I am a gnostic. Now, before anyone has an attack of the socialist vapours, this is not going to be an attempt to reconcile Marxism with religion. It is the epistemic principle that lies behind the original esoteric manifestations of Gnosticism that we will consider.
For all the fanciful claims made by Gnostics, the essence is each individual coming to know in such a profound way that the knowledge leads to action via conviction. The alternative was for salvation to be delivered by the Church, the authoritative body controlling ideology, effectively rendering people powerless.
The material conditions for achieving socialism exist and have done so for quite some time. The political structures also exist through which that goal can be democratically pursued. Yet, in the near 120 years of the existence of the Socialist Party in Britain the vital element, the working class, has not embraced their own cause.
The last general election, just over a year ago, once again demonstrated how divided against itself the working class remains, and how distant it seems from becoming a credible socialist force. The collapse of the ’Red Wall’ allowing an insurgency of the Blue Meanies was but the latest example of the dominant acceptance that problems can be solved without really changing anything.
Brexit has been an ongoing exemplar with much heat, but little light, as staying in or leaving the EU was the rancorous issue: which would be best, opting for capitalism or choosing capitalism? Hardly worth the political energy that has been expended on it.
Cue nationalism. With Scotland firmly in the Remain camp, the SNP raised the independence banner for workers to rally around yet again. If they are successful will there be some haven from the travails of capitalism north of the Tweed to Solway border posts?
It’s a nonsense of course, but a powerful and a destructive one because while it occupies the minds of Scottish workers, perhaps rouses the antagonism of English workers, they lose sight of the crucial fact that, actually, they are just workers who share common cause with all other workers.
In a song, ‘The White Rose and the Red’ there is a verse that runs,
‘Pennines slope to east and west, / Yet where on the moorland range
Is a line that’s clearly drawn / Where the colour of roses change?
By colours men are misled…’
Be they the colours of roses or other divisive symbols such as flags such totems remain potent political narcotics. If there was an election tomorrow there is nothing to stop people voting for socialism, except they wouldn’t. It’s not simply an absence of socialist candidates, for most who might claim to be socialist voters, their ballots would most likely go to the present-day wearer of the red rose.
The determining factor in socialism becoming realisable is the material conditions necessary being in existence. Without such conditions, the productive and distributive technology, such a society would remain an unobtainable ideal.
History can furnish examples of idealists establishing communities based on common ownership and equality that proved either unsustainable, or, lacking widespread support, were actively suppressed by vested interests.
By the time Marx was writing, those necessary conditions were either in existence or well on the way to becoming so. There has been no significant material barrier to establishing a socialist society for 150 years or more.
Through those intervening years, despite claims made in disparate countries at various times, socialism has yet to garner the vital mass support needed for it to be realised. What is preventing working people deciding to act in their own best interests?
The answer seems simple, but is proving stubbornly difficult to address. The objective conditions for socialism may well exist, but the subjective conditions presently do not. This is the factor that needs to change to fully realise the vast potential of material reality.
When socialists consider the working class they envisage the majority in society acting collectively to pursue their common interests. However, in Britain for example, that collective is actually so many million individuals and each individual needs to become a socialist for the working class to become socialist.
For socialism to succeed, then it is not just the millions in Britain who must be committed, but also the billions worldwide. Not as followers of a vanguard, but active in their own right on their own behalf. Some task.
Marx famously stated: ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world is various ways; the point is to change it.’ It is not enough to mount convincing arguments in favour of socialism if they do not become integral in the thinking of the vast majority. Then they can act collectively to change their world.
And this is where being a Marxist gnostic comes in. Actually, all socialists are political gnostics by dint of having become their own authority. There isn’t a secular ‘Church’ to which they can subscribe that will mediate between them and salvation, the achievement of socialism. This is the case whether there be just a few, or vast numbers of socialists.
My tongue may be lodged a little in my cheek, but those who have seen through the miasma of falsehoods that cloud the general view of capitalist society, are the ones who know in a profound sense, why capitalism cannot simply be made better, why socialism is the only viable alternative.
The task of dispersing that miasma remains daunting, but feudal monarch, bishops and barons felt their positions in the world were unassailable, while their peasants largely regarded society as being divinely ordered and beyond change. Yet change it most certainly did, and profoundly so.
We will conclude with a secular (and very, very loose) reworking of the third secret saying in ‘The Gospel of Thomas’:
If it is said by those who lead you, ‘Socialism is in this country, or that country,’ you are merely hearing the squawking of parrots.
If it is said, ‘Socialism has been tried and failed and is behind you,’ they are trying to blind your vision with myopic hindsight.
Rather socialism is all around you in all its productive potential.
And socialism is within you with your ability to embrace that potential.
Then you will realise socialism for what it is.
But until you know, you dwell in the poverty of philosophy and you are that poverty of philosophy.
Here endeth the lesson.