Saturday, February 21, 2009

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.

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