Icarus of Trafalgar Square

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Marx and the Revolution of the Sacred

Marx and the Revolution of the Sacred

James Luchte

marx

Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people. [1]

Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification.  It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality.  The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.[2]

Perhaps the most formidable obstacle in the task of retrieving a sense of the sacred in Marx consists in his repeated, and often polemical, statements against religion – or the edited selections of his editors and guardians.  Indeed, such an obstacle may in the end be one of our own making, as we are trapped within the labyrinth of our own historical understanding.[3] Yet, assuming, for the moment, that religion and the sacred are the same phenomena, if we take his pronouncement that religion is the opium of the people – which I purposely left out in the opening quotation – in isolation, we may be lead to believe that Marx felt that at best religion – and thus the ‘sacred’ – is a narcotic, which while it may be utilized to alleviate pain, remains an illusory amelioration for a situation of humiliation and despair.  Religion is an opiate in that it not only implies sedation from the pain of a life of exploitation, but also – ambivalently – suggests a systematic and strategic attempt to deaden or absorb any critical impulse to liberation.  In this sense, Marx’s characterization of religion as an opiate is a forerunner of many of the most radical criticisms of religion and ‘negative’ theology in last century – Gutierrez, Miranda, Bultmann, Heidegger, Derrida, and Bataille.  Each of these thinkers, in his own way, articulated a sense of the sacred in the wake of Marx and his deconstruction of religion as an ‘ideology’ – despite, perhaps, his own generation’s scientistic blindness to the regulative status of all ideas.

The kinship which is shared by each of these thinkers is a disdain for mere religion in favour of the ‘sacred’.[4] Religion simultaneously constructs a ‘picture’ (Bild) for contemplation (Anschauung) and an organization that cultivates our captivity to that ‘picture’ (Wittgenstein).  The sacred, on the contrary, intimates ‘love’ (Badiou), ‘binding commitment’ (Heidegger), an engaged and affirmative eruption of liberation amidst finite existence.  Religion constructs its eternal church as an everlasting perpetuation of the ‘picture’, of an idol – a captivating grammar of existence – while the sacred exults in this moment of lived existence,[5] in the haeccitas of Duns Scotus.  If religion is a ‘rational’ and ‘systematic’ orchestration of feeling and phenomena, the sacred is an attempt to seek access to a phenomenon beyond the array of objectification towards traces of the numen.  Indeed, for Otto, one need only begin amidst this singular event.

In light of this preliminary distinction between religion and the sacred, it will be the task of Marx and the Revolution of the Sacred to excavate and disclose in the writings and historical activism of Marx an affirmative sense of the sacred which is alterior to his inherently negative conception of religion.  With Marx’s empathy in his ‘sigh of the oppressed creature’, we can glimpse a sense of the sacred dissociated from a religious leviathan that merely serves to perpetuate suffering – we can begin to glimpse a sacred that exists as a radical commitment to liberation.  In this way, I will contend that Marx’s criticism of religion as an ideology of oppression and sedation in no way forecloses on a possible relationship between his work and Twentieth and Twenty-First Century attempts to articulate a sense of the sacred in the world.  There emerges in these latter attempts the possibility of an openness which discloses a topos for an encounter with a sense of a sacred not mediated by ‘ideology’ (or positive theology).

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‘Bastion’, School of Humanities, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics

Karl Marx and the School’s adopted cat, Meow Tse Tung

Fish in Shanghai

Fish in Garden Unit, Shanghai

The Tragic Community: Friedrich Nietzsche and Mao Tse Tung

The Tragic Community
Friedrich Nietzsche and Mao Tse Tung
James Luchte

nietmao2

With those two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we link our recognition that in the Greek world there exists a huge contrast, in origins and purposes, between visual (plastic) arts, the Apollonian, and the non-visual art of music, the Dionysian. Both very different drives go hand in hand, for the most part in open conflict with each other and simultaneously provoking each other all the time to new and more powerful offspring, in order to perpetuate for themselves the contest of opposites which the common word “Art” only seems to bridge, until they finally, through a marvelous metaphysical act, seem to pair up with each other and, as this pair, produce Attic tragedy, just as much a Dionysian as an Apollonian work of art.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 1872

Contradiction is universal and absolute, it is present in the process of development of all things and permeates every process from beginning to end. (II)

By the former we mean that contradiction exists in and runs through all processes from beginning to end; motion, things, processes, thinking — all are contradictions. To deny contradiction is to deny everything. This is a universal truth for all times and all countries, which admits of no exception. (III)

Mao Tse Tung, On Contradiction (1937)

Mao’s Ontology and Early Greek Thought

Contradiction, for Mao, abides at the heart of all things – within each particular being and amidst the universality of the cosmos, or the All. Contradiction is the existence of all things – the birth, life and death of all things, and of the incessant re-birth of all particular kinds of thing, or being. Contradiction consists in, and gains its immense power from, a unity of opposites. Mao describes this disunited, or dialectical, unity of opposites:

The interdependence of the contradictory aspects present in all things and the struggle between these aspects determine the life of all things and push their development forward. There is nothing that does not contain contradiction; without contradiction nothing would exist. (Mao Tse Tung, On Contradiction, II)

Contradiction is the modus essendi, modus existendi and modus operandi of all things. It is the reality, actuality and existence of all things. The primary axiomatic  significance of the universality of contradiction, a notion to which Hegel and Marx also ascribed, is that change is ubiquitous to all things, and thus, nothing can or will ever remain the same.

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