Lay down your wreaths and drums


Apropos of this little discussion we’ve been having recently about matters religious, it is of course true that Marxist politics have some of the qualities of religion. There are gurus and hagiographies, theology (aka diamat) and demonology, complicated formulae that have grown up over the generations only to be handed down to bemused youths, and of course schisms. Indeed, at a conference not long ago I was delighted to hear a member of Socialist Appeal expound the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. It went like this: In the beginning there were Marx and Engels, who were brilliant. Then there were Lenin and Trotsky, who were brilliant. Then there was Ted Grant, who was brilliant. And now, carrying the torch of brilliance into the new millennium, were Hugo Chávez and Alan Woods.

Now, you may read this and think, “Blimey, that Alan Woods doesn’t go in much for false modesty, does he?” And you would be right, but you would have to follow that up by acknowledging that it’s a much broader phenomenon than just that one tendency. And you may also say that, while the official Communists of old were a bit like the Catholics, the Trots bear a remarkable likeness to the divers array of Calvinist sects. (Where the symmetry falls down here is that I can’t think off the top of my head of a denominational analogue for the Maoists.) And, by the way, when I read the polemics between the CWI and the Scottish ISM during their parting of the ways, the most serious difference I could think of was that the CWI still believed in the necessity of a priesthood, while the ISM were happy enough to settle for charismatic lay preachers – although that bit them in the arse in the end.

Anyway, what I wanted to come back to was this whole issue of church and state. Now, as already stated, my preference is for the formula laid down in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This has been muddied a good deal by the sort of strident nudniks who like to take cases to the Supreme Court trying to get “In God We Trust” removed from dollar bills, but the meaning is relatively straightforward. In revisiting Jesus’ injunction to render God and Caesar their respective due, it means that there is no established religion, nor does the state interfere in the religious sphere.

This, it seems to me, is a better reference point than the French concept of laïcité, rooted as it is in the Jacobins’ fondness for having the state dictate religious matters. It also has the edge over the distinction (though not radical separation) between church and state in Catholic political theology, sketched out by Augustine and elaborated by Aquinas, which consistently defends the church against state interference, but does in certain circumstances favour the existence of an established church, which is why de Valera’s 1937 constitution failed to win papal approval. (Orthodox political theology is different in origin, deriving from the history of the Byzantine Empire, but has ended up in a not dissimilar place.) You may think that the interference of the state in the church is something that belongs in the bygone era of the Tudors, as recounted in the classic Carry On Henry, or you might think of its residue in the English body politic as a quaint irrelevance, given that half the people in the Church of England don’t even believe in God. But it’s a more widespread issue than you’d think.

Take China. In mainland China, the Catholic Church as such isn’t allowed to operate legally. In its place, you have something called the Patriotic Catholic Association, which agrees with all the policies of the Chinese government. Moreover, its bishops are appointed by the Communist Party, in the exact same way that the Communist Party decides which Tibetan peasant child is going to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The main difference is that the Chinese Catholics, lacking the sexy exoticism of the Tibetan Buddhists or their rock ‘n’ roll leader, have so far avoided the dubious pleasure of having their cause taken up by Richard Gere or Sharon Stone. As a result, it’s usually only readers of the Tablet who get to hear about their plight.

But surely that’s China, and you wouldn’t get something like that in a modern European democracy? Well, maybe Montenegro isn’t exactly your model European state, but Milo Djukanović’s pirate republic has been rather interesting on the ecclesiastical front. This results from Milo’s campaign, since he broke from his mentor Slobodan Milošević and sought out US-EU sponsorship, to prove that Montenegro is a totally distinct nation and nothing to do with Serbia, honest guv. The campaign, whose broad outlines will be familiar to students of JV Stalin’s nationalities policy in the 1920s, has ranged from the adoption of a swanky new flag to the promotion of pseudo-historical theories about a mediaeval kingdom of “Red Croatia”, to importing linguists from Zagreb (where else?) with the aim of codifying local dialectalisms into a separate Montenegrin language – a sort of Balkan equivalent of Ulster Scots. But one of the big obstacles in his way has been the total loyalty of the local Orthodox church, both clergy and active laity, under the leadership of the formidable Metropolitan Amfilohije, to the Serbian patriarchate.

On the other hand, there were a few handy precedents in the region. During the Second World War, the Nazi-Franciscan regime in Croatia created a “Croatian Orthodox Church”, with a defrocked Russian priest at its head, to try and create a sort of patriotic religious outlet for those of the troublesome Serb minority who resisted conversion to Catholicism, thus rebranding them as “Croats of Orthodox faith”. That the original initiative comprehensively failed to take off did not deter some of the more enthusiastic Croat nationalists of the 1990s from thinking the idea might be worth reviving. A much more respectable precedent is that of the Macedonian church, whose declaration of autocephaly in 1967 (after a little arm-twisting from the Yugoslav government) may have been of dubious canonicity but was at least proclaimed by the legitimate bishops of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, and enjoyed broad popular support. And so, in the context of Djukanović’s Kulturkampf, it has been no surprise to see the emergence in recent years of a “Montenegrin Orthodox Church”, with a defrocked priest pressed into service as “Metropolitan” (not a single legal clergyman having been willing to defect), and a congregation composed, to the extent it exists at all, of communists, Muslims and Albanians. Nonetheless, the spurious organisation does seem to have plenty of money, and political and police protection for its various provocations. Note that all this is taking place, not in an Anthony Hope novel, but in a contemporary European country that’s being considered for EU accession.

Let’s return to the British context, and we can see that New Labour retains a positively Tudor liking for sticking its oar into matters spiritual. Mr Tony Blair’s declarations about how the Pope has to reform and modernise (evidently he’s never heard of the Catholic Modernists) is just the tip of the iceberg. One may also mention the Blair government, in correctly lifting legal barriers against gay adoption, further legislating to prevent Catholic adoption agencies from adhering to Catholic moral teaching – with the fulsome support of the Grauniad liberals, who are quite happy to use one (“progressive”) minority to bash another (“reactionary”) minority. And this, mind you, from a government that has handed over hundreds of state schools to faith groups – but then, that’s a popular move with those middle-class parents who are prepared to fake religious devotion in order to get little Jimmy into a good school. One could write a whole book on the confusion, dissimulation and hypocrisy involved. And the latest instalment is Hazel Blears touting around her ideas about how the Muslims should run their religious institutions – demanding, for instance, that imams should preach Friday sermons extolling the glories of British democracy. You don’t have to be a mad mullah, or any kind of Muslim, to find this sort of thing outrageous.

Well, Mr Tony parading his religiosity, when any real Christian would have some concept of acknowledging his sins, is one thing. Another thing entirely is this compulsion that militant secularists seem to have – not content with a separation of church and state, an awful lot of them seem driven to seek the church’s subordination to the state. And there’s a great deal of this on the left, amongst people who seem to think that the Roundheads, the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks represent some kind of best practice in terms of dealing with the religious. When I say there are a lot of puritans on the left, that’s not just a comment on sexual mores – there are not a few Puritans in the historical sense, people who would ban Christmas if they thought they could get away with it.

I think it’s about time the militant secularists learned to take a more relaxed view of things. Like I say, the secular programme, in the narrow sense of a separation of church and state, is something I have no problem with. What makes me a little nervous is the (dare one say religious?) zealotry some secularists have. It’s as if the very notion that people in this world hold differing beliefs from them drives them haywire – it’s not enough for them to simply be atheists, they can’t rest until any trace of religious influence is expunged from the earth. The results can be simply annoying, as when Professor Dawkins or Dude Hitchens indulge in rhetoric based on the premise that anyone who isn’t an atheist is irredeemably stupid. Or, in some cases, they would be worrying if these folks were on the verge of taking power. There are few enough people left, one hopes, who subscribe to the idea of the one-party state. Perhaps the conceit of the “atheist state”, with accompanying implications for those who don’t subscribe to atheism, should also be consigned to the circular file. You don’t need to be a master of dialectics to know that an exaggerated rationalism can easily turn into irrational fanaticism.

And you don’t even want to get me started on Decent rationalism. Then again…


  1. jp said,

    May 7, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    just fyi on the US Constitution and establishment of religion: as allowed by that document, various states had established religions which were not disestablished until by the states’ own choices in the 19th century.

  2. Ken MacLeod said,

    May 7, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    Just who are these ‘militant secularists’ who seek the subordination of the churches to the state, and who won’t rest until ‘any trace of religious influence is expunged from the earth’? Not Dawkins, not Hitchens, not even the National Secular Society – let alone the movement of secularism and atheism that is at last growing in the US. This upsurge (and the interest in Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books) is a push-back against several decades of increasing religious interference in politics, from creationism to the 9/11 attacks. Most ‘militant secularists’ would be quite happy to leave the religious alone. The trouble is, the faithful won’t leave us alone.

    They’re the ones trampling over science education, in a way that secularists in the west have never trampled over … I’m struggling for a word here … whatever the religious equivalent of education is.

  3. Fellow Traveller said,

    May 7, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Catechesis (pronounced /ˌkætəˈkiːsɪs/) is an education in the faith of children, young people and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.

    Thank you Wikipedia on Catechism.

    The cruelly disposed might use synonyms such as brain-washing or indoctrination.

    With regard to the ‘Don’t tread on me’ sentiment expressed by Mr Sunrise – Christians will have something to complain about when we start throwing them to the lions again. A couple of eminent men (well, apart from Mr Hitchen who is more of an eminent drunkard and bar room brawler of the pseudo Norman Mailer school) publish tracts advocating Atheism and the Christian world raises its eyes to Heaven and calls out: ‘How long O Lord, how long?’ This typical Christian posturing – the worm like pose – the long suffering look – the feeling of being unjustly treated because someone strongly disagrees with them as if a new Nero had appeared makes me laugh contemptuously. Christians present themselves as harmless and persecuted and in actuality spend a lot of their time attacking other groups aggressively. Meek as lambs in demeanor and vicious as a cornered rat in action.

  4. Ray said,

    May 8, 2009 at 9:38 am

    I think it’s telling that you complain about atheists and secularists trying to subordinate religion to the state, but the two British examples you come up with – Blair and Blears – are practicing Catholics, and not exactly secretive about it.

  5. skidmarx said,

    May 8, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Three people have already said what I was going to.
    Maoists= Seventh Day Adventists perhaps?

  6. Garibaldy said,

    May 8, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I’ve recently been talking at my own blog about how fundamental a contribution to revolutionary political philosophy the French republican concept of laïcité was, so I have to say I disagree with the thrust of Splintered’s post. This is especially the case when thinking about how we can progress matters in NI. Having said that, clearly there must be a more flexible attitude to religion than has often been taken in the past. Equally the state remains a separate sphere, and must not allow different laws for different religions, and so any recognition for religious courts regarding divorces or whatever must be removed and the extension of this opposed. As for education. One of Blair’s worst policies was the encouragement of religious schools. And to think that someone with such experience of NI could be so stupid.

  7. Ray said,

    May 8, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    And I can’t believe you didn’t mention in this context, the fact that the Irish government is trying to criminalise blasphemy. Are atheists somehow to blame for that too? Getting too uppity recently?

  8. Doloras said,

    May 9, 2009 at 5:20 am

    Might I be the first commenter here to actually agree with the thrust of this post? Militant secularists always strike me as like Bender from Futurama, saying “There is no god, and your pathetic human ideals are laughable! BWAHAHAHA!”

    Mind you, the serious undertone here is that there is really no-one who doesn’t have a religion. The people who are angrily shouting that there is no god are generally the people who worship abstract concepts like “Western democracy”, “the free market”, “socialism”, “science”, etc etc etc. Now the problem is not these abstract concepts, but the fashioning of them into idols. It has meant that you no longer have to believe in god to be a fanatical, bigoted, religiously-devoted idiot of some kind.

    And if you look at the radical left, you will see exactly the kind of unpleasant personality disorders that come from someone trying to fill the “God spot” with Marxism. Like the couple I knew who exchanged copies of the Communist Manifesto instead of rings at their wedding. Or, on a bigger level, Stalin stuffing Lenin’s corpse and propping it up in Red Square like a grinning scarecrow. You think Karl or Vlad would have been into that? That’s sheer idolatry and it needs to be wiped out if Marxism is ever going to be real mass politics again, rather than a substitute religion for a minority.

    The new world we all want to build will need new forms of living together and new principles of what is just and moral conduct. The people who want to declare in advance that sane, healthy, whole humans will be atheists are not helping, and those people who think that socialism can function in the place of a spirituality are frankly nuts.

  9. Ken MacLeod said,

    May 9, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Well, Doloras, if you must drag robots into it:

    LISTER: I don’t mean to say anything out of place here, Kryten, but that is completely whacko, Jacko. There is no such thing as “silicon heaven.” KRYTEN: Then where do all the calculators go?
    LISTER: They don’t go anywhere! They just die.
    KRYTEN: Surely you believe that god is in all things? Aren’t you a pantheist?
    LISTER: Yeah, but I just don’t think it applies to kitchen utensils. I’m not a _frying_ pantheist! Machines do not have souls. Computers and calculators do not have an afterlife. You don’t get hairdryers with tiny little wings, sitting on clouds and playing harps!
    KRYTEN: But of course you do! For is it not written in the Electronic Bible, “The iron shall lie down with the lamp?” Well, it’s common sense, sir. If there were no afterlife to look forward to, why on Earth would machines spend the whole of their lives serving mankind? Now that would be really dumb!
    LISTER: (Quietly) That makes sense. Yeah. Silicon heaven.
    KRYTEN: Don’t be sad, Mr David. I am going to a far, far better place.
    LISTER: Just out of interest: Is silicon heaven the same place as human heaven?
    KRYTEN: Human heaven? Goodness me! Humans don’t go to heaven! No, someone made that up to prevent you all from going nuts!

  10. Fellow Traveller said,

    May 9, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    I really admire the line of argument that goes:

    Atheism states that Religion is wrong.
    Atheism is just a form of Religion.
    So, Atheism is wrong.
    Ergo, Religion is right after all.


    Next up: proof that Darwinian Evolution is really a branch of Satanism.

    • Doloras said,

      May 10, 2009 at 9:41 pm

      Fellow Traveller: I don’t think Religion is right. I don’t think Atheism is right. Like Robert Anton Wilson, I don’t actually [b]believe[/b] anything. All that we can judge is what effects beliefs have on the people who hold them. And I’d rather hang around someone like Malcolm X or Johnny Cash – religious believers who believed and worked for social justice – than secularists who act like dicks.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 10, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Well, I don’t take Dermot Ahern’s proposed bill on blasphemous libel all that seriously. I think it’s more to do with a government in extreme difficulties realising that there aren’t many votes to be had in courting the tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats, and maybe a populist gesture to the neglected Catholic sector of the electorate wouldn’t do them much harm.

    Oh, and I’m also interested in what Garibaldy’s been saying on French Revolutionary thought. It’s something I’m quite ambivalent about, and I promise to come back to that in greater depth.

    • Ray said,

      May 11, 2009 at 12:04 pm

      But the fact that a government in trouble thinks they’ll get more joy from pandering to religious people who want to limit free speech than from appealing to militant secularists is revealing, isn’t it? Fianna Fail can be accused of many things, but “not knowing where the votes are” is low on the list.
      Add that to Mr Tony’s enthusiasm for faith schools and contrast it with the militant secularist agenda getting… well, what, exactly?
      Where are the examples of government pushing religion out of public life?

  12. May 10, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    The First Amendment may be fine reading, but it has hardly separated religion from public life or governmental life here in the States. You can’t get elected, except perhaps in some of the small New England states,dog catcher without proclaiming your love of Christ. I have yet to see a major impact these militant secularists who want to expunge religion and persecute the faithful have had on public life here. Martyr-based Christianity often portrays itself as being led to the lions of secularism. Every Christmas you here about those evil atheists who want to ban Christmas by promoting the politically correct “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” as a seasonal greeting. If that’s the best the secularists can do I wouldn’t get too worried anytime soon Splintered, After the last 8 years of the Bush administration, The War on Terror, shariasm, etc. it is no time, Stateside anyway, for secularists to “relax.” If that amendment is to mean anything it will only come when secularists demand it mean something. As anyone with a child in public school in any number of States knows “relaxing” over the role of religion in public life led to a near wholesale takeover of school boards by the “intelligent design” crowd. While they lost that particular it was only because they were stood up to by secularists.


  13. Garibaldy said,

    May 10, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Will look forward to your thoughts on French Revolutionary thought. \something I suspect I’m less ambivalent about.

  14. johng said,

    May 11, 2009 at 7:04 am

    I’ve always found these discussions amongst marxists kind of surreal given that Marxism originated as a critique from the left of the assumptions behind bourgoise secularism. On the Jewish Question anyone?

  15. Chris Williams said,

    May 11, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Splinty, you’ve got to remember that the Secularist movement is old enough to have had big schisms too. One of the earliest was between the followers of Bradlaugh (‘stick it to the God-botherers’), and Holyoake (‘lead by example’). It’s still going on.

    But, just as the religious have a right to expect us to know a little bit of what we criticise, secularists can make the same call on you. It’s not enough to stick with ‘some secularists’. Would you ever use ‘some Trotskyists’?

  16. Ken Macleod said,

    May 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    johng: On the Jewish Question anyone?

    I’ve never understood why Marxists are proud of this work. I accept the argument that it’s not anti-semitic, but it goddamn well sounds anti-semitic, and even leaving all that aside it’s full of silly-clever German-philosophical point-scoring and shouty italics.

    It turns out we don’t need to have socialism to make religion irrelevant. Social security works just fine. Hence the difference between the US and Europe in the matter of religion.

  17. Harrords said,

    May 13, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Johng is right as ever on the big picture (Marx’s parting of company with the secularists is exactly where Marxism begins), but he’s given the wrong source: the Introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (and not On the Jewish Question).

    “For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism…”

    I’d be interested in the views of Chris, Ken any other secularists on the following case which is going round the employment courts:

    Presumably this is a step backwards because the so-far successful worker (who says that he was dismissed by his employer because of his belief that climate change needed to be reversed) was relying on legislation introduced to protect the very people who “interfere religously” in politics?

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