religion

James Miller jamiller at igc.apc.org
Mon Nov 6 14:10:35 MST 1995


RELIGION AND THE CLASS STRUGGLE

   Peter Burns admitted the "anti-liberationist"
character of the slave Christianity of the ante-
bellum South. But then he observed that, "many of
the Northern white abolitionists--especially women
abolitionists--were strongly motivated by *their*
Christian beliefs."
   Is it true that the Northern abolitionists were
thusly motivated? (And the Black abolitionists,
as far as I know, were just a pious as the whites.)
   In my view the abolitionists were nearly all
Christians (perhaps a doubter here and there, but
only as an exception). (And there were some Jewish
participants in the movement as well.) Atheism was
little developed in the U.S. before the Civil War,
though it did exist.
   And these abolitionists were fighters for human
and democratic rights. They were revolutionaries.
But I don't believe they were "motivated" by their
religious beliefs.
   It would be more correct to say that, given the
level of development of culture and science at the
time, there were very few educated people who were
able to cast off their religious beliefs. So they
iterpreted their motivations within and through this
conventional ideological framework. This framework,
or refracting lens, of religious ideology provided
the system of universally-accepted conceptions and
terminology through which politically-active people
interpreted their own motivations and goals.
   But it was not religion that motivated them. To
say it was religion that motivated them is to
confuse the content of their activity with the form
in which it was expressed.
   The content of the activity was revolutionary-
democratic. They expressed, by their actions, the
needs of bourgeois political development in the U.S.,
and in this way they helped to promote the necessary
abolition of the pre-capitalist form of exploitation
of labor which existed in the South.
   For their part, the slave-masters of the Old South
facilitated the Christianization of the slaves in
order to make them docile. So the slave-owners were
not motivated by religion, either. It is easy to
recognize here that it was not religion which
motivated the slave-owners, but profit. They merely
used religion as a tool to make the exploitation of
the slaves a bit more trouble-free.
   Nor were the slaves, in their work as well as in
their desires to be free, motivated by religion
either. They responded to the whip. They longed for
release. Once indoctrinated by Christianity, they
learned to express their feelings in a religious way.
But there was nothing inherently religious about
their desire for freedom or their fear of the lash.
   I appreciate many of the comments about the links
between religion and social struggles. There is a
rich historical legacy we can all learn from.
   But religion cannot add to, enhance, or promote
progressive social change, in spite of the many
instances of religious people joining in the various
struggles of working people. As Lenin pointed out,
"Marxism had always regarded all modern religions
and churches, and each and every religious
organization, as instruments of bourgeois reaction
that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle
the working class." Lenin, CW Vol. 15, p. 403)
   The ablitionists carried out a heroic struggle
for progress and humanity. We all should view them
as worthy predecessors of Marxism. But, due to the
circumstances of the time, they had no choice but
to wage their battles while wearing the blinders
of religion. John Brown's example is instructive
because he was not only one of the most valiant,
but was also one of the most pious.
   The proletarians of today, as they prepare for
the political class battles to come, will not be
served by religion. But they will extend a hand
of solidarity to all who are willing to help in
the struggle, regardless of religious beliefs.
   And as working people gain in their struggle
for political power, become actors on the stage
of history and improve their level of culture and
social self-confidence, their thinking and activity
will become increasingly scientific. And in this
process their religious beliefs will wither, or
be shaken off. But this process of political and
social maturation will not be helped by taking a
sectarian stance toward one's fellow-workers who
are still religious. Workers who are more advanced
in their political consciousness see their more
religious co-workers as people who are on the same
political course as they are, but are just a bit
behind. The task is to help them advance, not shut
them out.


THE LABOR THEORY OF VALUE

   I have asserted that the scientific integrity
of Marx's work hinges on the labor theory of value.
If the latter theory is incorrect, then Marx's
definitions of constant capital, variable capital
and surplus value are incorrect as well. You can
then follow this line of thinking along to the
conclusion that the perspective of socialism is
thereby deprived of any scientific basis.
   Some people are inclined to say that, o.k.,
we have some sort of "exploitation" going on in
capitalist society, but you don't need to account
for it by referring to Marx's theory. Reference
was made to Kalecki in this connection.
   But this argument appeals to those who feel that
we don't need Marx. They believe that we can get by
without him. I think this view reflects the desire
to avoid the necessity of absorbing a scientific
theory which goes to the root of social problems,
and escape to a world of surface appearances.
   It is not my job to "prove" the validity of
Marx's work on this list. (Nor can Mauro, Juan
Inigo and others do much more than I.) Marx's work
stands on its own merits, and should be studied.
I can't substitute my own posts for the study that
should be carried out by people who are developing
themselves as Marxists.
   Regarding Steve Keen's criticism of Marx, all
we, as Marxists, can do is to use what little time
we have available to show why we believe that he
has not succeeded in his task of refuting Marx.
This in itself cannot substitute for a genuine
appreciation of the scientific character of Marx's
ideas, but can only act as part of the living
legacy of Marxism as it seeks to defend the space
it has conquered in the world.
   I cannot agree with John Ernst's view that we
can just hold in abeyance the debate over the labor
theory of value, and go on to discuss the tendency
of the rate of profit to fall. We can only discuss
the tendency of the rate of profit to fall if we
first have a common definition of terms. And this
hinges on the correct definitions of value, constant
capital, variable capital and surplus value.
   What this means is that I can have a discussion
with Sweezy on the tendency of the rate of profit
to fall, because he accepts the definitions of
the basic categories as Marx laid them out. But
then he goes on to disagree with Marx's conception
of the rate of profit to fall. So we can profitably
discuss the area of disagreement because we share
a common lexicon for the more basic categories.
   But it's just not possible to have such a
discussion with Steve Keen. For him, there cannot
be any such process as a tendency of the rate of
profit to fall, simply because the categories Marx
used to explain this tendency are themselves
inherently defective. Thus, if we're going to talk
to Steve, we have to go to a more basic level, to
the level of the labor theory of value.
   Look at it this way: Suppose one person believes
all elephants are white. Another believes all
elephants are black. They initiate a discussion on
how elephants can avoid being killed by hunters who
hunt in the night. The one who believes elephants
are black says, "they must stand perfectly still."
And the one who believes elephants are white says,
"no, they have to hide behind a large rock."
   They won't be able to resolve this problem as
long as they retain their respective beliefs about
the elephants' color. What they need to do is go
to the root of their respective assumptions about
the color of elephants, and discuss what color
elephants are. Only in this way can they really
communicate.

Jim Miller
Seattle


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