistan isn’t half bad compared to Uzbekistan, much less to avowedly Islamist governments like Saudi Arabia or Iran. I’m not too sure what criterion can be used for such a judgment. Is it because Turkmenistan’s official ideology has a nice veneer of pluralism, sort of like Indonesia’s official religion “Pancasila” but tripping on too much hashish?
In fact, I’m certain that there is no way to determine whether a society is or isn’t truly religiously free, and to prove my point, I’m going to start by showing how when we say “ideology” we should really be saying “religion”, and then how the West, that supposed bastion of liberty, is anything but free.
Actually, my first argument isn’t really mine; it belongs to my boss. He’s working on a paper entitled, “Is Change Possible in a Hegelian System?” and the case study is Marxism. He unleashes some sly philosophizing to explain why Marxists were mistaken in their own beliefs about human progress. At root is dialectical materialism, which was simply an empirical description of Hegel’s vision of history. For those of you scratching your heads, it goes like this:
Thesis + Antithesis → Synthesis + New Antithesis → New Synthesis + Yet Another Antithesis → wash, rinse, repeat
This is famously called the “Dialectic”. The thesis in question was, for Hegel, the general idea of Freedom, but for Marx, it was the freedom of the Working Class. Pretty simple. Well, Schwartz argues that the Dialectic’s got a serious problem with the Antithesis: it’s really just the mirror image of the Thesis waiting to be discovered. So, that means all that’s really happening in the Dialectic isn’t the straight line Hegel, Marx, et al envisioned, but a big circle.
In the eyes of my boss, this huge snake eating its own tail is why the Soviet Union ultimately fell and why the People’s Republic of China gradually became Capitalist. I’ll leave him to explain the details as to why, but suffice it to say for now that, according to Schwartz, some of the Marxists actually knew something was wrong. The solution, of course, was God, but this was anathema to Marxism’s principles on atheism (Schwartz is running a cute survey on his personal blog about whether “divine communism” could have been possible, and if so, what might it have been like).
The solution? Well, Hegel felt that the State was the ultimate embodiment of Freedom, so the Marxists pretty much just followed his line of reasoning and deified the government. The Party became the community of believers, the technocrats its priesthood, the factory the church, the body of legislation the shariah, the Worker’s Republic the afterlife or resurrection, and the Chairman, well, at least was a prophet, if not God Himself, the great planner and final arbiter of judgment. This wasn’t just some state ideology with a cult of personality; it was a religion.
Were all this not enough, Marxism also had a full-blown mystical side, too. Of course, this depends on what I mean by “mysticism”. The classic formulations are either nihilistic (immersion or union with the divine) or theophanic (knowledge of the divine, sort of like prophetic revelation). These tend to come from more orthodox and exoteric mystics.
There’s another formulation. It comes from the unorthodox and esoteric mystics, if you will, the alchemists of the various religious traditions. It’s essentially transhumanist: a deep-seated change in the very character of a person or society that results from or causes an ascension to new states of being. This kind of alchemical viewpoint was very much at work among the Marxists. Observe:
The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training. — Leon Trotsky
Will the new socio-economic system reproduce itself in the structure of the people’s character? If so, how? Will his traits be inherited by his children? Will he be a free, self-regulating personality? Will the elements of freedom incorporated into the structure of the personality make any authoritarian forms of government unnecessary — Wilhem Reich
Who needs a ’1′? The voice of a ’1′ is thinner than a squeak. Who will hear it? Only the wife… A ’1′ is nonsense. A ’1′ is zero. — Vladimir Mayakovsky
And of course, let’s not forget Diego Rivera’s appropriately titled mural, “Man, Controller of the Universe”. You can call it hubris or foolhardy nobility, either way, it’s downright mystical. So, if even as staunchly an atheistic system as Marxism can end up being so spiritual, then what exactly is the difference between ideology and religion?
Well, I think I’ve said enough on this subject to prove my point. Tune into my next post for why Europe isn’t so godless after all and why America’s got a few nasty secrets. }:-)