Radical Religion–A Non-Response

Against the Current No. 16, September-October 1988

Paul Buhle

THE ESSAY WHICH launched a mini- controversy in these pages, my “Reflections on American Radicalism, Past and Future” (ATC 10), was intended to be a manifesto or eye-opener on the reconsideration of the U.S. left’s historical trajectory. Loren Goldner’s expansion upon some themes, and Allen Hunter’s cautions, offered analyses valuable in their own right, and to which I felt no need to respond.

I’m glad the discussion continues further, in ATC 14. I believe its presence is a sign of vitality in Solidarity. Especially in regards to the religious or spiritual dimension (apart from ATC, Monthly Review, and several radical religious publications), the U.S. left remains stubbornly myopic.

I’m slightly regretful to have that discussion fixed upon my own article, which by now many readers must have long-since lost or forgotten. If given the room, I would respond in detail to the criticisms levelled at me by Ken Todd and Peter Drucker. Instead, I’ll take this opportunity to close off my share of the discussion, and to propose another avenue that ATC’s contributors can usefully travel.

Let me sum it all up in a single political point, or metaphor, which has attained a new level of public awareness today: environmental catastrophe. The Greenhouse Effect has suddenly dramatized what socialists have known for decades, that rampant capitalism (with an assist from state capitalism) is fast making the planet unlivable.

If the left cannot rally working people and others around this issue, as a prominent part of any radical program and a series of workable interim reform demands to delay the most destructive immediate effects, then it won’t matter much what else we accomplish.

I content that there is virtually nothing in the tradition of historic Marxist theory or political leadership, as generally understood, to help us come fully to grips with this situation. But there is something, as I argued earlier, in the variegated traditions of religious or spiritual radicalism. There is also more than a little in socialist practice, the movements and mentalities of ordinary people who have made up the real heart and soul of the left and who (until at least 1900) usually viewed capitalism as a horrible interruption to age-old patterns of culture.

As an intellectual-political critique of capitalism, Marxism assumed that capitalism had the “progressive” (however unfair and exploitative) effect of creating the conditions–above all, the social relations of production—necessary for socialism. In that socialism, to quote Engels, Man would become “the real, conscious lord of nature.”(1) Presumably, although Engels does not say so, he would rule his subjects kindly.

This vision of socialism was intimately connected with contemporary non-socialist scientific and political­economic assumptions which greeted industrialization as the savior of humankind.

A century or so later, we know that the likelihood lies on the other side: our chances of escaping the deadly consequences of industrialism and its military arm are fading by the day. But we have not, as socialists, seriously con­ fronted the philosophical implications. The Western tradition of rationalism, as anarchists, feminists, Native American wise men, Frankfurt School theorists, surrealists and others have been trying to tell us for a century, is deeply tainted with its own narrow views of reality and with its insistence upon the primacy of control.

Almost forty years ago, C.L.R James–moving within a tradition, and in a direction close to that of today’s Solidarity–argued that “Rationalism has reached its end in the complete divorce and absolute disharmony between manual and intellectual labor, between the socialized proletariat and the monster of centralized capital.”(2) Today, that clear vision is necessary but no longer sufficient. We face something far worse than decades or centuries of “deformed workers’ states,” as the old Trotskyist formula went. We face decades and centuries of a degraded environment which, even under socialism, will almost certainly render life difficult or problematic.

Socialism could not overnight repair genetic damage to humans, let alone bring back the seas and land and atmosphere; the clean-up, if possible, will take generations. To think otherwise is to engage in utopias which make the old utopians, Fourier and the religious communards, into stark realists.

How do we face up to our prospects, and brace our intended constituencies to do so? Rightly and wrongly, spirituality has taught certain stoicism with the world’s agonies, an individual and collective acceptance of death and short-term defeat. It has accepted tragedy in the world, and human responsibility for what cannot be undone.

Not even a triumphal socialism can escape the obligations which a barbaric history of criminal toxification and collective indifference has foisted upon us. At the risk of sounding like an aging (and not especially original) Marxist-hippie, I suggest that “socialism” must regain some of its original meaning as a super-organicism, and “Revolution” its connotation as a return to beginnings, with some kind of renewed reverencer (“worship” might not be too extreme a word) for Nature. If someone has a philosophical alternative for the troubled transition era, let him or her come forward and make it clear.

I use the word “some” because I also believe we can and must fit environmentalism into our fighting programs today. Working people, and U.S. working people in particular, must share responsibility for the damage done. But they have been misled, from the political system to the labor movement. They feel the rage, especially at summer heat. They must learn (as we must learn) how to fight back, from protection of themselves in factories or offices to defense of the environment from chemical-dumping corporations and government.

In my own way, I’m optimistic. It’s their fault our summer of 1988 was ruined, and tens of millions know it. We should get working on a class-struggle program which foregrounds environmental cures.


  1. Anti-Duhring (Moscow, 699), 336.
    back to text
  2. C.L.R. James, with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee [Boggs], State Capitalism and World Revolution (Chicago, 1986 ed.), 115.
    back to text

September-October 1988, ATC 16

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