2000s >> 2003 >> no-1187-july-2003

Book Reviews

The Persistence of Religious Ideas in the 21st Century: a Contribution to a Debate, Revolutions Per Minute, number 10. £3

This short pamphlet is like the proverbial curate’s egg: good in parts, but addled by the political purpose this work is supposed to serve. There are references to working class liberation, but Lenin and assorted anarchists are quoted approvingly. Marx is also quoted and it is of course from him that we get the most famous quotation concerning religion: “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.” However, the basic assumption in this pamphlet that an anti-religious thinker is worthwhile as long as they oppose religion is open to challenge. Antony Flew, a leading light in the Rationalist Press Association (full contact details are given in the pamphlet) and past debater with the Socialist Party, is a vehement opponent of both religion and socialism. Mere opposition to religion is not enough, and a religion-free capitalism (as Flew wants) would not bring socialism any nearer.

So why have religious ideas proved so persistent? Religion, the pamphlet argues, “is the tool which helps to explain away fundamental inequalities which are rooted in material circumstances (that is, economic realities). It is in this sense that debates about whether God exists or not are irrelevant. Changing economic realities will inevitably lead to the redundancy of the religious imperative . . . God exists only for as long as the economic realities which created him exist; when these wither away, so will he.”

For socialists, the struggle against religion cannot be separated from the struggle for socialism. We fight religious superstition wherever it is an obstacle to socialism, but we are opposed to religion only insofar as it is an obstacle to socialism. We leave the atheist gospel to those organizations that specialize in the spreading of secularist reason.

Lenin as Philosopher. By Anton Pannekoek. Edited by L. B. Richey. Marquette University, Milwaukee.

This is a republication of Pannekoek’s classic 1938 analysis of Leninism as a non-Marxist theory, the ideology of the development of capitalism in Russia in the form of state-capitalism. This edition is for professional philosophers and students of philosophy and has notes and a lengthy introduction (half as long as the work itself).

In his introduction, Richey takes up a pro-Lenin and anti-Pannekoek stance, criticising Pannekoek for adhering to a philosophy of science not that much different from conventional science (that knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is the ordering and description, a symbolic representation, of empirical evidence obtained through the senses). It is true that Pannekoek was a practising scientist–an astronomer in fact who ended his career as professor of astronomy at the University of Leyden in Holland–who did not reject the empirical approach and did not regard science as a “bourgeois ideology”.

It is also true that, in the controversy within the Marxist tradition, as to whether dialectics exists in nature or is just a mental construct, Pannekoek, following Dietzgen, took up the latter view. While he regarded the external world of phenomena as an interconnected and ever-changing whole (two “dialectical” features), he did not see contradiction (a third such feature) as a characteristic, let alone the motor of change, of this world. For him, contradiction was a mental phenomenon resulting from the paradox that the human mind, to make sense of this world in order to better survive in it, has to mentally isolate parts of it and treat them as if they were separate entities whereas in fact they remain inseparable parts of the whole.

As this controversy does not have any bearing on everyday arguments for socialism (it doesn’t come up much in pub conversations, except amongst socialists) it is not one that the Socialist Party has felt the need to take a position on. But, if we were forced to choose, we would incline to the Pannekoek/Dietzgen view, on the grounds that while it is clear that social development takes place through internal contradiction (the class struggle within class societies)this is a verified description on the basis of the factsit has not been confirmed that change in the physical world is driven by internal contradiction. On the contrary, the most adequate theory of biological evolution is that it took place in response to changing external factors.

In any event, whatever criticisms may be made of Pannekoek’s approach, to treat Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism as a serious contribution to the philosophy of science, as Richey does, is ridiculous. As anyone who has tried to read it knows, it is just a rant against some of Lenin’s opponents within the Bolshevik Party in 1908 who he accuses, quite unjustly (but quite typically), of harbouring or condoning religious views just because they rejected his crude and untenable view that the mind merely reflects and photographs (as opposed to mentally reconstructs) the external world. Pannekoek, while of course himself a materialist and a non-believer, interprets the priority Lenin gave to the anti-religious struggle in Russia as evidence that the coming revolution there was to be a bourgeois revolution as in France in 1789 and that Leninism was the ideology of this revolution. Lenin as the Voltaire of Russia’s revolution to capitalism.

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