Thursday, January 23, 2020
Adventures in the Old Atheism, Part IV: Marx
I have never been remotely attracted to Marxism. Its economic reductionism, vision of human life as a struggle of antagonistic classes, hostility to the family, and the hermeneutics of suspicion enshrined in its theory of ideology, are all repulsive and inhuman. Other elements, such as the theory of surplus value and prophecies about the withering away of the state and the idyll of life under communism, are sheer tosh. These flaws are grave and real whatever one thinks about capitalism. Indeed, opposition to Marxism is in my view a prerequisite to being a serious critic of capitalism, for Marxism contains none of the good that is in capitalism, much of the bad that is in it, and adds grave evils of its own to boot.
All the same, let’s give that old rascal Karl Marx his due, because that is the point of this series. As with , , and , Marx’s atheism exhibits far more gravitas than that of any of the New Atheists. The reasons are twofold. First, the brand of philosophical naturalism that underlies Marx’s atheism is less crude than that of Dawkins and Co. Second, as with the other Old Atheists, you won’t find in Marx the chirpy naïveté about the consequences of naturalism and of abandoning religion that you see in the New Atheists.
Marx was, of course, a materialist, as are the New Atheists. Now, materialism is often associated with a rejection of teleology. This was the case with the ancient atomist form of materialism, which rejected explanations in terms of what Aristotelians call final causality, in favor of those appealing only to efficient causality. It is true also of the materialism of New Atheists like , who insists that teleology can play no role in genuinely scientific explanations.
An interesting feature of Marx’s materialism is that he evidently took teleology to be precisely part of the explanatory toolkit of the materialist, as Allen Wood plausibly argues in (See especially pp. 104-11.) It is sometimes assumed that the specific way this is so is that Marx took history to have communism as its inevitable culmination, but as Wood notes, the positing of a grand goal of that sort is not the fundamental way in which Marx makes use of the notion of teleology. Naturally, as an atheist, he also did not have in mind divine directedness – nor direction by any human mind nor any other sort of mind, for that matter. What he had in mind, fundamentally, is simply the idea that material systems reliably exhibit tendencies toward certain outcomes, and that identifying the outcome toward which a component of the system aims or for the sake of which it operates is a crucial part of explaining it. For example, Marx deploys this mode of explanation when he claims that certain kinds of social relations exist within an economic system in order to allow it to make efficient use of its productive powers, or that moral and religious ideas prevail in a society in order to uphold its basic economic structure..
In other words, the notion of teleology Marx deploys is an essentially Aristotelian one, even if he applies it in ways Aristotelians would not necessarily agree with. And as Wood points out, the basic soundness of this general mode of explanation does not stand or fall with the soundness of this or that particular application Marx makes of it.
Writers like The consequence is that Marx understands human well-being in a way that is at least in very general terms Aristotelian. As Wood writes, “the good life, for both Marx and Aristotle, consists chiefly in the actualization of one’s powers” (p. 37). The difference – needless to say, not a small one – is that Marx’s conception of human nature and of human powers is far more narrowly economic than Aristotle’s, and the economics in question is, well, Marxist. have also argued that a kind of Aristotelian essentialism underlies Marx’s social theory.
Though a materialist, then, Marx’s conception of the material world is not quite as desiccated as that of a Democritus or a Rosenberg, and thus affords more metaphysical common ground with the Aristotelian theist, and even with the Aristotelian natural law theorist – albeit they reach very different conclusions about morality. But that brings us to the next point.
Marx contra moralism
One of the more preposterous features of New Atheist rhetoric, and of secularist rhetoric in general, is the shrill moralism with which it often condemns religious believers. For in at least many cases, the metaphysical presuppositions of the one flinging the rhetoric undercut any grounds for moralism of any kind.
I am not appealing here to the idea that atheism can’t support moral judgments insofar as morality rests on arbitrary divine commands. Morality doesn’t rest on arbitrary divine commands. What I have in mind instead are other philosophical presuppositions of morality that at least many secularists reject. For example, morality presupposes free will. Some New Atheist types (such as Jerry Coyne) make a big show of the claim that free will is an illusion. But no one who denies free will has any business pouring contempt on religious believers, or on anyone else, for their alleged moral and rational failings. For if free will is an illusion, they can’t help what they do, any more than the rain can help falling.
Or consider evolutionary theories of knowledge, such as Dawkins’ “meme” theory, on which concepts and beliefs are characterized as competing by way of an analogue of natural selection. Ideas spread insofar as some concepts and beliefs get themselves replicated and others die out, just as some organisms survive and reproduce and others fail to do so. If this is all that cognition amounts to, then truth and falsity go out the window. An idea might become widespread even though it is false or it might disappear even though it is true, and it is survival value rather than truth or rationality that determines what happens. Indeed, even a belief’s appearance of being more true or rational might itself be an illusion that persists because of its survival value. Now, if this sort of view were true, there would be no point in condemning religious beliefs as false or irrational, or praising atheist beliefs as true and rational. What matters is ability to replicate, and religious ideas – as New Atheists are always complaining – are very good at that.
I would also argue that morality is impossible without teleology of some kind, even if just the thin kind Marx is willing to countenance. For, as Aquinas notes, the notion of the good is inextricably linked with the notion of an end. Goodness is on analysis always a matter of realizing an end, and badness a matter of failing to realize it. Hence if there is no teleology of any kind in the objective world, there can be no objective goodness and badness, and thus no objective morality. In which case, while an atheist system of morality might be possible for an atheist who affirms teleology (as Marx does, and as Thomas Nagel at least toys with doing), no atheist who regards teleology as an illusion has any business engaging in moralism. Some atheists realize this (Rosenberg, for example) but many do not.
Now, Marx is not guilty of this particular error, or at least not entirely. For though, like anyone else, he often falls into criticizing others in terms that seem to imply moral disapproval, his official stance is to eschew moral categories when defending his characteristic positions. Famously, his critique of capitalism is not a critique on grounds of justice, and he was dismissive of socialists who made their case on moral grounds.
The irony is that, given his essentialism and teleology, he could, unlike other atheists, develop a kind of natural law approach to ethics and try to defend socialism that way. But he does not do so, because of his economic reductionism. For Marx, the cultural “superstructure” of law, morality, politics, religion, etc. necessarily reflects the economic “base” of a society. For example, modern notions of property rights, of the duty to honor contracts, etc. reflect the needs of a capitalist economic order. They are necessary to keep the motor running, as it were. Similarly, the assumption that slavery was legitimate reflected the economic structure of Roman society, the assumption that serfdom was legitimate reflected the economic structure of feudal society, and so on.
Now, for Marx, there is nothing else for morality to be than something like the rules of a society’s economic game. There is no set of moral principles that transcends different possible economic systems and by reference to which they might be judged, any more than there is a set of meta-rules governing board games, by which Monopoly and Risk might be judged. But that means that there is no way, from within an economic and social order, to criticize that order on moral grounds. Criticizing capitalism on socialist moral grounds, but from a position within the capitalist economic order itself, is for Marx like playing Monopoly while trying to justify certain moves by appealing to the rules of Risk. It’s just muddleheaded. Hence his rejection of attempts to critique capitalism from a moral point of view. Indeed, he even goes so far as to deny that capitalism is unjust. Injustice is not the problem with it, in his view. To be sure, he thinks it is harmful in various ways, but he doesn’t think those harms can be objected to on moral grounds. Rather, they are something like the monkey wrench in the motor of capitalism that is going to bust it apart from within and transform it into socialism.
For Marx, then, morality is an inherently conservative institution, always reflecting the deepest assumptions of the established order of things. To appeal to morality in critiquing an established order as a whole (rather than merely this or that part of it) is precisely to play by the rules of that order, and thereby to set oneself up for defeat. It’s like appealing to the rules of Monopoly to justify condemning the entire game of Monopoly as illegitimate – something not just mistaken but incoherent.
Now, this would apply to any moral critique of religion as well, since that too is part of the superstructure that reflects the economic base. Marx’s position would entail that a sweeping moral condemnation of religion is as incoherent as a moral criticism of capitalism. When religious believers complain that atheist critics who appeal to morality are living on borrowed capital, I think Marx would have to sympathize. He would have to regard that particular brand of atheistic criticism as no less naïve than the moralistic brands of socialism of which he is so dismissive.
Against bourgeois atheism
Of course, Marx famously characterizes religion as the opium of the people, but it is extremely superficial to think that he is here issuing a glib zinger, after the fashion of some pimply atheist teenager mouthing off on Reddit. Let’s take a look at the context of the remark, in Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. He writes:
Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
End quote. Now, notice that while Marx certainly regards religion as a tissue of falsehoods, there is no contempt here whatsoever for the religious believer. Quite the opposite. To see how and why, let’s note a few things about Marx’s analysis and its implications.
First, Marx is here giving a teleological explanation of religion. He is saying that it serves a certain function in the economic order of a society, namely that of making that order intelligible to the oppressed members of that society in a way that reconciles them to it and affords them an illusory kind of happiness despite their oppression. It is part of the superstructure that is supported by, but also in turn reinforces, the base.
Second, there can be no question, then, of peeling away religion and understanding it in isolation from the larger order of which it is a part, or of discarding it while keeping the rest of that order intact – any more, say, than one could understand a heart in isolation from the whole organism, or chuck it out while keeping the rest of the organism alive. Religion and its larger social context, especially its economic context, are a package deal. Its disappearance presupposes the disappearance of that entire larger context.
Third, religion is for that reason not fundamentally a matter of some misguided or dishonest leaders taking advantage of ignorant masses, and its remedy is not to be found in exposing those leaders or in intellectuals correcting their errors. It goes much deeper than that, into the very roots of the social order, so that the leaders and the intellectual class are just as much shaped by it as the masses.
Fourth, while Marx’s “opium” remark is certainly intended to compare religion to a drug-induced stupor, the accent is clearly not on the stupor itself but rather on the conditions that make the stupor attractive and indeed necessary – which, Marx emphasizes, involves “real suffering.” Imagine a man whose leg is being amputated and whose agony is soothed only by the use of literal opium. Suppose you take the opium from him, bring him out of the euphoria he was feeling, and convince him that whatever experiences he was having were delusional – while all this time the doctors continued sawing on his leg. Given Marx’s analysis, this is analogous to what undermining religion while keeping the rest of the existing social order in place would involve. And telling religious people what fools they are is comparable to lecturing the man whose leg is being sawed off about what a fool he is for taking opium and believing the delusions it afforded him.
The difference between Marx and your typical New Atheist should be obvious. For the New Atheist, religion is the cause of our unhappiness, and getting rid of it the key to securing happiness. For Marx, religion is a palliative for our unhappiness, unhappiness which can only be increased if religion is taken away while the sources of our unhappiness remain. For the New Atheist, religious believers are objects of scorn and condemnation. For Marx, they are objects of pity and concern. For the New Atheist, eliminating religion is basically a matter of educating people (by means of books, etc.) about an intellectual error they are making. For Marx, it is a matter of nothing less momentous than an entire social order giving way and being replaced by something so radically different and historically unprecedented that we cannot now even imagine it, where this utopian transformation can ultimately be secured only by impersonal economic processes rather than propagandistic efforts on the part of individuals.
In short, given Marx’s analysis, the New Atheist keen on destroying the convictions of ordinary religious believers is, to the extent he succeeds, cruel – but also wasting his time insofar as he is not going to succeed in any large-scale way so long as the overall existing social order persists. For a serious Marxist, it can only add insult to injury that Dawkins and Co. peddle their wares like any capitalist, at , thereby getting rich while the condition of the masses remains unchanged. And affluent secularists’ like “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” is essentially an update of Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.”
As Denys Turner remarks in his essay on Marx and religion in appeared to believe that simple atheism – atheism that rests on the straightforward negation and reversal of what theism claims – is as ideological as the theism it all too simply rejects” (p. 336). Just as the communism of the future will in Marx’s view simply move beyond the moral categories in terms of which human beings now evaluate their actions, so too will it move beyond the dispute between religious believers and their critics. Turner concludes: “Marx’s atheism is not anti- but posttheistic. It is therefore postatheistic” (p. 337)., Marx “
Lessons for conservatives
That is all well and good if you buy Marxism. But is there anything even us devoutly non-Marxist types might learn from Marx, other than the interesting implications of his false premises?
Not a whole lot, in my view. As with so many modern thinkers, what’s true in Marx (such as his Aristotelianism) isn’t new, and what’s new (such as the specific application he makes of Aristotelian ideas) isn’t true. And much of it isn’t just untrue, it’s awful. In my opinion, there’s too much of Marx’s distinctive errors lurking behind most of his insights to make them salvageable. For example, it seems to me that you have to buy too much into his economic reductionism (and bad Marxist economics to boot) to find much of value in, say, his account of exploitation and alienation under capitalism. That’s not to say that there isn’t any such thing as exploitation and alienation under capitalism, but only that if there is, Marx’s analysis isn’t too helpful in identifying it. I suspect that because Marx uses words like “alienation” and “exploitation,” and it seems plausible that capitalism can be alienating and exploitative in some sense, people wrongly suppose that there must be real insights on these topics lurking in Marx. (For discussion of some senses in which capitalism can indeed be said to have alienating and exploitative features, see my Claremont Review of Books essay )
However, that is not to say that there is nothing at all of interest in Marx. Roger Scruton, in , plausibly suggests that Marx was onto something in his analysis of “commodity fetishism.” Scruton distinguishes the consumption of property from its possession, where the former involves treating property as a mere means, while the latter involves treating it as an end in itself. Think of the way that people can be attached to an heirloom, to a work of art, or to a piece of land or a home, and desire to preserve it and pass it down as a heritage for their children – whether this is something grand like an aristocratic estate (think of Lord Grantham’s attitude to Downton Abbey), or a more humble abode of the sort most of us have to settle for. This sort of example illustrates what Scruton means by the possession of property, the enjoyment of it for its own sake. By contrast, property is merely consumed when it is used for the sake of something else, usually only temporarily. Pencils and paperclips, candy bars and soft drinks, and stocks that are bought and then sold as soon as sufficient profit can be drawn from them, would be examples.
Both consumption and possession are innocent in themselves, but the essence and legitimacy of property as an institution, Scruton argues, is to be found primarily in possession. For we cannot flourish as the embodied creatures we are without the stable extension of ourselves constituted by home and other possessions. The Marxist attack on property presupposes a conception of property primarily in terms of consumption – property thought of essentially as a commodity – but property-as-mere-commodity is not property as such, but rather a corrupt or degenerate form of the institution of property.
However, Scruton thinks Marx is right to hold that under capitalism property tends to be conceived of primarily in terms of consumption or commodity rather than in terms of possession. Indeed, the individualism and consumerism of capitalist societies tend to lead to treating everything as a commodity, and thus as a means rather than an end in itself. Think of the way people talk of their “brand,” of “selling themselves,” of the re-description of prostitution and pornography as “sex work,” of the home as something to “flip” for a profit rather than to possess and pass on, of “starter marriages” no less than “starter homes,” and on and on in a culture of increasingly ephemeral attachments rather than rootedness. The very idea of intrinsic value tends to dissolve into the cash nexus. Mass production reinforces this tendency, since it facilitates our thinking of things as essentially indistinguishable, disposable, and replaceable.
Marx didn’t think this wholly bad, because it contributes to the erosion of traditional morals and institutions and thereby helps prepare the way for the socialism he welcomed. But precisely for these reasons, no conservative can approve of it. That doesn’t entail that a conservative must oppose capitalism full stop, and Scruton doesn’t. But neither should any conservative regard capitalism as an unmixed blessing, nor acquiesce to the libertarian tendency to make of the market a model for political and social relations in general.
“Capitalism,” after all, is a sweeping term that is used to label all sorts of phenomena, some good and some bad. Too many of capitalism’s critics foolishly try to attack it at its strongest point. They follow Marx in the by now manifestly falsified claim that capitalism leads to greater material impoverishment. In fact capitalism has greatly increased general material prosperity. The real problem – and it is a much more serious problem than many modern American conservatives want to acknowledge – is that it tends to do so at the cost of impoverishing us spiritually.