[As I stated in a prior post, I recently completed reading Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology which the author, Roland Boer, very kindly sent to me as a gift. I very much enjoyed the book and have also enjoyed his blog, so I was very pleased when he consented to be interviewed for this blog. I started with a handful of questions more or less related to what he had written and then sent a number of follow-up questions to him. As you can see, things got a little out of hand and we ended up having a rather lengthy exchange but I hope that the reader will find it as interesting as I did. Thanks again, Roland, I very much appreciate your willingness to share. In what follows, my “questions” are in bold and Roland’s responses are in the regular font.]
People on both sides tend to treat Marxism and Christian theology as opposing and contradictory ideologies. I’m curious to hear about your personal journey and what has lead you to be interested in (and critically sympathetic towards) both of these areas of study. Care to share?
The connection first arose explicitly in a course I took on liberation and political theologies in about 1986 at the University of Sydney, while studying for a Bachelor of Divinity degree – which eventually led to ordination in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. One question with which I ended the course was: instead of reading these theologians on Marx, why not read Marx himself. Which I did, after an honours thesis on the riveting topic of Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Nag Hammadi and Qumran. So, for my Masters degree in theology I wrote a long thesis on Marx, Hegel and theology. Ever since then, I have been interested at a scholarly level in both areas. The idea for the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series first arose in 1992, so the completion of the fifth volume of that series a year ago was the fulfillment of that idea almost two decades ago.
But that is to focus on the intellectual history and you asked about the personal side. I came from a very religious family of (Dutch) reformed persuasions and I shared those convictions, although not without a continual critical spirit that annoyed my father to no end. At high school I used to joke about how things would be far better under communism, mostly to those in authority as they desperately tried to tell me how communism was another form of totalitarianism and how good capitalist parliamentary democracy really was. Even then, I was politically convinced that the centre-left was the best option (my parents voted consistently for Christian democrat or conservative parties while [I] opted for our social democrats, the Labor Party). Since then I have become more radical, on the far left, as they call it. As that happened, it became clear to me that within Christianity there is a strong tradition of political and theological radicalism, which I continued to explore personally. Reformed or Calvinist theology did not seem to sit easily with that interest, so I spent many a long year rejecting that tradition, only to realise later that Calvin himself was torn between the radical potential of elements in the Bible and his own conservative preferences (I eventually wrote a book about it, dedicated to my father, which he was able to read weeks before he died in 2009).
It also became clear, slowly, that not all the Bible or the various theological traditions are at their core or overwhelmingly radical, since they have sat and continue to sit comfortably with some of the most oppressive forms of power. It’s that basic ambivalence that continues to fascinate me, for which Marxism provides some unique insights. Add to that the fact that Marxists since Engels have been perpetually intrigued by the Bible and theology, often writing extensively on it in a way that has profound implications for their thought.
You mention where you now stand politically (both in response to this question and others) but have been a bit more vague about where all this leaves you in terms of religion. I understand that you may be hesitant to speak about this (and it sounds like you go into more detail about this in your forthcoming volume, In the Vale of Tears), but I would be interested in hearing more if you want to share.
Few know the real answer to this question, since I have kept it largely to myself. But I am happy to answer it. I tend to live with the New Testament paradox: I believe, help my unbelief. For a time I tried being an atheist, but that simply did not seem to work for me, so I spent a while telling myself I was agnostic. That had much to do with teaching in an ostensibly open-minded theological college, but it turned out to be stuffy, asphyxiating and very conformist. So I usually say that the church and especially its theological college made me an atheist for a while, or at least that every time I walked in the front door, I became an atheist. But I would identify myself as a somewhat heterodox believer, assisted to that position not merely by Calvin (there is no such thing as apostasy), but also by the likes of Bloch, Kautsky and Engels. Not your usual collection of ‘theologians’, but they gave some substance to my instinctual feeling of a radical dimension to Christianity, one that I can affirm. Nowadays I am able to hold that position since I am not directly involved in the church (although I do attend small gatherings of evening prayer in a regular basis). Recently, the Christian communist and left Barthian (!), Dick Boer (in a conversation in Amsterdam) put it this way: at a gathering of socialists of various persuasions, he said at one point that he feels sorry for his atheist comrades since they cannot pray. That pretty much sums it up for me, although I am committed to a politics of alliance – the line is not between theism and atheism, but between progressive and reactionary politics.
This book is subtitled “On Marxism and Theology” and in it you explore the ways in which theological or biblical themes impact the writings of eight important “Marxist” thinkers. Why did you choose to combine your interests in this way? Why not write “On Theology and Marxism” and explore the ways in which Marxist themes have influenced or found resonance in the writings of theologians or biblical scholars? You mention this option in your introduction as well as your rejection of it, but do not mention your reasons why. Was your choice a strategic move, reflecting a certain audience with whom you wanted to engage?
I always envisioned the study as one with primarily an audience among Marxists and those sympathetic to Marxism. So I was somewhat surprised to find out that people interested in theology, both within academia and outside, have also taken it up. But the original idea of my audience influenced the focus, which is why it was first published in the Historical Materialism book series and then in paperback by Haymarket, a press run by the International Socialist. It is also why the book focuses on the work of key Marxists in the tradition and not theologians. Volumes two and three of the series (Criticism of Religion and Criticism of Theology) carry on that program, drawing out a full tradition of such engagements and exploring them in critical detail. For the sake of completeness, the rest are: Lucien Goldmann, Fredric Jameson, Julia Kristeva, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, a full study of Alain Badiou, Raymond Williams, Georg Lukács, Max Horkheimer, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, E.P. Thompson, Michael Löwy, Roland Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari, and Antonio Negri. Volume four is a long study of Marx and Engels, entitled Criticism of Earth, where I deal with many of the texts on religion neglected in conventional studies of the Marx-and-religion problem. And the final volume, In the Vale of Tears, is my own response.
Enough of a survey of the whole thing. People have commented – and you are another one – that what is missing is a study of theologians and their engagements with Marxism. At the moment I am pondering chapters on the use of Kautsky as a whipping boy for New Testament scholars keen to distance themselves from Marxism, on the Marxist-Christian dialogue of the 1970s and early 1980s, Paul Tillich’s close association with the Frankfurt School, the Christian Socialism of Karl Barth, political theology, largely in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, a thorough critique of liberation theology, a study of the pope, Roman Catholic social teaching and Marx, and then an engagement with a book by the current bishop of Trier, whose name is Reinhard Marx and whose book is called, believe it or not, Das Kapital: Ein Plädoyer für den Menschen (2008).
It appears that your books have received a pretty positive response amongst those who are more directly engaged with theology. What sort of responses have you received from Marxists?
If anything, even more positive. A few look askance at the effort to revitalise the Marxism-religion debate, but many are excited by it. At a recent historical materialism conference in London, which was one of the most inspiring gatherings I have attended for a long time, one person after another said they are excited about [what] I am doing. Obviously, this gives me a thrill, since I wrote the first book purely out of self-interest, but it seemed to strike a chord. I have also found much interest in China, among communist party members at centres for Marxist studies. In 2011 I will be a visiting scholar in both Renmin and Fudan universities, at the latter offering a graduate seminar on Marxism and religion, which will focus on the neglected texts of Marx and Engels on theology and the Bible. On top of that, I am developing an international ‘Marxist and religion’ network, which has more and more people interested, from both the theological and non-theological side.
In your commentary on Eagleton, you speak critically of his efforts to situate his christological perspective upon the foundation of an understanding of Jesus as a particular sort of historical figure (i.e. Christ as the “executed political criminal”). Here, you register your scepticism not simply of Eagleton’s understanding of Jesus but of any search for the so-called historical Jesus. This moves us beyond your specific criticisms of Eagleton and into a much larger discussion that you hint at elsewhere (say in your discussion of Adorno). In terms of that discussion, you speak of a desire to avoid a redeemer figure and the problems associated with personality cults that have developed within Marxism. This is all well and good, but I wonder if you could fill out your thoughts in this regard. What, then, is one to make of Jesus? Further, what is one to make of the purported histories that are narrated in the biblical texts? What significance should one give to them as history or to historical critical readings (readings that you are adept at employing, as your various other writings demonstrate)? Further, if they are not treated as historical in some sense, do we not then simply end up conflating the bible with theology (something you appropriately criticize Bloch and others for doing)? Or is history itself too theological of a category?
Damn good question! I pick up and develop this critique of the personality cult from Adorno, with some contributions from discussions with David Jobling (from Saskatoon). No one has pursued this issue with me thus far, so it is good to have a chance to develop it a bit. The criticism is that Christology, as a distinct theological doctrine, provides a vicious logic of the personality cult, which is a tendency not only within Marxism but with all stripes of our cultural and religious situation. As you know from reading the book, the argument is that Christology becomes a renewed version of idolatry with a dialectical twist: in the same way that Christ as God becomes a human being and then ascends to heaven once again, so also does it become possible for human beings to become ‘divine’, joining Christ in the swing back up to heaven. But you have picked up the issue in relation to the historical Jesus, which seems to be a fall-back position for those who are sceptical about convoluted theological doctrines (I am not necessarily one of those). What to say here? To begin with, I am quite sceptical concerning the possibility of ever discovering the ‘true’ historical Jesus, even though people keep wanting to find something concrete on which to base their faith, or [at] least find a solid, identifiable, flesh-and-blood human being to follow. What is interesting is not the elusive goal, but the process itself, for it participates in the need for a messiah. It seems to me that the futility of that search is actually its great asset in terms of the personality cult, for such a futility helps to blocks that avenue. Further, certain elements in the Gospels enhance that situation, for we find narratives about Jesus warning against expectations of a messiah, counselling wariness and secrecy concerning his own work, in short, a profound reluctance and resistance to being identified as such a figure. Other material, of course, plays right into this picture, so once again I would invoke the theme of ambivalence that is dear to me. Once that ambivalence is acknowledged, it becomes possible to highlight elements that undermine such triumphalism.
Another element is what I call political myth (from a book of the same name from 2009). It seems to me that the narratives of Jesus are necessarily mythical in this (good) sense. Also, the elements I have mentioned above – the ones that tend to block the personality cult – are precisely what you would expect in myths, for such myths persist in maintaining subversive elements within them.
I am also “sceptical concerning the possibility of discovering the ‘true’ historical Jesus” but I think certain readings of Jesus are much more historically plausible than certain other readings. So, while the search may never grant us certainty about who Jesus was and what he did or did not do at any given moment, it certainly may be fruitful (and surprising for, as you point out, it reveals that Jesus really had a problem with being identified as a or the messiah). How much does this sort of approach escape the problems related to a “need for a messiah” and “the personality cult”? Must all “quests” or any study of any historical person (say Paul) be compromised in that regard?
Actually, it would be interesting to undertake a search for the historical Jesus or Paul that was concerned to identity efforts to negate the search for a messiah – given that any search has a set of preconceptions. Yet, while I agree with you concerning the possibility that come readings are more historically plausible than others, there is always that element of uncertainty that I like to play up, a kind of perpetually delayed last instance (to gloss Althusser). Like the messiah, the historical Jesus seems to take his time appearing, and that may be read as part of the refusal of the personality cult. The key here is that this refusal also carries on the critique of idolatry you find in Isaiah and so on, since Christianity has a tendency to rejuvenate idolatry, either in Jesus, or the church or the Bible.
Theodor Adorno functions as the climactic figure in this book – you save him for the end and then suggest that the other figures mentioned in this book should be read in light of his work related to theological suspicion and his criticisms of the secularisation of theology. However, pushing beyond what Adorno explicitly states, you suggest we need to follow his project from theology to politics and then through the political to see what theology looks like on the other side – a theology “beyond the initial opposition” and one that becomes possible only after “a thorough materialisation” has occurred. I wonder if you could fill out this suggestion and explain in more detail both (a) why you think it is important to travel this route and (b) what exactly you imagine this sort of theology being (is it going “beyond Badiou and back to Bloch” in order to see theology as connected to “a potentially liberating fable” or is it more than that?).
Žižek has given this a sophisticated shot in his theological engagements, carried out after I completed the chapter in Criticism of Heaven. Briefly put, he argues that only a true materialism can provide the basis for theology (he doesn’t take the opposite dialectical path, which interests me, namely from theology to materialism). And that takes place above all in the cry of dereliction from the cross: ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Here, argues Žižek, is the moment when God dies, when the atheism at the heart of Christianity manifests itself, and when a thoroughly materialist moment appears with Christianity. In other words, he takes up a variation on the patripassion tradition in which God suffers and dies.
I try to take a different approach in In the Vale of Tears, although I readily admit that Žižek is far sharper than me. My deepest inspiration is Bloch, although more in terms of his method than some of his results. So I reconfigure theology as a discipline that is not dominated by the need for belief or faith, arguing that it has been and remains a discipline concerned with: mythology (the central stories with which theology deals), nature and the environment (creation), with the human condition (anthropology), why the world is the way it is (harmatology or the doctrine of sin), the problem of suffering (theodicy), the nature of the human subject (via Christology), how human beings might live together (ecclesiology), and the nature of history and hopes for the future (eschatology). I also seek to relativise the absolutist claims of theology, in which it is so often assumed to be the fountain of contemporary political and philosophical thought (most recently in ‘radical orthodoxy’). I also offer a materialist reading of the basic political ambivalence of theology, focusing on the conditions that produced Paul’s contradictory thought and the tradition of Christian communism. And then I seek to undermine the traditions of ethics in favour of an unethical and non-moral position, as well as the favoured notion of kairos – the critical and opportune time of the New Testament – which lies behind most of the current theories of revolution. The catch is that ethics and kairos, as they are usually formulated, especially in Greek thought, actually give voice to ruling class assumptions of the correct order of society, with everything in the right place and time. A thoroughly historical materialist response is to challenge those assumptions, in what I call both an unethical and akairological approach. Finally, I pick up Marx’s overturning of the biblical critique of idolatry via the central notion of fetishism, taking it through Adorno to argue for a political iconoclasm. So, you can see a few anarchist elements with my Marxism.
I know Žižek’s approach quite well, having read most of what he has written on the subject and I remain unconvinced – despite his sophistication – that there is anything very radically new about the sort of theology that he produces by means of a thorough materialisation. In fact, my feeling is that he is stuck in that second stage – in the act of engaging in the materialisation of theology – and has not produced something new beyond that.
Be that as it may, I want to pick up on what you say about developing an “akairological approach” to theories of the revolution. I am very interested in hearing more about this. On the one hand, your approach strikes me as exciting and possibly inspiring. I participate in some groups that engage in struggles on the ground to counter that which is Death-dealing and serve that which is Life-giving, and waiting for the kairos of the revolution can be terribly exhausting and depressing. On the other hand, it is precisely my street-level involvement that makes me question your approach. I know some people who have considered every possible action and wondered what might actually produce some systemic change… and the answer has always come back that all our options appear equally impotent. This then gives new weight to the notion of the kairos of the revolution. The time really doesn’t yet seem right (in Canada anyway) and so we are left wondering what we can do. Therefore, I would be very interested in hearing more about your akairological approach.
On Žižek, Thomas Lynch (whom I have just met in Durham, UK) makes a similar point regarding Žižek – that he has not really come that far in his engagement with theology, that he is really rediscovering what others have already done before but with less perceptiveness. I know it is not possible for people to cover everything (although some try to give the impression that they do) but it would help if Žižek slowed down a bit and read some of Bloch’s work at least. There he would find a very similar argument, except that Bloch is much more comprehensive in pursuing the implications for the Bible and theology. Not that I necessarily agree with Bloch all the time, since he can let his guard down, but he is continually inspiring, far more perceptive and comprehensive.
As far as kairós and ákairos are concerned, the relation to revolution is a perpetual problem in at least two ways. First, is every action worth it or is it wiser to hide one’s strength and bide one’s time (as the Chinese proverb would have and which is deployed in Chinese foreign policy)? Doing everything whenever possible often leads to the activist’s perpetual problem: burnout, endless court cases and possible prison, and thereby disappointment at no noticeable change, if not a worsening of repression. The older Engels used to counsel against premature action, since it would merely give the authorities the opportunity for more repressive measures – not that they always seem to need such opportunities to enact ever harsher laws. The catch with waiting for the right moment, however, can lead to the infamous response of the French Communist Party at the May ’68 protests in France. The party decided that this was not a revolutionary moment, since it did not meet the proper criteria, that it was mainly a bourgeois process (despite the unions coming out in support of the students), and therefore they did not give their own support. Many feel that it was a crucial decision that undermined the protests. As another, classic, example: Che was part of the successful revolution in Cuba and then felt that he could be part of a similar process in Bolivia. That second effort ended in – apparently – abysmal failure. This is related to the second problem, namely, whether a revolutionary moment happens unexpectedly and undeservedly or whether it can be foreseen in light of conditions. The French Communist Party had opted in ’68 for the second, regarding the first as opportunism and situationism. I tend to be persuaded by the unexpectedness of a revolutionary moment, for both theological and political reasons. Theologically, it is part of the – usually unexplored – political dimensions of the doctrine of grace, especially through Paul (even though he got a profound shock when he realised the implications and tried to rope grace back in by means of a set conditions for grace, much like Calvin). This is one of the few things I like about Badiou, since he makes the most of that undeserved and unexpected element of grace on a political register (although he too prevaricates and sometimes sees the ‘event’ of revolution arising out of the given conditions). That leads into the political reason, for many revolutions happen unexpectedly, the result of a spark that those in the thick of it take up without being fully aware of why and how. That’s the sense of ákairos I try to develop. However, it is worth pointing out that ákairos, out of place and out of time, comes from the perspective of the ruling class – what opposes them is akairological, perpetrated by the chaotic and dangerous mass. If we shift perspective, then the ruling class ends up being the perpetrator of systemic chaos, violence and akairological acts, now understood in terms proper justice and so on.
That said, it seems to me that there is more than one way to act, as you well know. Direct political engagement on the streets may well not be the best at all times, for sometimes the quieter act of working at building alternative ways of living is better for a while, nurturing the seed of revolution. And it also depends on what one means by ‘failure’. To take one example, the short-lived effort at a Christian communist or anarchist community (and there are many, many examples) may be regarded as a failure in terms of longevity, but the myriad examples of such efforts in themselves witness to the abiding appeal and necessity of such efforts. Here I like the motto (via Žižek, although he did create it), ‘fail again; fail better!’ It is worth noting that communities established with a religious element – witness those from the nineteenth century – somehow last longer than ‘secular’ ones.
I share your appreciation of Badiou’s remarks about grace and the unexpected nature of the Event of revolution. I also share your criticism of the actions taken by the French Communist Party in ’68 and believe with Badiou that any signs of the coming Event can only be properly understood after the Event occurs. Therefore, waiting for what we believe to be the kairos of revolution ends up being a mistake. In this regard, I also appreciate Žižek’s remarks that the revolution is only produced after a series of failed efforts end up paving the way for success (cf. In Defense of Lost Causes, which I believe he dedicates to Badiou).
However, this apocalyptic approach still seems to be a kairological (and not an akairological) way of thinking. The significant shift is simply that we cannot determine the kairos in advance. This, then, leads us to be more willing to act even if the historical components (as we understand them) appear to be damning us to failure. Am I understanding you correctly here? After all, you do still highlight the need for caution and cost/benefit analyses, so perhaps I’m missing something. Care to fill out your thoughts further?
You have caught me out a little here, since you are absolutely right: caution before the Event, since we know not the day or hour, still assumes that someone does know – hence it is still kairological. In fact, it seems to me that a range of reasonably recent efforts to reframe the problem of revolution turn on the question of kairós: Bloch, Benjamin, Badiou, Agamben, Žižek, Jameson and Negri. Some of them – Bloch, Badiou and Jameson – stress the unexpected and undeserved nature of revolution, but it is still a little too domesticated, even in their versions. I would like to push them further, leaving behind the kairological framework for the sake of one that is akairological. A key here seems to be the question of agency, for human beings tend to put themselves at the centre of revolutionary agency. What if some non-human agency came into play? I am thinking here of nature beyond the human for one, except that now we need to be wary of the category of agency as itself anthropocentric. That said, the categories of kairós and ákairos are usually presented from the perspective of the status quo, by those who call the shots in current situation, so maybe a dialectical move is needed: what seems to be akairological from the perspective of ruling classes – that chaotic rabble out there that is out of place and out of time – begins to take on a completely different appearance from the position of the rabble itself.
In your reflections on Adorno’s criticisms of secularised theology you mention the recent wave of philosophical interest in Paul and his epistles. Despite your positive remarks about Badiou’s efforts in this regard (in your Žižek chapter), you appear to be quite skeptical about this project (mentioning the likes of Agamben, Taubes, and Moreiras but not mentioning Badiou when you speak critically of “neo-Paulinism”). Given that I’m writing a book on Paul and politics, I would be curious to hear you fill out your thoughts in this regard. Does Badiou learn from Adorno while the others mentioned do not? Are those looking for a theory based upon a “historical Paul” making the same mistake as those looking for the “historical Jesus”? What is it that makes you suspicious of this project?
In later volumes, I consider Agamben and Badiou in some detail, as well as E.P. Thompson who was also fascinated by Paul. And in the last book, I do offer my own response to these studies on Paul, as I mentioned above. My friend from Glasgow, Ward Blanton, is the one who knows most about this material, since now a spate of books have appeared in French on Paul, Simon Critchley has written about him, and a host of secondary literature has developed. All those studies challenge at least some New Testament Pauline scholars, with their unquestioned assumptions about Paul, to begin rethinking the political implications of their work. I am not so much sceptical about that neo-Pauline wave as wanting to ask: why Paul and why now? What conditions have arisen to make Paul such an interesting figure politically? Those answers have to do with the nature and renewal of the left, with the growing crisis of neo-liberalism, with a reclaiming of Paul from the increasingly marginal nature of the church, theology and biblical criticism in Western societies, and with what I argue are the deep political tensions in Paul’s thought (that theme again!). There is something radical in Paul and it is called grace, but once he had let the political cat out of the theological bag, he desperately tried to shove it back in again.
I would actually challenge your understanding of Paul – I believe that he doesn’t try to stuff the “political cat” back into the “theological bag.” Instead, I think he is thoroughly and radically political from start to finish. However, I think that Paul is very cautious in his writings because what he says and does is illegal and so he writes in such a way as to try to avoid obviously incriminating himself (something he does more and less well throughout his letters). This is the subject of the book I am writing, so I’ll be sure to send you a copy.
I am very interested in that book, so will be keen to read it when it comes out. The reason I take this line, apart from a close reading of Paul’s constant pattern of oppositions, is to question the (often German inspired) effort to make Paul entirely consistent. This seems an almost impossible expectation for one who wrote a few letters on the run (that is all we have), developing his thought and acts as he went along. I tend to feel he is more like us, for we change our minds, develop our positions, produce contradictions, in short, are not all-knowing. But I am willing to be persuaded otherwise, for perhaps he was like the older Engels, arguing for a more circumspect approach in difficult conditions.
One of the important points emphasized by several strands of Marxism and Christian theology is the importance of the connection between how one thinks and how one lives. Marxism is not simply a theory, but one that requires a person to be a part of a community that actively pursues the implementation of the goals of that theory within society. The same should be true of Christian theology – it should lead to a particular kind of lifestyle reflective of what is believed, as well as pursuing the agendas established by theological engagement with the biblical texts, and so on. Now, one of my major criticisms of theologians, biblical scholars, and Marxist theorists is that there seems to be a massive gap between the ideas communicated in the writings of those scholars and their actual lived lives. So, let me ask you: how has your engagement with Marxism and theology impacted your day-to-day life? Further, how does your engagement with these sources impact your understanding of what you do as a scholar?
Quite extensively, at political and ecological levels. I don’t own a car, preferring to ride a bicycle and catch buses and trains. And I don’t own a house, tying myself into the banking system more than I need to. Where possible, I prefer use value over exchange value, finding items in regular local government cleanups (large-item garbage really), such a good but discarded pieces of wood or old bicycles; I then make bookshelves, desks and tables out of them, or put together a workable bicycle. The furniture I mostly end up using, but the bicycles I give away. I have also opted not to take the full pay package that is available, preferring to get no more than the average wage. In short, I live frugally and relatively simply (not a few have called me stingey), partly due to a poor childhood and partly due to a desire to keep life and professed political and theological positions in line with one another.
However, in order to avoid sounding like a virtuous prat, this situation has given me some privileges, apart from those attaching to anyone who lives in a wealthy nation like Australia, who is white and male. The deal at the university cuts both ways, for I am allowed to carry on research and writing on my own terms, and the situation suits them, since I produce more revenue for them than they pay me. It’s a purely mercenary arrangement that works for now. My attachment to a university, or indeed the theological college at which I taught for a while, has always been a little distant. I am primarily a writer and if the deal did not work with universities, I would find other ways to continue writing. And I have been extraordinarily privileged in being able to travel quite a lot, since some closet Marxist (at least I assume so) in the Australian Research Council keeps sending moderate grants my way – which in turn makes me more attractive to universities here. But I am long practised in making those funds go a long way and I try to make sure that the travel doesn’t always take me to the usual, if now fading, centres of intellectual power around the Atlantic. Far more interesting people are found in the ‘former communist’ countries of Eastern Europe, as well as China and east Asia more generally.
One caveat: I don’t agree that lifestyle follows ideas. It is a little more complex than that, as I am sure you would agree: ideas come out of lived experience, giving voice to those experiences, and the ideas them inform life once again – except that the process is more simultaneous than can be expressed in sequential written form.
I agree with your caveat but want to push you one step further. It seems to me that both Christianity and Marxism call us to not only act creatively in order to avoid engaging in that which is death-dealing but also to actively resist the Powers of Death the operate in our world. Žižek emphasises that Christians and Marxists should be found together on the same side of the barricades and here I want to change the emphasis and, while agreeing with him, stress that both Christians and Marxists should be found on the barricades. Perhaps you want to speak about your understanding of resistance and comment on your (non?)participation therein?
I have argued for a similar approach in Rescuing the Bible, since the assumption that religion is reactionary and atheism progressive simply draws the line at the wrong point, as I mentioned earlier. As far as my own involvement in resistance is concerned, it is, I must admit, relatively low key in terms of immediate action. I have been involved in ‘less legal’ protests and marches, such as gay and lesbian liberation, or some years of non-violent resistance related to issues of urban living (spatial politics, urban planning, cities for people) in which the police were called in and made arrests (I was not one of them). I do less of that now than I used to. But I am also attracted to the ascetic monastic traditions, especially via Kautsky’s approach, in which the lived reality of a small community, with times for solitary retreat, also play a role, all the while keeping alive the tradition of Christian communism. And I am an intellectual, although under no delusions about the aggrandizing role intellectuals play in political and economic issues. However, I do feel that there is a continued need for opening up a cultural space where matters concerning communism and anarchism are not peripheral concerns, but vital issues debated on a daily and enthusiastic basis. That seems to be happening more and more now, fueled directly by the rolling protests around the world, for out of them come streams of people seeking to make some sense of their engagements, dealing with burnout and frustration, seeking new sources of inspiration. Some of the older groups set up to deal precisely with this phenomenon – such as the Fourth International’s Institute for Research and Education (really a place for training, research and reflection) – find that they have more and more people coming to them for resources.
My understanding of all this is fed by Negri’s notion of constitutive resistance. He argues, from extensive experience (and prison), that resistance is not marginal to a central Power (capital P), but that resistance is constitutive and ever-changing. In response, Power constantly needs to adapt, seeking out new ways to try and contain this resistance – through propaganda, repressive measures, reshaping of capital and so on. That resistance takes many different forms, including direct action, communal alternatives, cultural and intellectual space, the simple refusal to be part of Power’s agenda. At that level and despite constantly being compromised, I would like to think that every lived moment is part of that constitutive resistance.
My own engagement with Marxism has many similarities to the way in which you describe Gramsci’s engagement with theology and church history. While Gramsci sought to use theology and the institutional church as a resource for the development of the communist party, I’ve been looking at Marxism for insights into how to be a part of a community of people who pursue that which is life-giving for all and seek to resist that which is death-dealing (which, I guess is also similar to the way in which you describe Bloch as reading theology in order to look for a subversive moment). However, my experience with the Marxists has been that they are very good at analyzing the situation we are in, and how we got here. They often have profound critical insights into the depths to which we have sunk, but they tend to fall short when proposing what a way forward might look like. In that regard, I’ve found the anarchists to be far more useful. Marxists, it seems to me, are good at deconstruction. Anarchists are better are creation. I’m curious about your thoughts on this (and figure it is a fair question to ask, as Emma Goldman is mentioned in this volume and Antonio Negri shows up in a later volume). Why not do a volume in this series “On Anarchism and Theology”? Or does your definition of “Marxism” include the anarchists (who, of course, have read Marx and others)?
As I indicated earlier, I have some strong anarchist tendencies, reinforced by the self-serving corruption revealed most recently in the Wikileaks release of about a quarter of a million cables secret cables between world government figures. However, deep down I remain a communist. So a short answer to your question: although Marx was relatively reluctant to produce a blueprint for what might be created, that hasn’t stopped others from trying, most recently Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis. Although I have increasing misgivings about Badiou, especially his championing of the pure ruling-class and aristocratic Plato, I still love reading. On this, he is very good. But I also like very much what I call the tradition of Christian communism that predates Marxism. Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky were keen on this tradition, which continues to manifest itself in all manner of forms today. As I write my replies to your questions, I (and Christina, my partner) are deep in the snow of Herrnhut, the home of the Moravian Brethren in the far south-east of Germany, close by the Czech, Hungarian and Polish border. The Moravians originally practised such a life and still carry the flame in that respect.
Now you have put the thought of another work in my head, alongside the half dozen or more I am already planning: anarchism and theology!
While I am very open to the communist position, I tend to fall in the anarchist camp because I think that anarchism (specifically, anarcho-communalism) is uniquely situated in order to avoid the pitfalls that trapped its precursors. Anarchism, in my mind, is the resolution of the thesis and antithesis of parliamentary democracy and historical communism. I suspect that those who are truly committed to following through on the core beliefs of democracy (without a parliament) and communism (without a vanguard), actually end up in the anarchist camp!
I am willing to be persuaded, although I would prefer it if both communists and anarchists could live together and cooperate in whatever world comes after the end of capitalism (which, despite assertions to the contrary, will come to an end since it has had a history of beginning), or even in the interstices of capitalism now.
I agree and it appears that something along those lines is beginning to happen, not only in countries like Greece, Italy, and France but also in my own country due to the organisation that occurred in relation to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and the G20 Summit in Toronto. Hopefully, this sort of multitudinous activity will continue to develop, and I suspect that it will as the economy continues to collapse. I am actually beginning to wonder if some of the more deterministic Marxists were correct – capitalism is notorious for being able to get stronger as it gets worse, but there may be a break point. We just didn’t realise how bad things needed to get for capitalism to fall. However, I don’t think this necessarily leads to communism… something more similar to feudalism appears more likely. All the more reason for communists and anarchists to band together in order to seek the attainment of abundant life for all (and not just for some – and this is a point upon which theists and atheists, the two parties you mentioned earlier, should also be able to agree).
This seems like a good point to wrap up. I very much appreciate your willingness to engage in this dialogue, Roland. I look forward to continuing to read the other volumes in this series. One final question. Playfulness and humour seem to be important to you and the way in which you engage with others – from the remarks you make on your blog, to the papers you sometimes submit to journals, to the way in which you poke fun at the wankers at SBL – and I’m curious about how you have been able to sustain these things and perhaps even an underlying sense of joy, despite your awareness of the deep injustices and evils that exist in our world. Marxists and others who engage in the struggle aren’t particularly well known for their playfulness and humour, so I would love to hear how you have been able to maintain those things.
That is a somewhat surprising and welcome question! I guess I do have a sense of joy about life, but I have not thought about it much. Perhaps because life itself does seem to go on, because people continue to make a fist of it in often impossible circumstances and because people continue to hope. And I try to make sure I never take myself too seriously. It is also worth using humour polemically, as I tend to do, especially with those who get up themselves. This is where I am inspired by Engels, who usually has a bad press. Not only does Engels’s brilliance need to be recovered, at those times when he was not Marx’s II, but also his approach to life. In a few answers to questions put to him by the young Jenny Marx (junior) and recorded in her notebook, Engels says: ‘Your favourite virtue – jollity; Motto – take it easy’. He loved to joke, take the piss out of people (and himself), laugh and basically enjoy life, even in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Many thanks, Dan and Roland, for a great conversation.
Thanks Dan – and you even picked up the typos. Have been tracking back to read your series on Paul after the interview!
This is a great post / interview. Really fantastic. So much here to chew on.
Thanks Dan & Roland (loved your shirt at SBL!)
Just adding to the gratitude . . . thanks.
Thanks for the discussion gentlemen…
A couple of comments…
While Marxism understands the mistake in bourgeois liberalism/ neo liberalism,(ie. that there are no natural harmonies and equilibria of power in history [cf. Adam Smith] and that advancing civilization tends to accentuate rather than diminish, disproportions of power as exist in even primitive communities, it is clear property rights become instruments of injustice.) it’s (Marxism) solution for the problem of property is involved in another version of the older liberal illusion. Marxism assumes that the socialization of property will destroy all disproportions of economic power in the community. It looks for that perfect equilibrium of power on the other side of the revolution, which liberal theory imagines as a characteristic of the economic process in present society. Marxism does not understand that even even universalized property may become the instrument of particular interest.
This Marxist illusion is partly derived from a romantic conception of human nature. It thinks that the inclination of people to take advantage of each other is a corruption which was introduced into history by the institution of property. It therefore assumes that the socialization of property will eliminate human egotism. Its failure to understand the perennial and persistant character of human egotism in ANY possible society, prompts it to make completely erroneous estimates of human behaviour on the other side of a revolution.
Fantastic. Very encouraging and thought provoking.
Thanks for this. I will have to pick up some of Roland’s works.
Some good stuff here. I especially like Dan’s point that after a break point, we might end up with feudalism not communism.
Also Roland’s point that lifestyle doesn’t follow ideas, but it’s a complex two ways process. I think we’ve got an overly simplified view of commitment that would follow some form of cognitive process. I very often think that my ability to “think straight” is seriously hampered if I’m not in the right place where the straight thinking can occur.
Where you guys lose me is in the idealisation of recent riot-like activities in Europe. While it is right to fight for quality of life, the motivations of protesters are way more shallow than we think. Basically, they want the same genrous pensions at 55 that they saw their parents and grandparents get. If the system provided them with that, they would be happy enough with it.
And most annoyingly, nobody seems to have thought up a credible alternative. They just don’t like the deal they see themsleves getting.
We are entering a period of really nasty capitalism, not unlike the Great Depression, where public money is scarce and getting scarcer because of the nation states’ commitment to seeking direct investment.
Thus, in my opinion, more of life needs to happen away from the money system. This is the underlying principle for all alternative currencies and a better rebalancing of urban-rural interdependency along the lines of what was suggested by Peter Maurin. It is the poor of today, with their creative informal economic arrangements, who are showing us the way.
As always, I really like hearing from you. One point of response:
I don’t think we are idealising the riots that have been occurring in Europe (and not just recently, Greece, for example, has been rioting for well over a year). I hear you about pensions in France (or student fees in the UK and so on) and I recognize a great deal of the shallowness. I’ve seen that “on the ground” as well as in the media.
However, I think there is more going on than you give people credit for. Again, I’ve seen this “on the ground” but I would also refer you back to Greece.
Mostly, what interests me is the mass mobilisation of diverse groups (say students and unions working together) the willingness to engage in less-legal tactics and direct action, and the passion exhibited for a better world (of course, we say this passion with the Obama election and it never went anywhere, so that’s partly why it’s good to see this passion coupled with direct action).
So, yeah, I agree that there are a shit-ton of flaws in all these movements and uprisings, but I also think that there is more going on than you are giving people credit for (and more potential for something beyond that… people usually need to baby-step through these things and learn along the way… Lord knows I did and still do).
And what is wrong with generous pensions and free education provided fro all?
There is nothing necessarily wrong with generous pensions and “free education provided for all” (although I’m pretty sure that is not the system that exists in the UK). The point (as I’m sure you know) is simply that the type of change that is required is one that goes beyond middle-class families trying to cling to the rights or privileges previously granted to the middle-class.
Extremely interesting. Thanks!
Personally though, I am more sceptical towards marxism. After all, the communists have a good record in shooting the anarchists after the revolution. Our differences might seem to be minor now when we fight the common enemy of capitalism, but in the end these minor differences can turn out to be life-and-death issues later on. The question of power, hierarchy and the state is central to me and prevents me from being very interested in marxism/communism. I don´t think a communist state will ever be graceful towards anarchists.
I also want to complain a bit about the (seemingly) antropocentric focus of this dialogue. As long as industrialism, complex technology and human domination is not challenged head on, I think something profound is missing.
I don’t even remember how I got here but I thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks Dan!
Thanks for having this interview still online.