Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Meaning is derived from context, and the context here is (a) a particular passage in the Communist Manifesto; (b) the book as a whole; (c) it's historical background; (d) the life and thought of its authors, that Aikman explores; (e) how it would be interpretted by Marx' most dedicated or powerful followers, especially in communist-ruled territories.
From the first two, Marx and Engels are making several charges against their own movement, worded as the abolition of things thought fundamental -- private property, family, religion and morality. They throw these charges out and wrecklessly affirm them. Marx and Engels then accuse their supposed class enemies of doing something worse, and that the thing "abolitioned" -- private property, family, morality -- is no more than a mask for something horrible:
"Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty . . . The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent to child, becomes all the more disgusting . . . by the actions of Modern industry."
It's a little hard to make out Marx' real intentions, here, at times. His cynical interpretations of his enemies' motives and actions are typical, as is his equally naive assumption that with the "proletariat" in charge, or rather intellectuals like himself, funded by capitalists like Engels, everything will be extraordinarily cool. Marx probably didn't intend to abolition families: he had one of his own, even if highly disfunctional, and he did seem to love his daughters, in his strange way. But he certainly did mean to abolition at least large-scale private property, which he treats in the same way, here.
Certainly, Marx hated God. He was an atheist, because he denied believing God, but I am not entirely sure he was telling the truth. (Aikman takes seriously a radical alternative suggestion by Richard Wurmbrand, that I will not go into here, as it would disrupt the discussion.)
Certainly, Marx and Engels wanted to end religion, and conventional moral rules, and thought communism would do both.
I go into this in some detail in Jesus and the Religions of Man, and conclude that Marx and his revolutionary followers actually accepted three different moral systems: (1) Christian morality centered on love, by which they debunked the capitalists (this is implicit in Marx' sarcastic and over-the-top criticisms of them in Communist Manifesto, including in this passage). (2) "The ends justify the means," by which they justified their own actions, such as bank robbery, assassination, shooting peasants, imprisoning thought criminals, again including measures mentioned in this passage, etc; (3) Nanny-state morality, by which, having attained power, they harranged citizens to work hard, not spit, not drink too much, have lots of babies or not too many babies, help fellow citizens (if they're not counter-revolutionaries or suspect elements), etc.
The Marxist attitude towards religion was even more complex and flexible. Communism was almost always hostile, but usually pretended to allow some religious freedom, since religion was supposed to fade away on its own, in theory. Sometimes the state went to an enormous extent to fool people into believing in religious freedom. Often, though, the persecution was intense, including mass-murder and gruesome enslavement and torture, though even then the state usually pretended some pretext, for example by trumping up criminal charges against pastors. Sometimes the doctrine of a "Common Front" was adopted, for instance in response to the Nazi invasion in the USSR. These ambiguities allowed (and allow) many Westerners to fool themselves about the true stance of the communist party towards religion, and even to simply overlook mass murders, torture, destruction, and lies on a massive scale.
In China, I would argue, the attitude towards religion, while still hostile, has since Mao died (and most surviving pastors released from prison) evolved into something pretty traditional. At the top, party members are mostly skeptics, much like the neo-Confucian literati after the Song Dynasty or so. They allow several forms of "orthodox" religion, adding "Protestantism,""Catholicism" and "Islam" to the traditional three (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism). Worship outside of approved locations, and by approved methods, is in theory not allowed, nor are certain teachings (end times) or activities (miraculous healing). And some movements are heavily persecuted as perceived threats to social peace or to the state. But this is traditional in China: Marx I think probably has only a very little to do with what goes on there, these days.
But certainly, the attitude of Marx and Engels, and the actions of the communist movement as a whole, show that "abolish religion" was not at all a false charge, or intended as one, though methods and ultimately attitudes would vary.