Religious Rebels Then and Now

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

Paul Buhle

The Meek and the Militant:
Religion and Power Across the World
by Paul N. Siegel
(London: Zed Books, 1987) 209 pages, $15 paper.

RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY ON the left—and elsewhere—is not what it used to be only a half-dozen years ago. Back in the early to middle 1989s, with Reaganism at its apex, liberation theology appeared to make of us to offer a voice of hope for massive social transformation, world anti-imperialist consciousness-raising, and even an ecological evangel.

In Nicaragua, the People’s Church seemingly challenged the Vatican as no insurgent religious body since the Radical Reformation. In the Philippines, the Church threw its energy against Marcos and seemed (at least at its lowest levels) to lean almost toward the guerilla supporters. From El Salvador to Brazil to Chile, bishops seemed to resist Pope John Paul ll’s backsliding from the social gospel of Vatican II.

Well, it didn’t work out that way. Just as our crotchety old-fashioned Marxist comrades had predicted all along that it wouldn’t. Cardinal Ratzinger, perhaps the century’s leading counter-revolutionary (after Joseph Stalin), has arguably guided the Pope’s choke of outright reactionaries to replace aging, progressive bishops; the Church no longer opposes, at its upper levels, the devastation of indigenous peoples and their rain forests by greedy landowners. The Latin American “CIA faction” long associated with wealthy U.S. Catholics and the intelligence networks has won out, for the duration of the present Pontiff anyway.

The dissidents have been displaced and in some cases officially silenced for periods of time. Brazilian liberation theology, once the most institutionalized, has been rendered marginal. The Philippine Church predictably, one supposes in retrospect, went over to Mrs. Aquino’s branch of the ruling class. And the Sandinista-favoring People’s Church never became much more than a symbol. There are exceptions and lots of backstairs struggles of considerable importance. But the fire is gone, unless and until the social breakdown is so severe that the Pope re-evaluates his position or heresy becomes a major issue.

If you want a hot controversy about religion and socialism these days, you need to head over to the local mystic bookshop where not dozens but hundreds of new volumes (many of them from Harper& Row’s San Francisco division) thunder with the return of what horror writer H.P. Lovecraft used to call “The Old Ones.”

The Goddess reigns supreme–in the paperback market anyway—with a feminist essentialism tracing all history back to “pre-history” of the peaceful, communal days before patriarchy and social class. August Bebel’s Frau und der Sozialismus had this line a century ago, but with the Marxist caveat that the rise from matriarchy had been inevitable and constructive, however painful. Try to tell that to the crowd at a weekend seminar of Goddess devotees. They don’t believe it anymore; they want to Get Back to the Garden (actually Crete in the good old Minoan days—which, even if remotely like the myths connected with it, sounds like erotic, artistic socialism that lasted for 1500 years, until those damned Euro-barbarians destroyed everything).

I think this intellectual drift proves a) that the Religion Discussion is not going to go away, but only change forms; b) we need to get some basics in hand.

Arnold, Boebme, Christianity

Paul Siegel’s The Meek and the Militant offers an interesting, if problematic, beginning. It should, in fact, be on the bookshelf of every socialist who wants to talk with shopmates and neighbors involved in amateur theology—unquestionably the largest self-educational activity since the invention of moveable type. Siegel, noted Shakespearian and one of the rare prolific scholars produced by American Trotskyism in the 1920s-1950s, dedicates his book to two seemingly opposite Toms: Thomas Muenzer and Thomas Paine. It is Siegel’s thesis that the great fighter for religious freedom and the great fighter for antireligious freedom have more in common that generally understood.

Siegel’s on very solid ground here. The poet-scholar Gottfried Arnold, connecting intellectual link between Jakob Boehme (reinventor of the dialectic) and Hegel, devoted a 700-page volume, Die Unparteiische Kirchen-un Ketzerhistorie, published in 1699-1700 to a single proposition: that the true Christians were the heretics, and had been so for 1700 years! The popes and their lackeys, in this reading, were worse than frauds; they were the anti-Christ, the “Whores of Babylon,” and the emergent Protestant leaders were the same defilers.

Arnold’s own notion of the godhead, to be reached through the goddess Sophia, pointed westward to Pennsylvania where Arnold’s disciples would establish utopian outposts, ruled with male-female egalitarianism, love of nature, and total sexual abstinence. But that’s another story.

Siegel follows the standard tale of Western and non-Western religious origins in what we could call a “scientific socialist” fashion, treating class and other tensions buried within the major institutions. I would like to have seen more attention to archaic polytheism, to the act of its suppression as an ideologically precipitating moment in class-patriarchal society, and to the recent archeological excavations that give us much material evidence for society before the late but violent arrival of the (male) solar gods.

I would also like to have seen more emphasis on the religious syncretism that followed in the wake of Christian Rome’s conquest of Europe, and Christian capitalism’s conquest of Latin America. Although no true intellectual records remain of Celtism, for instance (all accounts were written by its conqueror-enemies), its seems clear that a by then extraordinary gender equality persisted in warlike society which worshipped nature, despised cities and mistrusted writing. (Its last violent, Druidic human sacrifices can be likened to the Khmer Rouge massacres: an invaded traditional society sees the end at hand and freaks out).

Likewise—and although I consider Siegel’s treatment of the Radical Reformation admirable in the tradition of Engels’ Peasant Wars and the similar socialist reconstructions of religious-based class conflict by E. Belfort Bax, Karl Kautsky and others—I do not believe that he has altogether escaped the fundamental philosophical weakness of the inherited framework.

The classic socialist scholars considered religion essentially as substitution or displacement of the “true” issues. Even if accurate, this view seems to deny spiritual questions—like all intellectual and cultural questions—a realm of their own, semi-autonomous from economic and other constructs. Can a Marxist write otherwise? Ernst Bloch did, on many subjects; but be was admittedly touched by a mysticism which Siegel would not likely accept.

The strength of Siegel’s book comes home in the last section, where he takes up the interaction of religion and politics since the 1950s. He sees clearly that across the globe chiliasm has become intertwined with the hopes and resentments of the wretched of the earth. His succinct account of Latin American liberation theology (unfortunately, he has not much to say about that more ambiguous subject, African liberation theology), of Marxist-religious détente (most notable on Fidel’s part), and of the political problematic of the road ahead—all demonstrate his scope and sensitive concern.

If we are left without any clear or simple lesson at the end, one cannot blame Siegel. The picture is fuzzy, full of contradictory prospects, and cannot be otherwise. The impending outright crisis in the world economy seems destined to make the spiritual questions increasingly explosive. Those who read The Meek and the Militant will be more prepared to deal with the situation.

May-June 1993, ATC 44