At first glance Marxism and Catholicism have little in common: one is thoroughly materialist in outlook, the other a prime defender of idealism.
Whereas Marxism is dedicated to a new social order, the Church has been intimately associated with conservative, even reactionary politics for the last few centuries. And yet there are commonalities: religious figures have engaged in dialogue with Marxists in Latin America, often leading to the establishment of mass socialist parties. Perhaps, Hugo Chavez more than any other personified the gelling of socialism and Christianity. But he is a representative of a trend; his conception was by no means unique.
Observations on the intersection between Christianity and socialism usually take the form of pointing to the socialistic teachings of the Gospels or, perhaps, for the more militantly inclined, the expulsion of the money lenders from the Temple or the aphorism about the rich being denied entry into heaven because they are rich. There really is a deep vein of communistic thought running through the early Christian movement, from the common fund of the apostles to the injunction to new members to give up their property to the group, to the common meals that they had together, even as they began to expand.
These veins continue to be mined by partisans of social justice in the 21st century. While the Church runs the full gamut between communism and social welfare, even at its most conservative, it insists on the duty of the rich to the poor. The liberal view in which the market is god and people have no responsibility to others is deeply alien to its worldview.
So even as the Church gradually made its peace with the Roman aristocracy and toned down the radical communism, it still preached the duty of the rich to not fleece the poor. While a state of communism was, according to the Church Fathers, the original and ideal state of humanity, arising from the fall of man in the Garden of Eden and the resulting social discord, private property was necessary to secure social existence, i.e. if there was not to be a war of all against all.
But the necessity of property was a lamentable state of affairs, and not one without limits. With it came responsibility to the poor, which in Christian language often means something closer to ‘humble’ – the ordinary person, whose source of income is labour – than it does to ‘destitute’. As Aquinas put it, in order to sustain themselves, ordinary people have a right to that which the rich have in abundance.
The modern equivalent is post-war European Social Democracy which, in its original incarnation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, likewise had a dalliance with radicalism, being intellectually driven by Marxism towards a deeply utopian aim.
And just as the early Church found itself dragged into accepting and tempering the status quo, Social Democracy followed a similar trajectory from being an explicitly socialist project to one which with the less ambitious but none the less socially beneficial policy of putting restrictions on capitalism and engaging in a decent level of redistribution of wealth.
But in addition to a common moral conception, the early Church and the mainstream of Marxism evolved similar organisational responses to the problems associated with being a radical opposition implacably opposed to a powerful ruling class. Given the huge differences in the social contexts of the Roman Empire and modern Europe, such a commonality is striking. It’s worth considering what’s going on here as building such an opposition movement is clearly far from easy. In this essay we look to excavate the less acknowledged approaches of the mainstream Marxists of the Social Democratic and Communist eras which overlapped with those of the early Church.
Not only did the early socialist movement retread the path taken by early Christianity, it can, in some regards, be said to have evolved out of it. The Communist Manifesto, for instance bore a curious origin, being a reworking by Marx of a catechism of Engels. It was published by a group of exiled workers in London in 1848 whose group’s name – “The Communist League” – had itself just been altered from the “League of the Just” whose declared mission was the biblical sounding “establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, based on the ideals of love of one’s neighbour, equality and justice”.
Engels, who had a background in pietistic Christianity, was sensitive to the similarities between the nascent socialist movement of his day and the early Church, likening the workers organised in the First International to the little groups of underground Christians existing in the early years of the Roman Empire.
The socialist-labour movement as a whole also found it easier to build mass organisations because the opportunities unleashed by the rapid expansion of capitalist production in the 19th century were occurring in societies in which the masses were already members and participants of mass, ideological organisations: the churches. This is fairly different from our own era in which civic participation in a wide variety of organisations – everything from sporting clubs to political parties – is in long-term decline. In this respect our culture is much more individualised, thereby making it hard to forge a collective project since so many people have much further to jump, culturally speaking.
It is easier to go from singing religious songs at a Sunday morning service to singing socialist songs after a Friday evening meeting than it is to go from an afternoon in front of the telly to anything at all. Or, as in the case of the publishers of the Communist Manifesto, from dreaming of the kingdom of heaven on earth and the brotherhood of man, to calling for the workers of the world to unite in a struggle for a communist world.
The President and the Pope
The Catholic Church, being such a varied and ancient a phenomenon, remains, even after two millennia, the organisational colossus of the Western World. As it has encompassed so many different societies and has existed through so many different eras, the Church has brought into its fold a large diversity of groups, everyone from downtrodden peasants to conscience stricken aristocrats; from the slaves of antiquity to the Latin American presidents.
Through long experience the Church has evolved quite an incorporation strategy, one which far from requires potential converts to jettison the entirety of their prior culture and to practice complete adherence to all the rites, rituals, and ideas that the Church itself has acknowledged as valid. Whereas the stricter varieties of Protestantism tend to eschew as heathen the indigenous practices of newly encountered peoples, Catholicism thinks nothing of making saints out of what were local gods. Not for nothing did Ian Paisley deride Catholicism as baptised paganism.
The co-existence of distinct trends within the one organisation, particularly ones which criticise each other, is something of a mystery. Our brains tend to think that there is a single best way of doing things which should be followed by all. But the different trends reflect different contexts and, often, different material interests. They are not arbitrary constructions of the mind. A large movement must be able to operate in a myriad of contexts if it is to be large at all and that means being able to incorporate them into the fold.
No institution has excelled at this more than the Catholic Church. How have they managed to do it? Apart from the occasional bout of forced conversions, the main strategy was to incorporate the positive doctrine of different groups while rejecting their negative ones. So, one of the central tenets of Catholicism, as every Irish school kid knows, is that Jesus is seen as both God and man. On the face of it, this would appear to be a bit of a contradiction. Surely he must be one or the other?
Well, no, at least according to the Church. Those who say he is one or the other have only partial access to the truth. There is, of course, a theological interpretation of this explanation, namely that it is true: Jesus really is God and really is fully human. A more materialist approach yields the somewhat more grubby alternative: that in early Christianity there were a myriad of different groups, each with their particular take on the divinity of Jesus – some denying it, some accepting it, and some accepting a form of it (Jesus was divine but of a lesser kind to the Father). As these groups were incorporated into the Church, the positive part of their doctrine became part of the Church’s theology.
Thus, groups like the Ebionites saw Jesus as a human messiah, while others, such as followers of Docetism saw him purely as a divine figure who took the appearance of a human. In each case, the groups’ positive doctrine (Jesus was a man; Jesus was a god) were made part of the evolving orthodox position. But their negative thesis, (for the Ebionites, that Jesus was not a god; for the Docetists, that Jesus was not a real man) were denied.
This approach yields certain advantages, in particular organisational ones as it enables a deep and widespread unity. While the purists will never accept anything less than total adherence to all of their ideology, if they happen to have any degree of mass support at all, that support will not be so hardline.
The attraction of a mass organisation that promulgates the substantial principles can be sufficient, if the other material factors are present, to get most of the followers of the sects to transfer their loyalty to the broader formation. The hardliners will often refuse to fold in, but their social base evaporates as the majority do not see any advantage in maintaining a separate organisational existence. In this way, the smaller but purer groups find it hard to gain any sort of critical mass since their base consists of a revolving door membership. Meanwhile the Church continues its inexorable growth.
The Catholic strategy of folding in the positives is not the only way of enabling a mass movement. It’s more common in politics, especially nowadays, to use ambiguity as the tool to build mass support. Obama’s first run for President of the United States embodied this approach, with anti-war, public healthcare, anti-racist campaigners all reading into Obama their own hopes and dreams. Inevitably the dreams dissolve under the harsh glare of reality, as the limitations of what a President can do, even if they are so minded, is severely circumscribed by the structural factors at play. This applies to pretty much all progressive movements, however. Progressive change is hardly a walk in the park after all.
The ambiguity upon which Obama’s campaign was built meant that the coalition put together in support of his candidature evaporated as the reality of what he is actually for became manifest. Instead there is the feeling of being cheated, of being taken for a ride and it is impossible to take the next steps if those sentiments have widespread currency. In this way, most progressive movements in the advanced capitalist states quickly run out of steam. High expectations based on fantastical interpretations of suggestive hints are a thin foundation upon which to build a long-term, radical opposition.
The dynamic was quite different in both Catholicism and Marxism. Both existed for decades, centuries even, as opposition forces, while continuing to accrue strength in numbers and in the calibre of their members. Both insisted on the importance of doctrine while not insisting on high levels of doctrinal knowledge amongst the masses. For all that, ambiguity is kept to a minimum. There is no ambiguity about the doctrine of the Trinity. Mystery, sure, but ambiguity, no. Jesus is both God and man. The Church is not presenting him as man to the Gauls and as God to the Greeks, and then one day finally coming down on one side, thereby alienating the other.
In the early 19th century, when Marx and Engels were still only in short pants, socialism was, hard as it is to imagine now, quite fashionable. It was the future and there were a lot of socialist tendencies fighting to achieve it: Saint-Simon practically inspired a cult with his forward looking industrialism; Robert Owen advocated co-operatives; Flora Tristan was a supporter of workers forming general unions; in England Morrison went so far as to float the idea of a revolutionary general strike, while the Chartists were focussed on winning universal suffrage as the means of doing away with the privileges of the ruling aristocracy and instituting true democracy. Meanwhile Louis Blanc put forth something like Keynesian social employment programmes while hardcore revolutionaries like Blanqui never renounced insurrection.
Each of these tendencies had a profound truth to them. Co-ops can be a direct attack on the capitalists’ ability to accumulate; universal suffrage is absolutely necessary to the free organisation of the working class; the industrial organisation of the workers is indispensable if they are not to be crushed by capital.
But for all their individual positive attributes, the tendencies were separate, fragmented, and presented a divisive face to society.
Marxism, more than any other tendency put an end to that and it did so by its focus on the working class, not only as it was in the 1840s, when it was still relatively small and fairly degraded due to the appalling industrialisation process, but as it was evolving through the course of capitalist development. Here its scientific orientation proved a winning hand, as Marxism’s political strategy was predicated on its assessment of massive capitalist industrialisation sweeping across Europe and the globe, creating an industrial proletariat which the class struggle would form into large organisations.
Being able to see this development in their crystal ball of historical materialism enabled Marx and Engels to place one hell of a bet on the working class at a time when its actual organisational capacity was minimal.
Because of the materialist conception of history and the role of production, workers were seen as the critical social force. It was necessary therefore to stand with the workers in their struggle and to inform it with the knowledge derived from their studies, principally directing the work of the labour movement towards developing a new mode of production itself. This involved working alongside them in all their struggles and assisting in organising them into ever greater institutions: trade unions, co-ops, cultural clubs, and political parties while infusing them with the knowledge derived from Marxism itself.
Further, arising from Marxism’s orientation towards the growing worker movement, something unusual began to occur. While never refusing to engage critically with other strands of socialism, Marxism became an umbrella under which all the tendencies listed above could shelter because they were all part of the proletarian movement. In this way, Marxism avoided becoming another minor sect on the socialist menu, graduating instead to being the intellectual weight behind a universal socialist-labour movement that folded in the maximum number tendencies that it could sustain.
Each had something positive to contribute. Marxism tended to take that positive statement whether for co-ops, unions, parties, social programmes, or revolution and incorporate it as part of the labour movement or, more accurately, the socialist-labour movement.
But it denied that the negative of each of these strands were also true. That is, Marxism argued that while co-ops have a role, partisans of co-ops, such as Proudhon were incorrect in their negative thesis, namely that state power was redundant or unions counter-productive. And while syndicalists were equally correct in insisting on the necessity of unions, those syndicalists who advanced the negative thesis rejecting political parties and the winning of state power were wrong in articulating the negative.
The anarchists by contrast refused to fold in some of the key tendencies, mainly confining themselves to trade unionism and insurrection and, from time to time, terrorism, while anathematising electoralism. This greatly limited their ability to build and sustain a mass movement over the long-term.
Marxism’s ability to accept the positive doctrines enabled the original socialist parties to win support from many different quarters. If you liked co-ops, there was a place for you in the movement. Similarly with unions, with elections, even with insurrection. This made for a broad church, which itself is an attractive proposition.
Although the contemporary context has changed greatly from when socialism emerged, the basic approach remains viable. Take that perennial bugbear of socialists: reform or revolution. Quite often they are posed as alternatives and even where revolutionaries speak positively about reforms they do so while insisting that destruction of the state apparatus remains so obviously necessary that preserving a separate revolutionary organisation is indispensable. In much, if not all, of Trotskyism for instance, there is an unbridgeable gap between whatever reforms can be won and the revolutionary break with the political order necessary to advance towards socialism itself.
A classical Marxist approach is quite different. It takes advocates of both the democratic and insurrectionary roads and enables them to co-exist through, for example, promoting the old Chartist strategy, peaceably where we can, forcibly if we must. That is, every attempt at winning power democratically is made but if success should appear to be at hand and, as is entirely likely, a right-wing military coup is instigated to prevent it from pushing on, it is legitimate to respond through violent resistance that culminates in destroying the state’s security apparatus.
In other words, we take the positive of each doctrine but deny their negative: a democratic road must be followed but a revolution in defence of democracy cannot be ruled out; a revolutionary smashing of the state’s security apparatus may need to be carried out but not at the expense of the democratic road. We cannot predict at this remove how things will play out so there is no imperative to decide now on an exclusive approach. By the time we are strong enough for this to become even a question, the social and political context will have changed substantially. Our task at this juncture is to construct a movement that can pose these questions as real social choices.
And that entails folding in as many tendencies as possible so as to harness the talent and labour of each of them. A purely peaceful or a purely insurrectionary strategy necessarily excludes important swathes of potential supporters as well as losing the synergy that unity brings.
Unity & Loyalty
The historical tendencies – the trade unionists, the electoralists etc – eventually co-existed, not as factions which were aiming to split the movement and win over the rival ones to their own organisations but as part of a greater whole, usually under the rubric of the Social Democratic movement. The primary loyalty, inherited from Marx and Engels was to the worker movement itself, as incarnated by the broad institutions which united them all. In this way, the movement is strengthened rather than weakened by the diversity.
It is not always the case. The distinguishing feature of Trotskyism qua Trotskyism, is its orientation towards maintaining a separate institutional identity to which primary allegiance is owed. This is the case even where they are, to quote Alex Callinicos, an “organic part” of broader left formations. While they are willing and often attempt to come together under a sort of federal alliance, as with the United Left Alliance in Ireland a few years back, in these cases, the primary loyalty is not the overarching institution – the ULA – but to the component parts, the Socialists Workers Party, Socialist Party etc.
This isn’t accidental nor even unreasonable given the underlying Trotskyist ideology regarding the need for a separate revolutionary party. But it is different to the stance of the Orthodox Marxism of the classical Social Democratic and Communist movements. The general orientation of Trotskyism is to maintain a distinct revolutionary organisation even while part of a broader formation and to posit the revolutionary hopes on the working masses entering onto the stage of political life through revolutionary institutions such as workers’ councils. For the Marxist Centre (those who subscribe to the approach outlined herein) the stance is to merge into a mass organisation and to push for it to be the vehicle of social transformation.
Where organised on the basis of maintaining a separate institutional identity, even where the revolutionary groups come together as with the ULA, a split is near inevitable, whether that is what the parties intend or not, because when the stress comes on them they will fracture according to the fault-lines that they themselves insist on keeping in existence. The continuing prominence of each tendency’s negative thesis – the absolute wrongness of everyone else – corrodes the trust needed to build a large, long-running institution.
So despite the orientation towards folding in pro-labour socialist tendencies, there are limits on what can be included in a mass party governed by a Marxist Centrist ideology. It is counter-productive, for example, to have groups inside it whose primary loyalty is not to the organisation itself, but to their own faction or to a level of political purity that entails only their own strategy being able to exist within the party. The incorporation of different strategic approaches, therefore, does not entail disarming oneself before strategies which are fundamentally hostile to the Centrism.
The Broad Church
Another advantage ‘folding in the positives’ approach is that it brings progressively minded people into contact with a project for social transformation. The numbers of people motivated to work for communism or, for that matter, personal salvation on purely doctrinal grounds is limited.
Clearly there are a lot of people who don’t see the need for social transformation but who do want a fairer world. If a counter-project is to stand a chance of success these people will need to be involved. But given the prevailing influence of an anti-socialist sentiment, there is vanishingly little prospect of them spontaneously arriving at goals which are specifically socialist. It is only through prolonged contact and participation in a movement which does have the goal of a society based on socialist production that the connection will be made between their own inclinations towards fairness and a socialist analysis.
When we Marxists promote socialisation of production, the idea can be expressed in various forms, some more fluffy than others: it can go under the moniker of a co-operative economy or democratic control of investment, etc. But any ambiguity arising needs to be stripped out before misinterpretation mushrooms. By democratic control of investment we do not mean the redistribution of the fruits of investment. We mean working class control of what to produce and ownership of what is produced.
There will be progressively minded people who are more interested in securing some more equitable distribution of goods irrespective of who controls production and who interpret slogans like a “co-operative economy” in a redistributionist rather than a productivist way. Naturally we want them on our side, so, once again, we attempt to take the positive aspect of their doctrine – namely limited redistribution in the here and now – and incorporate it to the extent possible.
We incorporate it but don’t leave it ambiguous that we are seeking social control of production. The redistributionist view can co-exist with the productivist one; but it must openly co-exist. It can’t be allowed to wallow in a fog of ambiguity such that it comes to supplant the production oriented one. If nothing else, a time will come when circumstances do pose the question in a way that blows the fog of ambiguity away. At that point some group will be disappointed that its interpretation was wrong all along, increasing the likelihood of resentment and splits.
Given the range of options with the socialist church, there will be people devoted to their particular conception, whether that be trade unionism or electoralism or whatever. The emphasis placed on any one approach will vary according to the history and the context of whichever subset of the movement is in question. As long as their preference does not mean a defeat for everyone else differences of emphasis can be accommodated, just as the Church manages to incorporate worldly bishops with frugal monastic orders.
Mass support, which is critical to being able to transition an economy towards socialist production, is won by improving the material conditions of potential supporters. The ancient Christians did this by providing charitable works: food for the poor, care for the elderly, homes for the orphans.
Even today, when the Church’s reputation has taken a battering due to the constant stream of scandals, they still manage to provide a vast number of social services, particularly to the most vulnerable, and this support helps them retain a social base despite increasingly difficult material circumstances, not to mention their lack of intellectual credibility in the face of the development of science since the Enlightenment.
Just as the Christians of ancient Rome didn’t gain support just by preaching that the risen Jesus was going to return from heaven and judge them all, socialists do not win mass support by preaching the socialisation of production at every door, even though that is the centrepiece of our theology. For support is won by good deeds, not by faith.
This doesn’t mean the faith is never mentioned, just that it has a different function than being just another point in a manifesto. It is vital that it is incorporated into the DNA of the organisations, however, since the support that is won on other issues is support for an organisation that promotes a socialist goal. The faithful engage in their good deeds because of their faith. No faith leads to no deeds, which leads to no support. As group identity grows over time, and the organisations become more and more embedded in wider society, the core goal becomes a normal feature of people’s belief, enabling future cycles of belief, action, and support.
The modern equivalent to Christian charity is mundane constituency work, or improving the terms and conditions in the case of a union or campaigning against some injustice in the community. Or when the opportunity arises of doing fairly major social work like building new homes, making medical care a public service like the NHS.
This is absolutely necessary to building up a mass base. But it brings with it the danger of becoming mere providers of services and producing a clientelist relationship from which it can be hard to escape. Voters at the door usually want to know what you can do for them. It will be hard to maintain the emphasis on social transformation on that basis.
We want to switch the attitude of “what can you do for me” to one of what they can do for a counter-project of social transformation, and, more specifically, what they can do for organisations that embody that mission. The organisation itself, in this conception, takes centre stage.
This doesn’t mean that participants won’t be benefiting materially (as well as emotionally) from being part of a collective movement. It just means that the organisation will be more capable of delivering material benefits the more its members and supporters think in terms of what they can contribute to it, because it will then have the benefits of their labour.
It will, in other words, engender a virtuous cycle of contributing and receiving. This is only possible if the movement and its organisations, especially the core ones such as the party can assume a level of sacredness in people’s minds. This is a status that has to be earned. It cannot simply be announced.
Treasure in Heaven
The first step is for the organisation to become the vehicle for the achievement of material improvements in people’s lives. The early Catholic Church, as we’ve seen, did take care of its members, especially when hard times struck. Over time, it insisted that members work through it, as an institution, rather than bypass it and give directly to those in need. People with lots of money should give it to the Church and the Church would organise the feeding of the poor, the building of hospitals and so forth.
Because the distribution of material support was done collectively through the Church it could be done on a much larger scale while the Church gained the credit and, moreover, was able harness the credit because it exists for a lot longer than any single life. It was the Church organisation that became the indispensable social force in an era when civic participation was restricted by political despotism.
The Christian bishops justified this by saying to those who contributed that they were securing a place in heaven by giving up their wealth on earth, an injunction based on the Gospels themselves.
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. [Matthew 19:21]
The Church, then, had a story they could tell both the average Christian and the wealthy one about why they should give up their wealth (or at least part of it as it moved away from its radical communist roots) to the institution.
Similarly, our organisations need to be at the centre of the action of material support. Personal good deeds are obviously good in themselves, but the more they are tied to an organisation, the more that organisation can grow and become the force for social transformation that individuals, no matter how generous, can never be.
And just as with the Church, a high level of belief will be necessary for all organisations aiming to attain their scale. In a liberal society where capitalism has dissolved the bonds of civic participation and where all grand narratives are distrusted, even laughed at, it becomes very difficult to develop a story that can sustain an organisation at a mass level over decades. Marxism was the last great – perhaps even the greatest – ideology that advanced a universal narrative capable of sustaining a challenge to advanced capitalism’s socially corrosive liberalism.
That narrative is one where human emancipation is achieved by collective action organised through the socialist institutions, the political party, co-ops and so on. The organisations take centre stage in a mass movement because it is only through formal institutions that masses of human labour can be marshalled and a new, emancipatory society produced. It becomes evident, then, that the faith needed to cohere the activists into a set of functioning groups is quite specific: it is faith in the organisation and its mission. This is what we mean by sacredness. And so by working for the organisation, by increasing its capacity, we get closer to the goal of emancipation.
The Generation of Faith
A movement’s activists need more belief than the wider public, even more than its supporters. That belief comes from a richer understanding of the ideology that underpins the organisations. Material rewards are less important for them, although they are often compensated by the emotional rewards of participating in a collective project.
Activists are tied together in two ways, one from above, one from below. From below, common activity binds people together, especially when that activity is in opposition to other groups. Here politics is quite good, especially elections. They require a lot of work directed at a clear goal. Struggle in general breeds a group identity and electoral struggle by its very nature distinguishes groups from one another.
What common activity doesn’t do, at least not very often, is generate higher levels of consciousness, although common struggle makes it easier for that consciousness to be inculcated. The latter comes from thought, from reflection, and is usually the contribution of those more interested in that sort of work. The higher level of knowledge is then merged with the mass of activists, informs their analysis and basis of struggle, which in turn leads them to develop group consciousness at this level.
This was one of the key differences between the Anarchists and the Marxists of the First International. The anarchists thought that direct action itself, by virtue of engineering conflict at the point of production, would lead to higher levels of understanding amongst the workers of the capitalist system and the necessity of socialist revolution. It was a principle rather than a tactic.
But if struggle reinforces group identity rather generates higher levels of understanding, then it matters a lot what the ideology of a group is. If we organise nationalist groups, for example, the struggle we engage in, even if they are social in nature (e.g. equal rights to housing in the North of Ireland), will reinforce that national identity. It becomes very difficult to move from there to a socialist consciousness and identification through activity alone.
While it is often thought that common struggle is sufficient to bind a group, it is only one aspect. The second requirement is a unifying ideology. If we are asking people to sacrifice time and labour and, from time to time, their lives, we have to return to the question of belief. For what are they sacrificing their time and energy, perhaps even their lives?
Moreover, when the group is big enough that there are a myriad of different tendencies contained within it, they need to be tied together with a sense of a common mission. All this leads to the necessity of an ideology. Support is rarely won on directly the basis of the ideology itself. That is not its role; rather the function of ideology is to cohere the organisers so that they can act cohesively over the long term and thereby win the mass support necessary for social transformation.
We mentioned above that Marxism managed to fold in many different strands of the socialists into the wider labour movement by incorporating the positive aspects of their doctrines. But it also tied them together by saying they were all contributions towards a greater goal, namely the social control of production and, ultimately, an emancipatory society.
Syndicalists could never give way to electoralists, nor electoralists to co-operativists nor co-operativists to state socialists. In order to accept working with each other they each had to accept the higher goal of socialism itself and the theoretical account of the Marxist Centre of their place as part of the socialist-labour movement rather than the whole of it. This is what we mean by unity from above.
It is very difficult to construct an ideology that can hold everyone from consumer co-ops to hardened revolutionaries together. And yet it is necessary if the socialist organisations are to attain the scale needed to control enough labour to institute a higher mode of production capable of systematically generating social equality. It is this theoretical achievement that the original Social Democrats of the Second International and their offshoots in the later Communist Parties achieved through the incorporation, to repeat, of the positive but not the negative aspects of the component tendencies.
Unifying goals cannot be conjured at will nor arbitrarily selected. In our case, the sentiment of being for a more equal society, which is not an uncommon one amongst leftist inclined progressives is not sufficient. The goal has to be more specific than that. It has to be distinct from other ideologies – a goal that focuses on more equitable distribution does not distinguish us from the morass of well meaning NGOs or political parties like Sinn Féin or Labour.
The goal must be relevant – that is, it must be related to the question of economic equality and production; it must grand enough that it can inspire long term work. Finally, it must be defensible in the face of fierce attack by critics who will use all the arsenal of science to bring it down. This latter requires the goal to be scientifically credible.
Marxism, with its focus on socialisation of production, itself supported by the edifice of historical materialism and classical economics, fulfils all these criteria and it is no co-incidence that the strongest movements for social change over the last two centuries have been Marxist inspired.
Science and Unity
The groups which evolved into the Orthodox and Catholic Churches were a potent mixture of anti-imperialist resistance, communism, and militancy. It was the latter that enabled the concept of a Messiah or redeemer to take hold in an extremely hostile context. By the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, these were likely already in existence for probably well over a century giving them time to evolve organisational practices and doctrines that were the foundation for further growth in the future.
One of the key doctrines that held the groups together in the face of extremely repressive political situation – Palestine was during this time in a permanent state of armed uprisings and brutal repression – was a coming revolutionary transformation of society. The Messiah would lead a successful campaign, not only against foreign rule, but against injustice generally. The High Priests would be out, as well as the Romans and in their place a religiously inspired communist utopia: the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Book of Revelations is an example of that angry militancy which permeated Jewish society at the time.
But the utter triumph of the Romans in AD 70 signalled the end of the revolutionary dreams. There was now zero possibility of expelling them, as indeed the final spasm of revolt in AD 133 illustrated. By the late First Century it was beginning to dawn on even the most hardcore that the Romans were there to stay and so the Second Coming couldn’t possibly be imminent. The Messiah was not about to return and sort out their enemies.
This should have signalled the end of the revolutionary groups since the environment in which they could exist and prosper had been definitively altered. Yet their political doctrine that drove the evolution of the Jewish proto-Church groups was revolutionary.
This contradiction should have been a show stopper for all of them. And for many of them it probably was. But the ones that coalesced into the Church found an escape. The Second Coming was pushed back to an indeterminate future and the Kingdom of Heaven was gradually kicked upstairs, out of this realm and into the next. It became less a social goal to be won on earth and increasingly a personal one to be attained in the hereafter.
In this way, the Christians managed to maintain their organisational cohesion despite the manifest failure of their hopes to be realised. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the socialist movement has suffered a comparable trauma, even for tendencies which never supported it. Whereas socialism was once the coming thing, the harbinger of a better, more humane future, it is now seen as having failed.
Marxism derives the socialist goal, not just from the hopes of the oppressed, but from an examination of the dynamics of history; the evolution of technology, changing modes of production, and their effect on social relationships. Because it was scientifically developed from the materialist conception of history, the goal of socialisation of production became an enabler of unity. We see something similar today in relation to climate change, albeit at the weaker level congruent with a more highly developed capitalism. Everyone from revolutionary socialists to NGOs to dyed in the wool capitalists can agree something must be done about climate change. This is only possible because of the overwhelming evidence gathered by scientific specialists.
There are plenty of other worthy causes, many of them environmental in nature, that do not provoke anywhere near the same reaction across so wide a spectrum, let alone become sufficiently prominent to stay on governments’ agenda for years at a time. It is the wide degree of consensus amongst scientists that makes it possible. There is probably an even wider degree of consensus that hunger or war are even more deplorable but they do not generate anything like the campaigns and pressure that climate change does.
And it was the scientific nature of Marxism, in its old school objectivist guise – as opposed to its later incarnation in cultural studies – that enabled it to hold a deeply fragmented labour movement together as the significant oppositional force in Europe and elsewhere for over a century. An oppositional movement based on the subjective thoughts and feelings of people will never have that capacity since, by their very nature, personal thoughts and feelings are highly individual. While they make life interesting, they are not the foundation of a mass movement because of that astounding variation. It is the environmental – social as well as natural – conditions that affect all which are the basis for scientific knowledge.
Unity comes from an investigation of the common environmental conditions, e.g. climate change, that affect broad groups. These conditions are amenable to objective investigation because they are common to all or to large swathes of the population and the investigations tell us what is possible to change. Mass action can then be directed at changing them. Subjective states are not so amenable and thus cannot form the basis of scientific knowledge and therefore they don’t provide the robustness needed to sustain a mass organisation over the long-term. Instead there will be an immense variety of small campaigns arising from the concerns of hugely diverse individuals which become extremely difficult to hold together in a counter-project.
Both historical materialism and classical economics have come under sustained attack from partisans of a liberal worldview, particularly post-modernism, in which there are no patterns to history at all. In economics, the classical orientation towards objective standards of value gave way to subjectivist theories upon which no general social theories can be constructed at all, especially oppositional ones. The gradual undermining of Marxian classical political economy had, of course, no direct effect on the struggle of workers at the coal face. But it did undermine the faith of the leadership and the activists that they were working out the patterns of history.
Over time, the scientific knowledge and goals that were holding the movement together was eroded in favour of generic left progressivism, which was, admittedly, more in tune with the prevailing cultural norms. But left progressivism isn’t enough to hold a movement together for more than a generation or sometimes for much more than a single issue campaign. Neither provides enough time for continuity for the progressives to build up enough organisational strength to be able to challenge the ruling class.
Mass unity depends on the leadership and the activists at all levels believing in the mission of the mass organisations, a mission that was in the socialist-labour movement’s case, derived directly from a scientific investigation of social reality. Once Marxism was abandoned or quietly retired, the Social Democrats could, it is true, drift on the momentum of the past for quite some time. But the route towards social transformation was now blocked off internally.
Marxism’s grand narrative, then, was based on the materialist conception of history and classical economics. Both promoted an entire world view, with the famous – or infamous – conception of history progressing inexorably towards socialism through various stages of technical and social development being the counter-part to the Catholic narrative of the fall of man and redemption of humanity through the sacrifice of Jesus and connection to his Church. The narrative gave meaning to people’s lives: they were a link in the chain of being, with the Catholic Church itself being the bridge between God and man. While it’s not so hard from the perspective of the 21st century to scoff at the Catholic narrative, for most of the last two millennia it has been the basis of the most advanced knowledge in the Western world, i.e. the most scientific. It has only been since the Enlightenment that its narrative has fallen into disrepute and the hold of the Church on the loyalty of the masses has been loosening ever since.
With the advent of Marxism, the goal of a world run in common was no longer a mere hope, but one which the very process of capitalist industrialisation was producing. Many have lost the faith because socialism has not conquered the world and have concluded that Marx and Engels were false prophets. But history isn’t over yet and, as the process of technical development proceeds apace, the material basis for class society evaporates. This will make it much easier than it was in the 20th century for a socialist economy to outcompete a capitalist one provided the the socialist institutions exist on a mass scale.
Engels was only the first of the Marxists to dwell on the lessons of Christianity. The next generation likewise delved into the hidden history of radical opposition with Bernstein, Kautsky, and Luxemburg all writing substantial works on revolutionary Christian movements, from their beginnings up to the English Revolution, and even gaining insight into the role of their own party. The remarks, for instance, on the simultaneous necessity and growing threat of the party bureaucracy in the run up to 1914 are traceable to an appreciation of the transformation of the first Christian groups based on charismatic preachers and internal communism into an episcopal organisation based on charity.
In the end it was not just the Christian message that resonated so much as the Christian practice of fulfilling the material and emotional needs of its adherents, through the creation of a collective project. Christians were brought together in common activity for the welfare of their members providing a potent mix of material and emotional fulfilment.
Since it was only through collective action that the material welfare services of the Church could be sustained, there was a mass selective pressure to evolve organisational forms capable of mobilising labour on a voluntary basis. These forms changed as the Church expanded both into new areas and in absolute numbers. From a Jewish communist group without official roles, the Church evolved a cosmopolitan bureaucracy to tie the far flung organisation together.
The Church was by no means the only organisation to engage in these activities. The Jewish diaspora in which the early Christians were active had long developed similar practices but their proselytising success, which was by no means trivial, was hampered by loyalty to Mosaic law. The Christians were simply a more outward looking faction that managed to gain critical mass on the back of the Mediterranean Jewish communities. Most of their early recruits came from synagogues, where they had their meetings. The pagans too had their own forms of social cohesion. But these tended to be based on the cities, and in times of want, social solidarity tended to be restricted to citizens. The superior reach of the Christians enabled them to reach a wider layer than their often parochial rivals.
An emphasis on a collectivist organisation is hardly the height of fashion in our era of individual fulfilment, corrosive anti-politics sentiment and and a general cynicism about anything purporting to offer a universal narrative. But then, it wasn’t the height of fashion in the early years of the Roman Empire either. A society whose dominant mode of production is beginning to exhaust itself, as slavery was then, and as capitalism is now, finds its civic forms of organisation falling into disuse, as the old customs and practice that filled them with life are no longer sustained by the changing material conditions.
Christians were laughed at for a long time, especially by worldly cynics who were the representatives of an ancient, highly cultured civilisation. But that culture was a dying one because of the subterranean transformation of economic social relations. Out of its ashes arose the Church as pre-eminent social force because it was previously forged as a collectivist response to the decline of a society no longer able to go on in its old ways.
The staying power of the Christian Church is its foremost accomplishment; precisely the opposite of those who are into spirituality but who decry organised religion. For it was the organisation that was the great achievement of the Christians, not any particular ethical or spiritual insight, an achievement implicitly recognised by the doctrine that salvation depended on being part of the Church. Its very sacredness was to be replicated in the loyalty to the Social Democratic and later Communist movements. The anguish felt by Luxemburg and Lenin in 1914 only makes sense if the emotional investment in the historic role of the Social Democrats was more than pragmatic.
The hostile cultural environment since 1989 has led to a deep decline in the strength of the socialist organisations, particularly in the advanced states. Radical opposition, especially in the Anglo-phone world, tends to be highly suspicious of long-term organisations at all. But organisation is king, for only organisations can experience cumulative growth over a long period of time and thereby gain the strength to build an alternative world. Given the prevailing balance of forces, it is unlikely that a socialist movement will be able, over the next 30 or so years, to prevent serious social upheaval arising from a potentially lethal concoction of ever widening inequality, environmental crises, and elite rivalry. But the more it is organised into institutions capable of undergoing cumulative growth, the greater its prospects of coming out the other side as the social force to be reckoned with.
James O’Brien is a member of the Workers’ Party Ard Comhairle.