Class society religion and communist spirituality

ermadog at ermadog at
Sun Sep 9 00:14:54 MDT 2001

On Sat, 8 Sep 2001, Jose G. Perez wrote:

> This is the other post I promised in my reply to Joan Cameron, but it is not
> an aswer to her specific points.
> Religions --by which I mean class society religions-- are first, and
> foremost, social institutions which serve as tools of oppression.

No, they are first and foremost instruments of social conformity. Jim
Craven has acknowledged this role for native spirituality. Your
description of religion as a tool of class, however, is apt.

How would you classify religions of the enslaved people of North America -
voodoo, and Negro spirituals?

> For example, in the religion I was brought up in, we have a God the Father
> who impregnates a virgin (who is his child, just like everyone else). He
> gives up their son to be executed, and makes cannibalism of that son's flesh
> the most sacred of his church's rites. But these features are accidental:
> the essential message, their spirit, is submissiveness, cowardice, humility,
> passivity.

The version in which I was raised was very ecumenical. This is because the
Canadian Armed Forces could not afford a church for all the hundreds of
different varieties of Protestantism. Therefore, in an attempt to appeal
to as many sects as possible, the church ended up with a very fuzzy
sentimentality. The worst you could say about this church is that it
fetishized an over-attenuated version of the capacity for human sympathy.
Actually, in comparision with the atmosphere in my family of origin, this
church was a haven of enlightenment.

The range of Christian beliefs is so broad that I don't make
generalizations about it. The Cathars, for instance, were anything but

> The beliefs of native peoples in pre-class societies are totally different.
> There are not, first of all, social institutions used by a minority of
> society against the majority. In this sense they are not "religions." They
> are a cultural expression of a society that is still whole, that is not yet
> divided into classes. Unlike religions, they have a great deal of valid,
> "scientific," if you will, content.

No, I will not so contend. Empiricism is not science, for the same reason
that the empiric practice of modern medicine is not a science.

> They contain the herb lore of a people,
> records of solutions to problems they have discovered, the use of medicinal
> plants, the results of centuries of experience in carrying out a variety of
> activities, like ways to hunt. and when and where to plant. They include
> norms for organizing their societies and managing their affairs.

I am not at all denying that pre-class social formations acquired a great
deal of very impressive empiric knowledge. The acquisition of empiric
knowledge is an inherent capability of all sentient life. Even my dogs do
that. A person would have to be brain dead who fails to learn *something*
over the course of a lifetime.

This is basic Marxism. Human consciousness is formed through social
interaction with environment. I think you can find this in the opening
paragraphs of Grundrisse, if I remember rightly.

Could you discuss any system of ethnobotany from within native
spirituality? In my copy of _Plants in British Columbia Indian
Technology_, 1947, I see that many of the coastal people used the same
plants up and down the coast. But I also see that different people used
the same plants for different purposes, and that they had different
remedies for the same ailments. I don't see any system here.

It is easy to recognize, for instance, the efficacious effects of the root
of Yellow Dock, just by drinking a few cups of decoction daily for a few
days. One can feel the effects. It takes modern science, however, to
discover that the root is 40% organic iron, and that the leaves contain 30
times more vitamin C than an equivalent amount of orange pulp.

Even my dogs knew the value of some plants. When Elsie was pregnant, she
greedily ate all the comfrey I would feed her - right up until the day
before her labour. That day and the next, she refused to take any more. Of
course, she didn't know that comfrey is an excellent source of calcium,
needed to ward off the possiblity of eclampsia. She refused to budge over
the matter of nettles, however, and I had to hide them in buttermilk to
make her eat those.

> I have long held the hypothesis --on the basis of very inadequate reading,
> I'll admit-- that it was precisely because their societies were generally at
> the level of development Engels called "primitive communism" (a term I
> dislike because of the perjorative connotations to many people of
> "primitive") and had at most incipient social differentiation, that the
> native peoples of what is now the United States (and other places) proved
> unassimilable by the invading Europeans. They were free men and women; they
> were human beings, not slaves; they proved impossible to subjugate. That is
> why the Europeans carried out their genocide.

Also, in a non-hierarchical society, where there is no condition of bella
omni contra omnus, there is no need for individuals to hide their true
nature from each other; so, individuals develop no talent for dissembling.
In other words, they had no reason not to take the white invaders at face

On the matter of slavery: could you tell me the difference between the
slavery practiced in the Pacific Northwest and that described in the Old
Testament, where we learn that a slave is money (Ex. 21:21)?


You have once again given a very valid portrayal of the North American
genocide, a fact which I have in no way disputed. However, once again it
is an emotional argument that establishes nothing. It certainly does not
establish the validity of native spirituality, which I assume is your

In fact, it argues against that validity. Cultural expression is
meaningless outside the culture in which it arose. That culture was
destroyed by the white invasion. Can you show valid cultural continuity
between what has survived and what was destroyed?

I am as skeptical of native spirituality as I am of the neo-pagans who
imagine they can revive the spirit of King Arthur's day by dressing up in
medieval costumes. Don't forget that much of today's Wiccan revival is
based upon a tradition which is claimed to be directly descended from the
Old Religions of Europe. Sybil Leak, for instance, came from a
"traditional" family of witches, and was revered as a "high priestess" by
this crowd. She claimed direct, unbroken descent of tradition.

> The revolutionary proletariat needs that spirit, that group solidarity, that
> sense of integrity, of self-worth. It is not the same as "religion" of class
> society, it is the very opposite of such religion, which denigrates human
> beings and denies the potential of our kind.

So, when you praise native spirituality, I assume you are not referring to
the ancestor-worshipping varieties? Because they credit the development of
human potential to dead ancestors. Many don't acknowledge the possiblity
of human progress, since their spirituality occurs in Sacred Time.

> But I feel it should take a decidedly different attitude towards the
> spirituality of native peoples, because this spirituality embodies a totally
> different spirit, a communist spirit.

Are you sure? You seem to be treating native spirituality as some kind of
homogenous whole. Could you differentiate between the communist spirit of
native spirituality and the corporate identity of ancient Israeli tribal

In fact, the various tribal organizations differed a great deal from each
other, and their cultural expression was bound to reflect that. The
political organization of the Iroquois, organized around female activity
in agriculture, was very different from those that organized around the
male talents for hunting large game. And the warrior culture of the Haida
was very different from that of their Tsimpshian cousins 90 miles away
across the Hecate Straits. Could you knowledgably discuss the difference
in spirit between a settled agricultural society and a hunter gatherer

Upon what basis do you see the aboriginal societies of North America
forming a cultural whole?

What can you tell me about the Men's Houses of the Pacific Northwest and
how their development affected these matrilineal people? Was this a
reaction to the white invaders, or was it a natural development within
these class societies? Was it a precursor to the development of a warrior
spirituality of a type later epitomized by _The Art of War_?

> And we have need of that spirit.

Jose, this is where we seriously disagree.  I am completely and
unequivocally opposed to any cultivation of spirit, attitude, ethic, or
any other vision of ideal human attributes. This is religion, not
politics, and is the very essence of the error of petty bourgeois projects
of all sorts.

Jose, we have no need of mysticism of any sort. We have the Marxist
understanding of human nature, which starts with the apposable thumb and
works up. It is this thumb which, ultimately, gives us the capacity for
freedom of choice. It allows us to enter directly into the chain of cause
and effect to which other forms of sentience are abjectly subject. All our
notions of democratic freedom can be said to flow from this, by reason of
argument from natural law. To be fully human requires that we have full
use and enjoyment of this capacity.

At the risk of boring you with the obvious, our rights to freedom of
assembly, association, etc. all revolve around the need to gather and
verify information required to make choices that are fully free. (That is
why I hate advertising - it manipulates; it doesn't inform.) All of these
rights taken together comprise the right, argued from natural law, to

And now from the latter part of the 20th C we can show a key element of
scientific method - predictability - inhering in Engels' _The Part Played
By Labour in the Transition From Ape to Man_. It's been a while since I
read that; so, I may be talking a little out of the top of my hat, here.
But the discovery that the big brain developed after bipedalism pretty
much confirms Engels' basic prediction (a prediction we must infer,
because I don't think he predicted these specific skeletal finds) that it
was labour, in fact, that created human life as we know it. Labour, of
course, not in the strict sense of doing work required by the boss, but in
the broader sense of interacting with our environment.

I don't remember how clearly Engels laid this out. It was the adoption of
tool-making *as a way of life*, rather than a novelty as with some other
animals, that allowed us to expose ourselves to a potentially infinite
amount of data, once bipedalism freed the human hand. This in turn gave
rise to the capacity for abstract thought - out of sheer self defence, the
human brain began to organize, categorize, and subsume data within
metaphoric thought. It is in metaphor that culture is expressed; and it is
precisely a need for explication of metaphor that mitigates against simple
transposition of culture from one group to another. And it is this need
for explication that gives rise to our need for freedom of conscience.

Any politics based upon cultivation of spirit is, at base, an expression
of religiosity. It is an attempt to bypass human understanding. It is
therefore bound to be, in some key aspect, shortsighted and deficient. The
fact is that human beings change with time and experience - we are living
beings, whose existence is shaped within a living social organism.
Anything that doesn't grow and change, dies. To fetishize any aspect of
human experience is to place human understanding in a straightjacket.

This is why the anti-authoritarian spirit of young anarchists is just as
incorrect as whatever native spirituality will turn out to be. This also
explains the destructiveness and parochialism of identity politics of all

Joan Cameron

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