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100 Years of Political Theology: a Marxist Perspective

Marx and Engels

From the editor: Earlier this month, Ted A. Smith of Emory University posted a wonderfully useful “Political Theology Start-up Kit” at the Religion in American History blog, summarizing what he thought were some of the key texts in the field over the past 100 years. In response, I have invited a range of editors and contributors to Political Theology and Political Theology Today to offer their own “Top 10 lists” over the next several weeks, based on their diverse approaches to and experiences within the field.  Our third contribution, from Dr. Roland Boer, takes some liberties with the “100 years” boundary, but offers a unique and provocative perspective on this question.

I would like to change direction a little in this reflection on one hundred years of political theology. My interest for some time has been the complex intersections – or translations – that take place between Marxism and religion. I find unpersuasive the assertion that Marxism is a secularised or pseudo-religion, a political movement that relies upon a religious framework in order to develop its positions. This is to fall into the double-trap of a secularisation narrative and making theology an absolute and thereby the source of all modern political thought. Instead, I work with a model of translation between Marxism and theology. Here is no absolute position that determines the other, for both languages are limited affairs, able to say some things better and others less so. Their semantic fields overlap but not entirely, a situation that ideally expands and enriches the terms that intersect. However, it also risks that something may be lost in the process of translation, some sense that is left out of the discussion. At the same time, the terms in question resist the process of translation, insisting on their own specific meanings. The result is a constant dialectical process of moving back and forth between the terms under negotiation, a creative process in which insight may be generated.

In that light, who are my top ten thinkers of political theology?

1. Friedrich Engels. Often seen as Marx’s lieutenant, of lesser capabilities than his close friend and comrade, Engels was actually a better writer and produced some of the core ideas that Marx developed. He also elaborated his own proposals beyond Marx. An example is the idea that a religion like Christianity is deeply ambivalent in its politics. It can be thoroughly reactionary, supporting whatever brutal regime happens to be in power, or it can be deeply revolutionary. Although Engels lost his strong Reformed faith in his twenties, he maintained an avid interest in theology until his death in 1895. So he was the first to offer an interpretation of the Peasant Revolution of 1525, led by Thomas Müntzer. And just before he died, he made the famous argument that Christianity was originally a revolutionary movement.

2. Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) would carry on Engels’s project in extraordinary detail. While his Foundations of Christianity (1908) provided the first book-length study of Christianity from a Marxist perspective, his multi-volume Forerunners of Modern Socialism (1895-97, 1922) is far more important. This work really establishes a tradition of revolutionary Christianity, tracing the myriad revolutionary movements inspired by Christian thought and practice. Most of his attention focuses on the Middle Ages and the Reformation, but he includes almost 2000 years of such movements. This work had profoundly influenced me, although it remains only partially translated into English and under-appreciated.

3. Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) is without a doubt the most neglected of all those in my list. A Bolshevik to the left of Lenin and the first Commissar for Enlightenment in the new Russia after 1917, Lunacharsky was the leader of a movement known as ‘God-Building’. His magisterial two-volume work, Religion and Socialism (1908 and 1911), has been translated from Russian only into Yiddish. In this work, he engages closely with the most significant points theological thought and offers a careful rereading of the Bible. Apart from his poetic sensibilities, and his basing the USSR’s education system on ‘God-building’, Lunacharsky’s main contributions include: a) a desire to recover the emotional and enthusiastic side of Marxism by means of an engagement with religion; b) deploying the model of the gods as ideals of human striving – hence ‘God-building’ and what he called the ‘religion of labour’; c) the role of the revolution in that process of God-building; d) a profound exploration of Engels’s insight into the political ambivalence of Christianity.

4. In many ways, Lunacharsky anticipates the insights of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). One of Bloch’s great inspirations was the Bible itself, which he read and knew intimately.  Among many features of Bloch’s thought, perhaps the most significant is his discernment of (biblical) myth. He was not one to throw out myth in the name of enlightenment, for myth contains revolutionary insights. However, we require the subtle ability to discern those insights in the midst of the reactionary nature of so much myth.

5. Theodor Adorno (1903-69) also wrote on theology, especially his habilitationschrift on Kierkegaard (1933), completed under the direction of Paul Tillich. This is a thorough exercise in theological suspicion, but I am also taken with Adorno’s criticisms of liberal theology, the dangers of secularised theology (he has Heidegger and Jaspers in mind), and his extraordinary deployment of the ban on images from the Decalogue so that it became a leitmotiv of his negative dialectics.

6. Adorno’s collaborator, Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) requested a slightly altered quotation from Psalm 91 on his tombstone: ‘Because you, eternal one, are my confidence’. Horkheimer was even keener than Adorno in recovering elements from the theological tradition for the development of Marxist thought. The most noteworthy include the tension between authenticity of resistance (whether theistic or atheistic) and the betrayal of compromise with the state, the human desire of a ‘longing for the totally other’ (which reflects discussions with Tillich), and the search for an ‘honest religion’.

7. Louis Althusser (1918-90) may be another surprising addition to this list. Yet he began in the Roman Catholic Left before joining the French Communist Party and wrote a number of early theological essays. Some of these ideas would filter through into his most famous Marxist writings – especially his theory of ideology as the constitution of the subject in relation the (big S) Subject – so that he provides some of the groundwork for a philosophy of the practical ideology of religion.

8. Dick Boer is no relation of mine, but a communist theologian living in Amsterdam. A comrade of Ton Veerkamp, Dick Boer was a minister in East Germany from 1984-90 – in the Dutch Ecumenical Congregation in the GDR. Here he engaged with major political figures and Marxist thinkers, and first proposed the manifesto that led to the ‘For Our Country’ mass movement. It was a movement that sought to renew the socialist project in East Germany in the late 1980s. In light of his experience of preaching in a socialist country, where the problem was not the revolution itself but dealing with problems after the revolution, Dick Boer wrote his work of biblical theology, Redemption from Slavery: Biblical Theology in the Service of Liberation (Verlossing uit de Slavernij: Bijbelse Theologie in Dienst van Bevrijding, 2009). It is being translated into English as I write.

9. W. T. Wu (1893-1979) is my Chinese representative. Wu was one of a number of original Chinese theologians in the first half of the twentieth century who explored the intersections between Marxism and Christianity. He sought to develop a ‘materialist Christianity’ based on the Sermon on the Mount, but his lifelong agenda was to temper the excesses of both Christian theology (especially its absolutism) and Marxism (its relativism) by a constant process of translation between the two.

10. Hussein Mroué (1907-87) and Tan Malaka (1997-1949). I have yet to read the works by either, a Lebanese and an Indonesian, but they both sought the ways Marxism and Islam are interwoven with one another. Mroué was a sheikh trained in Karbala, Iraq, who became a Marxist and joined the Lebanese Communist Party. He was working on the third volume of his Materialist Tendencies in Islamic Philosophy when he was assassinated. Malaka is an Indonesian hero, for he was a leader of the resistance movement against Dutch colonial control. In Madilog (Materialisme-Dialektika-Logika 1943) he explores the way Marxism and Islam are compatible: while the latter needs to lose its mystical bent and learn from dialectical materialism, the former needs to see that Islam may well provide the basis for uniting the working classes against capitalism in the Muslim-majority countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

(6) Comments

  1. “I would like to change direction a little in this reflection on one hundred years of political theology. My interest for some time has been the complex intersections – or translations – that take place between Marxism and religion.”

    May I try to link Marxism with liberation theology?

    The New Evangelization and the Poor

    We cannot solve the problems of the New Evangelization without the help of the poor.
    Cardinal Claudio Hummes gives us some direction when he states: “A servant church must have as its priority solidarity with the poor,” he said. “The faith must express itself in charity and in solidarity, which is the civil form of charity,” Hummes said:
    “Today more than ever, the church faces this challenge. In fact, effective solidarity with the poor, both individual persons and entire nations, is indispensable for the construction of peace. Solidarity corrects injustices, reestablishes the fundamental rights of persons and of nations, overcomes poverty and even resists the revolt that injustice provokes, eliminating the violence that is born with revolt and constructing peace.”
    May I suggest a way to practice this “solidarity” here in the USA:
    A “preferential option for the poor” should be maintained in our Catholic
    Schools. If we find that we cannot afford to keep our schools open to the
    poor, the schools should be closed and the resources used for something else
    which can be kept open to the poor. We cannot allow our Church to become a
    church primarily for the middle-class and rich while throwing a bone to the
    poor. The priority should be given to the poor even if we have to let the
    middle-class and rich fend for themselves.
    Practically speaking, the Catholic Schools must close and the resources
    used for “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine” and other programs which can
    be kept open to the poor. Remember, the Church managed without Catholic
    Schools for centuries. We can get along without them today. The essential
    factor is to cultivate enough Faith to act in the Gospel Tradition, namely,
    THE POOR GET PRIORITY. The rich and middle-class are welcome too. But the
    poor come first.

    • Latin American liberation theology, as well as black, feminist and queer liberation theologies, is really part of the long tradition of revolutionary movements inspired by theology – a tradition Engels first saw and as Kautsky elaborated in significant detail.

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