January 17, 2012

revisiting Marx's critique of religion

While I continue to appreciate the theological reflections that have grown out of the Marxist tradition, much of what I appreciate about Marx's writings on religion has to do with his dismissal of it as a subject thought to be worthy of critique. More compelling are the connections he draws between the abstract value of capital and the way its accumulation assumes a theology of its own. As is well-known, Marx's critique of religion in The German Ideology made a radical break with the sort of idealism that dominated critiques of religion in his own time. Derrida's Specters of Marx does a particularly good job of complicating this supposed break with the ghosts of religion, before proceeding to name Derrida's own debt to an unconditional and impossible justice, a hope which he models after Benjamin's weak messianism. The late French philosopher is one of many radical theorists (see Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, etc.) to return to theological sources and ideas in order to better understand and criticize the various "secular" guises of neo-liberalism.

I spent the holidays reading through most of Alberto Toscano's Fanaticism, a recent attempt to reconfigure the debate surrounding the so-called “return of religion” and the various arguments put forward by “post-secular” critics like those mentioned above. In it, he traces the critical history of  the concept of fanaticism. His expressed purpose is that of reconstituting a political vocabulary which is capable of accommodating both “enthusiasm” and “abstraction” (an overabundance of each is a consistent mark of the "fanatic," according to the Western liberal tradition). But for Toscano, the fanatic isn't simply the dark side of some secular ideal. As he writes, “Contemporary approaches to questions of politics and religion continue to rely, perhaps inevitably, on philosophies of history articulated in some sense around notions of secularization – whether they’re analyzing a supposed ‘return’ of a religiosity that history had doomed to obsolescence, or viewing unconditional political commitments or ‘fanaticisms’ as atavistic resurgences, in secular garb, of affective structures of a fundamentally religious kind.” For this reason Marxism is written off as a utopian program analogous to religion (so Alastair MacIntyre argues in Marxism and Christianity). Rather than invoking structures of experience or conceptual analogies between Marxism and Christianity, Toscano follows Fredric Jameson in arguing that the goal of political criticism should be to historicize the very comparison between these two systems of thought. 

Toscano centres his study of fanaticism on a rereading of Marx’s critique of religion in The German Ideology, emphasizing that we cannot begin to conceive of a space outside of religion—that is, a secular space—without first participating in real emancipation from capitalist modes of production and a radical restructuring of social relations. Amid the flurry of arguments for and against religion by popular scientists, journalists and Christian apologists, Marx’s simple but profound point—that the proliferation of ideology is intimately related to material practices and social conditions—is routinely forgotten. As Toscano puts it, “Atheistic criticism overestimates the centrality of Christianity to the state and treat’s the state’s secularization as an end in itself.” Rather, we should understand that Marx meant his criticism of religion to be a starting point, a critique “in embryo” for a restructuring of the economic base. To effectively dissuade people of their religious illusions about their condition “is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” Whether this is in fact possible, or desirable is another question.

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