Friday, October 1, 2010

Paul N. Siegel: The Meek and the Militant

The Meek and the Militant: Religion and Power Across the World by Paul N. Siegel (1986)

    Contents, Preface, chapters 1-3, 9

    Chapter 10: sections "The Castroites and Religion", "The Sandinistas and Religion", "Religion and the Struggle for Socialism"

No one can accomplish everything in one book, but this one is one of the best surveys of the socio-political history of religion that I have seen, from a Marxist perspective.  In this respect, it is far more comprehensive than Alexander Saxton's more recent Religion and the Human Prospect.

Part 1 sets up the philosophical and methodological approach to the analysis of religion. Siegel begins with the French Enlightenment's materialism and critique of religion. He moves on to its criticism by Marx and Engels, and their approach to religion and society. Siegel compares genuine Marxism to Modernist Christianity, agnosticism, Freud, Stalinism, and early Christianity.

Part 2 sketches the social roots and dynamics of the major Western religions, with chapters on Judaism Catholicism, Protestantism, the United States. Part 3 covers the religions of Asia and the Middle East: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

Part 4 covers the relationship between religion and socialist movements, in Russia (Lenin and others), China, Cuba, Nicaragua, with a concluding section on "Religion and the Struggle for Socialism".

I have not read enough to comment on the entirety of the book. Sections 2 and 3 are reasonable in their ambitions to give a view of what historically and socially motivates the major players on the world scene of religion (with the exception of the New Age thought of the 20th century). Siegel's attempt at comprehensiveness will be very useful for readers, who can then proceed to fill in the details and whatever lapses there are, elsewhere.

I would like rather to concentrate on the overall perspective of the book and particularly on Part 1. Siegel's premise is that Marxists must collaborate with religious people while maintaining their independent philosophical perspective. The translation of this general principle, which I think is a no-brainer, into specific circumstances and tactics, by no means yields a clear perspective. Even dodgier, with possibly sinister implications, is Lenin's principle, indicated at the beginning and end of the book, that "the revolutionary party will subordinate the struggle against religion to the class struggle" (emphasis mine). All depends on the meaning and application of the notion "subordinate". First, there's never a uniformity of social development and action, and different individuals play different social roles at different times. It is not the business of any revolutionary organization to subordinate everyone it can get its hands on to a single action and a single goal. Furthermore, in a world degenerating into incoherence, retrogression, and unreason, there is no one movement, let alone organization, that unequivocally embodies the forces of social progress and reason. The politics that Siegel envisions is dead.

There are two other philosophical points on my agenda:

Siegel's exposition of classic dialectical materialism, while it could be worse, should not be taken as is. The notion of dialectical laws and logic touted by both Stalinists and Trotskyists remains crude and logically vulnerable.

The third and most important philosophical point, a problem in all Marxist literature on the subject, concerns the origins of religion and supernaturalism and the mechanisms of superstition and magical thinking. The Marxist insight that religion is tied to mystification and alienation with respect to nature and social relations is essential, articulated front and center in a way that is missing in the mainstream Anglo-American agitprop on the subject. However, this is only a framework from which to begin. Saxton in his unimaginative empiricism criticizes Marxian formulations, and himself attempts to fill in the gaps with evolutionary psychology and an account of the "crisis of consciousness" which engendered religion as a survival tool insulating the human species against the fear of death. The psychological mechanisms, social functions, motivations, rationalizations, social functions, and deployment of magical thinking and superstition are more variegated than the usual Marxist adumbrations and Saxton's supplementary explanation account for.

I emphasize also that a look into the intrinsic mechanisms of supernaturalist mystification should expand Marxist approaches to the subject beyond the instrumentalist attitude towards religion as either reactionary (ruling class) or emancipatory (liberation movements). The issue of social forces and the quality of life is more than what you can use.

With these reservations in mind, I hope we can prepare ourselves for the next stage in the analysis of religion.

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