Workers Vanguard No. 1009
28 September 2012
Dialectical Materialism vs. Bourgeois Rationalism
A Marxist Critique of the New Atheists
This part concludes the article. Parts One and Two appeared in WV Nos. 1007 and 1008 (31 August and 14 September 2012).
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.”