Saturday, February 28, 2009

Zen Judaism

The Daodejing /Tao Te Ching was once one of my favorite books. Its minimalism is one aspect of its appeal; you don't really have to believe in anything to relate to it. Daoism is also an institutionalized religion, and as such is quite different from this text taken in abstraction. The other great classic of Daoism taken in abstraction is the Chuang Tzu (or Zhuangzi in the new transliteration). I was a big fan of this too long ago and far away. Ultimately, the world views inscribed therein have their limitations, but are pretty sophisticated for ancient feudal society.

There is also much that needs to be said about the ideology, politics, and duplicity of intellectual elites of both East and West who have reprocessed and imported the philosophies of India, China, and Japan into the modern West. One could discuss for example, the fascist and Nazi sympathies of Indian gurus, or the participation of Zen Buddhists in Japanese fascism. But more generally, there is the conservatism, smugness, and quietism of the comfortable and well-off that tries to convince us that the world is okey-dokey as is; we just need to change our attitude. People who have suffered, on the other hand, don't tend to see things this way.

* * *

The Tao does not speak.
The Tao does not blame.
The Tao does not take sides.
The Tao has no expectations.
The Tao demands nothing of others.
The Tao is not Jewish.

-- David M. Bader, Zen Judaism: For You, A Little Enlightenment

Trotsky on religion (6): the culture of fascism

Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet; fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.

SOURCE: From What Is National Socialism? by Leon Trotsky. Written in exile in Turkey, June 10, 1933. Translated from Russian and from German. Appeared in several versions in various journals, first being The Modern Thinker, October 1933. Last two paragraphs of entire essay added as postscript November 2, 1933.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Josh White's "Free & Equal Blues"

If you know your history, you've got giants to stand on and then you can stretch yourself to see farther than the smallness of your environment would have ever permitted you to do. Long before there were occultist Afrocentric crackpots compounding the already lethal mental pollution of the ideological atmosphere, there were clear and rational voices singing out for human dignity and equality. One of those voices was a pioneer of socially conscious folk and blues music, the magnificent Josh White.

Here's a brief biographical recap, courtesy of Wikipedia:

As I no longer own a turntable, I can't play my old Josh White LPs I collected in the '70s. I'll have to get some CDs, since I haven't yet reached the stage of iPod. Anyway, many years ago, reflecting on a landmark Josh White song, I attempted to transcribe it from the recording, which was not easy given the quality of my stereo, my album, and maybe even the recording itself. Actually, the song can be found in the Josh White Songbook, which is buried who-knows-where in my library. I was impressed by this song because of White's summoning of science to combat racial prejudice. Nowadays you can find almost anything on the Internet. Here's a magnificent essay on Josh White's work including song lyrics, from White biographer Elijah Wald:

"Josh White and the Protest Blues" by Elijah Wald

The title of the song is "Free and Equal Blues".

See also Wald's main page on White: Elijah Wald – Josh White: Society Blues.

Another blog that features this song is No Notes, and here is the entry:

Josh White’s "Free and Equal Blues"

See also Markin's American Left History blog:

Free And Equal Blues- The Work Of Josh White

And don't forget Josh White, Jr.:

What the hell, while I'm at I might as well reproduce the lyrics. But remember, much of it is a talking blues. A few phrases are sung, but most is talking, some decades before rap and even before Oscar Brown Jr.

Free and Equal Blues

I went down to that St. James Infirmary, and I saw some plasma there,
I ups and asks the doctor man, "Say was the donor dark or fair?"
The doctor laughed a great big laugh, and he puffed it right in my face,
He said, "A molecule is a molecule, son, and the damn thing has no race."
And that was news, yes that was news,
That was very, very, very special news.
'Cause ever since that day we’ve had those free and equal blues.
"You mean you heard that doc declare
That the plasma in that test tube there could be
White man, black man, yellow man, red?"
"That’s just what that doctor said."
The doc put down his doctor book and gave me a very scientific look
And he spoke out plain and clear and rational,
He said, "Metabolism is international."
Then the doc rigged up his microscope with some Berlin blue blood,
And, by gosh, it was the same as Chun King, Quebechef, Chattanooga, Timbuktoo blood
Why, those men who think they’re noble
Don’t even know that the corpuscle is global
Trying to disunite us with their racial supremacy,
And flying in the face of old man chemistry,
Taking all the facts and trying to twist 'em,
But you can’t overthrow the circulatory system.
So I stayed at that St. James Infirmary.
(I couldn’t leave that place, it was too interesting)
But I said to the doctor, "Give me some more of that scientific talk talk," and he did:
He said, "Melt yourself down into a crucible
Pour yourself out into a test tube and what have you got?
Thirty-five hundred cubic feet of gas,
The same for the upper and lower class."
Well, I let that pass . . .
"Carbon, 22 pounds, 10 ounces"
"You mean that goes for princes, dukeses and countses?"
"Whatever you are, that’s what the amounts is:
Carbon, 22 pounds, 10 ounces; iron, 57 grains."
Not enough to keep a man in chains.
"50 ounces of phosophorus, that’s whether you’re poor or prosperous."
"Say buddy, can you spare a match?"
"Sugar, 60 ordinary lumps, free and equal rations for all nations.
Then you take 20 teaspoons of sodium chloride (that’s salt), and you add 38 quarts of H2O (that’s water), mix two ounces of lime, a pinch of chloride of potash, a drop of magnesium, a bit of sulfur, and a soupÁon of hydrochloric acid, and you stir it all up, and what are you?"
"You’re a walking drugstore."
"It’s an international, metabolistic cartel."

And that was news, yes that was news,
So listen, you African and Indian and Mexican, Mongolian, Tyrolean and Tartar,
The doctor’s right behind the Atlantic Charter.
The doc’s behind the new brotherhood of man,
As prescribed at San Francisco and Yalta, Dumbarton Oaks, and at Potsdam:
Every man, everywhere is the same, when he’s got his skin off.
And that’s news, yes that’s news,
That’s the free and equal blues!

Ralph Ellison & black preachers

Many veterans of the black left of the 1940s were taken by surprise by the upsurge of civil rights activism in the mid-'50s.

Here's a hilarious example from Ralph Ellison. The Montgomery Bus Boycott brought Martin Luther King Jr. to the fore. Ellison was ambivalent. He was proud of the leadership shown by black ministers, but he was also rather cynical, referring to them as:
" . . .the old steady, mush-mouthed chicken hawk variety, real wrinkle headed bible pounders [who had just] caught some son of a bitch not only stealing the money, but sleeping with all their own private sisters!"
Nevertheless, Ellison was pleased with their success:
"I'm supposed to know Negroes, being one myself, but these moses [slang for black men--RD] are revealing just a little bit more of their complexity. Leader is a young cat [who is] not only a preacher but a lawyer too, probably also a[n] undertaker and an atomic scientist. And they're standing their ground in spite of threats, assassinations, economic reprisal, & destruction of property."
SOURCE: Rampersad, Arnold. Ralph Ellison: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 324.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trotsky on religion (5): philosophy, literature, family, morality, Britain, miscellany

Here is a diverse selection of other interesting material I have found.

From Trotsky's memoirs (scattered references):

My Life (1930)

On literature:

Leon Trotsky, "Tolstoy, Poet and Rebel" (Written on Tolstoy’s Eightieth Birthday, September 1908), translated by John G. Wright, Fourth International, Vol. 12, No. 3, May-June 1951.

Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1924),translated by Rose Strunsky.

In previous posts I cited chapters 1, 5, and 8. See also:

Chapter 2: The Literary “Fellow-Travellers” of the Revolution

On Nicolat Kliuev:

It is unclear whether he himself believes or does not believe. His God suddenly spits blood and the Virgin Mother gives herself to some Hungarian for a few yellow pieces. All this sounds like blasphemy, but to exclude God from the Kliuev household, to destroy the holy corner where the light of the lamp shines on silver and gilded frames – to such destruction he does not consent. Without the lamp, everything is unfulfilled.

On Boris Pilnyak:

To accept the workers’ Revolution in the name of a high ideal means not only to reject it, but to slander it. All the social illusions which mankind has raved about in religion, poetry, morals or philosophy, served only the purpose of deceiving and blinding the oppressed. The Socialist Revolution tears the cover off “illusions”, off “elevating”, as well as off humiliating deceptions and washes off reality’s make-up in blood. The Revolution is strong to the extent to which it is realistic, rational, strategic and mathematical. Can it be that the Revolution, the Same one which is now before us, the first since the earth began, needs the seasoning of romantic outbursts, as a cat ragout needs hare sauce? Leave that to the Bielys. Let them chew to the very end the Philistine cat ragout with Anthroposophic sauce.

On the rustic or peasant-singing writers:

Not so long ago Chukovsky urged Alexey Tolstoi to reconcile himself with revolutionary Russia or with Russia, regardless of the Revolution. And Chukovsky’s main argument was that Russia is the same as she always was, and that the Russian peasant will not exchange his ikons or his roaches for any historical gingerbread. Chukovsky evidently feels that in this phrase there is a very large sweep of the national spirit and an evidence of its ineradicability. The experiment of the brother-housekeeper in the monastery who passed out a roach in the bread for a raisin is extended by Chukovsky to all Russian culture. The roach as the “raisin” of the national spirit! What a low national inferiority this is in fact, and what a contempt for a living people! It would be well enough if Chukovsky himself believed in ikons. But no, he does not, for if he did he would not be mentioning them in the same breath with roaches, though in the village hut the roach hides willingly behind the ikon. But as Chukovsky has his roots entirely in the past, and as his past in its turn maintained itself on the moss-covered and superstitious peasant, Cbukovsky makes the old national roach that lives behind the ikon the reconciling principle between himself and the Revolution. What a shame and a disgrace! What a disgrace and a shame! These intellectuals studied their books (on the neck of that same peasant), they scribbled in magazines, they lived through various “eras”, they created “movements”, but when the Revolution came in earnest, they found refuge for the national spirit in the darkest corner of the peasant but where the roach lives.

* * *

In Blok the revolutionary tendency is expressed in the finished verse:
At Holy Russia let’s fire a shot.
At hutted Russia
Thick-rumped and solid,
Russia, the stolid,
Eh, eh, unhallowed, unblessed.
The Twelve
The break with the Seventeenth Century, with the Russia of the peasant hut, appears to the mystic Blok as a holy affair, even as a state for the conciliation with Christ. In this archaic form the thought is expressed that the break is not imposed from without, but is the result of national development and corresponds to the profoundest needs of the people. Without this break, the people would have rotted away.

On Marietta Shaginyan:
Shaginyan’s benevolent and even “sympathetic” attitude toward the Revolution, as is now evident, has its source in the most unrevolutionary, Asiatic, passive, Christian and non-resistant point of view. Shaginyan’s recently published novel, Our Destiny, serves as an explanatory note to this point of view. Here all is psychology, and transcendental psychology at that, with roots that go off into religion. There is character “in general”, spirit and soul, destiny noumenal and destiny phenomenal, psychologic riddles throughout, and to make the piling up of all this seem not too monstrous, the novel takes place in a sanatorium for psychopathics. There is the very splendid professor, a most keen-minded psychiatrist, who is also the noblest husband and father, and a most unusual Christian; the wife is a little simpler, but her union with her husband in sublimation to Christ, is complete; the daughter tries to rebel, but later humiliates herself in the name of the Lord; a young psychiatrist, in whose name the story is told, is entirely in accord with this family. He is intelligent, soft and pious. There is a technician, with a Swedish name, who is unusually noble, good, wise in his simplicity, aU.forbearing and submissive to Cod. There is the priest Leonid, unusually keen, unusually pious, and, of course, according to his avocation submissive to God. And all about them are crazy and half-crazy people, by whom on the one hand is revealed the understanding and profundity of the professor, and, on the other hand, the necessity of obeying God, who did not succeed in building a world without crazy people. There is another young psychiatrist, who comes here as an atheist, and of course also submits to God. These heroes discuss among themselves whether the professor recognizes the devil, or whether he considers evil impersonal, and they are inclined to get along without the devil. On the cover is written, 1923, Moscow and Petrograd! What wonders in a sieve – truly!
Shaginyan’s keen-minded, good and pious heroes do not call forth sympathy, but complete indifference, which at moments passes into nausea. And this is so, in spite of the fact that a clever author is evident, for all the cheap language and all too provincial humor. There is falseness even in Dostoievsky’s pious and submissive figures, for one feels that they are strangers to the author. Be created them in large degree as an antithesis to himself, because Dostoievsky was passionate and bad-tempered in everything, even in his perfidious Christianity. But Shaginyan seems really to be good, though with a domestic goodness only. She has enclosed the abundance of her knowledge and her extraordinary psychological penetration in the framework of her domestic point of view. She herself recognizes it, and speaks of it openly. But the Revolution is not at all a domestic event. That is why Shaginyan’s fatalistic submission is so strikingly incongruous to the spirit and meaning of our times. And that is why her very wise and pious people, if you will forgive the word, stink of bigotry.
In her literary diary, Shaginyan speaks of the necessity of struggling for culture everywhere and always; if people blow their noses into their five fingers, teach them the use of the handkerchief. This is correct, and strikes a bold note, especially today when, for the first time, the real bulk of the people are beginning consciously to reconstruct culture. But the semi-illiterate proletarian who is unused to the handkerchief (having never owned one), who has done with the idiocy of divine commandments once and for all, and who is seeking a way for the building of correct human relationships, is infinitely more cultured than those educated reactionaries (of both sexes) who blow their noses philosophically into their mystic handkerchief, and who complicate this unaesthetic gesture by the most complex artistic tricks, and by stealthy and cowardly borrowings from science.
Shaginyan is anti-revolutionary in her very essence. It is her fatalistic Christianity, her household indifference to everything that is not of the household, that reconciles her to the Revolution. She has simply changed her seat from one car into another, carrying with her hand baggage and her philosophic artistic handwork. It may possibly seem to her that she has retained her individuality more surely this way. But not a single thread points upward from this individuality.
Chapter 4: Futurism
Futurism is against mysticism, against the passive deification of nature, against the aristocratic and every other kind of laziness, against dreaminess, and against lachrymosity – and stands for technique, for scientific organization, for the machine, for planfulness, for will power, for courage, for speed, for precision, and for the new man, who is armed with all these things. The connection of the aesthetics “revolt” with the moral and social revolt is direct; both enter entirely and fully into the life experience of the active, new, young and untamed section of the intelligentsia of the left, the creative Bohemia. Disgcust against the limitations and the vulgarity of the old life produces a new artistic style as a way of escape, and thus the disgust is liquidated. In different combinations, and on different historic bases, we have seen the disgust of the intelligentsia form more than one new style. But that was always the end of it.
Chapter 6: Proletarian Culture and Proletarian Art
All science, in greater or lesser degree, unquestionably reflects the tendencies of the ruling class. The more closely science attaches itself to the practical tasks of conquering nature (physics, chemistry, natural science In general), the greater is its non-class and human contribution. The more deeply science is connected with the social mechanism of exploitation (political economy), or the more abstractly it generalizes the entire experience of mankind (psychology, not in its experimental, physiological sense but in its so-called “philosophic sense"), the more does it obey the class egotism of the bourgeoisie and the less significant is its contribution to the general sum of human knowledge. In the domain of the experimental sciences, there exist different degrees of scientific integrity and objectivity, depending upon the scope of the generalizations made. As a general rule, the bourgeois tendencies have found a much freer place for themselves in the higher spheres of methodological philosophy, of Weltanschauung. It is therefore necessary to clear the structure of science from the bottom to the top, or, more correctly, from the top to the bottom, because one has to begin from the upper stories. But it would be naive to think that the proletariat must revamp critically all science inherited from the bourgeoisie, before applying it to Socialist reconstruction. This is just the same as saying with the Utopian moralists: before building a new society, the proletariat must rise to the heights of Communist ethics. As a matter of fact, the proletariat will reconstruct ethics as well as science radically, but he will do so after he will have constructed a new society, even though in the rough. But are we not traveling in a vicious circle? How is one to build a new society with the aid of the old science and the old morals? Here we must bring in a little dialectics, that very dialectics which we now put so uneconomically into lyric poetry and into our office bookkeeping and into our cabbage soup and into our porridge. In order to begin work, the proletarian vanguard needs certain points of departure, certain scientific methods which liberate the mind from the ideologic yoke of the bourgeoisie; it is mastering these; in part has already mastered them. It has tested its fundamental method in many battles, under various conditions. But this is a long way from proletarian science. A revolutionary class cannot stop its struggle, because the Party has not yet decided whether it should or should not accept the hypothesis of electrons and ions, the psycho-analytical theory of Freud, the new mathematical discoveries of relativity, etc. True, after it has conquered power, the proletariat will find a much greater opportunity for mastering science and for revising it. This is more easily said than done. The proletariat cannot postpone Socialist reconstruction until the time when its new scientists, many of whom are still running about in short trousers, will test and clean all the instruments and all the channels of knowledge. The proletariat rejects what is clearly unnecessary, false and reactionary, and in the various fields of its reconstruction makes use of the methods and conclusions of present-day science, taking them necessarily with the percentage of reactionary class-alloy which is contained in them. The practical result will justify itself generally and on the whole, because such a use when controlled by a Socialist goal will gradually manage and select the methods and conclusions of the theory. And by that time there will have grown up scientists who are educated under the new conditions. At any rate, the proletariat will have to carry its Socialist reconstruction to quite a high degree, that is, provide for real material security and for the satisfaction of society culturally before it will be able to carry out a general purification of science from top to bottom.

* * *
It is not accidental that the poetry of small circles falls into the flat romanticism of “Cosmism” when it tries to overcome its isolation. The idea here approximately is that one should feel the entire world as a unity and oneself as an active part of that unity, with the prospect of commanding in the future not only the earth, but the entire cosmos. All this, of course, is very splendid, and terribly big. We came from Kursk and from Kaluga, we have conquered all Russia recently, and now we are going on towards world revolution. But are we to stop at the boundaries of “planetism”! Let us put the proletarian hoop on the barrel of the universe at once. What can be simpler? This is familiar business: we’ll cover it all with our hat!
Cosmism seems, or may seem, extremely bold, vigorous, revolutionary and proletarian. But in reality, Cosmism contains the suggestion of very nearly deserting the complex and difficult problems of art on earth so as to escape into the interstellar spheres. In this way Cosmism turns out quite suddenly to be akin to mysticism. It is a very difficult task to put the starry kingdom into one’s own artistic world, and to do this in some sort of a conative way, not only in a contemplative, and to do this quite independently of how much one is acquainted with astronomy. Still, it is not an urgent task. And it seems that the poets are becoming Cosmists, not because the population of the Milky Way is knocking at their doors and demanding an answer, but because the problems of earth are lending themselves to artistic expression with so much difficulty that it makes them feel like jumping into another world. However, it takes more than calling oneself a Cosmist to catch stars from heaven, especially as there is so much more interstellar emptiness in the universe than there are stars. Let them beware lest this doubtful tendency to fill up the gaps in one’s point of view and in one’s artistic work with the thinness of interstellar spaces, lead some of the Cosmists to the most subtle of matters, namely, to the Holy Ghost in which there are quite enough poetic dead bodies already at rest.
On the British Labour Movement:

Leon Trotsky, Problems of the British Revolution (1926, essay collection).

H. N. Brailsford, Introduction to the English Edition of Where is Britain Going?

Russell, Bertrand. "Trotsky on Our Sins," The New Leader, 26th February 1926.

Dutt, R. Palme. "Trotsky and His English Critics," Labour Monthly, Vol. VIII, No. 4, April 1926.

On women & the family in the USSR:

Trotsky on women & the family (essay collection)

On Stalinist Anti-Semitism:

Leon Trotsky. "Thermidor and Anti-Semitism" (22 February 1937), The New International, Vol. VII, No. 4, May 1941.

On morality & natural right:

Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (1920), Chapter 3: Democracy
If we look back to the historical sequence of world concepts, the theory of natural law will prove to be a paraphrase of Christian spiritualism freed from its crude mysticism. The Gospels proclaimed to the slave that he had just the same soul as the slave-owner, and in this way established the equality of all men before the heavenly tribunal. In reality, the slave remained a slave, and obedience became for him a religious duty. In the teaching of Christianity, the slave found an expression for his own ignorant protest against his degraded condition. Side by side with the protest was also the consolation. Christianity told him:– ”You have an immortal soul, although you resemble a pack-horse.” Here sounded the note of indignation. But the same Christianity said:– ”Although you are like a pack-horse, yet your immortal soul has in store for it an eternal reward.” Here is the voice of consolation. These two notes were found in historical Christianity in different proportions at different periods and amongst different classes. But as a whole, Christianity, like all other religions, became a method of deadening the consciousness of the oppressed masses.
Natural law, which developed into the theory of democracy, said to the worker: “all men are equal before the law, independently of their origin, their property, and their position; every man has an equal right in determining the fate of the people.” This ideal criterion revolutionized the consciousness of the masses in so far as it was a condemnation of absolutism, aristocratic privileges, and the property qualification. But the longer it went on, the more it sent the consciousness to sleep, legalizing poverty, slavery and degradation: for how could one revolt against slavery when every man has an equal right in determining the fate of the nation?
Leon Trotsky, "Their Morals and Ours," The New International, Vol. IV, No.6, June 1938, pp. 163-173.

Leon Trotsky, "Moralists and Sycophants Against Marxism: Peddlers of Indulgences and Their Socialist Allies, or the Cuckoo in a Strange Nest" (9 June 1939), New International, Vol. 5, No. 8, August 1939, New York, pp. 229-233.
These gentlemen have a system of their own, and they are not ashamed to defend it. They stand for absolute morality, and above all for the butcher Franco. It is the will of God. Behind them stands a Heavenly Sanitarian who gathers and cleans all the filth in their wake. It is hardly surprising that they should condemn as unworthy the morality of revolutionists who assume responsibility for themselves. But we are now interested not in professional peddlers of indulgences but in moralists who manage to do without God while seeking to put themselves in His stead.
* * * *
If Victor Serge’s attitude toward problems of theory were serious, he would have been embarrassed to come to the fore as an “innovator” and to pull us back to Bernstein, Struve and all the revisionists of the last century who tried to graft Kantianism onto Marxism, or in other words, to subordinate the class struggle of the proletariat to principles allegedly rising above it. As did Kant himself, they depicted the “categoric imperative” (the idea of duty) as an absolute norm of morality valid for everybody. In reality, it is a question of “duty” to bourgeois society. In their own fashion, Bernstein, Struve, Vorländer had a serious attitude to theory. They openly demanded a return to Kant. Victor Serge and his compeers do not feel the slightest responsibility towards scientific thought. They confine themselves to allusions, insinuations, at best, to literary generalizations ... However, if their ideas are plumbed to the bottom, it appears, that they have joined an old cause, long since discredited: to subdue Marxism by means of Kantianism; to paralyze the socialist revolution by means of “absolute” norms which represent in reality the philosophical generalizations of the interests of the bourgeoisie true enough, not the present-day but the defunct bourgeoisie of the era of free trade and democracy. The imperialist bourgeoisie observes these norms even less than did its liberal grandmother. But it views favorably the attempts of the petty-bourgeois preachers to introduce confusion, turbulence and vacillation into the ranks of the revolutionary proletariat. The chief aim not only of Hitler but also of the liberals and the democrats is to discredit Bolshevism at a time when its historical legitimacy threatens to become absolutely clear to the masses. Bolshevism, Marxism – there is the enemy!

Trotsky on religion (4): materialism, revolution, morality

Leon Trotsky, Between Red and White (1922), Chapter IV: The Period of Caution

We have a strong suspicion that Mrs. Snowden is burning with curiosity to know what we, who deny God and His commandments, understand by ‘honesty’. We even suspect that Mr. Henderson puts this question to us not without irony, that is if irony can be at all compatible with piety.

We confess that we are not acquainted with the Absolute Morality of the Popes, either of the Church or of the University, of the Vatican or of the PSA. The Categorical Imperative of Kant, the Transubstantiation of Christ, and the artistic virtues of a religious myth are as unknown to us as the old hard and cunning Moses who found the treasure of eternal morality on Mount Sinai. Morality is a function of living human society. There is nothing absolute in its character, for it changes with the progress of that society, and serves as an expression of the interests of its classes, and chiefly of the governing classes. Official morality is a bridle to restrain the oppressed. In the course of the struggle the working class has elaborated its own revolutionary morality, which began by dethroning God and all absolute standards. But we understand by honesty a conformity of words and deeds before the working class, checked by the supreme end of the movement and of our struggle: the liberation of humanity through the social revolution. For instance, we do not say that one must not deceive and be cunning, that one must love one’s enemies, etc., for such exalted morality is evidently only accessible to such deeply religious statesmen as Lord Curzon, Lord Northcliffe, and Mr. Henderson. We hate or despise our enemies, according to their deserts; we beat them and deceive according to circumstances, and, even when we come to an understanding with them, we are not swept off our feet by a wave of forgiving love. But we firmly believe that one must not lie to the masses and that one must not deceive them with regard to the aims and methods of their own struggle. The social revolution is entirely based upon the growth of proletarian consciousness and on the faith of the proletariat in its own strength and in the party which is leading it. One may play a double game with the enemies of the proletariat, but not with the proletariat itself. Our party has made mistakes, together with the masses which it was leading. We have always quite openly acknowledged these mistakes to the masses, and, together with them we have made the necessary changes. What the devotees of legality are pleased to call demagogy is merely truth, too plainly and too loudly expressed. This, Mrs. Snowden, is our conception of honesty.

Leon Trotsky, The Position of the Republic and the Tasks of Young Workers, Report to the 5th All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist League of Youth (1922). Published in the Bulletin of the Fifth All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist League of Youth (Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 1923). Translated by R. Chappel, published 1972.

Religion is a sop and a leash. Religion is a poison precisely during a revolutionary epoch and in a period of the extreme hardships which are succeeding the conquest of power. This was understood by such a counter-revolutionary in political sympathies, but such a deep psychologist, as Dostoevsky. He said: ‘Atheism is inconceivable without socialism and socialism without atheism. Religion denies not only atheism but socialism also.’ He had understood that the heavenly paradise and the earthly paradise negate one another. If man is promised a hereafter, a kingdom without end then is it worth shedding his own and his brothers’ and his children’s blood for the establishment of a kingdom just like this here in this world? That is the question. We must deepen a revolutionary world-outlook, we must fight the religious prejudices in the youth and approach the youth, including those having religious prejudicies, with the maximum pedagogical attentiveness of the more educated towards the less educated. We must go to them with the propaganda of atheism, for only this propaganda defines the place of man in the universe and draws out for him a circle of conscious activity here on earth.

I have already said that the revolution lays bare the rock strata of social existence, and the class and state structure and reveals the fraud and hypocrisy of bourgeois ideology. This relates not only to earthly but also to heavenly affairs.

The best example of this is the American Bishop Brown. Look at his pamphlet on communism and Christianity. The American bishop whose portrait is included in the pamphlet, is still in his episcopal vestments. I imagine that by now he has managed to take them off. On the front of the pamphlet there is the hammer and sickle and a rising sun. And this bishop says in a letter to another ecclesiastical figure the following: ‘A god who had played even the slightest role in the Anglo-German war, in the Versailles peace or in the blockade of Russia is for me not a god but a devil. If you say that the Christian god did not take any part in the war then I shall reply that these events represent the greatest sufferings that humanity has passed through over the last years and that if he, God, could not, or did not wish to avert them then why in that case should we turn to him?’

These are the tragic words of a bishop who had believed in his god and before whom the war and the revolution revealed the terrible ulcers of their disasters. And he asks: ‘Where is my god? He either did not know, did not wish to or did not know how. If he did not know then he is not a god. If he did not wish to then he is not a god. If he did not know how then he is not a god.’ And he becomes a materialist and an atheist and says that religion flows from the class nature of society.

And this is natural. Just these volcanic epochs of social explosions pose the question of a religious world-outlook at point-blank range and we, having the experience of our revolution, of our sufferings and disasters, must pose this question before the consciousness and before the theoretical conscience of the younger generation of the working class. The same bishop says further on: ‘If one were to place merely an average honest humane and intelligent man at the head of the universe then the order would be far better and there would be less brutalities and bloodshed than at present.’ This question is a question of the education of our young workers. The material for this is everywhere, from the workshop-cell where the process of our primitive socialist accumulation is taking place in still very brutal forms and for a long time yet will do so in painful forms, to the whole cosmos and to man’s place in the universe.

Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution; (1932) Volume Two: The Attempted Counter-Revolution; Chapter 27: The Month of the Great Slander
But why after all is political slander as such so poor and monotonous? Because the social mind is economical and conservative. It does not expend more efforts than are necessary for its goal. It prefers to borrow the old, when not compelled to create the new. But even when so compelled, it combines with it elements of the old. Each successive religion has created no new mythology, but has merely repersonified the superstitions of the past. In the same manner philosophical systems are created, and doctrines of law and morals. Separate individuals, even those possessed of genius, develop in the same inharmonious way as the society which nourishes them. A bold imagination lives in the same skull with a slavish adherence to trite images. Audacious flights reconcile themselves with crude prejudices. Shakespeare nourished his creative genius upon subjects handed down from the deep ages. Pascal used the theory of probability to demonstrate the existence of God. Newton discovered the law of gravitation and believed in the Apocalypse. After Marconi had established a wireless station in the residence of the pope, the vicar of Christ distributed his mystic blessing by radio. In ordinary times these contradictions do not rise above a condition of drowsiness, but in times of catastrophe they acquire explosive force. When it comes to a threat against their material interests, the educated classes set in motion all the prejudices and confusion which humanity is dragging in its wagon-train behind it. Can we too much blame the lords of old Russia, if they built the mythology of their fall out of indiscriminate borrowings from those classes which were overthrown before them?

Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (1936), Chapter 3: Socialism and the State
Marxism sets out from the development of technique as the fundamental spring of progress, and constructs the communist program upon the dynamic of the productive forces. If you conceive that some cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near future, then you must, of course, reject the communist perspective along with much else. Except for this as yet problematic danger, however, there is not the slightest scientific ground for setting any limit in advance to our technical productive and cultural possibilities. Marxism is saturated with the optimism of progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcilably opposed to religion.
Leon Trotsky, "Marxism in Our Time" (April 1939)
Having established science as cognition of the objective recurrences of nature, man has tried stubbornly and persistently to exclude himself from science, reserving for himself special privileges in the shape of alleged intercourse with supersensory forces (religion), or with timeless moral precepts (idealism). Marx deprived man of these odious privileges definitely and forever, looking upon him as a natural link in the evolutionary process of material nature; upon human society as the organisation of production and distribution; upon capitalism as a stage in the development of human society.
* * *

For economic science the decisive significance is what and how people do, not what they themselves think about their actions. At the base of society is not religion and morality, but nature and labour. Marx’s method is materialistic, because it proceeds from existence to consciousness, not the other way around. Marx’s method is dialectic, because it regards both nature and society as they evolve, and evolution itself as the constant struggle of conflicting forces.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Trotsky on religion (3): literature & art of the secular future

Excerpt from Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1924), Chapter 8: Revolutionary and Socialist Art

But can a great art be created out of our infidel epoch, ask certain mystics, who are willing to accept the Revolution if it can secure them immortality. Tragedy is a great and monumental form of literature. The tragedy of classic antiquity was deduced from its myths. All ancient tragedy is penetrated by a profound faith in fate which gave a meaning to life. The Christian myth unified the monumental art of the Middle Ages and gave a significance not only to the temples and the mysteries, but to all human relationships. The union of the religious point of view on life with an active participation in it, made possible a great art in those times. If one were to remove religious faith, not the vague, mystic buzzing that goes on in the soul of our modern intelligentsia, but the real religion, with God and a heavenly law and a church hierarchy, then life is left bare, without any place in it for supreme collisions of hero and destiny, of sin and expiation. The well-known mystic Stepun approaches art from this point of view in his article on Tragedy and the Contemporary Life. He starts from the needs of art itself, tempts us with a new and monumental art, shows us a revival of tragedy in the distance, and, in conclusion, demands, in the name of art, that we submit to and obey the powers of heaven. There is an insinuating logic in Stepun’s scheme. In fact, the author does not care for tragedy, because the laws of tragedy are nothing to him as compared to the laws of heaven. He only wishes to catch hold of our epoch by the small finger of tragic aesthetics in order to take hold of its entire hand. This is a purely Jesuitic approach. But from a dialectic point of view, Stepun’s reasoning is formalistic and Shallow. It ignores the materialistic and historical foundation from which the ancient drama and the Gothic art grew and from which a new art must grow.

The faith in an inevitable fate disclosed the narrow limits within which ancient man, clear in thought but poor in technique, was confined. He could not as yet undertake to conquer nature on the scale we do today, and nature hung over him like a fate. Fate is the limitation and the immobility of technical means, the voice of blood, of sickness, of death, of all that limits man, and that does not allow him to become “arrogant”. Tragedy lay inherent in the contradiction between the awakened world of the mind, and the stagnant limitation of means. The myth did not create tragedy, it only expressed it in the language of man’s childhood.

The bribe of spiritual expiation of the Middle Ages and, in general, the whole system of heavenly and earthly double bookkeeping, which followed from the dualism of religion, and especially of historic, positive Christianity, did not make the contradictions of life, but only reflected them and solved them fictitiously. Mediaeval society overcame the growing contradictions by transferring the promissory note to the Son of God; the ruling classes signed this note, the Church hierarchy acted as endorser, and the oppressed masses prepared to discount it in the other world.

Bourgeois society broke up human relationships into atoms, and gave them unprecedented flexibility and mobility. Primitive unity of consciousness which was the foundation of a monumental religious art disappeared, and with it went primitive economic relationships. As a result of the Reformation, religion became individualistic. The religious symbols of art having had their cord cut from the heavens, fell on their heads and sought support in the Uncertain mysticism of individual consciousness.

In the tragedies of Shakespeare, 'which would be entirely unthinkable without the Reformation, the fate of the ancients and the passions of the mediaeval Christians are crowded out by individual human passions, such as love, jealousy, revengeful greediness, and spiritual dissension. But in every one of Shakespeare’s dramas, the individual passion is carried to such a high degree of tension that it outgrows the individual, becomes super-personal, and is transformed into a fate of a certain kind. The jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth, the greed of Shylock, the love of Romeo and Juliet, the arrogance of Coriolanus, the spiritual wavering of Hamlet, are all of this kind. Tragedy in Shakespeare is individualistic, and in this sense has not the general significance of Oedipus Rex, which expresses the consciousness of a whole people. None the less, compared with Aaeschylus, Shakespeare represents a great step forward and not backward. Shakespeare’s art is more human. At any rate, we shall no longer accept a tragedy in which God gives orders and man submits. Moreover, there will be no one to write such a tragedy.

Having broken up human relations into atoms, bourgeois society, during the period of its rise, had a great aim for itself. Personal emancipation was its name. Out of it grew the dramas of Shakespeare and Goethe’s Faust. Man placed himself in the center of the universe, and therefore in the center of art also. This theme sufficed for centuries. In reality, all modern literature has been nothing but an enlargement of this theme.

But to the degree in which the internal bankruptcy of bourgeois society was revealed as a result of its unbearable contradictions, the original purpose, the emancipation and qualification of the individual faded away and was relegated more and more into the sphere of a new mythology, without soul or spirit.

However the conflict between what is personal and what is beyond the personal, can take place, not only in the sphere of religion, but in the sphere of a human passion that is larger than the individual. The super-personal element is, above all, the social element. So long as man will not have mastered his social organization, the latter will hang over him as his fate. Whether at the same time society casts a religious shadow or not, is a secondary matter and depends upon the degree of man’s helplessness. Baboeuf’s struggle for Communism in a society which was not yet ready for it, was a struggle of a classic hero with his fate. Baboeuf’s destiny had all the characteristics of true tragedy, just as the fate of the Gracchi had whose name Baboeuf used.

Tragedy based on detached personal passions is too flat for our days. Why? Because we live in a period of social passions. The tragedy of our period lies in the conflict between the individual and the collectivity, or in the conflict between two hostile collectivities in the same individual. Our age is an age of great aims. This is what stamps it. But the grandeur of these aims lies in man’s effort to free himself from mystic and from every other intellectual vagueness and in his effort to reconstruct society and himself in accord with his own plan. This, of course, is much bigger than the child’s play of the ancients which was becoming to their childish age, or the mediaeval ravings of monks, or the arrogance of individualism which tears personality away from the collectivity, and then, draining it to the very bottom, pushes it off into the abyss of pessimism, or sets it on all fours before the remounted bull Apis.

Tragedy is a high expression of literature because it implies the heroic tenacity of strivings, of limitless aims, of conflicts and sufferings. In this sense, Stepun was right when he characterized our “on the eve” art, as he called it, that is, the art which preceded the War and the Revolution, as insignificant.

Bourgeois society, individualism, the Reformation, the Shakespearean dramas, the great Revolution, these have made impossible the tragic significance of aims that come from without; great aims must live in the consciousness of a people or of a class which leads a people, if they are to arouse heroism or create a basis for great sentiments which inspire tragedy. The Tsarist War, whose purpose did not penetrate consciousness, gave birth to cheap verse only, with personal poetry trickling by its side, unable to rise to an objectivity and unable to form a great art.

If one were to regard the Decadent and the Symbolist schools, with all their off-shoots, from the point of view of the development of art as a social form, they would appear merely as scratches of the pen, as an exercise in craftsmanship, as a tuning up of instruments. The period in art when it was “on the eve” was without aims. Those who had aims had no time for art. At present, one has to carry out great aims by the means of art. One cannot tell whether revolutionary art will succeed in producing “high” revolutionary tragedy. But Socialist art will revive tragedy. Without God, of course. The new art will be atheist. It will also revive comedy, because the new man of the future will want to laugh. It will give new life to the novel. It will grant all rights to lyrics, because the new man will love in a better and stronger way than did the old people, and he will think about the problems of birth and death. The new art will revive all the old forms, which arose in the course of the development of the creative spirit. The disintegration and decline of these forms are not absolute, that is, they do not mean that these forms are absolutely incompatible with the spirit of the new age. All that is necessary is for the poet of the new epoch to re-think in a new way the thoughts of mankind, and to re-feel its feelings.

Trotsky on religion (2): literature, idealism, vitalism

Trotsky, like some of his peers, could exhibit an acute and subtle philosophical dissection of ideological issues. Note this extract, for example.

Leon Trotsky, The Social Roots and the Social Function of Literature (1923)
To a materialist, religion, law, morals and art represent separate aspects of one and the same process of social development. Though they differentiate themselves from their industrial basis, become complex, strengthen and develop their special characteristics in detail, politics, religion, law, ethics and aesthetics remain, nonetheless, functions of social man and obey the laws of his social organisation. The idealist, on the other hand, does not see a unified process of historic development which evolves the necessary organs and functions from within itself, but a crossing or combining and interacting of certain independent principles-the religious, political, juridical, aesthetic and ethical substances, which find their origin and explanation in themselves.
The (dialectic) idealism of Hegel arranges these substances (which are the eternal categories) in some sequence by reducing them to a genetic unity. Regardless of the fact that this unity with Hegel is the absolute spirit, which divides itself in the process of its dialectic manifestation into various “factors,” Hegel’s system, because of its dialectic character, not because of its idealism, gives an idea of historic reality which is just as good as the idea of a man’s hand that a glove gives when turned inside out.
But the formalists (and their greatest genius was Kant) do not look at the dynamics of development, but at a cross section of it, on the day and at the hour of their own philosophic revelation. At the crossing of the line they reveal the complexity and multiplicity of the object (not of the process, because they do not think of processes). This complexity they analyse and classify. They give names to the elements, which are at once transformed into essences, into sub-absolutes, without father or mother; to wit, religion, politics, morals, law, art. Here we no longer have a glove of history turned inside out, but the skin torn from the separate fingers, dried out to a degree of complete abstraction, and this hand of history turns out to be the product of the “interaction” of the thumb, the index, the middle finger, and all the other “factors.” The aesthetic “factor” is the little finger, the smallest, but not the least beloved.
In biology, vitalism is a variation of the same fetish of presenting the separate aspects of the world process, without understanding its inner relation. A creator is all that is lacking for a supersocial, absolute morality or aesthetics, or for a superphysical absolute “vital force.” The multiplicity of independent factors, “factors” without beginning or end, is nothing but a masked polytheism. Just as Kantian idealism represents historically a translation of Christianity into the language of rationalistic philosophy, so all the varieties of idealistic formalisation, either openly or secretly, lead to a god, as the cause of all causes. In comparison with the oligarchy of a dozen sub-absolutes of the idealistic philosophy, a single personal creator is already an element of order. Herein lies the deeper connection between the formalist refutations of Marxism and the theological refutations of Darwinism.
This text is essentially reproduced in chapter 5 of Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1924). Note also the references to religion and mysticism in Chapter 1: Pre-Revolutionary Art.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bukharin on religion

Programme of the World Revolution
Chapter I
The Reign of Capital, the Working Class, and the Poorer Elements of the Village Population
Capitalist society is divided into two classes: those who work a great deal and feed scantily, and those who work little or not at all, but eat well and plentifully. That is not at all in accordance with the Scriptures, where it says: “He that does not work, neither shall he eat.” This circumstance, however, does not prevent the priests of all faiths and tongues from lauding the capitalist order; for these priests everywhere (except in the Soviet Republic) are maintained by increment derived from private or church property. Another question now arises. How is it possible for a group of parasites to retain private ownership over the means of labour, so indispensable to all? How has it come about that private ownership by the idle classes is maintained to the present day? Where does the reason lie?

The reason lies in the perfect organisation of the enemies of the labouring class. To-day there does not exist a single capitalist country where the capitalists act individually. On the contrary, each one of them is infallibly a member of some economic organisation. And it is these economic unions that hold everything in their hands, having tens of thousands of faithful agents to serve them, not out of fear, but as a matter of conscience. The entire economic life of every capitalist country is at the complete disposal of special economic organisations: syndicates, trusts, and unions of many banking concerns. These combines own and direct everything.

The most important industrial and financial combine is the Bourgeois State. This combine holds in its hands the reins of government and power. Here everything is weighed and measured, everything is premeditated and arranged in such a manner, as to crush instantly any attempt at rebellion on the part of the working class against the domination of capital. The State has at its disposal, forces (such as spies, police, judges, executioners, and trained soldiers, who have become soulless machines), as well as mental influences which gradually pervert the workers and poorer elements of society, imbuing them with fallacious ideas. For this purpose the bourgeois State utilises schools and the Church, aided by the capitalist press. It is a known fact that pig-breeders can breed such stock as are incapable of moving owing to the vast accumulation of fat; but such pigs are extremely suitable for slaughter. They are bred artificially on special fattening food. The bourgeoisie deals with the working class in exactly the same way. It is true it gives them little enough substantial food – not enough to get fat on. But day by day it offers to the workers a specially-prepared mental food which fattens their brains and makes them incapable of thought. The bourgeoisie wants to turn the working class into a herd of swine, docile and fit for slaughter, not capable of thinking and ever subservient. This is the reason why, with the help of schools and the Church, the bourgeoisie tries to instill into the minds of children the idea that it is necessary to obey the Authorities, as they hold their power from heaven (and the Bolsheviks, instead of prayers, have drawn on themselves the curses of the Church, because they have refused to grant any State subsidies to these cassocked frauds). This is also the reason why the bourgeoisie is so anxious to circulate its lying press far and wide.
Chapter XVII
Spiritual Liberation – The Next Step to Economic Liberation
(The Church and the School in the Soviet Republic)

A major statement.

Bukharin, Nikolai. "Church and School in the Soviet Republic," The Class Struggle, Vol. Vol. III, No. 2, May, 1919.

Also at:

Nikolai Bukharin; Evgenii Preobrazhensky; The ABC of Communism

§ 76. The school under the bourgeois regime

The work of bourgeois educationists is completed by the servants of the church with their religious instruction. Thanks to the intimate associations between capital and the church, the law of God invariably proves to be the law of the possessing classes.

§ 77. The destructive tasks of communism

The old school was intimately associated with religion - by compulsory religious teaching, compulsory attendance at prayers, and compulsory church-going. The new school forcibly expels religion from within its walls, under whatever guise it seeks entry and in whatever diluted form reactionary groups of parents may desire to drag it back again.
Chapter 11: Communism and Religion

Major statement.

From Historical Materialism - a System of Sociology:

1: Cause and Purpose in the Social Sciences (Causation and Teleology)

Of like nature are all the religious pseudo-explanations. They are intrenched behind the intangibility of mysterious powers, or the essential insufficiency of our reason. A father of the Church has set up the following principle: "I believe, because it is absurd" (Credo quid absurdum). According to the Christian doctrine, God is one, but also three, which contradicts the rudiments of the multiplication table. But it is declared that "our weak reason cannot comprehend this mystery." Obviously, the most ridiculous absurdities can be covered by such considerations.

2: Determinism and Indeterminism (Necessity and Free Will)
(free will, God, etc.)

3: Dialectical Materialism
b. The Materialist Attitude in the Social Sciences

This point of view [materialism in sociology], as we know, by no means denies that "ideas" have their effects. Marx even said distinctly, in discussing the highest stage of consciousness, which is scientific theory: "Every theory becomes a force when it secures control over masses." But materialists cannot be satisfied with a mere reference to the fact that "people thought so". They ask: why did people in a certain place, at a certain time, "think" so, and "think" otherwise under other conditions? In fact, why do people think such an awful lot anyway in "civilized" society, producing whole mountains of books and other things, while the savage does not "think" at all? We shall find the explanation in the material conditions of the life of society. Materialism is therefore in a position to explain the phenomena of "mental life" in society, which idealism cannot, for idealism imagines "ideas" developing out of themselves, independently of the base earth. For this very reason the idealists, whenever they wish to construct any real explanation, are forced to resorting to the divine: "This Good", wrote, Hegel in his Philosophy of History, "this Reason in its most concrete conception, is God; God rules the world ; the content of his government Regierung), the execution of his plan, is universal history:'1) To drag in this poor old man who constitutes perfection, according to his worshipers, and who is obliged to create, together with Adam, lice and prostitutes, murderers and lepers, hunger and poverty syphilis and vodka, as a punishment for sinners whom he created and who commit sins by his desire, and to continue playing this comedy forever in the eyes of a delighted universe - to drag in God is a necessary step for idealist theory. But from the point of view of science it means reducing this "theory" to an absurdity.

6: The Equilibrium between the Elements of Society
See the subsection on "Religion and Philosophy".

Theory and Practice From The Standpoint of Dialectical Materialism

Some interesting stuff here on mystification, e.g. against mystical holism:

In the sphere of "spiritual culture" the return to religion, the substitution of intuition, "inward feeling," "contemplation of the whole," for rational cognition. The turn from individualist forms of consciousness is patent. It is universal--the idea of "the whole," "wholeness" ("das Ganze," "Ganzheit") in philosophy; in biology (Driesch and the Vitalists), in physics, in psychology (Gestaltpsychologie), in economic geography (territorial complexes), in zoology and botany (the doctrine of heterogeneous "societies" of plants and animals), in political economy (the collapse of the school of "marginal utility," "social" theories, the "universalism" of Spann), and so on, and so forth. But this turn to the "whole" takes place on the basis of the absolute breaking-away of the whole from its parts, on the basis of idealistic understanding of the "whole," on the basis of a sharp turn to religion, on the basis of the methods of super-sensual "cognition." It is not surprising, therefore, that from any scientific hypothesis quasi-philosophic (essentially religious) conclusions are being drawn, and on the extreme and most consistent wing there is openly being advanced the watchword of a new medievalism.

Bukharin, N[ikolai]. Finance Capital in Papal Robes: A Challenge, translated by Moissaye J. Olgin. New York: Friends of the Soviet Union, 1931(?). 24 pp.

This seems to be a fairly rare item. I can't find a digitized copy online. The Library of Congress doesn't have it. Curiously, I have a photocopy of an Esperanto translation but not of the English.

Buĥarin, Nikolaj I. Financa Kapitalo en la Papa Mantelo. [Trad. el la rusa lingvo de SEU-ano 50/212] Moskvo: Eldonejo C. K. SEU, 1930.

N.I. Bukharin: Marx's Teaching and its Historical Importance
4. The Theory of Proletarian Dictatorship and Scientific Communism
(c) religion in communist society disappears altogether, for, since it is the reflection of a divided world and the projection into "heaven" of the "earthly" categories of the state, of subjection, it loses any basis for existence.

Gods, UFOs, Zen, epistemology, autonomy

"Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another."

"Seeing and Believing" by Jerry A. Coyne
The New Republic, Wednesday, February 04,2009

The Edge commentaries are all over the place.

As for the original article, it effectively establishes the incompatibility between faith and science, and more generally between religion and science. From a cursory reading, I'd say it gets a little weird in sections III & IV. For example, the proposals as to what would constitute a test of religious beliefs are not convincing to me and require a deeper logical analysis. Curiously, I last thought about this about 30 years ago, when I read a most unusual book by UFOlogist Jacques Vallee.

Some of Coyne's concluding statements are most interesting:
So the most important conflict--the one ignored by Giberson and Miller--is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason--only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful--those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths--fall into the "incompatible" category.

Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a "middlebrow"book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

I have my doubts about Buddhism, which I doubt could pass the compatibility test. Coyne proceeds, in an abbreviated fashion, down the same path as Victor Stenger, who has written one of the best recent books I've seen on the incompatibility of science and theism. That is, they proceed by examining all the incompatibilities and then see what is left. For Stenger, some vague, toothless deism survives his tests; for Coyne, pantheism. I'll add that there are some lesser known variations on this theme, such as panentheism (I think you will find this and other variations in Wikipedia). But discounting these variations, we basically have pantheism and deism to deal with. Pantheism I would imagine to be more popular, but this could be my experiences of the counterculture in the '70s talking.

The question would then be, do what extent are these positions intelligible? If God is not immanent in the universe--which I think is the implication of deism (somebody correct me)--then what practical sense could be made out of the concept? As for pantheism, there are a couple ways of approaching the subject. What sense does it make to say that the universe is divine or transcendental? What specific qualities are posited other than a psychological or ideational disposition on our part? Does this mean that the universe as a whole possesses intelligence, or at least sentience, or functions as some sort of organism? If so, what is the evidence, and how does this notion concretely make sense? Perhaps the universe possesses a vital impulse or life-property without being divine per se, such as in the vitalism of Henri Bergson, George Bernard Shaw, or Hans Driesch? In my view, little would survive intensive conceptual investigation and our current knowledge of the universe except for some psychological / ideational disposition on our part regarding sacredness.

Coyne mentions the spineless position of the National Academy of Science on the compatibility of religion and science. The AAAS is just as bad if not worse. Coyne lets the cat out of the bag suggesting that scientists want to avoid losing funding and institutional support. Yet I think their cowardice goes too far. These organizations need not declare an official position against religion or theism, but it is entirely intellectually illegitimate and anti-scientific for them to declare officially a non-incompatibility between religion and science. If organized science can claim a compartmentalized mission in the totality of social life, then it should defend a compartmentalized role and refuse to take any position outside of defending the integrity of scientific research, publication, and education. Paradoxically, these organizations overreach their own sphere of competence by declaring the conceptual compatibility of religion and science rather than simply asking for a modus vivendi in social life.

Jacques Vallée is a strange man. I think I may have seen him in person once discussing information science & technology. But I first heard of him as a UFOlogist as a child. Here's the basic poop:

Jacques Vallée - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Well, about 30 years ago I read one or both of these books, most likely the latter:

Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1969.

Another edition came out a quarter century later. An excerpt can be found on

Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore, and Parallel Worlds. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1993.

The Invisible College: What a Group of Scientists Has Discovered About UFO Influences on the Human Race. New York: Dutton, 1975.

Vallee had a novel hypothesis, linking UFO sightings to accounts of alien, supernatural, or divine visitations throughout human history in diverse cultures. I never took seriously any theory he had about all of this, but at the time I found his approach epistemologically fascinating, with a possible ethical implication I will attempt to clarify below.

I was reminded of this while reading the Coyne article, which cited the criteria offered by Bertrand Russell and/or others for accepting the existence of God, Christ, etc., criteria which I never found compelling. Yeah. I'd be freaked out if a burning bush started talking to me, or if the clouds opened up and Mother Mary cried out to her Jewish Son of God, "How come you never call?", but in the final analysis, what does this change? The human impulse to bow down and submit is precisely the ethical problem. But more on that later. The epistemological issue is interesting, because a phenomenon has not only to be experienced, but interpreted. One cannot simply assume that some vision or visitation is congruent with one's religious mythology or supposition about origins in outer space; rather, sensory experience is one link in a chain of investigative evidence to yield a plausible and fully generalized explanation. Vallee's book interested me at the time because his bizarro hypothesis revealed, perhaps unwittingly, what is epistemologically at stake.

Now back to the ethical dimension. Around the same time I was reading another book; it may have been D.T. Suzuki's contribution to Erich Fromm's Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. Suzuki was the original and foremost propagator of Zen in the western world. I didn't know his actual history back then, or how dishonest and irresponsible New Age panderers are in erasing history, in this case, how Suzuki was really positioned among the Japanese intelligentsia and Zen's link with Japanese nationalism, militarism, and fascism. Nevertheless, I'm guessing I was reading Suzuki at the time. Whoever it was, I was impressed by this characterization: Zen makes you confront who you are; it's not ultimately about what you believe and what you've committed yourself to, but who is the one who is believing, thinking, acting? In other words, there's an irreducible personal responsibility involved, which is foregrounded while religious justifications are relegated to secondary status.

Now I think Suzuki was lying, because Zen Buddhist practice is as institutionalized, ritualized, and historico-culturally specific as all get-out. As I say, New-Agers are historically ignorant or liars or both. Nevertheless, this concept impressed me at the time, and I'm pretty sure I made a connection with Vallee's book(s).

We love to submit to overwhelming power, to bow, scrape, and genuflect, in hopes we will get something out of our self-abasement. From totemism to American Idol, some things never change. "I was only following orders"--the mantra of Adolph Eichmann and Jerry Falwell. It's even worse when the issuer of those orders is entirely fictitious. But guess what, since the Nuremburg Trials that excuse doesn't fly anymore. The proper response is: fuck you, buddy, you're responsible, and you're going to hang for this.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Christ the Vampire & other ghoulish goodies

Let's begin with the publisher in question, III Publishing. This site maintains a blog. There are several categories of essays on the site, for example, Religion: A Guide for the Perplexed (further subcategorized). This outfit maintains a booklist, but one might as well go directly to the book descriptions, with links to sample texts.

The press itself appears to be an anarchist press, but my disrespect for anarchism notwithstanding, there is amusing material here.

The first book I read from this publisher and from this author (several years ago) was:

The Last Days of Christ the Vampire by J. G. Eccarius.

This novel "is set in Providence, Rhode Island, where a small group of people discovers that Jesus really Lives, he rose from the dead and controls the Catholic Church and Protestant sects as well. It's an action-packed battle against the ancient vampire."

I don't remember much about this, but it was highly entertaining. See the sample.

By the same author, I also have:

Resurrection 2027. Sample.

"J.G. Eccarius is back with this science-fiction look at a theocracy governing what's left of the human race. God is a woman, her representatives are women, and yet Ann Swanson, a teenage woman, begins to feel plenty oppressed in Resurrection City. Is she really a resurrected nurse from the late 20th century? Or is the entire society a fabric of lies?"

As you can see, J. G. Eccarius and III Publishing have some offbeat material to offer.

I also have a dystopian novel that is out of print:

A.D. by Saab Lofton

"In a few years the White Aryan Resistance and the Nation of Islam will divide America into racist regimes. Saab Lofton's A.D. starts with a look at one man's life under Farrakhan's regime, then dives centuries into the future to look at a Libertarian Socialist Democracy, Saab's vision of Utopia."

sample from A.D.
Review of A.D. by Darius James
Practical Anarchy review

Given the topic, this is of greater significance than the other two, which may be why it's sold out.

I see some other books with religious, mythological, or cosmological themes have appeared since I last checked out this publisher:

Pyrexia by Michel Mery
Vampires or Gods? by William Meyers

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950): from realism to mysticism

In my post on Gary Sloan, I linked to his interesting article:

George Bernard Shaw: Mystic or Atheist?

At the same time I discovered this book review by a leading ideologue of the Communist Party of Great Britain:

Dutt, R. Palme. "Back to Plotinus," Labour Monthly, July 1921, Vol. I, No. 1.
Review of: Back to Methusela: A Metaphysical Pentateuch, by Bernard Shaw.

Both of these articles deal with Shaw's regression to mysticism. For a general critical study of Shaw's weaknesses, see:

Caudwell, Christopher (pseudonym of Christopher St. John Sprigg). "George Bernard Shaw: A Study of the Bourgeois Superman," Chapter 1 of Studies (1938), in Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture, introduction by Sol Yurick. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. [Reprint of Studies in a Dying Culture (1938) & Further Studies in a Dying Culture (1949)]

One can get a usable snapshot of Shaw's life, work, and development from Wikipedia.

Several decades ago I noted discrepancies between and in Shaw's works. The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) was soberly down-to-earth, puncturing the illusions of ideals and idealists. Man and Superman (1903), perhaps the summa of Shaw's philosophy, manifests Shaw's characteristic intermixing of nonsense about the life force into otherwise harshly realistic, often cynical, exposes of social reality.

I lack the patience to enumerate Shaw's crackpot views on various subjects. A couple years ago I stumbled on to his piece on Lysenkoism, in which Shaw shows his regret that Lysenko gave vitalism a bad name:

Shaw, George Bernard. "The Lysenko Muddle," Labour Monthly, January 1949.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

Comte-Sponville, Andre. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, translated by Nancy Huston. New York: Viking Press, 2007.

Table of Contents:
I - Can We do Without Religion?
II - Does God Exist?
III - Can There Be an Atheist Spirituality?
Conclusion: Love & Truth
Suggested reading

If I were going to advocate a concept such as this, I would consider it rather differently, but this book could be considered a bridge between religious spirituality as normally understood and atheism. I was not particularly thrilled with this book, but I will highlight its most noteworthy features.

Digression: On 7 February, I attended a talk by a Unitarian minister on his book on naturalistic spirituality. His advocacy of a naturalistic spirituality got quite a bit of resistance, from an allergic reaction to the word itself to a resentment that someone would forcibly attribute a quality to a person who vehemently denies possessing it, to the unnecessary labelling of common experiences. My objection was that the word, if not precisely definable, should at least point to something reasonably clear and concrete instead of constantly being used as a nonce word as a cover for not thinking or saying anything at all.

Only chapter III of the book now under review is of any interest. I will summarize the concepts contained therein, but actually the only part of it that piqued my intellectual interest can be found on pp. 136-8. There the author discusses a finite opening to the infinite, opposes spirit to religion, affirms an absolute but denies transcendence, favorably treats the cousin concepts of naturalism, immanentism, and materialism, and asserts that nature is an uncreated totality that of necessity precedes the emergence of spirit. Materialism denies the ontological independence of spirit from nature. Spirit is only thinkable when nature precedes it. While this doesn't delineate just what is meant by spirituality, I like this philosophical groundwork.

For some reason, I don't really care about the author's characterization of spirituality itself, but I will outline his concepts. I should first mention that he quotes various philosophers throughout the book. For some reason I noted Wittgenstein on mysticism and a reference to Spinoza on p. 141.

The concept of "Immanensity" is introduced (a neologism which apparently fuses immanence with immensity.) My handwriting is nearly illegible, but I wrote something about the spirituality or experience of the immense . . . the experience of the infinite, which is not conceptual . . . the tranquility of the All as the polar opposite to the ego. (p. 144)

The author surprised me by claiming that there is nothing particularly religious about the oceanic feeling discussed by Freud and Romain Rolland. (150) Camus' novel The Stranger is discussed on pp. 152-3. Freud is mentioned again on p. 154, Spinoza on p. 158. The experience is further characterized on pp. 156-7.

Other concepts explored are mystery, plenitude, simplicity (self-forgetfulness, Zen), unity, eternity, "eternullity" (neutralizing temporality & living in the moment), ataraxia (from ancient Greek philosophy), serenity (living without hoping), acceptance (the a-morality of nature, Nietzsche's amor fati, the relativity of value judgments), independence. All of this comes from the author's examination of his own experience.

Mysticism is opposed to faith. The mystical path to atheism is a logical, perhaps inevitable progression. Monotheistic revealed religions are very distrustful of mysticism, because their God tends to dissolve in the process. (190-1)

My handwriting is legibility-challenged, but I wrote a phrase like "religious spirituality", which makes no sense. In any case, in discussing the notions of interiority and transcendence, the author reveals that he is sick of all this. One should seek not to dwell on interiority, but escape the self, open oneself to others and to the world. Hence he stresses the notions of immanence and openness. (197) Husserl and Sartre are mentioned (198).

So much for chapter III. In the Conclusion, the author claims that love goes with relativism. (204) He affirms love, joy, the temporal experience of eternity, humanism as opposed to nihilism.

The selected bibliography is diverse. I noted a couple of authors representing a materialist position, i.e. LaMettrie, and Karl Marx's doctoral dissertation.

All in all, I can't say I find the author's perspective objectionable for the most part, especially as a characterization of the experience he has had or would like to have, but I am also indifferent to it. My priorities are elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gary Sloan & "The Liberator" articles

The web site The Liberator is all over the place and has no specific politics. It claims to support free speech and oppose political correctness. Many of its articles are on freethought topics.

The most interesting articles are by English professor emeritus Gary Sloan. I will point out just a few for now.

I mentioned Shelley: Angelic Atheist (October 13, 2003) in my last post on Percy Bysshe Shelley, and The Book of Job and J.B.: Faith vs. Reason in a recent post.

Note Sloan's article on "Moby Dick" (November 14, 2001).

Sloan portrays Melville as viscerally anti-Christian. Melville eschews rosy optimism and prospects for amelioration, thinking not only man evil but God too. Sloan sees Melville as covertly in sympathy with Ahab. Whale-talk is allegorical god-talk. Sloan concludes:
After Moby Dick, Melville began to slough off the neo-Calvinism and slither toward agnosticism. Still, a part of him always longed for the custodial Papa Above of his boyhood.
This is not exactly profound or thorough analysis, but I think in its simplicity it captures a sizable chunk of Melville's motivation.

As it turns out, I've encountered Sloan before on the subject. He published an article in the Summer 2002 (Volume 22, No. 3) issue of Free Inquiry. I responded with an unpublished letter to the editor:

FEEDBACK: Melville the "Atheist"

For many years, I've had mixed feelings about George Bernard Shaw, his affinity for crackpot ideas and his ruining his realistic outlook with mysticism. I never examined the evolution of Shaw's perspective, though. Sloan's review is therefore useful:

George Bernard Shaw: Mystic or Atheist?

Check out the other articles on literary figures.

From Job to J.B.

I thought everyone had forgotten this play. I still remember it from high school; well, actually only these key lines:

I heard upon his dry dung-heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
"If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water."

— Nickles, in J.B.: A Play in Verse by Archibald MacLeish [The Pulitzer Prize play, 1959] (New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1958), p. 18.

But I'm not the only who remembers this play:

The Book of Job and J.B.: Faith vs. Reason by Gary Sloan (July 2003)

I think Sloan left out something important about the conclusion. J.B. rejects God, but he rejects "Satan" as well; more precisely, he rejects nihilism. In spite of suffering, J.B. learns to stand on his own two feet, to find dignity in his autonomy, not in God or circumstance.

Trotsky on religion (1)

Many many years ago I found a most interesting take on religion contained as a section in an article by Trotsky:

Trotsky, Leon. "Leninism & Workers' Clubs," 17 July 1924. In: Problems of Everyday Life and Other Writings on Culture and Science (New York: Monad Press, 1973).

I could not find this article in the huge repository Marxists Internet Archive, but after much searching, I found just the section I needed on another web site:

How socialists fight religion

Without checking, I cannot be certain whether this excerpt is the same English translation I originally consulted. As it happens, I translated this into Esperanto many years ago:

El Kontraŭreligia Propagando de Leono Trockij,
en: Ateismo 3: 1-3 (7-9), januaro-septembro 1991, p. 20-21.

I found an echo of this statement in a later article by Trotsky:

Trotsky, Leon. "Culture and Socialism" (1927), translated by Brian Pearce.

Here is the choice extract:

Relations in either socialist or communist society, i.e., in socialist society's highest development, will be thoroughly transparent and will not require such auxiliary methods as deception, lies, falsification, forgery, treachery and perfidy.

However, we are still a long way from that. In our relations and morals there are still many lies rooted both in serfdom and the bourgeois order. The highest expression of serfdom's ideology is religion. The relations in feudal-monarchal society were based on blind tradition and elevated to the level of religious myth. A myth is the imaginary and false interpretation of natural phenomena and social institutions in their interconnection. However, not only the deceived, that is, the oppressed masses, but also those in whose name the deception was carried out – the rulers, – for the most part believed in the myth and relied upon it in good conscience. An objectively false ideology, woven out of superstitions, does not necessarily signify subjective mendacity. Only to the extent that social relations become more complex, that is, to the extent that the bourgeois social order develops, with which religious myth comes into ever growing contradiction, religion becomes the source of ever greater cunning and more refined deception.

Developed bourgeois ideology is rationalistic and directed against mythology. The radical bourgeoisie tried to make do without religion and build a state based on reason rather than tradition. An expression of this was democracy with its principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. The capitalist economy, however, created a monstrous contradiction between everyday reality and democratic principles. A higher grade form of lying is required to fill up this contradiction. Nowhere do people lie more politically than in bourgeois democracies. And this is no longer the objective "lying" of mythology, but the consciously organized deception of the people, using combined methods of extraordinary complexity. The technology of the lie is cultivated no less than the technology of electricity. The most "developed" democracies, France and the United States, possess the most deceitful press.

There are several articles in English online on Trotsky, the Bolsheviks, and religion. My initial approach is to look at their theoretical statements, see how they measure up and to what extent they are relevant today. The next step of course is to research and examine their actions, which may or may not be in accord with their theory.