Putting an End to 'Sin'
Part 6: Freeing the Spirit
By Bob Avakian
Revolutionary Worker #988, December 27, 1998
"From whatever vantage point one looks, it is unmistakable that there is what could be called `a moral crisis in America.' There has been, to a significant degree, `a breakdown of traditional morality.' But the answer to this--at least the answer that is in the interests of the majority of people in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of humanity--is not a more aggressive assertion of that `traditional morality' but winning people to a radically different morality, in the process of and as a key part of radically transforming society and the world as a whole. It is not the tightening but the shattering of tradition's chains that is called for."
In light of the power struggle around the impeachment of Clinton, the 1996 essays by Bob Avakian on the 'crisis of morality' in U.S. society are both timely and insightful. These important esays include: "Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones: The Realtity Beneath Willian Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting An End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional, Morality (Part 2)." In the following excerpt from "Putting An End to `Sin'" he discusses communist morality.
Other selections from Avakian's essays will follow in future issues and the entire series will soon be available on our website at www.ms.net/~rwor.
In The History of God (a survey of the world's major monotheistic religions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--and their historical development), Karen Armstrong develops the familiar argument that evidence of religion can be found throughout human history, from the earliest human societies (this includes communal societies which are not marked by the division into classes and by an oppressive division of labor between women and men), and this must indicate some kind of universal religious impulse among human beings. Armstrong puts it this way: "My study of the history of religion has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus." ("Introduction," p. xix)
At the same time, Armstrong recognizes that religion has, and cannot help having, a pragmatic quality: "All religions change and develop. If they do not, they will become obsolete." (p. 84) Armstrong attempts to resolve this contradiction--that religion is supposed to represent the word of a god (or gods) that are beyond human existence and in no way dependent on human social relations and conventions, yet all religion must change and develop or become obsolete--by positing some ineffable essence of god which human religious expression can only approach but never fully embrace or understand.
But we have seen not only that, throughout history and in today's world, different social groupings, different classes, have different views of what is "natural" and what constitutes "the nature" of human beings (there being radical differences in how this is seen by slavemasters on the one hand and slaves on the other, for example) but that people with different class outlooks interpret the very same religious scriptures and doctrines in very different ways (as "evangelical Christian" Jim Wallis on the one hand and "evangelical Christian" Pat Robertson on the other hand are testament to). Beyond that, and even more fundamentally, we can turn once again to Engels who not only showed that, for the first time in history, humanity has now reached the point where the division of society into classes is completely unnecessary and is a definite hindrance to the all-around development of society and people, but also showed how religious belief, in all forms, has similarly become a hindrance to that development.
Engels spoke to how, up to this point in humanity's development, there has been a "general consensus" among peoples everywhere on the earth that supernatural forces and gods (or One God) existed, but (Engels noted) this is not proof of either the actual existence of god(s) or of some "inner need" of human beings to believe in god; rather, it is a manifestation of the fact that, until the present age, human beings and human society had not reached the point where it was possible to develop a viewpoint and methodology that provides a systematic and comprehensive scientific approach to understanding the motive forces in nature and society (and in people). But, Engels emphasized, that point has now been reached--that viewpoint and methodology has been developed, and it continues to be developed. That viewpoint and methodology is precisely Marxist communism.
Armstrong herself recognizes that only with the revolutionary developments in science and technology, and the corresponding intellectual developments, that were associated with the rise of capitalism did the emergence of a full-blown atheism become possible. She puts it this way: "Until there had formed a body of coherent reasons, each of which was based on another cluster of scientific verifications, nobody could deny the existence of a God whose religion shaped and dominated the moral, emotional, aesthetic and political life of Europe. Without this support, such a denial could only be a personal whim or a passing impulse that was unworthy of serious consideration." (p. 287) And she recognizes the necessity to pose this question: "How will the idea of God survive in the years to come? For 4000 years it has constantly adapted to meet the demands of the present, but in our own century, more and more people have found it no longer works for them, and when religious ideas cease to be effective they fade away." (p. 377) Yet Armstrong cannot embrace the vision of the future where the need, and the basis, for religion will no longer exist and where the idea of God itself, if it arose at all, could never be anything more than "a personal whim or a passing impulse...unworthy of serious consideration."
The Real Meaning of Marxist Materialism
Armstrong gives voice to the widely propagated feeling that human beings would be losing something essential, something existential, by casting aside belief in god. Another of the main criticisms (and misrepresentations) of communism is that it embodies some kind of cold mechanical approach to existence and human beings' place and role within it. This is linked to a confounding, deliberate or otherwise, of Marxist materialism with the more common meaning of materialism--the identification of "materialism" with consumerism and the drive to acquire material wealth is found in Jim Wallis's The Soul of Politics as well as in more than one Papal Encyclical and in other religious-based writings.
But Marxist materialism has a fundamentally different meaning than this--and, in fact, it is a characteristic of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois society that they are marked by the restless and relentless drive for the acquisition of more and more material wealth, at the cost of the greatest human suffering; and this accounts, to a significant degree, for the pessimistic view of "human nature" that is so widespread within societies of this kind.
It is Marxism that points the way to the creation of conditions where not only will "the love of money" no longer be a motivating factor, but money itself--and all the unequal and alienating relations between people of which money is inevitably a concentrated expression--will be abolished.
As Engels explained, the fundamental point of Marxist materialism is the relation between matter and ideas: Marxism recognizes that all existence consists of nothing but matter in motion, which can exist in an infinite variety; that matter as such has no beginning or end, but exists infinitely, although it is constantly undergoing transformation and particular kinds of matter in motion are continuously coming into and going out of existence; that the material world (or universe) is the source and the basis for verification of all ideas, and in fact that the mind itself and its thought processes are particular forms of matter in motion (chemical and electrical processes in the brain, and so on).
As applied to human society and its historical development, Marxist materialism makes clear that the underlying foundation of all human society is the coming together of people to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life, and that in order to do this people must enter into very definite relations with each other in carrying out production; that these production relations will at any time be grounded in and correspond to the level of development and character of the productive forces (the land, machinery and other instruments and means of production--the technology--and, above all, the people themselves with their knowledge and ability in carrying out production); and that the mode of production (the production relations, grounded in the productive forces) gives rise to a corresponding superstructure of politics and ideology (political institutions, cultural and intellectual expressions, etc.).
But beyond that, Marxism focuses on the fact that the productive forces are continuously being developed and revolutionized while the relations of production (and, broadly speaking, the social or class relations), in which that development takes place, tend to lag behind this development of the productive forces; and when this contradiction arrives at the point where the production relations (and their corresponding political and ideological superstructure) have come into antagonism with the development of the productive forces--when they have become more a fetter on that development than a form through which it can advance--an era of revolution breaks out.
Since class-divided society first emerged out of early communal society, this has taken place through the struggle between classes; and at every stage this has centered on the struggle between the class which represents the old production relations (and superstructure) and has become the direct obstacle to the necessary leap in the development of the productive forces, on one side, and on the other side the rising class that represents new relations of production (and a new superstructure) that can overcome that obstacle and further unleash the productive forces.
And, finally, Marxism brings to light that, through this very process and this entire history of class struggle, humanity has now reached the point where the proletariat--the class in contemporary, capitalist society whose exploitation is the foundation of capitalist accumulation--can, by rising up to overthrow the rule of capital and then moving on to uproot the foundation of capital, revolutionize society and the world, putting an end to all exploitation, oppression, and the very division of society into different and antagonistically opposed classes. As Marx himself summarized it, "What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society..." (Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852, emphasis in original).
Revolutionizing All of Society
Could there be anything more breathtakingly sweeping, more inspiring than this? Marxism rejects philosophical idealism--the notion (which assumes many different expressions) that in the relation between ideas and matter, the former, not the latter, are decisive and determining--because this philosophical viewpoint represents an inversion of the actual relationship between matter and ideas and involves a fundamental distortion and obscuring of the real motive forces in people, in society, in nature, and in the relation between them. But Marxist communism is capable of motivating people with the most lofty vision and ideals--and of leading them to bring these into realization--precisely on the basis of a true and profound, and constantly developing, understanding of things.
Communism--the real, vibrant communism of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, not the phony, lifeless "communism" of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Deng Xiaoping--does not weigh down on but gives the fullest flight to the "human spirit," to the imagination and the continual pondering of things which at any point are the source of mystery and of awe.
Communism rejects the notion that mystery and awe must be identified only with things that cannot be known or understood; that the highest expression of this mystery and awe is belief in some unknowable and ineffable essence beyond material reality; and that we should obliterate the distinction between imagination and objective reality through the pretense that the supernatural forces and beings that human beings have created in their imagination are not only real but are the ruling and controlling forces of existence.
Freeing the Spirit from Religion:
Science and Art
In the "Introduction" (p. xxi) of A History of God, Armstrong speaks to the fact that "Throughout history, men and women have experienced a dimension of the spirit that seems to transcend the mundane world. Indeed, it is an arresting characteristic of the human mind to be able to conceive concepts that go beyond it in this way." Indeed, it is. But Armstrong goes on to argue, in effect, that this "arresting characteristic" will somehow be constrained if it does not find a religious expression. She repeatedly identifies the role of religion with that of art in this regard. Religion and art, she insists, "do not work like science." (p. 306) This is true, and this is a very important distinction.
Science, unlike art and religion, has as its purpose and aim the discovery and explanation of why things are the way they are and what are the dynamics of change. Even though science must involve imagination--and the best science is impossible without considerable unleashing of the imagination--its essential objective is the transformation of the unknown into the known, of the mysterious into that which can be grasped, explained, and demonstrated. Religion and art, however, involve the presentation of things in a way that is "higher than life"--they involve not simply the exploration and representation of reality as it actually is, but typically involve extrapolations from real life to conjure up beings and events that exist only in the imagination but which people are asked to believe in, as if they really exist.
Yet, as important as it is to recognize this identity between religion and art, it is even more fundamentally important to grasp the difference between them. While much of art requires "the suspension of disbelief" --the willingness to accept that things which do not actually exist and are not actually happening are existing and happening--it requires this only in a limited and relative sense, only in relation to the work of art itself. Religion, however (including religious art), requires and demands that people do actually believe that its fantastic representations of beings, things, events, and forces really exist, when in fact they do not. Of course, certain forms and works of art (documentaries being a clear example) do attempt to portray real events and people, although here too the objective is to present this in a way that is "higher than life." In such instances, the work of art shares with religion the fact that it asks people to accept that it is portraying beings, events, etc., that really do exist; but the difference is that, while this may be true of the work of art, it is not true of the supernatural beings and forces that religion presents as not only actually existing but constituting the motive and determining forces of existence.
If religion were to present itself in the same way and with the same expectations and requirements that art typically does--if it were to allow and encourage people to have the ultimate recognition that its fantastic creations are not real--then it would no longer be harmful and a hindrance to the all-around development of humanity in the way it is now. But it would also no longer be religion. In this era of world-historic transformation and in the future to come, humanity will never be able to do without the imagination and without art; it must and will do without--and do much better without--religion.
Throughout the world-historic revolutionary process that will replace the epoch of bourgeois exploitation with that of communist emancipation, it will be necessary and important to unite all who can be united, including those who retain religious beliefs but are willing to fight together with, or give support and assistance to, the oppressed in rising up against the system that oppresses them--to unite with all those whose fundamental interests lie more with the oppressed masses and their revolutionary objectives than with the oppressors and the counterrevolutionary rule they seek to enforce. But while continually striving for such unity, and while respecting the right to religious belief and recognizing that the casting off of backward ideas must in the final analysis be the conscious and voluntary act of those who hold those ideas, it will also be necessary and decisive to struggle to establish the leading and guiding role of the one thoroughly scientific and thoroughly liberating ideology: communism.
The communist revolution and the communist world it will bring into being will give flower and give flight to art and to the imagination--to the "human spirit"--on a far broader basis and far higher level than ever before in human history, and it will remove the shackles of religion and all superstition. It will, in the words of The Internationale, "free the spirit from its cell" and allow it to soar to heights unseen, and unimagined, before. This it will do as part of the increasingly conscious and voluntary struggle of the great majority of humanity --and ultimately of humanity as a whole--to change itself and the objective world.
As I have written, in reflecting on my experience in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the lessons of "the '60s": When Mao called for combining revolutionary romanticism with revolutionary realism, in art and more generally, he was precisely rejecting mechanical materialist tendencies and speaking to the need to inspire people with the most lofty vision, and to do so in ways that unleash the imagination together with giving people a most profound understanding of reality and of the means for revolutionizing it.
Communist revolution gives the fullest dimension to the spirit expressed in the following words from "The Amazing Randi," magician and debunker of "Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions":
"Parapsychology is a farce and a delusion, along with other claims of wonders and powers that assail us everyday of our lives. Knowing what I do, and holding the opinions that I do, has not made this world any the less exciting and wonderful and challenging for me, nor should it for you. On the contrary, to know that you are an individual not put here for some mysterious reason by some supernatural means, and that you are not protected by unknown powers or beings; to know that you are a product of millions of experiments in the evolutionary process and not the result of a seed thrown on this planet by extraterrestrials--that, to me, is very exciting....
"Nonsense has reigned too long as Emperor of the Mind. Take a good look. The Emperor has no clothes!"
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)