[Marxism] Chavez puts religion into his revolution (Miami Herald)

Wayne S. Rossi felianan at yahoo.com
Wed Dec 6 07:36:28 MST 2006

Atheism is foundational to Marxism, because Marxism is a materialist philosophy.  We see not God or Jesus Christ behind the scenes of history, but rather the economic driving forces of reproduction -- that is, the survival of the human race.

The defining moment of Marx and Engels, from which their philosophy diverged from that of the "Young Hegelians," lies in their synthesis of the materialist Feuerbach with the dialectics of Hegel.  This underpins both their rejection of Hegel's idealist dialectic, and of Feuerbach's atheism without dialectics.  I find that the sort of bourgeois atheist thought represented today by people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins is emphatically *not* the atheism that Marxists need to keep in mind, and that we shouldn't embrace their positions; the notion that religion is a root problem and not a superstructural phenomenon is pure and simple idealist thought that we are against.

At the same time, the religious symbolism invoked by Chávez is a sign of the complexities and contradictions of what is going on in Venezuela, not a positive factor.  Religion in different contexts means different things; Marx's classic statement about the "opiate of the people" is only half of the story.  Religion is also profoundly backward; Catholicism particularly, and in a revolutionary situation there is an undeniable reactionary element in religion.  We should think of the role of the church in the Nicaraguan Revolution: while there was grassroots religious support for the Sandinistas, there was also a counterrevolutionary tendency in the church hierarchy that helped the Contras in the long run.  We shouldn't deny this phenomenon, but rather recognize that it is a contradiction built into religion as a social force:  while it can in fact provide a certain moral and popular support, religious structures have bourgeois roots and can be "corrected" to serve the needs of the bourgeoisie.

(This goes triple for the contradictions of Islam; while Islamic forces are socially reactionary in some important areas, in the Middle East they are also the main bulwarks against imperialism and Zionism.  Iran's revolution was also a much deeper example of the religious contradictions.  On the one hand, these forces were key in ousting the Shah; on the other hand, they gained the upper hand in a revolutionary situation that turned out very badly for leftists and Marxists in Iran.  I focus on the religious question in Nicaragua because I don't want this to devolve into a shouting match over Islam.)

What this implies is that the role of Marxists toward religion is necessarily complex.  On the one hand atheist "evangelism" is moronic in the modern day and age; it is misplaced and it alienates potential allies.  In fact, religious allies should be encouraged.  (For instance, religion in the US among Blacks and Latinos is a force that you simply cannot avoid reckoning with, and even progressive white churches can have a positive role to play.)  On the other hand, especially during an upsurge, Marxists need to challenge religious illusions among the most militant and active, and particularly illusions in religious structures rooted in bourgeois society.  This means being forthright about religion's contradictions, as well as the fact that at the end of the day none of it is actually true.

In Chávez's case, it should be taken as a sign of his limitations, and could be a dangerous force as the contradictions in the Bolivarian Revolution draw the process toward a definitive confrontation with capital.  But it shouldn't be overemphasized in our understanding of Venezuela and Chávez.

 - Wayne

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