Monthly Review Press

Antonio Gramsci
ANTONIO GRAMSCI by Antonio A. Santucci

The Fiction of a Thinkable World
THE FICTION OF A THINKABLE WORLD: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism by Michael Steinberg

Cultures of Darkness
CULTURES OF DARKNESS: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression by Bryan D. Palmer

The Marxian Imagination
THE MARXIAN IMAGINATION: Representing Class in Literature by Julian Markels

by Guy Endore


On Art and Literature
ON ART AND LITERATURE: Critical Writings by José Martí

Religion and the Human Prospect

The Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould
by Richard York and Brett Clark


Critique of Intelligent Design
CRITIQUE OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York

The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet
THE ECOLOGICAL REVOLUTION: Making Peace with the Planet by John Bellamy Foster

Marx's Ecology
MARX'S ECOLOGY: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster

Ecology against Capitalism

The Vulnerable Planet
THE VULNERABLE PLANET: A Short Economic History of the Environment by John Bellamy Foster

Hungry for Profit
HUNGRY FOR PROFIT: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment edited by Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel

The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees
THE TAMING OF THE AMERICAN CROWD: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees by Al Sandine

Dialectical Urbanism
DIALECTICAL URBANISM: Social Struggles in the Capitalist City by Andy Merrifield

Put To Work: The WPA and Public Employment in the Great Depression
PUT TO WORK: The WPA and Public Employment in the Great Depression by Nancy E. Rose

The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know
THE ABCS OF THE ECONOMIC CRISIS: What Working People Need to Know by Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates

The Great Financial Crisis
THE GREAT FINANCIAL CRISIS: Causes and Consequences
by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff


Labor and Monopoly Capital
LABOR AND MONOPOLY CAPITAL: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century by Harry Braverman

Monopoly Capital
MONOPOLY CAPITAL: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order by Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy


Open Veins of Latin America
OPEN VEINS OF LATIN AMERICA; Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano

Days and Nights of Love and War

When Media Goes to War
WHEN MEDIA GOES TO WAR: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent by Anthony DiMaggio

Imperialism without Colonies

Humanitarian Imperialism
HUMANITARIAN IMPERIALISM: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont

Bush versus Chávez
BUSH VERSUS CHÁVEZ: Washington's War on Venezuela
by Eva Golinger


Fool's Crusade
FOOLS’ CRUSADE: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions by Diana Johnstone

Behind the Invasion of Iraq
BEHIND THE INVASION OF IRAQ by The Research Unit for Political Economy

Toward an Open Tomb
The Crisis of Israeli Society
by Michel Warschawski


Eastern Cauldron
EASTERN CAULDRON: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq
in a Marxist Mirror
by Gilbert Achcar


Inside Lebanon
INSIDE LEBANON: Journey to a Shattered Land with Noam and Carol Chomsky (Ed. Assaf Kfoury)

FANSHEN: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village by William Hinton, new preface by Fred Magdoff

The Unknown Cultural Revolution
Life and Change in a Chinese Village by Dongping Han


The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy

China and Socialism
CHINA AND SOCIALISM: Market Reforms and Class Struggle
by Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett


The Great Reversal
THE GREAT REVERSAL: The Privatization of China, 1978-1989 by William Hinton

Red Cat, White Cat
RED CAT, WHITE CAT: China and the Contradictions of "Market Socialism" by Robert Weil

KOREA: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy by Martin Hart-Landsberg

The Rush to Development
THE RUSH TO DEVELOPMENT: Economic Change and Political Struggle in South Korea by Martin Hart-Landsberg

Che Guevara: His Revolutionary Legacy
CHE GUEVARA: His Revolutionary Legacy by Olivier Besancenot and Michael Löwy

Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution
ING THE VENEZUELAN REVOLUTION: Hugo Chavez Talks to Marta Harnecker by Hugo Chavez and Marta Harnecker


The Communist Manifesto
THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Rosa Luxemburg Reader
THE ROSA LUXEMBURG READER edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson

Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral
RETURN TO THE SOURCE: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral

The World We Wish to See
THE WORLD WE WISH TO SEE: Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty First Century by Samir Amin

The Socialist Alternative

Build It Now
BUILD IT NOW: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century by Michael A. Lebowitz

The Structural Crisis of Capital

Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness
NESS by István Mészáros


The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time
THE CHALLENGE AND BURDEN OF HISTORICAL TIME: Socialism in the Twenty-First Century by István Mészáros (foreword by John Bellamy Foster)

Beyond Capital
BEYOND CAPITAL: Toward a Theory of Transition by István Mészáros

Socialism or Barbarism
SOCIALISM OR BARBARISM: From the "American Century" to the Crossroads
by István Mészáros


A Difficult Love Affair?
On the Relation between Marxism and Theology

by Roland Boer

Abstract: From the moment Marx and Engels became involved with the League of the Just, Marxism has always had a long and often difficult relation with theology and the Bible.  Some of the leading figures of the twentieth century were no exception --- Althusser, Adorno, Gramsci, Lefebvre, Eagleton are just a few.  And in our own day we have the rush of engagements with Paul's Letters in the New Testament by thinkers on the Left.  In light of my recent book, Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology, as well as the next book, Criticism of Religion, I ask why Marxism and theology seem to be so close, why they argue so much, and what it means for both of them.  Does it weaken them or are they stronger for the connection?

The relationship -- often difficult and rancorous -- between Marxism and theology continues to fascinate me.  Why are Marxism and theology so close, I wonder?  Why do they argue so much?  Is it something that weakens each one, holding the other back?  Or are they perhaps stronger and sharper because of that tense connection?

If fact, I am so enthralled by this liaison that I have written two books on it and propose to write two more.  Not quite romances, the two books I have completed are called Criticism of Heaven (Boer 2007) and Criticism of Religion (Boer Forthcoming).  Midway through the project, this essay gives me the chance to reflect upon what I am doing.  For, as one of my former teachers once said to me, you need to know what you are talking about, since if you don't know, how in the world are you going to communicate that to anyone else.  So, I will say a little about the book that has just appeared, Criticism Heaven, as well as the other three.  However, so that this essay doesn't become an exercise in pure self-indulgence, I wish to turn soon enough to three questions.  Why are theology and Marxism so close?  Why do they argue so much?  And what does it mean for both of them?

The Criticism Series

As for the books themselves -- both the two that are written and the two that are to be written -- let me begin with an enticing statement by the early Marx that keeps coming back to me.  In his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law he writes:

Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.  (Marx and Engels 1975-2004, III: 176)

This text comes in the midst of the famous and much-discussed section where Marx begins by saying that the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism and moves onto his well-known metaphors of flowers, chains and opium.  Now, I don't want to offer yet another opinion about opium, sighs of oppressed creatures and chains here (that is for the study of Marx and Engels).  What we have in this quotation from Marx is what might be called poetic parallelism.1   In fact, we have a triple parallelism: from the criticism of heaven to the criticism of earth, from religion to law, and from theology to politics.  On the one side are heaven, religion and theology, while on the other there are earth, law and politics.  The strange thing is that for all their desire for a criticism of earth, law and politics, Marxists have a knack of devoting a good deal of attention to matters of heaven, religion and theology.  I must admit that I am one of them.

Initially I took up the phrase Criticism of Heaven for the first book.  I had no plans for any further volumes. I knew that some Marxists had written on religion, that Marx and Engels' scattered comments on religion had generated much debate, and I was aware that one or two other Marxists had even written on the Bible, for I had first encountered Ernst Bloch more than twenty years ago.  But as I read, searched and studied further, I was continually surprised by how much Marxists have written on the Bible and theology.  I do not mean religion in a general sense (which is all too often interchanged with 'theology' in ways that still bother me), but the disciplines of biblical studies and theology, which have their own histories.  My focus was squarely on theology, partly because of my background, and partly because most treatments of religion and Marxism do so from the perspective of the sociology of religion, a discipline for which Marx is one of the founders along with Durkheim and Weber (e.g. Goldstein 2006; Ott 2007).  Initially I tried to contain my study to Ernst Bloch,2 Walter Benjamin (Benjamin 1998, 1999; 1996: 62-74; 1974-89, vols 1, 5, 2: 62-74) and Theodor Adorno (who wrote his first book on philosophy, his habilitation on Kierkegaard, under the direction of the theologian Paul Tillich [Adorno 1989, 1973; Adorno and Horkheimer 1999; Adorno 1986, vols 2, 3, 6]).  I sent the manuscript off in 2003, but was unhappy with it.  So I pulled it and began working on it again.  It grew and grew: Henri Lefebvre had been part of the Roman Catholic Church, albeit with the heretical Jansenists (his mother was one) only to undertake a lifelong flight from it (Lefebvre 1991: 201-27); Louis Althusser wrote a number of early theological essays before turning to Marxism (Althusser 1997, 1994), and the themes from those early essays permeate his later work; Antonio Gramsci wrote extensively on the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, the Reformation and so on (Gramsci 1995, 1992, 1996); Terry Eagleton had been a left theologian (and wrote some theological books) before becoming a Marxist, only to return to the theology in the new millennium (Eagleton 1966, 1970, 2003a, 2003b); Slavoj ŽŽižek had thrashed his way to the New Testament via, of all people, Lenin (Žižek 2000, 2001, 2003).  By the time I had finished the manuscript of Criticism of Heaven it contained 290,000 words, which would have been a book of over 700 pages.  I talked to a few publishers, but when I mentioned how long it was, they looked the other way.  I sent it to Verso, it fell into the hands of Sebastien Budgen, who wrote to me to say it was too long for Verso, but that the Historical Materialism Book Series with Brill may well be interested.  And then, after the poor referees had to wade through it, Peter Thomas wrote to me and said, yes, they would publish it, but perhaps I could try to 'shave off' 100,000 words.  Over two weeks in Sofia, Bulgaria, I did so.

By this time I had written a few odd pieces and occasional essays on other Marxists.  But that is it, I thought.  I'm not going to write any more on this theme.  Yet before I knew it, I had another book in hand.  There were more Marxists dealing with theology, the Bible and even the Church!  Rosa Luxemburg had written a booklet called Socialism and the Churches, where she argued for an early Christian communism and freedom of conscience on religious matters (Luxemburg 2004, 1982 [1905]).  Karl Kautsky had not only written his fascinating but problematic Foundations of Christianity (Kautsky 2001, 1908), but also a massive unfinished study called Forerunners of Modern Socialism (Kautsky 1976 [1895-7]; Kautsky and Lafargue 1977 [1922]; Kautsky 2002 [1897]), where he explored the various heretical sects in the Middle Ages and then the socialist dimensions of the Protestant Reformation, including his hero Thomas More (Kautsky 2002, 1947 [1888]).  Fredric Jameson has written a few essays on theological themes, such as those on Milton and St Augustine (Jameson 1986, 1996), but theological questions that go back to Feuerbach lie behind sections of his recent Archaeologies of the Future (Jameson 2005).  Lucien Goldmann remained fascinated by the theological dialectics of Pascal and Jansenism (Goldmann 1964, 1959); Alain Badiou (2003; 1997) and Giorgio Agamben (2005; 2000) sought to resuscitate Paul in the New Testament as a revolutionary; Raymond Williams had more to say than most of us would think on the Baptist Chapel of his native Wales; even George Lukács was given to curious theological arguments (such as that the novel is the genre of the world abandoned by God [Lukács 1971, 1994]) and spent his lifetime trying to eradicate what he saw as his messianic utopianism (Lukács 1988: xxvii; 1968: 30; see also Lukács 1983; 1973: 308-26).  On and on it goes: Negri makes use New Testament ideas such as the kairos (Negri 2003) and has written a study of Job in the Bible (Negri 2002); E. P. Thomson became fascinated by the heretical British religious sects such as the Muggletonians (Thompson 1993); Michael Löwy has been working with liberation theology for some years now (Löwy 1988, 1996). . . .

I have tried to keep the list concise, but you get the picture: it was more than enough for another book, so the manuscript for Criticism of Religion took shape.  In light of the parallelism between the criticism of heaven and the criticism religion in the text I quoted a little earlier from Marx, these two books operate on the same basis: they explore and in some respects establish a Marxist tradition of engagements with theology and the Bible.

It is all very well to list what these Marxists of different shades have done.  The deeper question is what I am doing with these books.  What are my aims?  How do I go about it?  The catch is that the answers to these questions have really emerged only as I have been writing.  At the risk of being formulaic, I list the aims as I see them now.  I seek:

  1. To provide a comprehensive critical commentary on the interaction between materialism and theology within the work of the leading Marxist thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

  2. To set the current surge of interest in the Bible and theology by Marxist critics such as Slavoj ŽŽižek, Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben within historical perspective.

  3. To explore where possible unknown and neglected theological writings by these critics.

  4. To assess the implications of their theological engagements for the thought of each thinker as a whole.

  5. To compare with each other the various theological engagements by these figures.

  6. To produce my own coherent body of thought in response, with a specific focus on the question as to why Marxists are so interested in theology.

Each of these aims addresses something that has not been done.  Apart from pointing out that there is no comprehensive commentary and assessment of what is really a tradition in its own right -- the relationship between Marxism and theology -- we also have a rather curious lack of historical perspective.  What I mean is that for many the recent spate of writings by Marxist philosophers focusing on Paul and the New Testament itself seems to been created ex nihilo.  I have already mentioned the major interventions by Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj ŽŽižek, but there have also been Hardt and Negri's evocation of a collective Christian love (Hardt and Negri 2004: 351-2, 358), as well as Terry Eagleton's recovery of his days in the Catholic left.  More are now being pulled into this debate, such as Sichère (2003) and Trigano (2004), and the assessment of this development has begun (Blanton and De Vries Forthcoming).  However, what these studies lack is a distinct historical perspective, namely, that the Bible and theology have always been constant companions for Marxist thought and politics.  By contrast, this project sets the interaction between materialism, theology and the Bible within the context of a longer historical tradition.

In light of such a deeper historical perspective, it soon becomes apparent that the flurry of interest in the theological engagements of Badiou, Agamben and ŽŽižek is an anomaly.  Indeed, going back to look at the tradition before the current rush, I have been constantly surprised at the neglect of the writings on theology by many of the critics on whom I focus.  These writings include monographs (Adorno, Bloch, Goldmann, Eagleton, Kautsky and Luxemburg), sections of monographs (Kristeva, Gramsci, Lukács, Williams), essays (Althusser, Eagleton, Lefebvre, Jameson, Luxemburg) and even the odd novel (Williams).  The same should be said of Marx and Engels, who for the avalanche of commentary and engagement have not been subjected to an analysis of what they do with the Bible and theology.

A further problem is that where there has been critical discussion of these characters, in nearly all cases (the exception is really Walter Benjamin) it fails to assess their writings on theology in light of their oeuvres as a whole.  This is especially the case with the spate of recent responses to Badiou, Agamben and ŽŽižek.  So I am interested in precisely this question: what is the implication for their work as a whole?  Is it a peripheral concern, or is it more central?  Two lines have opened up so far: either the wider principles of someone's work will also be applied to theology (a key example here is Rosa Luxemburg), or theological categories make their way into other parts of their work.  Adorno and Althusser are good examples of this second process: Adorno makes the Bilderverbot, drawn from the ban on images of the second commandment in Exodus 20/Deuteronomy 5, into a basic motif of his work; Athusser's effort to banish the Church from his later work (it is central to his early essays) turns it into an absent cause of that work.

There are two final areas where no work has been done at all -- a comparative critique of the various engagements with theology and a constructive response to those engagements.  Now, one would hardly expect to find such work since there has been no exploration of the whole tradition.  All the same, it seems to me that both are necessary.  Apart from assessing the role of theology in the oeuvres of each critic, what is also needed is a weighing and assessment of the work of each character in light of the others.  Here I can assess whether one position criticises another, whether it is a step back or an improvement, why theology is so enticing for materialist critics, and so on.  For example, if one sets out to secularise theological terms for political analysis (a rather common feature in the tradition), then I am very interested in any sustained critique of such secularised theology (Adorno is the key here).

Finally, it is all very well to comment on the work of others, however critical one might be.  But there is a time and a need for one to come clean and risk putting one's own position forward.  I have, after all, gathered quite a collection of ideas that have developed in response to the sundry characters of this tradition -- ideas such as necessary fables, theological suspicion, the critique of classicism, and the passing moment of theology.  I am keen to knit them into a coherent body of thought, not least because theology has been and remains an important element of materialism.  Indeed, it seems to me that materialism and theology are two sides of the same coin, or, in more rigorous terms, they are engaged in a dialectical relation that lies at the heart of this whole project.

To sum up, I would say that my approach in the Criticism series is intimate, immanent, comparative, historical and constructive.  In other words, I seek to read patiently and carefully, refusing to rush over texts, to ask what the implications might be for the whole body of thought of each critic, to compare, weigh and assess each contribution in light of the others, to develop a sense of the distinct history of this tradition, and then to construct my own creative and coherent body of thought in response.

By now it should be obvious that there really needs to be a third and fourth volume.  One will be called From the Criticism of Theology to the Criticism of Politics, focusing on the engagements with theology and the Bible in the works of Marx and Engels.  And those engagements are more extensive than one might think.  While Marx was given to perpetual allusions from the Bible, theology and the Church, often with an ironic twist, Engels knew his Bible rather well.  Able to read Koine (New Testament) Greek, having renounced with difficulty his evangelical (in the old German sense) faith, and keeping up with biblical studies, Engels was no amateur on these matters.  He is even the source of a central element in the history of early Christianity, namely its beginnings among the exploited classes in the Roman Empire.  The famous observation from his On the History of Early Christianity reads: 'Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as a religion of slaves and freedmen, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome' (Marx and Engels 1975-2004: 447).  This position is not merely a staple of some strains of Marxist work, but is also a debated matter in New Testament studies and Church history.  So, From the Criticism of Theology to the Criticism of Politics will offer a patient reading and critique of Engel's theological works, along with an analysis the subterranean pattern of biblical allusions that run through Marx's texts.

The other will be called Criticism of Earth, where I put forward my own position in light of the other three volumes.  Let me see if I can state its argument in a few sentences: in exploring the dialectic of materialism and theology, I develop the category of theological suspicion out of the Marxist practice of ideology critique in order to tackle the prevalent tendency to secularise theological terms for political debate.  However, rather than a futile search to eradicate any trace of theology in materialist thought, I argue that theology provides one shape for such terms; they may equally well take on other forms, as they indeed have done and will do.  Further, it seems to me that Marxism has done and must continue to construct what I call necessary fables, or rather viable political myths (Boer 2008).  Finally, in light of a distinct definition of secularism -- as the programme of drawing one's terms from this world and this age -- I explore what a new secularism might look like where religion is its necessary flip side, and then argue that Marxism, like religion, is an anti-secular programme insofar as it draws its terms from another age beyond this one of capitalism.  I do not have the space here to unpack these sentences, but at least they provide an idea of where my thought is at the moment concerning this volume.

Why Are Theology and Marxism So Close?

That is more than enough on the four-volume series.  Let me turn now to the three questions I mentioned earlier.  A stock answer to the first question is that the two are so close since Marxism borrows some deep assumptions from theology, especially its prophetic criticism of the present world order (capitalism) and its eschatological projection of a future world that is qualitatively different (which usually goes under the name of communism).  I am hardly saying anything new in pointing out that this has been a standard move to debunk Marxism as some secular religion -- the 'church of communism' as it has been called.  You would think that critics had become tired of such polemic, but you still find it in various places, such as Rothbard's argument that all the totalitarian evils of Marxism are due to its secular version of theological eschatology, due, in short, to its effort to replace God (Rothbard 1990).

Others, such as Jameson (Jameson 1971: 116-118; 1981: 285) and Žižek (Žižek 2003), argue that Marxism gains from the interaction, which has been going at least since Engels.  One might recast the relationship as one of forerunner and fulfilment in which various theological expressions are an imperfect foreshadowing of Marxism.  For example, one might argue that Calvinist predestination is an earlier and inchoate way of expressing the ultimately determining instance of the market (Jameson 1986).  Or one might argue that early Christianity was a less complete form of communism, based on consumption rather than production; for a full realization we have to wait for a proper communism (Luxemburg 2004, 1982 [1905]).  The various heretical and breakaway religious movements of the medieval and Reformation eras, such as the Taborites or Thomas Müntzer's peasants, also become forerunners of socialism, as Kautsky would have it (Kautsky 1976 [1895-7]; Kautsky and Lafargue 1977 [1922]; Kautsky 2002 [1897]).

While I have at various moments endorsed such a view, it now seems to me that it makes only a few light scratches on the hard surface of this problem.  Rather, it seems to me that Marxism and theology are so close because they occupy the same space.  And it is a contested space, one that I would like to name political myth.  As soon as I mention this term in various contexts it immediately becomes the focus of much debate, for more than one materialist and more than one theologian shies away from the term.  It conjures up all too readily fictional stories, childhood fantasies, pre-scientific beliefs and the supposedly ignorant and superstitious phase of our human development.  So let me offer a brief definition of political myth: an important story.  In a little more detail: since myth is an alternative language saturated with images and metaphors, and since we use myth to speak about what cannot be spoken of in everyday terms, then myth is an extraordinarily powerful political medium.  Political myth is then an important story with -- as Georges Sorel argued (Sorel 1961: 124, 127) -- motivational power that offers a political vision or an image of a better economic and political system.

Let me use the example of Christian communism that has been so important for characters as diverse as Gerrard Winstanley, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky, as well as the Christian Socialist movement today.  Such a myth has, I would suggest, an enabling and virtual power with historical consequences.  In other words, the myth of Christian communism may initially be an image, using figurative and metaphorical language that expresses a hope concerning communal living, but once it becomes an authoritative and canonical text, it gains a historical power of its own.  It becomes the motivation for repeated and actual attempts at Christian communism.  In this sense, it is possible to say that the myth of Christian communism will have been true at some future moment.

Or, in its Marxist version: the political myth of communism may initially be an image, often making use of figurative language that expresses a hope concerning communal living.  However, once it has become an actual lived experience, however fleeting and fraught with problems, it becomes an authoritative and even canonical story that gains a historical power of its own, one that generates various plans and programmes to bring it about.  It becomes the motivation for repeated and actual attempts at such communism.  So also, the political myth of communism will have been true at some future moment.

I have made my point, it seems to me, that Marxism and theology lay claim to the same ground.  Let me try a simple exercise I have undertaken before.  If I ask people to describe the Marxist project in a simple sentence, we might come up with something like this: understanding the world in order to change it; or even more simply, socio-economic transformation.  In that brief description we find the beginnings of a political myth as the crucial story for those who gather in various ways under the Marxist banner.

Why Do They Argue So Much?

All too often a very close and long relationship is marked by perpetual arguing and bickering. It seems as though those arguments were there right at the beginning.  It is not so well known that when Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party they did so at the request of a group that had not long beforehand been known as the League of the Just.3  The curious thing about the League of the Just, which had been formed by German workers in Paris in 1836, was that it was an organisation with a substantial religious flavour, propagating utopian socialist and communist ideas and practices on the basis of the Bible.  Marx and Engels were invited to join it in 1847, by which time the organisation numbered over 1000 in many different countries.  The relationship soon became testy.  The old slogan of the League of the Just was distinctly biblical: it was to work towards 'the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, based on the ideals of love of one's neighbour, equality and justice'.  Marx and Engels didn't let it remain so for long: it became 'Working men of all countries, Unite!'  And within a few months, they managed to get the new organisation to adopt the name of the Communist League.  As they did so they attacked some of the leading figures of the old League of the Just, such as Wilhelm Weitling and Bruno Bauer.  Now, the journeyman Weitling was the author in 1842 of the central text for the old league called Garantien der Harmonie und Freiheit (Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom), in which he argued for a violent communist revolution and pictured not merely Christ as the forerunner of communism, but communism as Christianity without all its later developments.  Despite his early admiration, Marx soon took a distinct stand against Weitling's near-prophet status.  Indeed, the letters between Marx and Engels repeatedly discuss the need to counter Weitling's influence.  As for the rather complex Bruno Bauer -- Young Hegelian, New Testament scholar and political theorist -- he of course came in for a sustained attack in The German Ideology.  A difficult relationship right from the start, it seems.

But why do Marxism and theology argue so much?  I have partly answered this second question in the preceding section, for Marxism and theology argue with each other -- breaking up for a time only to be reconciled once again -- precisely because they have a different take on that crucial question of what a better global future might look like (it is difficult to avoid such a phrase becoming either syrupy or corny).  While a conventional theological answer would work from the world above to the world to come, the former inaugurating the latter, a Marxist answer begins with the world to come and then explores what might follow in any other domain.  To stay with our well-tried spatial metaphor, theology operates with a top-down approach, whereas Marxism works from the bottom up.

The catch is that such a contrast is far too simplistic, so let us start again and answer the question from a different angle.  It seems to me that Marxism and theology are both anti-secular programmes.  Responses I have had to this statement invariably assert that Marxism is secular because it takes its stand against religion.  The problem with such a response is that secularism is understood as necessarily anti-religious.  So let me take a step back and ask what the definition of secularism is: it is a system of thought and action, if not a way of living, that draws its terms purely from this age and from this world (saeculum) and not from some world above or future age.  Other, popular senses of secularism may derive from this basic sense, especially the idea that secularism is an anti-religious programme, that it entails the separation of church and state, and that one must keep theology well and truly away from the proper scientific disciplines.  Yet these are secondary senses (and therefore not necessary ones) that may flow from the primary sense of secularism.

In this light, we can see that Marxism and theology are both thoroughly secular and anti-secular.  But let me stay with the prime meaning of secularism: as a way of acting and thinking that draws its terms from this world, the implication is that a fully secular programme does not draw its reference point from something beyond this world, whether that is a god or the gods above, or a better society and economic system in the future.  On the first count theology is disqualified; on the second count, Marxism is ruled out of order.  So we have a delectable paradox: Marxism is thoroughly secular in one sense (did not Marx develop his deepest insights by immersing himself in the study of capitalism?), but in another it is not (it takes as its reference point a better society beyond capitalism).  So also with theology: while it is vitally concerned with this age and this world, with its concerns over anthropology (the term is originally a theological one), history and shape of human collectives, it seeks to draw its terms of analysis from a realm beyond this secular one.

I am most interested in the anti-secular side of the equation, for it is here that Marxism and theology struggle over the same territory.  While Marxism works towards a transformation (the usual term is revolution) of capitalism in favour of whatever communism might be, theology has its New Jerusalem that marks the end of one history and the beginning of an entirely new one.  It is no wonder they argue so much, for the stakes are high: what will be the shape of this new society, this new socio-economic system?  Will it draw its terms from above (the New Jerusalem descends from heaven) or from the new era of communism (what I have called elsewhere a temporal transcendence)?

At the risk of over-stressing my point, the quarrels between Marxism and theology arise not because Marxism has plagiarised theology, but because they contest the same historical and ideological space.

What Does It Mean for Both of Them?

My answer to this question is twofold: it means that historical materialism and theology are dialectically connected, and one strategy that makes the most of this connection is what may be called a politics of alliance.  As far as the first answer is concerned, I pointed out earlier that the whole project of the Criticism series may be summed up as a detailed exploration of the dialectic between historical materialism and theology.  Once it seemed to me rather strange that Marxism and theology should be engaged in an on-again off-again affair.  No longer is that the case.  The number of Marxists who have engaged with theology is but one pointer to that dialectic.  If I stay with the Hegelian terminology (and I follow a rather good example), then Marxism might be viewed as the sublation or Aufhebung of theology: it both negates and draws up the questions theology raises to a completely new level.  But the converse is also true, although it has not yet been realised.  So I put in terms of a question: what might theology as the Aufhebung of Marxism look like?

However, for a long time I have been taken with Adorno's reworking of the dialectic: eschewing the formulaic process of Aufhebung, Adorno sought to push each side of the dialectic as far as it would go until it gave out into its other side.  So, if we take Marxism as far as it will go then theology keeps turning up, as I have found time and again in this project.  But so also with theology: it is just that too many theologians fall back on the old frameworks of theology, seeking to assert its prior status.  I wish to take a very different path.

Now, such theory is all very well, but what does it mean in practice?  This is where the politics of alliance comes into play.  In a nutshell, it seems to me that since the religious left has been marginalised with the rise of all manner of fundamenatlisms, and since what I call the old secular left is on the rise, we need a politics of alliance between the religious left and the old secular left.  I call this alliance the 'worldly left'.

By 'religious left' I mean those who struggle within the Synagogue and Church for justice and who find the Bible an inspiration for their struggles.  They include both the reformers and the revolutionaries.  It will come as no surprise that my preferences lie with the revolutionaries -- the sundry Christian and Jewish socialists, communists and anarchists.  Yet, for a politics of alliance the religious left also includes the reformers, those who prefer to tinker with the system in order to improve it in one way or another.  This is where many of those who struggle for queer, gender, indigenous and environmental justice may be found.  By '(old) secular left' I mean the various socialists, communists and anarchists who are deeply suspicious of religion of any stripe, let alone theology or the Bible.  They still follow the old model of secularism which they understand as anti-religious, indeed as atheistic.  Such a position may have been fine in 19th century politics, but it cuts off some extremely valuable allies and hobbles the programmes of the left today.

In light of such an alliance, the old antagonism between the materialism and religion, once seemingly set in cement, should be a thing of the past.  We can well understand how those antagonisms came to be so.  For instance, following the criticism of Christian socialism in The Communist Manifesto -- as 'but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat' (Marx and Engels 1967 [1848]: 108) -- socialism and communism since the time of Marx became largely anti-religious movements.  And popular opinion followed suit, so much so that if a religious person declared she or he had become a socialist, then the assumption is that that person had lost his or her faith.  It doesn't help matters when the major churches also declared communism to be 'God-less'.  But these are, or at least should be, things of the past.

Finally, a politics of alliance recognises the diversity and pluralism of the left.  Rather than the long tradition of one small group on the left feeling as though it is the keeper of the grail, spending all its energy condemning other groups as revisionists, deviationists, or heretics, the sheer diversity of the left is one of its great achievements.  Within this diversity a religious left has a legitimate and crucial role to play.  Let me give one example: at the protests against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000 and then again at the G20 meeting in 2006, we found anarchists, environmentalists, socialists, feminists, various elements of the loopy left, and some elements of the religious left.


1  The term comes from the study of poetry in the Hebrew Bible, poetry in which the usual signs of poetry (at least by our own limited standards), such as rhythm and rhyme, are absent.  Instead, one of the crucial features is the exercise of parallelism, where a text will say roughly the same thing in a different way in the next line.  Here is one example: 'They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations' (Isaiah 61:4).

2  See especially (Bloch 1972, 1995; 1985, vols 14 and 5).

3  On what follows, see Dirk Struik (Struik 1986) and David Riazonov's classic work (Riazonov 1996), especially chapter 4.



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Roland Boer is Research Professor in Theology at the University of Newcastle, Australia.  Visit his blog Stalin's Moustache: <>.  This article was first published by the International Institute for Research and Education in October 2007; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.
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