Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rosa Luxemburg on socialism & Christianity

The two texts of primary interest are:

An anti-clerical policy of Socialism (1903)

Socialism and the Churches (1905)

Note this very interesting essay by a prolific scholar of Marxism and religious studies:

Roland Boer, "Socialism, Christianity, and Rosa Luxemborg", Cultural Logic, 2007.

Boer finds that there has been too attention paid to the more sensational aspects of leading socialist figures' biographies and often not enough on their actual ideas. Such is the case with the martyred heroine Rosa Luxemburg. One biographer termed her linkage of early Christianity and communism a piece of historical sophistry. Boer is interested in a careful if skeptical examination, focusing on two major concerns:

(1) the political myth of an early Christian communism;
(2) the argument for freedom of conscience with respect to religious matters in the socialist movement.

Luxemburg's interventions were hardly merely historically and theoretically motivated. She had to convince Catholic Polish workers and peasants to ally themselves with the Social Democratic movement. The Catholic Church presented a formidable obstacle to socialism, and the triangulation of the Church in its competition and partial alliances with the bourgeoisie and the lower classes was a difficult one to negotiate. This accounts for the contradictions of Luxemburg's position. Sometimes she takes a straightforward anti-clerical position, but as her main enemy is the bourgeoisie, she at times argues that the clergy should take the side of the workers, but this is really to show the workers whose side they should be on were they true to their professed vocation. Boer finds her moralizing arguments questionable. Jeremiads against greed and selfishness in the abstract do not draw attention specifically to the character of social institutions, and concede too much to the theological language of sin and the metaphysical dichotomy of good and evil.

The preponderant balance of this article is devoted to analyzing Luxemburg's imaginative reconstruction of the early church and its similarity to the social democratic movement. Boer begins with a close reading of statements about the rich and the poor attributed to Jesus in the gospels themselves in comparison to the socialist perspective, looking for as close a match as feasible. The upshot, though, is that the fusion of the two perspectives carries over into the supernatural realm of eternal salvation and damnation, thus establishing a myth.

As for the church, the scenario is that the church of the exploited becomes a church of the exploiters. In reconstructing how this came to be, Luxemburg puts all of the Marxist method at her disposal to analyze the class structure and nature of production and distribution that characterized Roman and thus early Christian society. The transition in the church is attributed to the factor of size; at some point the partial sharing of wealth breaks down with the absenting of the wealthy from the poor communities and the growth of an intermediary clergy. The ascent of Christianity to a state religion sealed the deal, and the church has adapted to the rule of private property ever since. Luxemburg's characterizations of Rome (as driven by corruption) and of the medieval church are overly simplified. Yet this is an imaginative rewriting of history for popular consumption that evokes some admiration.

Curiously, Luxemburg repudiates anti-clericalism as a foundational position for socialism, as anti-clericalism historically is a tool of the bourgeoisie (especially in France). Furthermore, the bourgeoisie is inconsistent, for it never carries out a full-blown program of secularization. It may split the Church for tactical positioning, but will favor some church factions over others, empowering both itself and the church in the end. The bourgeoisie will also seek partial alliances with the working class (against feudalism) in the same manner and with the same objective of consolidating its own power. We end up with a contradiction between anti-clericalism and anti-anti-clericalism in Luxemburg's position, for the reasons described.

The argument for Christian communism is a myth, and while Boer shows skepticism for its veracity, he seems to admire its myth-making capacity, especially in the way that Luxemburg finds the early Church's situation analogous to the perspective of the social democratic movement. Apparently opinion has flipflopped as to whether the early church membership was predominantly poor. With close textual analysis Boer reveals the slip-ups in Luxemburg's argument. Neither Luxemburg nor Engels were the first or last to latch onto this political myth for their own social visions. The problem is, that by positing the original Christian community as a model, the degeneration of that mythical original community becomes mystified theologically as a fall, and the desire to enact a restoration, i.e. to look backward, is utterly reactionary.

Luxemburg, however, partially redeems herself by recognizing the distinction between production and consumption. A communism of consumption (merely distributing what has already been produced under the status quo mode of production) such as Christian communism had to be if it existed, is hardly a viable way to organize society, then, now, or in the future.

Finally, we come to the question of freedom of conscience (of belief and religious practice). Boer finds the notion suspect, because he dislikes the idea of the sacrosanct individual, and of liberalism in general. But he's finally willing to concede there's something in it after all, concluding that "only a fully collective program will enable the full realization of freedom of conscience."

All in all, Boer's analysis is quite illuminating. It is not crystal clear, however, exactly where he's coming from, his critique of political mythmaking notwithstanding. Some of the points he makes strike me as off in some way. Quoting Foucault, worries over essentialism, disdain toward liberal individualism (freedom of conscience) are eccentricities that call out for some suspicion.

It also seems that a punchline is missing. For one needs to ask: what is the state of a movement that requires mythmaking in the first place, and what are its prospects if the masses can only be won over on the basis of irrational appeals? And is the vision of Christianity in fact a savory one in the first place, or is it poison through and through, designed to appeal to self-deception, hypocrisy, and the logic of domination? And there's a more pointed question that Boer should have asked: was a Jewish intellectual like Rosa Luxemburg deluding herself that she could appeal to the better instincts of ignorant anti-Semitic Polish peasants by pandering to their religious mythology?

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