Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson

There’s a passage from Marx’s critique of Hegel that antitheists like to quote and defenders of faith like to quotemine. In a piece titled ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’, Kris Nelson notes Marx calls religion the heart of a heartless world as well as the opium of the people, claiming to ‘open up . . . the full quote, and not just the snapshot used to pick at those who dare let their god(s) lead them’.

In fact, Nelson – ‘a queer trans witch [who] runs an online store . . . where they sell handcrafted wirework jewellery, crystal pendants, handsewn tarot bags and pendulums’ – is the one peddling a misrepresentation. The actually-full quote (translation mine) reads:

The discontent of religion is at once an expression of and protestation against true discontent. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, heart of a heartless world and soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To overthrow the bogus happiness they find in it is to demand they be allowed true happiness; to demand disillusionment with a condition built on delusion is to demand its end. And so to criticise religion is, in embryo, to criticise the vale of tears of which it is but an apparition.

Such critique has not shredded the imaginary flowers on people’s chains so as to leave them chained without solace or fantasy, but so that they might cast away their chains and gather real flowers. It disillusions people so that they might think, act and shape their own reality, as does anyone brought to their senses – so that their lives might revolve around them, people being their own true suns. Religion is no more than an illusory sun, revolving around people whose lives do not revolve around them.

The point missed on all sides isn’t that religion is either a bad habit or a source of hope – nor is Marx saying it’s one in spite of being the other. The meaning of ‘Opium des Volkes’, a metaphor Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw would later recycle, is that faith is comforting and delusional, easing the pain by clouding the senses: Marx labels it the courage of a heartless world as part of his attack.

There’s a lot I could say about those lines, which never fail to move me. Unlike new atheism’s figureheads, I’ve been a believer – I could say I remember not having enough to eat, going to church with a single mother and meeting other oppressed creatures; remember the cost of the church’s help, belief spinning out of control, abuse and mental illness taking hold; remember the bogus happiness, then finding poetry in the real world.

000I could say that as an apostate on the left, my skepticism serves an instinct that, in Chomsky’s words, ‘the burden of proof for anyone with a position of power and authority lies on them’ – that my atheism will never be separate from the fight for a just society – and that my antitheism will never, ever be divorced from compassion for those on the margins. I could even accept, though I think his argument survives it, that there’s room to criticise Marx – either in that his presumption to dismantle strangers’ beliefs rings paternalistic, or inasmuch as leftists can and do repurpose God for their own ends.

For now though, Nelson’s post.

Calling oneself a person of faith feels like setting light fingers on ‘person of colour’ – a move less tasteful still when apostates whose former religions have a marked ethnic dimension are among the most stigmatised, frequently smeared as race traitors. Mentioning one’s spirituality – ‘We’ve all got one!’ – likewise resembles the language of sexuality. While it’s perfectly true certain religious groups are ostracised, constructing believers in general as an oppressed class is putrescent – if Nelson finds religion a fraught topic on the left, it’s because of its role as oppressor, and it’s hard to see how conflating the ‘struggle’ of Baptists and Anglicans with those of Jews and Muslims in the west does any good. [Read more…]

Ed Miliband deserves forthright appraisal. The Daily Mail offers none

Ed Miliband is a John Doe-cialist: he doesn’t know who he is, but he’s sure he’s a left winger.

Naïvely Labourite in my more youthful youth, I confess I voted for him. I stand by that decision now, if I stand in support of any candidate who ran. Certainly I’m glad his older, Blairite brother didn’t snatch the title, who’d no doubt have spent the last three years defending New Labour to the death while politics moved on ahead of him. Nor do I rate the popular refrain his leadership’s been a humiliation – as Ian Dunt set out a year ago at, he’s managed and positioned his party more skilfully than is acknowledged – but if and when he enters office, which seems to me likelier than not in eighteen months, my expectations are not high.

Colleagues on the left have been estranged by his complicity in ConDem Britain’s austerity scheme, refusing to fight cuts to services or welfare, to oppose the forced unpaid labour of the unemployed, to support direct action or keep his party bonded to trade unions. When Labourites aren’t standing up for labour rights, what are they for?

But these are only symptoms of his real weakness: being too timidly spineless to assert a clear political identity. Within ten minutes of his election, Miliband was thrashing panic-stricken around, attempting to throw off the Red Ed nickname newspapers had given him – a name which should have been a badge of pride, expressing as it did the social democratic platform on which he’d run and won, gaining the votes of union members, Blairism’s critics and disillusioned Liberal Democrats. He’s turned his back on this constituency since out of submission to the rightist media, pandering desperately for approval, and the irony is colossal. His leadership to date embodies politics-as-commerce, where marketable stances are assumed which research suggests will sell – forget about all quaint ideas of having principles, committing to them and making a case.

The result is that ideologically, Miliband is a non-entity, the same kind David Cameron was before making a market crisis one of public spending gave his real politics a chance to shine. Beyond media-friendly, lowest-common-denominator vaguenesses such as ‘One Nation’, the Labour leader offers voters no solid sense of who or what he is, afraid to advance a clear agenda – let alone one with a hue of straight-up, old fashioned socialism – and fight for it against his critics.

The reason Miliband speaks at any given opportunity about his father, and why opponents in the press and House of Commons have rehearsed ad nauseam the fiction he betrayed his brother David by not granting him the leadership by natural right, is that his family lends him elusive context. Ed Miliband means something as the prodigal son of Marxist academic Ralph or underdog to rival brother David – more than he means in terms of his own politics in practice. This is what makes the Daily Mail‘s recent shot at him via his father an own goal on two fronts.

If nothing else and for the avoidance of doubt, it wasn’t a good article, arguing first that Miliband senior’s ‘Marxist dream’ was spoonfed to his son, whose leadership intends to carry on his ‘evil legacy’ through capped energy prices, council powers to seize long-term unused land and independent regulation of press standards (Stalinism, no less), then that Ed is a tax-dodging millionaire in a North London townhouse whose ‘socialism’ is mere showboating. Both cannot be true. Either the Labour leader is a Soviet in sheep’s clothing, out to destroy the British way of life, or he’s a bourgeois hypocrite, the lesser son of greater sires. The latter line of critique needless to say is the more fertile, but seems to be peripheral here. The Mail must surely see the contradiction, but shows more interest, exactly like the man it hopes to vilify, in the marketably specious than the politically authentic.

Despite Winston Churchill’s fondly telling his wife in 1944, ‘I have had very nice talks with the old Bear. I like him the more I see him’, the comparison of Miliband with Stalin bears a strong ring of the former’s infamous Gestapo speech, which alleged Labour’s post-war welfare programme – National Health Service, social security etc. – would require a nazistic police state for its inception. Then Labour leader Clement Attlee had, like Ed, the least demagogic personality conceivable, making the accusation faintly funny. Tarring his father however, as his right-of-reply piece nicely demonstrated, only serves to lend him ammunition.

It’s childish, oversimplistic and dishonest, of course, to grant Stalin’s Russia a monopoly on Marx or communism. Ralph Miliband, despite the intimations of the Mail, launched a lifetime’s worth of salvos at the USSR; it conveniently neglects to mention the Hungarian forradalom‘s forces, who overthrew Soviet control for a short time and prefigured later uprisings, were themselves communists, demanding democratised elections and free media alongside fair pay for workers and academics and a living wage; in protest at its leadership’s support for Moscow, it was in support of them that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s biggest exodus of members took place.

In any case though, it should be clear from the title of Miliband the Younger’s rebuttal – ‘Why my father loved Britain‘ – that the hit piece only feeds his tendency to posture, hiding once more behind the family narrative, declining still to build a real platform. We’ve heard a hundred times how the Milibands’ parents fled the Nazis, availing themselves of Britain’s mythical hope and decency. It’s a lazy tactic, nothing but compelling anecdote (and less compelling the hundredth time round) in place of ideological substance. If the Mail cared about politics beyond partisanship, it could have laid this bareness bare. Instead, it offered him another thousand words to waste.

‘Freethought’ has always been a left tradition

The atheist far right’s beloved sweetheart Pat Condell, chief vilifier at large of Muslims, migrants, and ‘carpet-chewing PC fanatics’, knows no appeasement, quiescence or apparent joy – nor knows he, as his recent swipe at this network showed us, much at all.

Honoured to be slandered as racist‘, Condell tweeted this week, by ‘the ludicrously named Freethought Blogs’, in his words ‘the North Korea of free thought‘. ‘Being hated by people like this makes it all worthwhile.’

You’re welcome, Pat. And it isn’t slander, is it, if you think your image benefits? (It isn’t anyway, of course. Slander, to offer one of Spider-Man‘s underused lines, is spoken. In print, it’s libel – and how he thinks a court could rule on whether or not his views are racist, I don’t know. Like the English Defence League mind you, on whom he bundles fulsome praise, people with dark skin sometimes like him, which settles it of course.)

Objections to Freethought‘s place in our masthead are among the laziest, glibbest soundbites our critics have, but more than that display a failure to grasp even the term’s most basic history. Freethought is not ‘free thought’ or uninhibited inquiry – to think so boasts the same green literalism as thinking a Friends’ Meeting House is a shared beach hut or that Scotch pancakes contain Scotch  – though even if it were, it’s silly and inane to assume one’s critics are automatons or say loose collective viewpoints mean dictatorship. Freethought is a specified tradition, European in the main, whose constituents have by and large been countercultural, radical and leftist, everything Condell and cohorts viscerally despise.

The Deutscher Freidenker-Verband, probably Europe’s major freethought organisation, claimed a membership of hundreds of thousands by the time of its proscription at the Nazis’ hands. A bulk of its support came from the Communist and Social Democratic parties, the former producing its final chair (prior to post-war revival) Max Sievers, the latter cofounded by the Marxist Wilhelm Liebknecht as was the DFV. The Kommunistische Partei was itself founded by Liebknecht’s middle son Karl and Rosa Luxemburg, together Weimar Germany’s most posthumously celebrated dissidents. Christopher Hitchens appraised Luxemburg as the ‘most brilliant’ of Marxist anti-Leninists, crediting the Social Democrats with prompting Bertrand Russell’s writing career beyond building an alternative and markedly more feminist society for its supporters, the historian Isaac Deutscher (another Jewish atheist, his politics very much like hers) as closer to Marx than anyone who followed, perhaps excepting Leon Trotsky.

Marx himself remains a sharper critic of religion than Condell could ever hope to be, as were a noted swathe of (free)thinkers informed by him before and beyond Sovietism. Millions of working Germans mobilised against 1920s church politics, leaving religious organisations after campaigns by left freethinker groups, including beside the DFV the Bund Sozialistischer Freidenker with its 20,000 members, the national Zentral-Verband der Proletarischen Freidenker and the International of Proletarian Freethinkers formed with siblings around the continent. (Such working class atheist constituencies have yet to form in the present movement. I eagerly await them.) In Italy, Antonio Gramsci – recognised now among the major atheist philosophers of interest – continued the socialist-atheist tradition there of Carlo Cafiero, the minutiae of whose anarcho-communism differed from Gramsci’s politics but who associated with Britain’s National Secular Society in its founding years.

Cafiero and Errico Malatesta, Italian anarchism’s prime progenitors, both had freethinking backgrounds and were devotees of Mikhail Bakunin, likewise an ardent atheist and anarchocollectivist whose theory treated faith much as Marx did (it was, no doubt, one of the few discursive areas where they’d have jovially agreed). His views reverberated similarly in the U.S. as praised by Emma Goldman, viewed now as a founder of American anarchism, communism, feminism and atheism. On the latter subject, as in my view on all others, she is infinitely quotable.

Freethought in Britain began even before all this, and there too it was led by anarchists – among them William Godwin, philosopher and radical. His daughter Mary, also an atheist, wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and married Percy Shelley, sent down from Oxford on publishing an atheist pamphlet, himself the author of Prometheus Unbound and a political dissident. Godwin’s own wife, philosopher Mary Wollstonecroft is remembered as founding modern feminism, translated according to Azar Nafisi (quoted at Pharyngula) by modern day Iranian women opposing Sharia – Iran, whose Worker-Communists are its major secularist faction, few more prominent among them than Mansoor Hekmat, influential among other spheres on Freethought Blogs writer Maryam Namazie. Wollstonecroft’s religious views’ details are disputed, but she was by no means a fervent believer, and her politics remain distinctly anticlerical.

Here endeth the lesson, Condell and friends. Bakunin, Cafiero, Deutscher, Godwin, Goldman, Gramsci, Hekmat, Liebknecht, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Malatesta, Marx, Namazie, Shelley, Shelley, Sievers, Wollstonecroft: these names and others like them trace the freethought name’s historic lineage, always intersectional. We, not you, are its inheritors; you, cursing atheism’s so called loony left, need surrender it to us and not vice versa.