By Yanis Iqbal
With the rise of various sorts of neo-fascisms all over the world, a moralistically framed liberal response to the former’s religio-fanaticism has become common. Based on the traditional foundations of Enlightenment rationality, the liberal response sees the neo-fascist upsurge as a form of mass irrationality, superstition, mental pathology, etc. that only the renewed march of Reason can eradicate. What is needed, therefore, is a vast pedagogical project for rapid expansion and eventual universalization of the realm of secular Reason.
Such a view needs to be strongly opposed by a Marxist perspective which concretely situates the resurgence of neo-fascist religio-hysteria in the logic of capital and the manifold movements of the neoliberal epoch. The undertaking of a materially-rooted analysis can be aided by a revisit of Marx’s views on religion which were essentially formulations of a historical-materialist study of abstractions based on the real abstractions of the value-form, abstract labor, and so on.
In A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx wrote: “man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world…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.”
Two main points can be deduced from the above textual extract. First, religion – in its existing form as illusory happiness for the subalterns – is a social product or social necessity of a particular historical formation. Religion provides an inverted picture of the world not because its theological-internal principles are inherently irrational but because the world itself is inverted. When Marx is saying that religion is an organizing principle of collective life, he wants to forcefully drive home the point that religion is not a mere state of mind capable of being exorcised through liberal preaching; it is the ideological representation of actual lived relations with exploitative reality.
Second, in order to tackle the endurance of reactionary religious abstractions, we have to recognize the social logic into which they are inscribed, and the dependence of these abstractions on given modes of production and social interaction. Mystified religious reflections of the real world vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between humans and humans and nature generally present themselves in a transparent form i.e. in a form untainted by the fetishistic features of a society where surplus-value extraction has been generalized as a basic structuring principle of everyday interaction. The need for a fundamental change in the material matrix of society derives from Marx’s distinction between mere states of mind and lived relations with reality, according to which consciousness can’t be changed without changing the real conditions in which the mind operates upon raw materials of the real. Reactionary religion is not a state of mind but an immediate experience of reality itself, and in its own way a necessary relation, given the nature of that reality
Transposing Marx’s understanding of religion into our present age, we can say that neo-fascism and the consequent revival of archaic forms of religio-nationalism is not a mere anomaly in humanity’s steadfast pursuit of a rational destination. On the contrary, it is firmly tied to the inner workings of our socio-economic conditions, which create a deep-seated sense of alienation among a large mass of the world’s population and thus, make them perfect targets for the identitarian politics of cruelty and victimization practiced by right-wing political organizations. Conservative religious revivalism manifests itself as a generalized tendency throughout the history of capitalism, but a tendency that takes different forms in different national conditions, while the history of capitalism itself needs to be understood in terms of distinct phases and periods within this larger history.
In a social environment where demagogic politicians are re-molding religious identities according to their own stratagems, leftists can’t remain aloof from religion. Insisting on the hardcore atheistic principle of the abolition of religion ignores Marx’s own advice on the same topic. While Marx explicitly espoused atheistic dictums, his over-arching theorization of religion pushes us in other directions. Since religious abstractions are intermeshed in a specific socio-historic ecosystem, their content and intent are directly or remotely influenced by the ideological postulates of that structure of accumulation. Consequently, the content of a religion can be re-composed to align it along liberatory lines.
In contradistinction to the neo-fascist politicization of religion, leftists consider religion as a projection of unalienated human creativity. Religion projects the best possibilities of human activity – labor and productivity, intelligence, imagination and so on – but it is hypostatized by the forces of capital accumulation into an entity of fatalism and injustice. Communism, instead of abolishing religion, would involve the freedom to be religious, not in the neo-fascist sense of aggressive identitarian assertion or the negative liberal sense of a privatized toleration, but in the positive sense of opening up oneself and society to the emancipatory dimensions of religion. Today, one needs a communist conception of religion more than ever to counter-act the hegemony of neo-fascism.