"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fundamental Contradiction: Materialism and the Struggle for Justice

The fundamental contradiction of most 19th and 20th century leftist ideologies is that while they are all motivated by an intense love of justice, they undercut that motivation by adopting an atheistic and materialist philosophy. The contradiction is simply stated: If you believe that all human motivation is the exclusive result of material forces, then so is Marx’s passion for social justice. The difference between a spiritually-based hunger for justice and a materially-based one is that the latter is inherently malleable, whereas the former can endure eternally. Related to this is the critique of the Marxist notion of “class-truth.” This theory states that truth can be no more than a reflection of the economic interests of a particular class, which is precisely what Marx demonstrates to be true of capitalist society. If there is no notion of truth which stands independently of class, then there can be no basis for truth other than class interest. This notion can and is deployed in favor of the ruling class as easily as the working class. In other words, if you say that the Marxist analysis of capitalism is true, but that it is only a reflection of the class interests of the working class, then the ruling class can immediately answer you that the reflection of their class interests has the same ontological status as your “truth.”

Unless truth rests on a foundation other than class interest, there can be no truth. Such a standpoint makes real knowledge of social and economic truth impossible. Either the Marxist analysis of the contradictions of capitalism is true or it is false for all classes. If it is true only for a particular class, but false for another class, then whichever class possesses superior material force must impose its version of “truth.” This is equivalent to saying that only coercive force can establish “truth.” Perhaps Nicolas Berdyaev put it best, “Now in principle there are no such things as absolute truths, but in reality there is at least one, namely, that there is no absolute truth, and that all truth only a reflection of economics and the class-war! But this doctrine lifts the knowing subject above all relativity. It would seem that the proletariat whose truth Marx expounded has a cognitive superiority over all other classes; its consciousness is no longer the illusive ideological reflection of economics but is open to the knowledge of reality.” Berdyaev, “Christianity and Class War.”

Truth cannot belong to a single class, but a class can certainly pervert the truth. For example, we cannot coherently criticize the incessant distortions and outright lies of Fox News without having a conception of truth that rises above our class interests. Otherwise we should simply record them as expressions of the objective interests of the ruling class rather than being outraged by them.

When we work for social justice on such a shaky philosophical foundation, the motivation for our work can be constantly undermined by those who adopt crude definitions of material interests and act on them. If there is no higher realm of the spirit that can stand in judgment on our material behavior, then simply acting for one’s immediate material benefit by, for instance, accepting the highest possible salary from the most exploitative and environmentally degrading company, can be as easily justified as working for social justice. Why should I spend my life in poorly compensated work for justice and accept the sanctions of the capitalist state when I could have all the material benefits of that state? If the material interests of my class are the only determinants of truth then there can be no hesitation: act for your immediate material benefit and create a “truth” that supports that decision.

Far from accepting the commonly touted opposition between a spiritual viewpoint and the quest for social justice, I follow Considerant and Lamennais, widely considered the most eloquent advocate of Christianity in the 19th century, in finding solid support for revolutionary action directly in the teachings of Christianity. Considerant declared, “Modern society is in a definite state of decomposition. The old world, the world of slavery, of feudalism, of the proletariat, the pagan world, attacked at its base 1800 years ago by the great explosion of the doctrine of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity that Christ brought to earth, the world of misery, of struggle, of exploitation of man by man, has been shaken to its very foundations: it is cracking in every part of its worm-eaten timbers.” – Victor Considerant. He goes further, identifying Christ with the idea of social justice, an intensely Biblical notion, “This idea is the invincible demand for a society that is just, free and happy, a society that is human and Christian, made in the opposite image from that selfish, barbarous and pagan society that you [the French ruling class] want to preserve and which you will not preserve. This idea, which like the armed man of scripture has captured souls and taken possession of this century, is socialism.” – Victor Considerant.

The most powerful current expression of spiritual socialism is the result of Latin American Christians in struggle against the kingdom of Satan, understood as the symbolic accentuation of the negative effects of capitalist rule. Known as “Liberation Theology”, or more generically, “Liberationist Christianity”, this perspective makes justice to the poor the central reality of the kingdom of heaven. We will expand on this theme as an alternative theory of socialism that grounds class analysis in the teachings of Jesus in a new series that will be forthcoming over the coming months. The central thesis of this effort is that “[Capitalism] is a form of sin, a way of life that captures and distorts human desire in accordance with the golden rule of production for the market. Given the horrendous consequences of this discipline for the majority of humanity, it is fitting to call capitalism a form of madness. Christianity, on the other hand, is about the healing or liberating of desire from sin. It is a therapy, a way of life that releases desire from its bondage, that cures the madness so that desire may once again flow as it was created to do.” Daniel Bell, “Liberation Theology after the End of History.”

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