Saturday, March 21, 2009


Book Review: The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, Charles Freeman, Vintage, 2005.

This book is a great introduction to the origins of Christian thought. Today with so many competing versions of Christianity, ranging from traditional Orthodox and Catholic views to liberal socially conscious Protestantism and right wing evangelical fundamentalists, it is helpful to have a guide such as this which explains how the original Christianity of the ancient world came about. Freeman will do a credible job of tracing this history from Roman times to the High Middle Ages.

In his introduction he tells us that he will be dealing with "a significant turning point" in western civilization. The point he has in mind is that time in the 4th and 5th centuries AD "when the tradition of rational thought established by the Greeks was stifled." It would take the West a thousand years to recover.

The Greek rational tradition was firmly established by the 5th century BC-- its two greatest founders were Plato and his student Aristotle. Unfortunately, Freeman confuses modern day empiricism with rationality and thus misapprehends the significance of Plato, following in the footsteps of his master Socrates, in the establishment of the rational method in Greece. Plato’s thought was not "an alternative to rational thought" but one of the most extreme examples of it, subjecting all beliefs to the test of logical argument whenever possible.

Be that as it may, Freeman thinks that the Greek rational tradition, today’s term would be "scientific", was deliberately squashed by the Roman government from the time of Constantine with the aid of the official Church. The wide-open intellectual environment of the Roman Empire, both religiously and philosophically came to end in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the "official" state religion. The "official" version became the only legal version and thus was the "orthodox" version. "The imposition of orthodoxy," Freeman writes, " went hand in hand with a stifling of any form of independent reasoning." The rule I would formulate here is that the more any belief system deviates from the original intentions of its founders the more intolerant and anti-rational it becomes. I am not sure this holds in all cases.

Christianity was from the outset anti-rational. Freeman says, "It had been the Apostle Paul [actually an interloper, not one of the original 12, who never knew Jesus in the flesh-tr] who declared war on the Greek rational tradition through his attacks on ‘the wisdom of the wise’ and ‘the empty logic of the philosophers’...." When Christianity became the official creed it closed down any contrary thinking thus dooming the West to a thousand years of backwardness.

A good example of this mind closing is given by Freeman when he discusses the dispute between "St." Ambrose and the pagan Roman Senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. To my way of thinking the pagan Symmachus had an open modern mind while Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and teacher of "St." Augustine, was a bigot (unfortunately also an all too modern religious mind set.)

In the late 4th century the seat of the Western Empire was at Milan and there were still many pagans (believers in the old traditional religion) who wished to be free to continue their form of religion. The Christian authorities were determined to repress all forms of religion save their own. One of the major symbols of the traditional religion was the Altar of Peace which adorned the Senate in Rome. The Christians had it removed. In 383 AD Symmachus and other senators petitioned the Emperor to have it restored. Ambrose (a major power behind the throne) was opposed and the petition failed. The mind sets of the two sides are clearly expressed in the following written exchange:

Symmachus: "What does it matter by which wisdom each of us arrives at the truth? It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery."

Ambrose: "What you are ignorant of, we know from the word of God. And what you try to infer, we have established as truth from the very wisdom of God."

The truth, however, should be able to triumph without the aid of the rack and the stake.

I pointed out above that Paul had no personal knowledge of Jesus in the flesh. Freeman asserted that the intolerance of the Christians (their rejection of logic and science) stems from Paul. What is worse, when, for political reasons, the Roman state adopted the religion and forced it upon everyone its motive was to control the minds of the population for the benefit of the Empire, the actual teachings of Jesus were no more suited to the ends desired by the Romans than they are to those of the Bush administration and its evangelical base.

Paul, according to Freeman, distanced himself from the original 12 disciples (who distrusted his claims) and ended up, as we know, creating a theology that appealed to the Greco-Roman world and was rejected by the Jewish community from which Jesus came. In order to do this the real historical Jesus and his teachings (peace not war, forgiveness not vengeance, love and respect not hated and contempt-- i.e., Martin Luther King not Jerry Falwell or Pat Robinson) had to be replaced with an unreal Christ beyond history. Thus, Freeman writes, "Paul makes a point of stressing that faith in Christ does not involve any kind of identification with Jesus in his life on earth but has validity only in his death and resurrection." Thus the burden of actually having to follow the particular ethical path that Jesus the human trod is removed. (See my article "Who is John Stott" in PA archives).

Since the claims made for Jesus as the Christ are simply impossible to accept from the point of view of reason, reason is dumped and replaced by "faith." Freeman gives the following quote from "the fourth-century ascetic Anthony:" "Faith arises from the disposition of the soul... those who are equipped with the faith have no need of verbal argument." Experience shows that "verbal argument" has no effect on true believers of whatever faith!

It is also interesting to note, as Freeman does, that Anthony is claimed not to have learned "to read or write, the point being made by his biographer that academic achievement was not important for a 'man of God' and could even be despised."

Freeman is incorrect, I think, in holding that the personal commitment Christians made to Christ (becoming "a single body with Christ... achieving a full identification with Christ through his death and then rising with him from the dead") was "something new in antiquity."

This very belief was characteristic of the devotees of the Egyptian god Osiris whose worship in the cult of Isis and Osiris was widespread throughout the Roman Empire and whose popularity may explain why Christianity proved so popular to the Greco-Roman population.

Mary idolatry, still rampant with some forms of Christianity, may have stemmed from this cult connection as well. Freeman points out that Isis was the patron goddess of mariners and her symbol was the rose. Mary replaced her as the patron of sailors and her symbol was also the rose. He also says "representations of Isis with her baby son Horus on her knee seem to provide the iconic background for those of Mary and the baby Jesus."

The Greek rational tradition demanded that people think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions. Christianity introduced a different conception of moral responsibility. It introduced the idea of "don't think, just follow orders." Freeman quotes a long extract from William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience in which a Jesuit explains the value of living the monastic life (every religion has something similar to this, as well as extremist political groups of the left and right).

The Jesuit explains that if you obey the orders of your religious Superior, no matter what they are, you can do no wrong! "The Superior may commit a fault in commanding you to do this or that, but you are certain that you commit no fault so long as you obey, because God will only ask you if you have duly performed what orders you received.... The moment what you did was done obediently, God wipes it out of your account...." Nice. Not even God respects the Geneva Conventions, why should Rummy or Bush? We have to agree with Freeman when he declares that, "Here the abdication of the power to think for oneself is complete."

The book clearly demonstrates that religion in the West has been used to deprecate and reject reason (unless the Church can misuse it in its own interests). It also demonstrates that the modern world, the progressive part at any rate, represents a return to the Greek outlook. When Freeman, in reference to the teachings of the Church says, "The ancient Greek tradition that one should be free to speculate without fear and be encouraged to take individual moral responsibility for one's views was rejected," we can today assert that now in the 21st. Century, despite the tragic history of "real existing socialism" in the past century, no genuine Marxist committed to people's democracy would agree with the Church on this matter and would rather identify with the Greeks.

The most important internal reason for the collapse of the socialist block, I think, may have been the lack of real participatory democracy and citizen involvement. Traditional Christianity as well as fundamentalism may likewise now be facing this malaise which is also characteristic of American democracy under the Bush administration.

What Freeman writes about the Church can be extended to these other groups as well. "Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity," he points out, "which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation."

Reading Freeman's well written and interesting book will give you a great background and a deep historical understanding of how Christianity came to dominate the Western world for a thousand years, what that has cost in terms of intellectual degradation, and how, if the peoples of the West are to better their condition in the new century they must regain the intellectual confidence so characteristic of Greek civilization.

I maintain that the Marxist tradition, freed from the failed authoritarian models of the last century, is the best contemporary intellectual tool to achieve this end. But it is important to note that the Greeks were not the only people to have a rational outlook. Similar thinkers can be found in the "classical" periods of other cultures, such as Ancient Egypt, China, India and the Islamic culture of the Middle Ages, to name but four, and the hope of a progressive future for all the world's peoples rests on a blending of the best progressive tendencies in all cultures.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Utopian Thinking and its Role in Marxist Theory

Political Affairs Magazine print edition
Utopian Thinking and its Role in Marxist Theory
Annals of Ideology
by Thomas Riggins [First appeared on line on the website Selves and Others]

Not in Utopia— subterranean fields—
or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,— the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.
William Wordsworth,
The Prelude

What is “utopian” thinking and why should we be concerned about it today? The word was coined by Sir Thomas More (from the Greek meaning “no place”) for his 1516 book Utopia, an imaginary island in the South Pacific which had perfect laws and social conditions. To refer to ideas today as “utopian” is to dismiss them as impractical. It has a somewhat negative connotation.

Utopian thinking is not, however, completely without its practical uses. There is a good utopian way to think as well as a bad. That this is so may be illustrated by a quote from the Marxist philosopher Domenico Losurdo (Nature, Society, Thought XVI:1 [2003]) who says, “Utopianism, on the one hand, inspires the enthusiasm of the masses, which is necessary to break the stubborn resistance of the old regime; on the other hand, it makes the building of the new society more difficult.” More difficult because of unrealistic plans— the “Great Leap Forward Syndrome.”

One of the earliest discussions of utopian thinking is to be found in the section “Critical Utopian Socialism and Communism” in The Communist Manifesto (1848). Marx and Engels state the earliest struggles of the working the class to liberate itself were defeated due to the low development of the productive forces. The literature, in which these early struggles were reflected, was “utopian” because it proposed impractical and impossible to realize solutions for the problems facing the working class.

Marx and Engels said this literature “had a necessarily reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social leveling in its crudest form.” The three greatest early utopians were St. Simon, Fourier, and Owen. These three produced systems, based on the underdeveloped forces of the new capitalist economic formations, which could not properly solve the problems raised by the exploitation of the workers.

Marx and Engels said this is because “the development of class antagonism keeps even pace with the development of industry” and industry had not developed enough to generate the level of class antagonism to challenge the power of the capitalists in a non-utopian way.

It seems they were mistaken about the “even pace” part, because even today in “the highest stage” of capitalism the level of class antagonism has not kept up with the development of industry. This means utopian ideas are still widespread.

The early utopians replaced historical action by the workers with schemes and plans to reorganize society “specially contrived by these inventors.” These thinkers saw the workers as passive and “reject all political and especially all revolutionary action.”

But all is not negative! Their writings contained “a critical element” insofar as they pointed up the injustices and exploitation inherent in bourgeois society. “Hence they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.”

This is an interesting analysis from the Manifesto, and it suggests since the level of class conscious antagonism to the capitalist system has, apparently, not been evenly paced to the development of capitalism, that some “utopian” thinking may still be of value with respect to “enlightenment.”

Engels took up these issues again some thirty years later, in his “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, three chapters culled out of his 1878 book Anti-Duhring and published in 1880 as a separate pamphlet.

He begins by stating that modern socialism is the result of the class struggle, the anarchy of production, and , in its theories, “ostensibly” as a continuation of the ideas of the “great French philosophers” of the Enlightenment. He especially mentions Rousseau but we can think of a few others: Condillac, Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, d’Holbach and Condorcet to name a few.

These thinkers readied the consciousness of the French people for the great Revolution that broke out on July 14, 1789. Many were themselves “extreme revolutionists.” They judged everything by Reason and “recognized no external authority.”

However, the “Reason” they spoke of turned out to be, in reality, only the ideals of the bourgeoisie. The self-conscious working class had not yet differentiated itself as an independent class. This class, not yet fully conscious of itself, instituted the Reign of Terror (led by Robespierre and St. Just). The bourgeoisie, realizing that the embryonic new class was a threat, ultimately intrusted the revolution to Napoleon.

According to Engels, this is the historical background to the systems of the three great utopians we discussed from the Manifesto. After the Terror the bourgeoisie lost confidence in Reason. It was up to the utopians to figure out how to solve the social problems presented by the new class and its obvious exploitation in a society that was premised on universal rights and freedom. Since to “crude class conditions corresponded crude theories” the solutions to the problems addressed by the utopians had to await the further advancement of capitalism and the theory which corresponded to this development—i.e., Marxism.

It would seem that, according to this presentation, the highest theoretical development of Marxism should have been found in France, England and Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century. What happened in Russia was an historical anomaly— the socialists coming to power in a crudely developed rather than an advanced capitalist state. The problems associated with what is now understood to be “Stalinism” were the result of a crude and vulgar form of Marxism having developed (with utopian ideals of toughening it out against the whole capitalist world) in an environment with a crudely evolved industrial base. This seems to fit in with Engel’s analysis. [Cf., also Sartre’s Critique of Dialectal Reason, esp. Vol !!.]

“Maoism” would have been an even cruder form of Marxism— based on the peasantry not the workers at all due to the extremely low level of capitalist development in China. Maoism, just as Stalinism, might be explained as the result of utopian schemes being concocted in societies without the advanced industrial bases to support correct Marxist positions. Pol Pot’s “Marxism” was so primitive it fell off the radar and crash landed into a barbarism which subjected his own people to the same kind of treatment the US regularly doles out to third world peoples. He butchered almost a third the number of people that the US did in Vietnam, for example. [Cf., my review of Phillip Short’s book Pol Pot.]

With the development of Marxism in Western Europe in the nineteenth century, utopianism should have come to end. Its survival within Marxism can have detrimental effects. But can the effects also be beneficial?

Herbert Marcuse, for example, in his book Soviet Marxism, maintained that even though the Soviet Union was, in some cases, not living up to its ideals, impossible given the hostility of the West and its internal problems, nevertheless it still proclaimed those ideals to its own people and to the world. They may have seemed “utopian”, given the real state of affairs, but they kept those ideals alive.

Lenin also has something to say on this issue. In 1912 he wrote, but did not publish, a brief article entitled “Two Utopias” (CW:18:355-359). He recalls a dictum by Engels: “What formally may be economically incorrect, may all the same be correct from the point of view of world history.” This dictum was made in reference to utopian socialism. “Engel’s advanced this profound thesis”, Lenin says, “in connection with utopian socialism: that socialism was ‘fallacious’ in the formal economic sense.... But utopian socialism was right from the point of view of world history, for it was a symptom, an expression, a harbinger of the class which, born of capitalism, has by now, in the beginning of the twentieth century, become a mass force which can put an end to capitalism and is irresistibly advancing to this goal.”

In Russia there were two types of utopianism in vogue in Lenin’s day (1912), namely a peasant utopianism demanding democracy and by- passing capitalism towards an equalitarian peasant based society, and a liberal capitalist utopianism demanding a constitutional monarchy and a peaceful transition from the Czarist autocracy to something like the bourgeois democracies of France or Germany.

The utopia of the liberals dampened the revolutionary fervor of the peasants as it was really a ploy to convince the Czarist ruling class to share power with the liberal bourgeoisie at the expense of the peasants.

The peasant utopia was also an impossible dream— but it was neverthe- less progressive because it was “an expression of the aspirations of the toiling millions of the petty bourgeoisie [peasants] to put an end altogether to the old, feudal exploiters....”

Lenin was of course against “utopianism” in principle but realized the difference between “good” and “bad” utopias. He thought Marxists had to discover the “valuable democratic kernel” that was at the core of the “husk” of this peasant utopia. He also thought that a similar type of utopianism was in place in many Asian countries that were set to undergo bourgeois revolutions in the twentieth century. Deconstructing these utopian revolutions is still a task for Marxists in our own time.

Lenin ended his 1912 article by reflecting on the “old Marxist literature of the[eighteen] eighties” and how it had tried to systematically analyze the peasant utopia in Russia. “Some day,” he wrote, “historians will study this effort systematically and trace its connection with what in the first decade of the twentieth century came to be called ‘Bolshevism’.”

Even more, today, in the beginning of the twentieth-first century, we will have to systematically trace the connections of utopian thinking throughout the last century in order to understand where we are today with respect to fallacious versus correct Marxist understandings of current reality.

Another thinker who tried to work out the differences between “good” and “bad” utopian thinking was the German Marxist Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). How can one tell the difference between, on the one hand, the kind of utopianism that ends up in cloud-cuckoo-land (the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s vision of peasant socialism, the nostalgia for the days of Stalin in the USSR and movements (reactionary) to bring them about again are a few of many examples), and on the other hand, that form of utopian thinking which, even if at present it seems totally unrealistic, contributes to laying the ground work for the future emancipation of the working people and the establishment of socialism?

In his book, A Philosophy for the Future (1963), Bloch (echoing Engels), says the early utopians, because of the level of social production, “had to construct the outlines of a brave new world out of their own hearts and heads.” I can agree that this is better than nothing and by holding an ideal future this kind of utopianism can motivate people to action. The bad part is, as in the examples I gave above, when the leadership of a people’s movement irresponsibly tries to skip stages when they find themselves confronted with an immature social reality. When they attempt to construct a social reality that is only possible in the advanced stages of economic development in a society at a lower level then social, political, and human mayhem results

With respect to this kind of situation, Bloch writes: “All the worse then, if a society that will no longer be reconciled in an abstract-utopian manner, but demands the way to the thing itself, errs on the way--- and errs dangerously.” I am thinking here that this is what Bloch might consider forced marches to socialism by an impatient leadership, premature collectivization of agriculture, and in general attempting to “build socialism” when your society is either still basically feudal or only barely beginning to be capitalist.

“All the worse,” he continues, “if the revolutionary capacity is not there to execute ideals which have been represented abstractly, rather than to discredit or even to destroy with catastrophic means ideals which have not appeared in the concrete.” This does not just apply to the third world cases I have used as examples. The daily struggle here in the United States could just as easily have been cited. In the foreseeable future the most important political goals that will objectively further the class struggle is to oust the ultra-right clerico-Republican reactionaries from power. Is it “utopian” to think this can be done by a broad progressive people’s alliance which also includes center and left elements of the Democratic Party? Is this an “abstract utopian ideal?”

Or should we, on the contrary, take a maximalist position to the left of where the majority consciousness is now and try to. as a magnet attracts iron filings, slowly attempt to draw the masses in our direction? Some small parties on the Left have exactly this sort of program. In the long term there may be a dialectical unity in these positions, but at the given moment it seems to me much more “utopian” in the “bad” sense to be on the side lines waiting for magnetic attraction to bring about change than it is to be in the midst of the struggles where the masses of people are actually to be found.

This, by the way, is how I interpret the position of Sam Webb the CPUSA national chairman, which he recently put forth at the Global Left Dialogue in New York City. His topic was “Imaginings of Socialism” (a fruitful ground for some utopian thinking). Webb is quite clear in rejecting a “go it alone” ultra-left stance in the fight to advance socialist values in the US. He puts the working class at the center of the struggle but it is firmly allied with what he calls other “core constituencies” and oppressed segments of the population (women, youth,ethnic and racial minorities, the poor, etc.).

There is nothing “utopian” in this idea of a broad based people’s struggle as a necessity in order to confront the power of capital. He ends his presentation, however, with an example of what I have called “good” utopianism— a vision of what the world, or at least our country, might one day be like where the skies are always blue and “pollution free”, toxic dumps have been rendered into gardens, there is no homelessness, no unemployment, no discrimination (sexual or otherwise), women will getting more of those Nobel prizes in science, there will be empty prisons, and no more war, almost too good to be true. This kind of motivational “utopianism” is in the finest traditions of the socialist movement. Bush may be running the show, or trying to, but the future belongs to the people.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can reached at

Tuesday, March 10, 2009



Thomas Riggins

This is another book from the genre of ex-Republicans who have awakened to the fact that the party they once believed in has become the tool of elite business interests and has nothing to do with real democracy. Kakutani lists three previous books by Phillips--the first one is a famous pro-Republican manifesto. The books are "The Emerging Republican Majority" (1969), and then, some thirty years later, "furious jeremiads" against the Establishment: "Wealth and Democracy" (2002) and "American Dynasty" (2004) in the last one, Kakutani says, the author portrayed the Bush family as practicing, in his own words, "blatant business cronyism" on behalf of oil and other corporate interests and allied with the military-industrial complex.

Phillips, in his new book, ranges through history describing the symptoms of imperial decline (the Romans, Hapsburgs, the British Empire, etc.,) and comes up with five conditions reflecting, in his words, "a power already at its peak and starting to decline." They are 1, "widespread public concern over cultural and economic decay" 2, "growing religious fervor" 3, "a rising commitment to faith as opposed to reason and a corollary downplaying of science" 4, "considerable popular anticipation of a millennial time frame" 5, "hubris-driven national strategic and military overreach." Kakutani writes that Phillips adds a sixth, namely, "high debt, which can become 'crippling in its own right.'"

Bush and the Republicans are spearheading a counter-Enlightenment based on "the 30 to 40 percent of the electorate caught up in Scripture." according to Phillips. Kakutani writes, "As Mr. Phillips sees it, 'the Southernization of American governance and religion' is 'abetting far-reaching ideological change and eroding the separation of powers between church and state.' while moving the Republican party toward ' a new incarnation as an ecumenical religious party, claiming loyalties from hard-shell Baptists and Mormons, as well as Eastern Rite Catholics and Hasidic Jews,' who all define themselves against the common enemy of secular liberalism."

Phillips thinks that the growing influence of religion on the state can have disastrous influences with respect to the state's continuing viability. Kakutani quotes him on the past: "militant Catholicism helped undo the Roman and Spanish empires; the Calvinist fundamentalism of the Dutch Reformed Church helped to block any 18th-century Dutch renewal; and the interplay of imperialism and evangelicalism led pre-1914 Britain into a bloodbath and global decline."

Phillips thinks something similar is happening to the U.S. today. Bush and the Republicans are responsible or egging on "U.S. oil vulnerability, excessive indebtedness and indulgence of radical religion" he writes. Kakutani seems a bit skeptical of some of Phillips arguments and conclusions. It is true that this book does not contain a Marxist analysis but from what Kakutani says about it, and the quotes given from Phillips, one can see that elements of the ruling class are worried about the extremist policies of the Bush administration.

Kakutani ends his review with some remarks about the book's "afterward" wherein the author "suggests that the G.O.P. coalition is 'fatally flawed from a national-interest standpoint' partly because it is dominated 'by an array of outsider religious denominations caught up in biblical morality, distrust of science and a global imperative of political and religious evangelicalism,' but he does not really explain why this development could lead to a Republican downfall." He then cynically concludes, "Perhaps he is saving that for his next book-- when the results of the midterm elections are known." This indicates he thinks Phillips is basically a Monday morning quarterback.