George Grosz, The Funeral, 1918
Over the past few months, I have been grappling with The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick. For those who haven’t read it, Gornick interviews former members of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) who were active in the middle of the 20th century. The common arc for most party members was that they joined in the 1920s or 30s and the party became the center of their life: their job was connected to the party, they were married to another party member, and their social circle consisted of party members. Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and McCarthyism crushed the party, and most individuals had left or were expelled by the 60s. My developing take on the book is that it is a commentary on dogmatism. The CPUSA was defined by dogmatism, where theoretical and political positions were imposed on party members, critical thought and discussion were stifled, and questioning leaders’ decisions could lead to expulsion. Individuals in the party had a deluded perception of the organization and their relationship to it.
Gornick draws many parallels with religion, and even suggests that the party was analogous to a religious organization. In the CPUSA, Marxism was equivalent to the doctrine of Christianity, and the Party was equivalent to the Church as the organization which represents, interprets, and teaches the doctrine. I obviously reject any conception of Marxism and communist organization that seeks to replicate this structure, as communists must reject dogmatism in our organization and practice. But the recent explosion of discourse on Twitter in relation to religion and communism has only highlighted the tension between communism and religion. How should communists relate to religion and those who practice it? Does communism seek to fill the same void as religion by producing meaning in individuals’ lives?
I’m opposed to religious practices and ideologies, but I’m not an atheist because it inverts the logic of theism. I strongly believe in not inverting the logic of your opponents. In the same way you cannot prove the existence of God, you cannot disprove the existence of God. Rather, I’m a non-theist–I don’t think in that logic and don’t share those problems. My opposition to religion is mostly based on philosophical grounds, as religion is incompatible with materialism. Contra to most religions, I do not believe that meaning is located in exteriority to human existence, and I believe that meaning is built through relationships with oneself, with friends and family, and with one’s community. I also do not find the concept of God or religious practice to be useful, nor do I find religious or theological explanations of history and reality convincing. In many ways, they are completely incompatible with scientific research and can only be reconciled through complex machinations. Returning to the discourse, I believe that religion should be excluded from communist politics. While I respect the right of anyone to believe and practice what they want, religion holds no relevance to organizing. While individuals in organizations may be religious, and individuals we may recruit may be religious, this doesn’t mean we have to incorporate religion in order to recruit and maintain these individuals. As many have pointed out, the Bolsheviks led a revolution in an extremely religious and superstitious society despite being adamant atheists.
Much of the discourse has been a reaction to the reactionary new atheism of the early 2010s, embodied by the likes of Sam Harris, where many of these atheists ended up inverting the logic of theism. This is a natural reaction, as if someone you hate thinks a certain way, you can oppose them by believing in the opposite. You like this? Well I hate this! You hate this? Well, I love this! In both cases, you’re letting your opponent dictate your thought. I believe that in contemporary society there are four dominant forms of irrational thought:
- Liking what others like (the bandwagon)
- Liking what others hate (the edgelord)
- Hating what others like (the hater)
- Hating what others hate (the follower)
1 and 4 are motivated by conformity, 2 and 3 are motivated by contrarianism, and both tendencies are exasperated by the presence of social media. Discourse in every conceivable category has been polluted by this: sports, politics, media and entertainment to name a few. People will love figures like Lebron James or Tom Brady because other people love them, or hate them because of how popular they are. Marvel fans hate Martin Scorsese because he had the audacity to critique the franchise, even if they are completely ignorant of his work. Some socialists and communists hate Trotsky because they know others hate him, despite never reading him in the first place. In each case, the opinion is not formed based on the individual’s own perception and analysis, but in reaction to the dominant discourse.
To be fair, it is impossible to escape discourse. Everything we read and write has been formed in response to ideas that other people have developed. Any theoretical intervention takes place in a specific conjuncture–Althusser’s For Marx was written in response to the dominance of a new Marxist Humanism developed within the French Communist Party (a fact often ignored by his critics). Althusser argues that philosophy is by nature partisan for this very reason. To practice philosophy, one has to stake out positions and claims in opposition or in support of already existing ideas. My position is that forming beliefs entirely in reaction to other beliefs should be avoided. Individuals should form beliefs based on rational thought and critical thinking. You cannot control the world of ideas and discourses that you are immersed in, but you can form rational beliefs through critical thinking, by assessing what ideas and concepts are strong, and which ones are weak. You can build new concepts through synthesizing and studying the ideas of others, and engaging with existing theoretical terrains. But in any case, individuals should form their opinions outside the sphere of discourse. Think for yourself!