Rethinking Marx and Religion (by Alberto Toscano)


An interesting piece by Toscano on Marx and religion:

In the contemporary study of religion as a factor of social change and political mobilisation, Marx is treated as a marginal reference at best, a ‘dead dog’ at worst. The global impasse, or even reversal, of a secularisation process that Marx appears to take for granted; the turbulent rise of explicitly religious forms of political subjectivity; the persistence or resurgence of religion both as a principle of political authority and a structuring presence in everyday life – these current trends seem to militate for the relegation of Marx to a historical moment (that of the European nineteenth-century), a political subject (the workers’ movement), and a notion of temporality (the one encompassed by notions of progress, development and revolution) which have been inexorably surpassed in a globalised scenario (whether we grasp this scenario through the differential lens of postcolonial critiques, the hegemonic and homogeneous prism of neoliberalism, or the bellicose culturalism of the infamous ‘clash of civilisations’). To compound this state of affairs, which could also be read in terms of a revenge of the sociology of religions against a Marxian ‘master narrative’ – and with all the apposite caveats regarding the discontinuities between Marx and historical Marxisms, practical and theoretical – we cannot ignore the significance of the religious question within the so-called ‘crisis of Marxism’ of the 1970s and onwards.

When Michel Foucault, in his enduringly controversial reports on the Iranian revolution, stressed the irrelevance of Marx’s dictum on religion as the ‘opium of the people’ in accounting for the role of Islamic politics in the overthrow of the Shah, he was expressing a commonly-held rejection of the supposed secular reductivism characteristic of Marxist theories of social change and prescriptions for revolutionary action. Alongside Iran, the complex entanglement of popular rebellions and religion in the Polish Solidarnosc movement and Latin American liberation theology wrong-footed a theory of revolutionary praxis which took the ‘practical atheism’ of the proletariat as a sociological datum. This situation has been exacerbated today in a context where the ebb of projects of human emancipation is accompanied by the pauperisation and brutalisation of a ‘surplus humanity’ living in a ‘planet of slums’, the catalyst for a twenty-first-century ‘reenchantment of a catastrophic modernity’ in which ‘populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism’.

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