Religion and the Left, Halifax, 3.13.13
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A panel event held on March 12th, 2013 at King’s College in Hailfax, Canada
Gary Burrill (Member of the Legislative Assembly for Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, Nova Scotia New Democratic Party)
Arthur McCalla (Religious Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University)
Katie Toth (Layperson, United Church of Canada)
Antoni Wysocki (STAND)
Religion necessarily appears to the left today as a question of for or against. But “religion” and “the left” are by no means transhistorical categories. A massive historical divide separates the Abbe Sieyes’s conflict with Pope Pius VI from invading Soviet and American armies’ conflict with the Afghan mujahideen.
At the beginning of the 20th century, socialist politics served as the church of the working class. It was not merely secular but secularist. Yet, as working class politics unfolded in defeat and betrayal over the course of the 20th century, the left seemed to drift inexorably to the right. This rightward drift was mirrored in religion, and this seemed to render plausible the antipathies of left-secularists such as Christopher Hitchens. Yet during this same period, ostensibly progressive religious movements gained ground by capturing the socially conscious impulses generated in the absence of working class politics. Religion seemed to claim a monopoly on the ideology of peace and social justice. Increasingly, under neoliberal reforms, religion even came to monopolize the provision of social welfare. The left, seemingly overcoming its “theophobia,” found itself going to church in hopes of organizing the working class, dropping its erstwhile secularism in the process.
How the left might overcome its current impasses is anybody’s guess. An approach towards genuinely reform-minded religionists would seem to offer a means of winning adherents to radical politics without ceding any ground that wasn’t already lost to the left decades ago. But while the Left may be bankrupt, religion isn’t going out of business any time soon. One is tempted to wonder if the player is not in fact being played.
1) Today, some of the most active organizations working with socially-concerned student activists are religious organizations. What does this phenomenon– community activism, under religion-inflected banners, as ostensible leftism– say about the current state and future tasks of the political left?
2) The political (and personal) liquidation of the secular left in many parts of the third world during the terminal decades of the cold war occurred alongside the gradual shifting of responsibility for social welfare provision from the state to organizations within civil society, often religious, in the first world. Have these global shifts demanded something new from the left vis a vis religion, and if so, what? If not, why not? More generally, is there a relationship between the death of the left and the revitalization of religion?
3) The Polish revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, stated that socialism would ‘complete’ Christianity. Does this complicate the traditional Marxist antipathy to religion?
4) To what degree can or should (or must) the left, today, cede organizational ground to religion? How ought those on the left distinguish between tactical cooperation and tailism vis-a-vis religion?
5) Is capitalist society generative of religious organization as a mass phenomenon in the same way that it is generative of left-political organization as a (once-) mass phenomenon? More broadly, what implications for the left follow from your understanding of religion as a mass social phenomenon within capitalism?
6) Early in his career Karl Marx critiqued the secularism of Young Hegelian thinkers for failing to grasp the social and political dimensions of theological questions. One gets a sense of coming full circle; that political questions on the Left today are increasingly explained in theological terms. What do you make of the recent claims by Communist and Marxist thinkers, for example Alain Badiou or Terry Eagleton, in locating the first examples of universalism in the Apostles? Alternately, what of their atheist interlocutors like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, who seem preoccupied with picking through the inconsistencies of religion and make no attempt to understand why so many people are religious? What are the political stakes of these developments? How do you account for the seeming inability of the Left do what seemed possible for Marx, namely to locate the political dimensions of religion and overcome them?