Jan 5, 2009

Communism Was Not Secularism

Secularism's future will likely consist of a long intellectual and cultural battle until it wins the day at last. One major intellectual battle waiting to be fought is for the real secularists to repair the bad reputation their cause has. We are told how the 20th century was one of secularism that inevitably led to totalitarianism, warfare, gulags, genocide, and pogroms. Much of the bad reputation derives therefrom. Blaming secularism for those horrors is misplacing the blame, though. Anti-secularists fail to see under the surface of allegedly “secular” totalitarianism. Beneath that surface is religion. From this review of "Comrades" by Robert Service:
"But Hitchens makes the excellent point that Stalin was able to, indeed set out to, exploit the massive reservoir of credulity created by centuries of tsarist rule and sullen acquiescence to the Russian Orthodox Church, when he says: "Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it."

British historian Robert Service, in Comrades: a world history of communism, goes further. For Service, communism is a religion, a "secular credo" complete with millenarian overtones (apocalypse followed by paradise), an emphasis on scriptural exegesis (each communist party "was a synod of hair-splitting political discussion") and a theory of historical inevitability that looks suspiciously like a doctrine of predestination. Marx and Engels, Service suggests, enthusiastically encouraged devotion, with the consequence that they were "treated as prophets whose every word had to be treasured".

They were "infallible progenitors of an omniscient world view" and "remained unconsciously influenced by religious ideas about the perfect future society and the salvation of humanity".

To suggest that communism is religious in character is not an original point but it is a hugely important one, for it gives the lie to the view that communism, for all its attendant evils and failures, was essentially a rational experiment that the human race was bound to make - that it grew out of the Enlightenment, as opposed to fascism and Nazism, both of which were deeply irrational."

Hitchens is correct as far as he goes about the Russians' credulity; credulity that is found in any backwards, predominantly religious country. Under the tsars and Orthodox Church, Moscow was asserted to be the "Third Rome" and "Holy Russia's" destiny was nothing less than redeeming mankind. That was the self-image of a country where most people lived under the harsh, impoverished, quasi-communistic system of serfdom until well into the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, Western Europe progressed quickly with its Renaissance, scientific revolution, and Enlightenment, none of which substantially penetrated Russia - Russian intellectuals were against Western thought.

Looking back at the big-picture, it is therefore bizarre that Karl Marx believed Russia would be among the last nations to become communist - there must be fully industrialized capitalism before there is communism, he believed. (Later on Russian communists got Marx to make an official doctrinal exception for their country.)

Communism took its deepest roots where religion was especially strong: countries like Russia (as well as other eastern European countries).

Some communist countries, especially Russia, went headlong toward massive-scale modernizing and industrializing; modernizing and industrializing they did not learn first-hand how to create but rather begged, copied, and stole from those who did learn them first-hand. These were countries that were historically dominated by religious and tribal beliefs of mysticism, millenariaism, self-sacrifice, collectivism, conformity, and authoritarianism. They were impoverished, backwards, and stagnant. They did not grow themselves into an intellectual and cultural period of reason and science, such as western Europe's scientific revolution and Enlightenment, which led to rational, scientific, independent-minds; increasing knowledge of man and the world; progress; and liberty. In comparison, and not so incidentally, those countries that originated and/or were most influenced by the secularism of scientific revolution and Enlightenment (e.g., Great Britian, France, Holland, America) were much less vulnerable to the influence and spread of communism.

The Russian people were living for centuries under religious-induced collectivism, mysticism, ignorance, authoritarianism, and millenarian expectations, and suddenly had their religion taken away and replaced with Marxist-Leninist communism. What was not taken away, however, were those ideas and mindsets that were integral to their religion. Only those ideas' contents and contexts were changed from religious to secular. No more was Holy Russia going to redeem mankind and messianically usher in the millennium of a reign of heaven on earth. Instead, the proletariat was the messianic force that would overthrow the existing order and usher in a workers' paradise. And more: with that substitution these people obtained possession of the products of reason and science without being rational and scientific. They kept their collective, messianic mission of transforming the world, a religious, pre-modern mission they can undertake armed with modern weapons produced by modern industry. That backwards people with a strong tradition of religious superstition would go about executing their "mission" by grabbing absolute power and committing wholesale bloodshed should not be surprising. As 20th century communism's history demonstrated, the Marxist methodology of "dialectical materialist" thinking and its alleged ability to create a "scientific" socialism were as delusional and as destructive as relying on religious mystical revelation or theology as a method for creating a society.

How is secularism to blame for the horrors of communism, and religion is not only off the hook, but touted as the antidote?

That is why secular offshoots of religion should be opposed and distinguished from real secularism. Understanding what is good for human life on this earth and what that requires necessarily means using reason as the means to that end; resorting to mysticism as a method of knowing precludes any characterization of that endeavor as "secular." It becomes religious. Likewise does introducing into secularism's inquiry a concept, or ideas that cannot be derived from rationally understanding the world, like the idea of, say, "messianism." It comes from religion. That idea, however, even if given secular content or context remains a religious idea.

Robert Service's analysis of Marxism is dead-on. Marxist communism was the offspring of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Communism was not essentially secularism. Communism was essentially secularized religion.

Atheism and secularism were part of Marxist communism as a means of applying to society and government what otherwise were religious ideas. Religious ideas divorced from their supernaturalism cannot be made to work in this world any more than if they retained their supernaturalism. That is the lesson to be learned from the bloody "experiment" of communism.

Secularism will make significant headway when it distinguishes itself from and successfully opposes secularized religious ideas. The religious have used their own secularized offshoots, like communism, to justify denouncing secularism as a failure. We should not be tolerating this.

HT to
Daily Atheist for the above review.

1 comment:

  1. In retrospect, it seems that communism as secular apocalyptic Christianity/Judaism is a no brainer. John Gray makes the case compellingly in books like Black Mass. As the idea of "god" being "dead" arose in western European culture, movements like communism and socialism evolved to replace it. On the downside, it doesn't appear that any of us are really "outside" this way of thinking. Even the most tepid of Enlightenment embracing secularists (I include me here) probably believes in the idea of progressive history, if not through evolution than through the idea that we are somehow (humanity) "getting better." It really is a new secularized religious mythology, replacing the old one in the west, the one that believed the world was "winding down," decaying.