Politics as Religion

by Mark English

In a recent piece, I referred to a dispute between Hannah Arendt and Jules Monnerot that brought into sharp relief some perennially important – and contentious – questions about the nature of politics and political commitment. In the late 1940’s, Monnerot had written a book which characterized communism as a secular religion, and in quite negative terms. Needless to say, Monnerot’s book, Sociologie du communisme, made him very unpopular in French (and other European) academic circles. In 1953, Arendt criticized Monnerot’s thesis in an article in an American journal, claiming that the very notion of “secular religion” is incoherent and (puzzlingly) accusing Monnerot of blasphemy. Their exchange was revealing not only of the differences between their respective points of view but also of the deep divide that exists between those who apply certain kinds of philosophico-theological modes of thought (specifically Kantian or Hegelian) to politics and those who don’t.

In his reply to Arendt, Monnerot defended his use of the notion of secular religion. Applying the notion of religion to movements like communism or Hitlerism may well, he conceded, be theologically absurd, but it is not absurd from a sociological point of view.

He was right about this. What possible objection could there be to highlighting the psycho-social parallels between the functioning of religious groups and the functioning of groups bound together by political ideology or other kinds of secular allegiance?

I listed some parallels in my previous article but did not elaborate. Take in-group/out-group dynamics, for example. In the case of many political movements – as in the case of religions – these dynamics are associated with a set of core values and beliefs which forms the basis of (usually implicit and informal) decisions concerning inclusion and exclusion. This set of core values and beliefs is, therefore, “sacred” – at least in the sense that it is non-negotiable and not to be questioned. Moreover, it gives the group – whether it be a religious or a political alliance – an aura of moral and sometimes intellectual seriousness that tends to be lacking in respect of most other close-knit and exclusive groups (in respect of street gangs or followers of football teams, for example, or of groups of fashionable friends or in respect of racially-defined or family-based groups).

The blasphemy concept is relevant here. Although it is used jokingly in a wide range of contexts, any serious use of the term implies, as Monnerot pointed out, a belief in something sacred. What was it, he wondered, in the name of which he had blasphemed in comparing communism to a religion?

Another feature of a secular religion is the tendency to sanctify or make heroes of founding figures and prominent practitioners of the past and to demonize opponents and apostates. Yet another is moral certainty. This may or may not be associated with a Kantian or similar commitment to moral realism. But it is virtually always associated with a sense that a vindication of core values and a fulfillment of goals and expectations will somehow be forthcoming. The classical Marxist, for example, is not a moralist but is committed to a view of history which owes not a little to Hegel’s view (and which, as Monnerot claims, is essentially a providential one).

Brian Leiter (in a video discussion with Daniel Kaufman) emphasized the distinction between so-called cultural Marxists – many of whom were/are neo-Kantians – and classical Marxists. Though Leiter recognizes the power of ideas, he distances himself from idealism and clearly opts for Marxian materialism, a view that is not readily compatible with Kantian approaches to morality.

Leiter points out that thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School represented the same general position as that promoted by Bruno Bauer and his fellow left-Hegelians. Marx and Engels ridiculed Bauer and his circle relentlessly, mocking them for remaining basically religious thinkers (“the Holy Family”) despite their protestations to the contrary. Marx may well have been justified in calling attention to and questioning the basis and political efficacy of Bauer’s Kantian moralizing, but he had his own illusions.

Marx (as Leiter points out) had an optimistic and progressive view of history which he took (at least in part) from Hegel. Leiter, in common with other Marxists, seems to share these assumptions.

If the borders between political and religious thinking are ill-defined, so too are the borders between philosophy and theology. Plato is full of Pythagorean and other religious ideas, and the writings of the Stoics have a strong religious dimension. Modern Western philosophy came to be within a theological matrix (Christian, Christian Platonist…) and much of the tradition remained (remains?) very close to those origins. Elements of idealism are implicit in many varieties of religious thought and experience, and theological and/or mystical elements are evident in many forms of idealism.

Hannah Arendt intended at one point to major in theology and just about all the thinkers who influenced her were either explicitly Christian or heavily influenced by Christian philosophy. Even Heidegger started out as a Catholic interested in scholastic philosophy before rejecting Catholicism for a liberal Protestant position and then moving to something else entirely. Jaspers (who probably influenced Arendt more than any other teacher or friend) drew on Christian mystics and was a follower of Kant (whom I see as a profoundly Christian thinker, especially in respect of his concerns with morality and human freedom) and of Kierkegaard.

As I noted, in her attack on Monnerot, Arendt talked about blasphemy and quoted Christian writers like Pascal and Kierkegaard. Theological sources were always important to her. The major (unfinished) work Arendt was engaged in writing in her later years drew on these sources as well as the work of Kant.

John Kiess (in his book, Hannah Arendt and Theology (2016)) has argued convincingly that Arendt’s early training in theology had a profound and lasting effect on the way she thought and the way she approached the themes that characterize her work. Two early influences were the eclectic Catholic theologian Romano Guardini and Rudolf Bultmann. She explicitly engaged with Bultmann (as did Jaspers), but seems to have had more in common with Guardini who first introduced her to Kierkegaard. Her doctoral dissertation was on the thought of St. Augustine.

Arendt’s engagement with theology continued throughout her life and it is no surprise that her work continues to be discussed in contemporary Christian theological circles, particularly in relation to such topics as the nature of evil, love, political action and the life of the mind.

Theology and philosophy can be seen to occupy an intellectual space that is neither strictly literary nor rigorously scientific or empirical. Other discursive forms (sermons, essays, religious and political polemics, etc.) share this general territory.

Arguably, this intermediate intellectual space encapsulates what matters most to us as human beings. Unfortunately – and perhaps in part because of this fact – there are no procedures available within these areas of activity which can (in the manner of scientific and certain scholarly procedures) be relied upon to sift the true from the false or sense from nonsense.

We draw the lines differently, according to our respective beliefs, opinions and assumptions. What is of interest or even compelling to one person might seem like utter nonsense to another. This can apply to particular works or even to entire disciplines. For example, the claims of theologians – and, by extension, theology as a discipline – are taken seriously by some but deemed to be of no value or interest by others.

Or take the writings of Marx. Arguably, the early work included some interesting insights into human experience. And Marx’s rejection of Hegelian idealism coupled with the view that our respective social and economic situations determine how we are inclined to interpret the world in terms of values may also be seen as insightful and (perhaps) compelling. But why anyone today would see his supposedly “scientific” view of history or his economic theories and prognostications as having any enduring merit – as being anything other than of purely historical interest – escapes me entirely.

Well, not entirely. These writings represent a kind of magical thinking to which those with certain kinds of political hopes and predispositions tend to be irresistibly drawn.

Bitter splits and schisms are an integral part of the history of all major (and probably most minor) religious traditions. A history of Marxism reads very much like a religious history in this respect, and the internecine battles between present-day intellectuals and activists who identify as progressives and/or as leftists seem to reflect similar patterns.

Why do I single out the Left here when right-wing movements have their own history of internal splits and battles? Two reasons. The Left has a greater presence in the universities and intellectual circles more generally. Also, left-wing thinkers – precisely because they are more inclined to reject religious traditions than conservatives are – have a greater incentive to “religionize” politics and to seek in the political sphere something analogous to what might be called salvation or deliverance in a religious context.

Most modern conservative philosophies seek to limit the scope of politics and put a high value on non-political traditions and institutions, both religious and secular. And, to the extent that traditional customs maintain their hold and churches and schools and professional bodies and self-help groups and other such institutions maintain their autonomy, both the need for political intervention and the expansion of political power to which such intervention necessarily leads, is minimized. Social life is seen as being divided into many separate (albeit sometimes interlocking) spheres of activity, an arrangement which enhances not just individual freedom but also societal resilience and stability.

The prevailing conservative metaphors of society are organic and open rather than mechanical or deterministic. Societies are complex systems which develop slowly and unpredictably over time.

This is all very well, but the failure of traditional institutions (such as we saw in the 1920’s and 30’s, and such as we are seeing again today) poses a dilemma for those committed to a conservative outlook. Some will respond by becoming detached from politics and seeking satisfaction in personal and private spheres; others will be tempted to abandon moderate conservatism for reactionary or radical forms. The latter approach may bring them closer to the religionized politics of the left.

In this connection, it is widely understood that – at least in respect of recent forms of American and European populism – left/right distinctions (always problematic to some extent) are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

31 comments

  1. I don’t think that you distinguish clearly enough between Marxism and Communism. Communism was a system of government, collectivist, authoritarian or even totalitarian in nature and/or political parties in non-Communist countries which believed in that same system of government.

    Marxism is a philosophy, which was adopted as the official philosophy in Communist nations, but you don’t have to look far to find many Marxists or Marx scholars who will affirm that those nations wildly misinterpreted what Marx says.

    I’m not a Marxist or a Marx expert by the way.

    As for Marx calling his work “scientific”, let’s recall that in 19th century Germany all serious intellectual disciplines claimed to be sciences. History was a science, classical philology was a science, etc. So I’m not sure that Marx claimed that his work was an exact science, but then again, I’m not a Marx expert.

    Next, Marx wrote a lot and did not publish all he wrote. So it’s not clear what in Marx’s published and unpublished writings constitute “Marxism”. Raymond Aron wrote a book called the Marxism of Marx (I’m not sure if it’s in English) where he studied only those works of Marx which Marx published during his lifetime. Maybe Aron was right that only those works should be considered “Marxist”.

    You seem to believe that all or almost all of Marx is only of historical interest. First of all, Marx is a great narrator and his historical works such as the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon are certainly worth looking at. Second, I believe that his observation that much of our thinking and ideologies are motivated, often unconsciously, by our class or economic interests is all too true. Leiter, whom you refer to above, groups Marx with Nietzsche and Freud as
    “masters of suspicion”, that is, those observers of human nature who grasp that behind our often lofty discourses lurk
    more basic often unconscious human motives, economic interests in the case of Marx, the will to power in the case of Nietzsche and sex in the case of Freud. Of course economic interests are not only the motivating force in politics as some vulgar Marxists claim, but they do play a big role in political life and often people are very unconscious of how their political principles have been shaped by how much they have in the bank.

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    1. s. wallerstein

      “Marxism is a philosophy, which was adopted as the official philosophy in Communist nations, but you don’t have to look far to find many Marxists or Marx scholars who will affirm that those nations wildly misinterpreted what Marx says.”

      Sure. But the very way you phrase this only serves to underscore the striking parallel with religious denominations (which typically claim that other denominations or sects have seriously misinterpreted what Jesus (or other teacher/prophet/founder) said).

      “I believe that [Marx’s] observation that much of our thinking and ideologies are motivated, often unconsciously, by our class or economic interests is all too true.”

      I explicitly conceded this point. My criticisms were directed specifically at “his supposedly “scientific” view of history [and] his economic theories and prognostications.”

      Resolving the history issue would involve looking at fundamental assumptions about the nature of historical processes. I’ll just say here that my view of history is very different from Marx’s view.

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      1. Just because religions are often characterized by intense conflicts over the meaning of texts does not imply that all groups where there are intense conflicts over the meaning of texts are religious. The meaning of different sections of the U.S. constitution has been the source of intense conflict between conservatives and liberals over generations yet I would not say that those who argue about the U.S. Constitution are necessarily religious.

        What’s more, in the history of Communism and of Marxism (let’s separate them) at times conflicts over the meaning of texts have really been mere power struggles. I doubt that Stalin cared much about the exact meanings of texts, yet he used the question of Marxist textual interpretation to eliminate his real or supposed rivals, for example, Trotsky and Bukharin. Maybe at times there have been mere personal power struggles behind doctrinal disputes in the Catholic Church, but I doubt if they were frequently manipulated as cynically as Stalin did those in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s cynicism says something about the fact that maybe Communism was not entirely a religion. Still less Marxism. When Brian Leiter criticizes the Frankfurt school, it’s a philosophical debate within Marxism, not a religious debate.

        I concede that some aspects of Communism, for example, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, have religious aspects, but not all Communism and still less all Marxism. What is religious about the Marxism that philosophers like Leiter or Robert Paul Wolff propose?

        E.J. Winner, with his usual lucidity, points out that you seem trapped in the Cold War. During the Cold War we, the Western democracies, exaggerated the evils of the other side, Godless Soviet Communism, as part of our propaganda campaign. The Soviets obviously did the same. In fact, noted Western intellectuals often were sponsored by the CIA to write anti-Soviet propaganda. At times they were not aware that the CIA was sponsoring them and they wrote in good faith. That’s all over.

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        1. s. wallerstein

          “E.J. Winner, with his usual lucidity, points out that you seem trapped in the Cold War.”

          I take exception to this claim. He has me “fretting” and “wringing my hands” about something unimportant when I really should be talking about something else entirely (i.e. what *he* is interested in). It’s not acceptable, apparently, to be interested in that (Cold War) period or to see it as illuminating certain perennial questions about ideology and the nature of political commitment.

          “Just because religions are often characterized by intense conflicts over the meaning of texts does not imply that all groups where there are intense conflicts over the meaning of texts are religious.”

          Of course not. But, taking a case by case approach, comparisons can be drawn.

          “The meaning of different sections of the U.S. constitution has been the source of intense conflict between conservatives and liberals over generations yet I would not say that those who argue about the U.S. Constitution are necessarily religious.”

          No, but the Constitution is an important component of an elaborate secular system of texts, symbols, narratives, beliefs and practices which operates in some respects like a religion (patriotic rituals and so on).

          “What’s more, in the history of Communism and of Marxism (let’s separate them) at times conflicts over the meaning of texts have really been mere power struggles. I doubt that Stalin cared much about the exact meanings of texts, yet he used the question of Marxist textual interpretation to eliminate his real or supposed rivals, for example, Trotsky and Bukharin. Maybe at times there have been mere personal power struggles behind doctrinal disputes in the Catholic Church, but I doubt if they were frequently manipulated as cynically as Stalin did those in the Soviet Union.”

          Okay, but the comparisons can still be made.

          “Stalin’s cynicism says something about the fact that maybe Communism was not entirely a religion.”

          Not entirely, not literally, sure.

          “Still less Marxism. When Brian Leiter criticizes the Frankfurt school, it’s a philosophical debate within Marxism, not a religious debate.”

          I see it as a political debate with a philosophical dimension. And (certainly with respect to Marx and Engels and Bauer) I can’t help seeing the patterns of behavior as being very similar to the behavior of religious sects in history.

          “I concede that some aspects of Communism, for example, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, have religious aspects, but not all Communism and still less all Marxism. What is religious about the Marxism that philosophers like Leiter or Robert Paul Wolff propose?”

          I am not aware of the details of Leiter’s view, but I note from the interview that he seems to accept a progressive view of history. What he bases this on, I don’t know. He also admits that he is ignorant of economics. I know nothing about Wolff, but a bit about Chomsky. Chomsky has expressed what I see as absurdly optimistic views (citing Marx) about what will happen to “human nature” when the required societal changes are made. This may not be religious thinking but it strikes me as wishful (magical?) thinking.

          My main general source for the history of Marxism, by the way, is Leszek Kołakowski’s wonderfully readable Main Currents of Marxism. (He was a Polish communist who became disillusioned.)

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          1. I’m genuinely sorry to be so blunt, but my impression is that you just are not familiar enough with the variety of thought on the left to write about it.

            Chomsky is not a Marxist: he’s an anarchist and while he may have said something nice about Marx somewhere, his thought basically goes back to liberal or libertarian enlightenment figures. He’s as anti-communist as you are (and a lot more anti-communist than I am): he rejects not only the obvious bad guys, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and all their imitators, but also the so-called good guys on what we might call the communist left, for example, Trotsky. He says nice things about Rosa Luxemberg, who herself was critical of Lenin’s power hunger even before the Russian Revolution.
            As you may know, anarchists like Chomsky and Marxists have never hit it off well: Marx did his best to purge Bakunin from the 1st International and Marx wasted much ink trashing Proudhon, a libertarian thinker who deserved better.

            I don’t know much about conservative thought, I admit and therefore, I would not presume to write about it anymore than I would presume to write a guidebook to Berlin where I’ve never been. I know that you are a tremendously learned person and I respect that, but the left is just not your area of expertise, I can see.

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  2. Mark,
    I did not comment on the article that this continues, for the simple reason that the discussion you’re trying to engage here is somewhat out of date. The question of whether communism constituted a secular religion exhausted itself in the 1980s, and went moot with the fall of the Soviet Union. The term ‘secular religion’ is now used, in the US anyway, largely by the Christian Right (of which more anon) to describe American liberalism; our AG William Barr recently decrying “secularists” as the cause of the general collapse of American culture. In the Academy, at least back when I was getting my doctorate, that discussion got subsumed in the general discussion of ‘ideology’ per se, which had developed two positions: 1) ideology is necessarily false and thus stands in opposition to some set of True Beliefs; 2) ‘ideology’ simply signifies the systematization of any set of beliefs. (Having an interest in semiotics, I must hold to the latter position, and the former position has never interested me. ‘False’ and ‘true’ are not aplicaple to an ideology, only ‘harmful’ or ‘beneficial’ – at least to a pragmatist such as myself.)

    Your general argument, while it may become interesting again in the future, has little relevance to the current American scene because:
    a) Whatever quasi-socialist policies America may adopt in the future, the notion that we will ever develop a form of communism here (and hence any fear of that) is laughable. Further, in the coronavirus pandemic, most moderate or traditional conservatives admit that they never intended government to be so reduced as to leave the America defenseless to natural disasters such as many believe we are undergoing now.
    b) The greatest calamity to befall traditional or moderate conservativism right now has not come from liberals or the left or even the Democratic Party, but from Donald Trump’s subversion of the Republican Party. Trump is no conservative of any stripe, and he continually invokes Far Right rhetoric and memes to stir his followers, and has learned to utilize every privilege and loop-hole that the Executive has acquired from complacent Congresses since WWII to assault our basic institutions and what little social glue might hold us together.
    c) Thanks to Trump, who uses it to his benefit, obviously, Christian Nationalism is coming to flower as never before and may constitute a true existential threat to Constitutional government in America.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_theology
    https://hnn.us/article/174498
    https://www.politicalresearch.org/2016/08/18/dominionism-rising-a-theocratic-movement-hiding-in-plain-sight
    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/infernal/2018/07/dominionist-theology-a-guide-to-theocracy-for-secularists-part-1/
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/18/donald-trump-evangelicals-code-of-ethics
    You’re fretting that those on the left may be too influenced by Christian theology or reinterpreting that into some sort of ‘secular religion’? I’m worried a Trump-reconstructed Supreme Court may authorize an interpretation of the Constitution to allow states to be ruled by bishops rather than governors. Left academics nattering on about trans-activism and ‘cancelling’ free speech campus by campus is annoying and occasionally even worrying; but nowhere near the threat of the loss of electoral oversight of potential theocracies.

    As to the general manuevering within the argument, as balancing a debate between Arendt and Monnerot, I read as essentially an attempt to discredit Arendt, and I am both puzzled by this, and annoyed: If you want to disagree with Arendt, why not do so on her own substantive issues? Why nit-pick over a brief engagement that no one cares about anymore? So she was influenced by Christian theology – big deal. Does this make her less of a Jew? Is her work less interesting or somehow suspect because it was read and admired by those ‘on the left?’

    You continually hype science as giving us our truest knowledge of reality, and then wring your hands worrying about religion on the Left – where is your voice in criticizing the Religious Right trying to ban the teaching of evolution, or re-writing text-books on history into Christian narratives? Really, it’s getting harder and harder to take your politics seriously.

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  3. Politics is not religion. The political is not the religious. Holding certain values sacred is not the same thing as being religious about them. If the premise of this essay is that politics can become religious-like, I don’t think this is semantically true or coherent either.

    If words have any meaning left in 2020, then we must use them wisely with their intended core meanings. Religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, etc.that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual beings or events. The key here is ‘supernatural’. Without reference to the supernatural, there is no ‘religion’.

    Politics (and philosophy in general) can be influenced by religion, either a little, or to the point of becoming a theocracy. Or politics can outlaw religion e.g. Soviet Union, Mao’s China. But politics is not religion. Pointing out similarities in form between political and religious beliefs i.e. group allegiance, internal divisions, sacred values, rigid adherence to principles, etc. is to confuse form with content. Any widely shared belief can exhibit some or all these similarities of form, but that doesn’t make them religious beliefs. It’s the content of the belief that makes it the kind of belief it is. Secular beliefs are precisely ones that do not possess supernatural content. Thus, there is no such thing as a ‘secular religion’. It’s an oxymoron.

    Any school of thought or ideology can be rigid, doctrinaire, or dogmatic. I once worked for a chef who insisted on placing a garnish on say, a duck confit or coq au vin dish in a very specific way on the plate…I am talking within a tolerance of literally a centimeter, on entrées which are traditionally considered somewhat rustic in presentation and in no need of artistic plating. If you missed the mark, the chef would become absolutely livid and irate. That was just the way he was trained in Europe under his chef from a certain regional culinary school of thought. To an outsider, this may have seemed sacerdotal; the ritual garnish placement was certainly sacred to him. Yet neither he nor anyone else in the kitchen would have considered this to be sacred in any religious sense. It was simply a deeply held and secular custom that we carried on.

    Likewise, Marxism, for all it’s faults, is not strictly or even metaphorically speaking, religious, or even like a religion. It’s a school of thought, one that is thoroughly materialistic in nature, and completely devoid of anything supernatural. Marxism may be teleological in some respects, but it doesn’t have anything like the mystical “invisible hand” of capitalism. Marx and Engels went to great pains to distance themselves from religion, which is why they often referred to their philosophy as ‘scientific socialism’. Keep in mind, many intellectuals in the 19th century were rebelling against religion and hitching their wagons to ‘science’, even the Russian nihilists.

    The Left has a greater presence in the universities and intellectual circles more generally.

    Not really. While the left may have a greater presence in the arts & humanities and social sciences, these faculties make up a very small percentage of most universities, and over the past 40 years, these faculties have seen their budgets slashed. Schools of Business Administration, Medicine, Economics, Athletics, Engineering and Technology, Natural Sciences, and Law, make up the vast majority of most universities’ faculty and curriculum, and these are traditionally conservative leaning fields. Universities have essentially become corporations run by conservative administrators and managers with profit incentives.

    Also, left-wing thinkers – precisely because they are more inclined to reject religious traditions than conservatives are – have a greater incentive to “religionize” politics and to seek in the political sphere something analogous to what might be called salvation or deliverance in a religious context.

    In the absence of any reference to supernatural beings or events, I don’t see how rejecting religious traditions becomes an incentive to “religionize politics”. This assertion is in need of a better supporting argument. Perhaps the left’s ‘salvation’ and ‘deliverance’ in this religious sense could be construed as the ending of capitalism. Still, I don’t see how this would be any more of a religious project than say, the ending of slavery.

    Politics as ideological, politics as tribal, politics as doctrinaire, politics as dogmatic? Yes. Maybe these concepts would be more accurate and work better, rather than politics as religion. I’m not even religious, but I just find that, given religion’s negative connotations in the modern West, characterizing something or someone as being a religion or religious-like has become something of a slur, a way of demonizing and dismissing whoever or whatever one is criticizing. Which, according to this characterization’s own inner logic, is ironically itself kind of religious-like.

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    1. Joe Smith

      “Politics is not religion. The political is not the religious.”

      Not in the primary senses of the words “religion” and “religious” which (as you say) involve the supernatural, etc..

      “Holding certain values sacred is not the same thing as being religious about them.”

      “… being religious about them.” What does this mean exactly?

      “If the premise of this essay is that politics can become religious-like, I don’t think this is semantically true or coherent either.”

      “… semantically true …”? What does that mean? I think that what I am saying is perfectly clear.

      “Politics (and philosophy in general) can be influenced by religion, either a little, or to the point of becoming a theocracy. Or politics can outlaw religion e.g. Soviet Union, Mao’s China. But politics is not religion. Pointing out similarities in form between political and religious beliefs i.e. group allegiance, internal divisions, sacred values, rigid adherence to principles, etc. is to confuse form with content.”

      Pointing out psycho-social parallels does nothing of the kind.

      “Any widely shared belief can exhibit some or all these similarities of form, but that doesn’t make them religious beliefs.”

      Of course not. Nobody is claiming that.

      “Any school of thought or ideology can be rigid, doctrinaire, or dogmatic. I once worked for a chef who insisted on placing a garnish on say, a duck confit or coq au vin dish in a very specific way on the plate… I am talking within a tolerance of literally a centimeter, on entrées which are traditionally considered somewhat rustic in presentation and in no need of artistic plating. If you missed the mark, the chef would become absolutely livid and irate. That was just the way he was trained in Europe under his chef from a certain regional culinary school of thought. To an outsider, this may have seemed sacerdotal; the ritual garnish placement was certainly sacred to him. Yet neither he nor anyone else in the kitchen would have considered this to be sacred in any religious sense. It was simply a deeply held and secular custom that we carried on.”

      Nice example. But the parallels are closer in respect of politics because (like religion) it deals with serious social and ethical issues.

      “Marxism, for all it’s faults, is not strictly or even metaphorically speaking, religious, or even like a religion. It’s a school of thought, one that is thoroughly materialistic in nature, and completely devoid of anything supernatural. Marxism may be teleological in some respects, but it doesn’t have anything like the mystical “invisible hand” of capitalism. Marx and Engels went to great pains to distance themselves from religion, which is why they often referred to their philosophy as ‘scientific socialism’.”

      Just because they took great pains to avoid religious ways of thinking does not necessarily mean they succeeded.

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    2. Joe Smith (continued)

      “[Quoting me] “Also, left-wing thinkers – precisely because they are more inclined to reject religious traditions than conservatives are – have a greater incentive to “religionize” politics and to seek in the political sphere something analogous to what might be called salvation or deliverance in a religious context.” In the absence of any reference to supernatural beings or events, I don’t see how rejecting religious traditions becomes an incentive to “religionize politics”. This assertion is in need of a better supporting argument. Perhaps the left’s ‘salvation’ and ‘deliverance’ in this religious sense could be construed as the ending of capitalism. Still, I don’t see how this would be any more of a religious project than say, the ending of slavery.”

      The difference is that actual religious beliefs played a central part in the fight against slavery (and not so much in the fight against capitalism and the attempt to replace it with an immeasurably better, socialistic system).

      “Politics as ideological, politics as tribal, politics as doctrinaire, politics as dogmatic? Yes. Maybe these concepts would be more accurate and work better, rather than politics as religion.”

      I think you are being misled by (misreading or reading too much into) the title.

      “I’m not even religious, but I just find that, given religion’s negative connotations in the modern West, characterizing something or someone as being a religion or religious-like has become something of a slur, a way of demonizing and dismissing whoever or whatever one is criticizing.”

      I am certainly not demonizing people here.

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      1. “being religious about them.” What does this mean exactly?”

        It means a similarity in holding values does not make the holding of values religious, or whatever it is you mean when you say, ‘Politics as Religion’.

        semantically true …”? What does that mean? I think that what I am saying is perfectly clear.

        It means that the meaning of the words ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ are different, and refer to different conceptual content, for reasons I already explained.

        Pointing out psycho-social parallels does nothing of the kind.

        You aren’t simply pointing out psycho-social parellels in this essay, you are essentialy equating them, based on similarities in outward form alone.

        Of course not. Nobody is claiming that.

        It certainly seems so. Your rhetoric of “religionize politics” along with your title, ‘Politics AS Religion’ illustrates this.

        But the parallels are closer in respect of politics because (like religion) it deals with serious social and ethical issues.

        And just because religion and politics often both deal with serious ethical issues does not make politics ‘religionized’ or make them otherwise equivalent. I feel you are painting politics and religion together with too broad of a brush.

        Just because they took great pains to avoid religious ways of thinking does not necessarily mean they succeeded.

        Marx and Engels never evoked any supernatural elements in their philosophy which would warrant any comparison to religion. If they had, then I would agree with you.

        The difference is that actual religious beliefs played a central part in the fight against slavery (and not so much in the fight against capitalism and the attempt to replace it with an immeasurably better, socialistic system).

        Only in America and Europe during the 19th century. Slavery ended in ancient China, and Greece for non-religious reasons. Ironically, actual religious beliefs also played a central part in the fight FOR slavery. When the Roman Empire accepted and legalized Christianity, Christians had no problem with slavery. In the 18th Century, prominent Christian clergymen like George Whitefield, Jefferson Davis, Richard Furman, etc. fought against abolition, based on their own religious interpretations of the Bible. Even the Ku Klux Klan was a religious group. Both religious and secular ethical views can dovetail around slavery, both for and against. But the ending of slavery is not necessarily a religious project, which is why I said the ending of capitalism is not any more of a religious project than the ending of slavery. You’ve simply cast leftist politics in terms of ‘salvation’ and ‘deliverance’ without the requisite supernatural elements that would have made the comparison to religion more salient.

        No doubt there are some parallels and overlap in form between religion and politics. But this is not the same thing as “the borders between political and religious thinking are ill-defined”, or that the sacredness of political values are like, or the same as, sacred religious values, or that because Marx had incorrect ideas, they were the result of magical (i.e. religious) thinking, or that internal splits and divisions within political groups are reflective of religious splits and divisions. Bitter splits and divisions are an integral part of any human group, not just religious or political groups. And I still don’t know how you get from a rejection of religion to a religionized politics.

        All in all, it just doesn’t add up to Politics AS Religion.

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        1. Joe Smith

          “[T]he meaning of the words ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ are different, and refer to different conceptual content, for reasons I already explained.”

          I addressed this and other related points elsewhere (see for example main thread below). The meaning of a word is not rigid but is sensitive to the context of use.

          “You aren’t simply pointing out psycho-social parellels in this essay, you are essentialy equating them, based on similarities in outward form alone.”

          Form *and function*. And psychology is not just about the “outward form” as you put it. (I don’t know if you are implicitly espousing some kind of dualism here.)

          “[Quoting me] “Just because they took great pains to avoid religious ways of thinking does not necessarily mean they succeeded.” Marx and Engels never evoked any supernatural elements in their philosophy which would warrant any comparison to religion. If they had, then I would agree with you.”

          Their view of history was profoundly influenced by Hegel, for example. Just because you get rid of the standard dogmas and rituals doesn’t mean you escape the various frameworks of religious and mystical thinking which run from antiquity to modern times (e.g. the conviction that history has a direction which is meaningful to humans and that it is driven by some kind of (partially?) hidden and inexorable force). And then there are the apocalyptic elements of Marx’s early writings. Much has been written about Marxian eschatology. And then there is the influence of Kant and Romanticism on the Frankfurt School and cultural Marxism more generally.

          (Romanticism also influenced the radical right, of course, as did specifically religious traditions (Christian and pagan). There have been splits within the radical right in France between those who were committed to Christian values and those who were not. The Nouvelle Droite was explicitly pagan.

          “[T]he ending of slavery is not necessarily a religious project…”

          Quite.

          “[T]he ending of capitalism is not any more of a religious project than the ending of slavery.”

          I say it is — at least in the case of radical Marxists. It becomes an all-consuming cause upon which all their hopes depend (not just the ending of capitalism but the coming of what replaces it). Eschatology is the right word here. As I suggested above, many elements of radical thought, especially within the context of the various currents and cross-currents of Marxism, are religious in origin and nature.

          Moreover, radical ideologies often define, to a large extent, the individual’s (or individual family’s) social and cultural world, just as religious sects typically do.

          “You’ve simply cast leftist politics in terms of ‘salvation’ and ‘deliverance’ without the requisite supernatural elements that would have made the comparison to religion more salient.”

          See above.

          “Bitter splits and divisions are an integral part of any human group, not just religious or political groups.”

          Of course. But groupings based on serious narratives and doctrines (be they secular or religious) typically operate — and splinter — in similar ways.

          “And I still don’t know how you get from a rejection of religion to a religionized politics.”

          The phrase “religionized politics” can (as I have explained) be understood in different senses. Sometimes the actual religious traditions survive and run in parallel with the politics. And sometimes the political ideology expands to replace traditional religion altogether and in so doing takes on functions which were previously the preserve of one or more religious traditions. It the latter phenomenon which particularly interests (and concerns) me.

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  4. “[For] most modern conservative philosophies…social life is seen as being divided into many separate (albeit sometimes interlocking) spheres of activity” – were you thinking of Michael Waltzer here???

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  5. I’m concerned that Mark’s view of religion is too narrow here. I’m a philosophical anthropologist so I like always to take a broad view of human behaviour. The way I see religion is as originally a collective response to a crisis. A group of people feel isolated and threatened so they try to make sense of the crisis and devise a worldview and a behavioral and ritual program to deal collectively with the crisis. Judaism comes together as an enduring religion after the Babylonian captivity (notice the absence of Hebrew Prophets post captivity.) Christianity begins with a small group of followers in crisis after their leader is executed. Looking at modern examples we see religious political movements: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Al Queda, ISIS, U.S. Republican party, where a group of people are frustrated with the political situation they are in and adopt extremist religious positions as part of their political platform. In the case of political and economic theories it can be seen as similar. There is a great sense of urgency, people are frustrated with the political or economic situation so they tend to think more in black and white terms, think of their opponents as enemies, view their own doctrines as objective truths, feel an increasingly stronger need to fall in line, to unify behind a doctrine. With Marx and marxists in general it was an increasing frustration with outmoded political systems that were not adapting well to the times. That bred a sense of urgency, and the urgency leads to black and white thinking, polarization, calls for unanimity, rejection of all criticism and different points of view. You can see it happening now in the Environmental movement, as people frustrated with the lack of meaningful political and economic responses to the threats of global warming and species decline begin to totally reject existing political and economic systems and think in apocalyptic terms of grinding the system to a halt and starting over.
    So what is my point here? It’s inevitable that people get frustrated and feel threatened when social systems can’t keep pace with environmental and economic changes. So religious responses are inevitable too. Because people’s natural impulse is always to pull together and defend against perceived threats. The more pluralistic and complex a society the more important religion is as a way of binding different people together to fight a common foe. But at the same time all religions have a tendency to fracture into warring factions. Hence the need for hierarchical structures. I could go on, but my point is this is not something that is going to go away, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. It can be a very effective way of mobilizing people for the greater good.

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    1. Charles Justice

      “I’m concerned that Mark’s view of religion is too narrow here.”

      Others seem to think it’s too broad. 🙂

      “… A group of people feel isolated and threatened so they try to make sense of the crisis and devise a worldview and a behavioral and ritual program to deal collectively with the crisis.”

      This makes it sound a bit too deliberate. Religious practices evolved over time. Life is the crisis!

      “In the case of political and economic theories it can be seen as similar. There is a great sense of urgency, people are frustrated with the political or economic situation so they tend to think more in black and white terms, think of their opponents as enemies, view their own doctrines as objective truths, feel an increasingly stronger need to fall in line, to unify behind a doctrine. With Marx and marxists in general it was an increasing frustration with outmoded political systems that were not adapting well to the times. That bred a sense of urgency, and the urgency leads to black and white thinking, polarization, calls for unanimity, rejection of all criticism and different points of view. You can see it happening now in the Environmental movement, as people frustrated with the lack of meaningful political and economic responses to the threats of global warming and species decline begin to totally reject existing political and economic systems and think in apocalyptic terms of grinding the system to a halt and starting over… [M]y point is this is not something that is going to go away, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. It can be a very effective way of mobilizing people for the greater good.”

      It’s certainly not going away but my analysis would take a slightly less positive line on these sorts of behaviors.

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      1. There is no more effective way of mass mobilization than religion. And all of our current major crisis are looking as if they will require it. Theoretical disputes in politics and economics and theology really reflect significant environmental changes.

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  6. s. wallerstein

    I am no expert on left wing politics but I know more than you think (through friends and family connections as well as reading). I have a cousin who identifies (as Chomsky does) as a “Wobbly”. A quick internet search confirms that Chomsky’s commitment to libertarian socialism “has led him to characterize himself as an anarchist with radical Marxist leanings.”

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    1. I googled “Chomsky Marx Youtube” and found this very short video of Chomsky talking.

      First of all, Chomsky makes it clear that he is not a Marxist. In fact, he agrees with you that Marxism is a religion.

      Second, he states (and you seemingly don’t agree with this, although I do) that we can learn a lot from reading Marx as we can from any great thinker.

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  7. Mark: I think what you are discussing is important and not at all out of date. But I am inclined to think the partial parallels you want to draw between some kinds of religion and some kinds of politics distract from what I think you really mean to get at. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think your worry is about “magical thinking”, unquestioning and unquestionable allegiances, hero worship, the demonising of opponents, the “bitter splits and schisms” between supposed allies, and the assumption that “history” has some overriding direction regardless of the actual observable trends. These features, you think, are found in Marxism and Communism but also in some religions (though you don’t say which).

    Why not think of the problem as one about open and closed belief systems? On this view, some belief systems are open to counter-evidence and allow for self-correction. Closed systems treat alternative viewpoints as threats and deceptions. Adherents of the latter believe in One Truth; they look for a single source to expound that Truth to them; and they see outsiders as lost souls. Adherents of the former believe in many truths; they see the discovery of any truth as difficult and always only partially successful; and they see intellectual opponents as potential allies.

    This way of viewing your problem elevates it above polemics and starts to formulate some criteria. I think of Popper and Gellner as two who tried to do this, whether successfully or not.

    Alan

    Liked by 5 people

    1. alandtapper1950,
      I would agree with what you say here, and agree with Dan that (some of) what Mark writes here is agreeable given what you say.

      But I don’t think this is really reframing Mark’s thesis, at least not true to his intent.

      First, my reading of both articles is that he wants to continue the Arendt, Monnerot debate, as if it were still currently relevant, and to adjudicate a judgment on it.

      I have no problem with a truly historical interest in that debate (discussion of context, of personalities and opinions, of extrapolation into lingering effects), but I don’t agree it’s still relevant, at least not in the US.

      I also see Mark as trying to link Marxism, leftist thought (which I take Mark to include liberal thought as well) to (Neo-Platonic) Christian thought (which apparently includes Kantianism).* I think this a mistake, and I think he is using it to elide the difficulty of the influence of the influence of Christian Fundamentalism on ‘conservative’ (but actually right-wing) politics.

      – “the failure of traditional institutions (such as we saw in the 1920’s and 30’s, and such as we are seeing again today) poses a dilemma for those committed to a conservative outlook. Some will respond by becoming detached from politics and seeking satisfaction in personal and private spheres; others will be tempted to abandon moderate conservatism for reactionary or radical forms. The latter approach may bring them closer to the religionized politics of the left.”

      This I see as one of Mark’s real problems/ concerns; but it is really shutting the barn door after the horses have run off. As I noted: “The greatest calamity to befall traditional or moderate conservativism right now has not come from liberals or the left or even the Democratic Party, but from Donald Trump’s subversion of the Republican Party.” In the US the right has long been “religionized.” And Mark’s account doesn’t recognize a third alternative – traditional and moderate conservatives advocating for the election of a Democrat, however liberal, to supplant the monster in the White House – a monster Mark argued for (by indirection, by arguing against Clinton) back in 2016.

      * I have myself, several times here, pointed out and complained of the Neo-Platonic metaphysical assumptions one would have to make to adopt the position of trans-activist academics. But though noisy and noticed beyond the import of their numbers, I don’t see them as a long-term threat, but a fad. I could be wrong. In any event, the religious ground of any political theory is only of passing interest – only practical politics determines the result of political action.

      But: “Also, left-wing thinkers – precisely because they are more inclined to reject religious traditions than conservatives are – have a greater incentive to “religionize” politics and to seek in the political sphere something analogous to what might be called salvation or deliverance in a religious context.” – Baloney. The will to “religionize” politics – or to politicize religion – is (ahem) non-denominational. That’s what I was trying to attract Mark’s attention to.

      At any event, whereas I may have read Mark somewhat uncharitably, I fear you may be reading Mark too charitably. At any rate, Donald Trump is the orange elephant in the room here.

      Mark – what goes around, comes around. We Buddhists call it karma. You shook hands with the devil – but the devil doesn’t let you go.

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      1. EJ: Mark can respond to your interpretation of his intentions. I’m coming from a different angle. Think Hong Kong, for example. The protesters stand for a free society, for public debate and civil society. China liberalised its economy but not its polity. It remains a One Truth society. To me this is bigger than the things that worry you, important though they are.

        This podcast is worth a listen.

        https://omny.fm/shows/the-little-red-podcast/freedom-is-restraint-how-core-socialist-values-are

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  8. alandtapper1950,
    On reflection, as I wrote in a previous comment: – “…the general discussion of ‘ideology’ per se, which had developed two positions: 1) ideology is necessarily false and thus stands in opposition to some set of True Beliefs; 2) ‘ideology’ simply signifies the systematization of any set of beliefs. (Having an interest in semiotics, I must hold to the latter position…” – I think what we see in the articles and in the comments is the gray line of demarcation between these two views on the use or meaning of ‘ideology.’ Your reframing of Mark’s argument is entirely in keeping with position 2 (‘ideology’ is simply the systematization of any set of beliefs). But I suspect that Mark holds to position 1: that there is a set of True Beliefs opposed by an ideology that is necessarily false (“false consciousness,” as Marx called it). The True Beliefs are a marriage of the natural sciences as knowledge of reality, conservative values in social spheres. These beliefs can accommodate some ideologies, however false; as long as they don’t threaten trust in the True Beliefs. But this is directly opposed by an ideological linkage deriving from Neo-Platonism, through one line of Christian thought, through liberalism, Marxism, and Left-wing thought in general. Consequently, this ideological lineage must be treated with suspicion, its false metaphysical underpinnings revealed and debunked. Given this, polemics are inevitable.

    This I gather from following Mark’s writings here over the past few years. I could be wrong. And if I am reading Mark too uncharitably, I apologize to him, and to other readers here.

    However, if there is some truth in this reading, it does help explain why Mark and I seem at such logger-heads occasionally; not merely for our differing political views, but because of our differing understandings about the use and usefulness of ‘ideology.’

    Finally, my remarks about Trump: I suspect that many traditional/ moderate conservatives have grown concerned with the rise of right-wing populism, and they should be. But this is not the time for retreat or religionization. If we can restore our government to sanity, afterwards we can go on arguing about greater or smaller government, newer or older family values, etc. But until then conservatives and liberals (yes even whiny young Bernie Bros leftists) should accept the need to come together/ We have more in common than we admit to. Besides, an America without conservatives would just be a rush towards some cliff or other. like lemmings. And an EA without Mark English would lose a challenging liveliness that I personally find rather addictive.

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    1. EJ: I deliberately chose the neutral term “belief systems” just so we can get over the stumbling block of the meaning of “ideology”. That word now has two very different meanings, as you say. Both are in common but confusing usage. I think it can properly be used to refer to closed belief systems, but that intended meaning needs to be made explicit.

      Curiously, it was Marx who introduced ideology-as-false-consciousness, usage (1) in your terms, in his “The German Ideology”. I still have the Moscow edition on a shelf somewhere, subject to the “gnawing criticism” of the silverfish. You may recall the great George Lichtheim’s essay on how Marx shifted the meaning from (2) to (1).

      Electric Agora is one place where free thinking is practised as it should be — thanks especially to Dan, Mark and you!

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  9. ejwinner

    I ignored your first comment because, not only was it unnecessarily personal (in the sense of ad hominem) and aggressive, most of it had nothing to do with the OP.

    “Why nit-pick over a brief engagement that no one cares about anymore? So Arendt was influenced by Christian theology – big deal. Does this make her less of a Jew? [???] … You continually hype science as giving us our truest knowledge of reality, and then wring your hands worrying about religion on the Left – where is your voice in criticizing the Religious Right trying to ban the teaching of evolution, or re-writing text-books on history into Christian narratives? Really, it’s getting harder and harder to take your politics seriously.”

    My concerns were all out of date, had been settled decades ago.

    Now you come in again, continuing your tirade against Trump and his subversion of the Republican Party, claiming — falsely — that I argued for him in 2016.

    You refer to Trump as “a monster Mark argued for (by indirection, by arguing against Clinton) back in 2016.”

    This is not only false, but doubly offensive as the word “indirection” implies slyness and a lack of straightforwardness.

    I wrote on American foreign policy before the last presidential election. I was hostile to Clinton’s views and critical of her record as Secretary of State. By arguing against Clinton I was arguing for Trump, apparently.

    I should not be having to defend my right to speak my mind on American foreign policy. Clinton was a committed neocon and her record was disastrous. I think I quoted Marc Faber who said that Trump would destroy America but Clinton would destroy the world.

    You warn Alan that he “may be reading Mark too charitably” — and refer yet again to Trump:

    “At any rate, Donald Trump is the orange elephant in the room here… Mark – what goes around, comes around. We Buddhists call it karma. You shook hands with the devil – but the devil doesn’t let you go.”

    This is worse than drivel. But I guess you are working on the principle that if you throw enough dirt at me, some will stick.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark,
      I apologize for offending you so deeply; that was not my intent. Reviewing my first comment, I do not see the ad hominem there; to say that the argument between Arendt and Monnerot was largely a conversation exhausted by the 1980s is not a criticism of you, only a complaint that trying to continue that conversation is a-historical – not without interest, but needing (for me) some spike of contemporary relevancy or of expanded critical reflection. That may be entirely my own problem; and I suspected it might be, which is why I didn’t raise the point in comment on your first article on this topic. .

      The questions I ask in the last paragraph of that comment are real questions born of frustration. Your ongoing critique of the Neo-Platonic metaphysis underpinning liberal/left politics, though I don’t usually agree with it, is often interesting, occasionally revealing of unnoticed problematics; but it concerns me that, although I know you can’t condone the anti-science stance of Christian Fundamentalists, you remain silent on it – and in America, these people have real power, and sit in Congress voting on education. It would be helpful if a conservative voice as strong as yours could speak to this on occasion.

      I have been thinking about Trump a lot recently. The fiasco of his (lack of) response to the corona virus emergency in its first two weeks was shameful, and may actually have cost lives. “By arguing against Clinton I was arguing for Trump, apparently.” As I noted elsewhere to that question, in a two-party system, the answer is yes. “The word “indirection” implies slyness and a lack of straightforwardness.” No, we can act indirectly by making a choice in a binary-choice situation; choosing ‘not-X’ chooses Y by default.

      Faber’s suggestion that Clinton would have destroyed the world failed to recognize that Clinton would actually have listened to her advisors. Trump is characterologically incapable of that – as we’ve seen until very recently during the current crisis.

      “I should not be having to defend my right to speak my mind on American foreign policy.” Of course not, and no one says you need to. However, I’m not sure you understand the nuances of the context in which American foreign policy develops, or some of the consequences when that policy is mishandled.

      However, I apologize for dragging Trump to your door. It just struck me, reading the last paragraphs of your essay, that you may not recognize the real threats to traditional or moderate conservativism, at least as they exist in the US. And Trump’s “destroyi(ing) America” also seems to be destroying many institutions and principles that American traditional and moderate conservatives hold dear.

      ““At any rate, Donald Trump is the orange elephant in the room here… Mark – what goes around, comes around. We Buddhists call it karma. You shook hands with the devil – but the devil doesn’t let you go.” This is worse than drivel. But I guess you are working on the principle that if you throw enough dirt at me, some will stick.” No, on review, it’s just stupid. It was meant tongue in cheek (references to religion), but I seem to have bit my tongue before burbling it out. Again I apologize.

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      1. ejwinner

        “Mark, I apologize for offending you … ; that was not my intent.”

        I took it that your intent was to challenge the substance of what I was saying and one of your tactics was to try to undermine my credibility by various means: by associating me with Donald Trump; by suggesting that I was preoccupied with moribund ideas and with intellectual encounters which nobody cares about any more; by suggesting that my approach was somehow sly or deceitful and needed some kind of decoding (e.g. my “maneuverings” regarding the conflict between Arendt and Monnerot).

        “The questions I ask in the last paragraph of that comment are real questions born of frustration. Your ongoing critique of the Neo-Platonic metaphysics underpinning liberal/left politics, though I don’t usually agree with it, is often interesting, occasionally revealing of unnoticed problematics; but it concerns me that, although I know you can’t condone the anti-science stance of Christian Fundamentalists, you remain silent on it – and in America, these people have real power, and sit in Congress voting on education. It would be helpful if a conservative voice as strong as yours could speak to this on occasion.”

        It “concerns” you that I “remain silent” on this issue, does it? Really, this is quite surreal. I am not even an American.

        “I have been thinking about Trump a lot recently.”

        It shows.

        “The fiasco of his (lack of) response to the corona virus emergency in its first two weeks was shameful, and may actually have cost lives.”

        On this we agree.

        “[Quoting me] “By arguing against Clinton I was arguing for Trump, apparently.” As I noted elsewhere to that question, in a two-party system, the answer is yes.”

        I can criticize the policies of a particular candidate without implicitly supporting another and without addressing or trying to solve any dilemmas that may be faced by voters.

        “[Quoting me] “The word “indirection” implies slyness and a lack of straightforwardness.” No, we can act indirectly by making a choice in a binary-choice situation; choosing ‘not-X’ chooses Y by default.”

        The word ‘indirection’ (as distinct from ‘indirectly’) often carries the negative connotation I mentioned (and especially in American English apparently). And, as I said above, the voter may (or may not) have a binary choice, but this does not apply to somebody analyzing policy (or personalities, for that matter).

        “[Quoting me] “I should not be having to defend my right to speak my mind on American foreign policy.” Of course not, and no one says you need to. However, I’m not sure you understand the nuances of the context in which American foreign policy develops, or some of the consequences when that policy is mishandled.”

        Right. As an outsider, I just don’t get the “nuances of the context.” No details? Oh well, it’s way off-topic anyway. But I would humbly suggest that when it comes to discerning the geopolitical and economic drivers of US foreign policy and predicting and assessing its consequences, foreigners may well have a perspectival advantage.

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        1. “I took it that your intent was to challenge the substance of what I was saying” – actually, by the 1980s pretty much everyone I knew (and I am on the left, as you know) had adopted a view similar to Monnerot’s. Indeed it had become clear that any totalitarian regime would have to develop and mobilize structures and practices similar to those initially seen in the West under Medieval Catholicism and re-enforced through Reformer innovations such as ‘public confession.’ Even post-Marxists understood this, and it is one of the motivator’s behind Post-Structuralist analysis of language. This is how the argument got subsumed into a discussion about the nature of ideology per se. At least in America and among those influenced by Continental thought. Perhaps not elsewhere, and I should have allowed for that.

          But Arendt’s interest and influence goes well beyond matters such as this, and I suppose I was concerned that her larger views were getting slighted.

          “Right. As an outsider, I just don’t get the “nuances of the context.” No details?” Although as you say it is off-topic, I remark one problem that people outside the US do not really ‘get’ about Americans: ” Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.” – General George S. Patton. He;s absolutely right. Despite the occasional revulsion against war, Americans are on the whole a violent people. Many Americans are also raised to believe that they have a special place on this earth. Most are also perfectly aware the US has the most powerful military the world has ever seen. American foreign policy oft involves constraining or re-directing such American inclinations on the world stage. Clinton may not have understood that, but her advisors would have. That was predictable in 2016. Some of Trump’s original advisors understood that – so he got rid of them and surrounded himself with yes-men. That was predictable as well.

          In his biopic “Nixon,” Oliver Stone strongly suggested that Nixon’s real fear was the possibility of a revolution from the Far Right. That’s speculative; but it notices a problematic here haunting us in our current political malaise. America would never go communist; but it could easily go fascist. Fascism appeals to the worse angels of our nature. And while some forms of fascism (Franco’s, for instance) are isolationist, others (like Mussolini’s) are not globalist, they’re openly imperialistic. American history tells us which would be an American fascism. (Donald Trump doesn’t much like war; but he also doesn’t like not using power; hence his frustration at not being able to use nuclear weapons against hurricanes. Fortunately he equates power primarily with money – hence his attempt to buy Greenland from the Danes rather than invading it. However, if the US does go full-out fascist, what would a Trump successor be capable of?)

          “It “concerns” you that I “remain silent” on this issue, does it? Really, this is quite surreal. I am not even an American.” The potential consequences of a nation as powerful as the US turning its back on science and adopting fundamentalist Christianity as political model ought to be alarming. Ours is a particularly Evangelical fundamentalism – which means that if successful, it wouldn’t take long to look beyond its borders In fact it already has, particularly in Sub-Sahara Africa.

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  10. Alan wrote:

    “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think your worry is about “magical thinking”, unquestioning and unquestionable allegiances, hero worship, the demonising of opponents, the “bitter splits and schisms” between supposed allies, and the assumption that “history” has some overriding direction regardless of the actual observable trends. These features, you think, are found in Marxism and Communism but also in some religions (though you don’t say which).”

    Yes, these are my main concerns. And, yes, you find these beliefs and behaviors embedded in particular ideologies and religions.

    You suggest that religion is something of a distraction here. Dan calls it a red herring. But I think we need explicitly to consider religion and our religious instincts (for want of a better term) if we are to see the full picture and make sense of what is going on in the political sphere.

    One of my concerns is with religionized politics in the sense of people seeking in politics what their forebears might have sought in religion. Historically, this has manifested itself more on the left than the right. I wrote: “[L]eft-wing thinkers – precisely because they are more inclined to reject religious traditions than conservatives are – have a greater incentive to … seek in the political sphere something analogous to what might be called salvation or deliverance in a religious context.”

    I recognize, of course, that there are other ways of understanding the term ‘religionized politics’, and other forms. Sometimes (as in the case of patriotic symbols and narratives) these forms are associated more with conservatism than with the left. But in such cases traditional religion was usually playing a parallel role, fulfilling certain psychological needs and so on. These things need to be looked at on a case by case basis. Monnerot was focused on the communism of his day and specific (historical) strands of Islam. Generalizations need to be qualified. Nothing is black and white. If I have made false claims, I am happy to have them pointed out.

    I expressed concern that one commenter was being misled by — misreading or at least reading too much into — the title, Politics as Religion. Monnerot made the point that the sense of the word ‘religion’ is sensitive to the context of use (noting that the phrase “secular religion” necessarily involves a shift away from the primary meaning of ‘religion’).

    You want to take us above polemics. My goal is more modest: to encourage a better style of polemics. Polemics need not be crude and simplistic. Polemical works of various kinds hold an honored place in the literary canons of many nations.

    Part of the reason why I am skeptical that we can rise above polemics altogether relates to our emotional natures. I would want to emphasize the extent to which we are all encumbered (a loaded term, I know) with sets of assumptions and predispositions which are not necessarily accessible to reflection. We could not function psychologically or connect with others without these drives, etc… A downside, however, is that disagreements can be difficult to resolve as the deep causes often remain obscure.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Mark: I picture you as an artist in his studio, working on a painting, Monet-style. “It’s a cathedral”, says one viewer. “No, it’s a haystack”, says another. “No, no, it’s a large truck on a misty morning”, says a third.

    The artist gets his brush and adds some touches of grey and blue, so that it no longer looks like any of these things. The viewers are puzzled, but the artist is happy. It’s Impressionism, he thinks.

    Keep well.

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