Religion and revolution: Robespierre’s cult of the Supreme Being

A response to
Harrison Fluss

Originally published by the
Communist League Tampa

In a recent article written for Jacobin, Harrison Fluss revisits the civic religion of the Supreme Being enshrined by Maximilien Robespierre 18 Floréal Year II of the Republic (7 May 1794). Tracing its conceptual origins back to the philosophical discourses of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, somewhat less plausibly, the metaphysical system of Baruch Spinoza, the author argues this bygone historical moment still has much to teach the present. He suggests that Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre “provide a solution for the kind of relationship between church and state needed not only for an emancipatory movement, but for the emancipated society of the future.”

Several things are already implied by this statement. First, religious institutions — i.e., the church — will by no means be done away with in the future society Fluss envisions. No less scandalously, at least from a Marxist perspective, secular institutions — i.e., the state — will also continue to exist. Both conclusions flow from the assertion that a relationship between church and state will always be necessary, since both must still be around in order for them to relate. Even after the material conditions which necessitate spiritual and temporal power have been superseded, in other words, Fluss seems to believe they will persist in every time and in every clime. Religio perennis lurks behind all the superficial changes in mythology over the centuries, expressing an immutable desire. Likewise the need for a repressive apparatus, the administrative machinery of government, never fully fades.

Whether or not this is actually the case, others have often held quite the opposite view of humanity’s prospects moving forward through history. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for example, scolded their Hegelian colleague, Georg Daumer, for promoting a new pantheistic creed. “It is clear that with every great historical upheaval of social conditions the outlooks and ideas of men, and consequently their religious ideas, are revolutionized,” they wrote in their joint review of Daumer’s 1850 book Die Religion des Neuen Weltalters. “The difference between the present upheaval and all previous ones consists in the fact that man has at last figured out the secret of this process of historical upheaval and hence, instead of once again exalting this [process] in the rapturous form of a new religion, divests himself of all religion.” Decades later, Engels famously maintained that the proletariat, in the course of its transition to socialism, eventually “abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes the state as state.” After a certain point, the state simply dies off or withers away [stirbt ab].

For Marx and Engels, then, a society in which the state endures — much less the church — cannot be called emancipated.

религия-яд береги ребят

Perhaps this is too literal, though, reading too much into too little. Here is not the place for biblical exegesis, at any rate, searching for answers in “sacred” texts. Besides, by focusing on abstruse theoretical matters like the withering away [Absterben] of church and state, one avoids the eminently practical issue Fluss was trying to address. Over and above such heady speculations, then, the historical analogy he offers in his article may be scrutinized to see if it is apt. Can Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being truly serve as a model for resolving the antinomy of church and state today? Continue reading

Remembering revisionism: The reform vs. revolution debate in Second International Marxism

The so-called “revisionism” debate represented the greatest trial of Second International Marxism prior to its crisis in August 1914 and subsequent collapse. Its result was probably the most important theoretical outcome of the period, whatever practical disagreements remained hidden beneath the unified doctrine of Marxian orthodoxy (only to be exposed later on). Eduard Bernstein, the executor of Engels’ estate and a longtime exponent of the theories of Marx, had come to have doubts about the revolutionary predictions made by his recently departed mentors from the 1840s up through the 1860s. From about the middle of the 1890s to the turn of the century, Bernstein would wage a fierce polemic against those aspects of Marxist theory he considered falsified or outdated. Namely, the idea of a violent revolution leading to the seizure of state power, which he felt was founded on the residual idealism inherited by Marx and Engels via the Hegelian dialectic.

Several texts are helpful in understanding the origins, development, and consequences of the revisionist controversy. A great deal of it centered on the famous question: “Reform or revolution?” (I’ve already expressed my opinion of this dichotomy, along with a third term of “resistance,” in the past). But other issues were necessarily drawn into it as well, such as the notion of the progressive immiseration or pauperization of the masses culminating in a breakdown or collapse [Zusammenbruch], as well as problems of Marxist methodology mentioned above. The most comprehensive survey of this struggle within the party, by far, is the collection edited by H. and J.M. Tudor. Preconditions of Socialism by Bernstein, which condensed and systematized his arguments over the two preceding years, is also a crucial work. Last but not least, when it comes to primary documents, there is Rosa Luxemburg’s outstanding Reform or Revolution? (1898). What is to be Done?, Lenin’s well-known diatribe against the economists, can be seen — and indeed was seen by Lenin himself — as an echo of the revisionism debate in the Russian context.

You can download these three primary sources, translated into English, by clicking below:

Secondary sources are always helpful, too, so here are some that might aid readers in their effort to understand the significance of this dispute. Here are some good ones:

Below you will find a remarkable essay by the Italian Marxist Lucio Colletti on “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International.” Frankly, it surprised me, given Colletti’s reputation as a staunch anti-Hegelian. Readers of this blog will know that I am above all sympathetic to the Hegelian Marxist reading that emerged around Lenin right before the war and continued by Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch after the war. In this essay, Colletti is deeply critical of his former master Galvano Della Volpe, and finds himself in agreement with many things Lukács wrote during the 1920s and Korsch wrote during the 1930s (I find Korsch had already declined by this point, but he still had the occasional insight). Colletti also makes use of an Hegelian metaphor in explaining the way labor-time “congeals” in Marx’s account of the commodity. He discusses, moreover, the writings of Luxemburg and Preobrazhenskii — left-wingers within the Second and Third Internationals, respectively. Moishe Postone even considers Colletti’s insights in this essay quite valuable: “Like Isaak Rubin, Colletti maintains that what has rarely been understood is that Marx’s theory of value is identical to his theory of the fetish. What must be explained is why the product of labor assumes the form of the commodity and why, therefore, human labor appears as a value of things…Colletti’s argument parallels some aspects of that developed in this work, [although] his critique remains one of the mode of distribution.” The argument Colletti builds on the basis of abstract labor and its relation to fetishism and the value-form helps to explain the revisionism debate very well.

A couple words about the aftermath of the revisionism debate, specifically with regard to the way many matters were left unsettled. Karl Korsch explained admirably in Marxism and Philosophy how its apparent resolution in favor of revolutionism masked deeper divisions which persisted up to World War I:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the long period of purely evolutionary development of capitalism came to an end, and a new epoch of revolutionary struggle began. Because of this change in the practical conditions of class struggle, there were increasing signs that Marxist theory had entered a critical phase. It became obvious that the extraordinarily banal and rudimentary vulgar Marxism of the epigones had an extremely inadequate awareness of even the totality of its own problems, let alone any definite positions on a whole range of questions outside them. The crisis of Marxist theory showed itself most clearly in the problem of the attitude of social revolution towards the State. This major issue had never been seriously posed in practice since the defeat of the first proletarian revolutionary movement in 1848, and the repression of the revolt of the Commune of 1871. It was put concretely on the agenda once again by the World War, the first and second Russian Revolutions of 1917, and the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918. It now became clear that there was no unanimity whatever within the camp of Marxism on such major issues of transition and goal as the “seizure of State power by the proletariat,” the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the final “withering away of the State” in communist society. On the contrary, no sooner were all these questions posed in a concrete and unavoidable manner, than there emerged at least three different theoretical positions on them, all of which claimed to be Marxist. Yet in the prewar period, the most prominent representatives of these three tendencies — respectively Renner, Kautsky, and Lenin — had not only been regarded as Marxists but as orthodox Marxists. For some decades there had been an apparent crisis in the camp of the Social Democrat parties and trade unions of the Second International; this took the shape of a conflict between orthodox Marxism and revisionism. But with the emergence of different socialist tendencies over these new questions, it became clear that this apparent crisis was only a provisional and illusory version of a much deeper rift that ran through the orthodox Marxist front itself. On one side of this rift, there appeared Marxist neo-reformism which soon more or less amalgamated with the earlier revisionism. On the other side, the theoretical representatives of a new revolutionary proletarian party unleashed a struggle against both the old reformism of the revisionists and the new reformism of the “center,” under the battle-cry of restoring pure or revolutionary Marxism. This crisis erupted within the Marxist camp at the outbreak of the World War.

Of course, there had been developments in the meantime — especially after 1909 — that should have been recognized internationally and acted upon (at the very least) nationally. Lukács explained in an article I posted previously the rapprochement between Kautsky and Bernstein around 1910. Even Lenin was unaware of the depths to which the German party had sunk. Trotsky recalled: “Rosa Luxemburg did not pose the question of the struggle against centrism with the requisite completeness. Lenin’s position was entirely superior in this respect. But between October 1916, when Lenin wrote about the Junius pamphlet, and 1903, when Bolshevism had its inception, there is a lapse of thirteen years; in the course of the major part of this period Rosa  was to be found in opposition to the Kautsky and Bebel Central Committee, and her fight against the formalistic, pedantic, and rotten-at-the-core ‘radicalism’ of Kautsky took on an ever increasingly sharp character. Up until 1914, Lenin did not participate in this fight and did not support Luxemburg. Passionately absorbed in Russian affairs, he preserved extreme caution in international matters. In Lenin’s eyes Bebel and Kautsky stood immeasurably higher as revolutionists than in the eyes of Luxemburg, who observed them at closer range, in action, and who was much more directly subjected to the atmosphere of German politics.”

Nevertheless, despite the inadequacies of the revisionism controversy in this connection, its official revolutionary policy remains an important legacy. Of course, in the absence of a mass movement, the existence of which Luxemburg, Kautsky, and Bernstein took more or less for granted, the question “reform or revolution?” is purely hypothetical today. Reform is unlikely to come about without at least the plausible threat of revolutionary upheaval. Bourgeois parties like the Democrats in the US can barely tolerate a soft Social Democrat like Sanders running in its primary. My earnest hope is that these questions will become less abstract given time, with the increase of an independent proletarian movement in the core capitalist countries.

Erinnerungskarte mit den Mitgliedern der sozialdemokratischen Reichstagsfraktion, 1890

Bernstein and the Marxism
of the Second International

Lucio Colletti
Ideology and

Engels’ “political testament”

In the introduction he wrote for the first reprinting of The Class Struggles in France, in March 1895 — only a few months before his death — Engels observes that the chief error made by Marx and himself at the time of the 1848 revolution was that they had treated the European situation as ripe for socialist transformation:

History has proved us, and all those who thought like us, wrong. It has made clear that the state of economic development on the continent at that time was not by a long way ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution, which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the continent… and has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank.1

According to Engels, this error of judgment concerning the real level of capitalist development in 1848 was to a considerable extent matched by a mistaken political conception that he and Marx had derived from preceding revolutionary experience, and particularly that of France: the idea of revolution as the action of a minority. “It was… natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and course of the “social” revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, should be strongly colored by memories of the prototypes of 1789 and 1830.” While “all revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of one definite class rule by another,” “all ruling classes up to now have been only small minorities in relation to the ruled mass of the people”; hence, “the common form of all these revolutions was that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority took part, it did so — whether wittingly or not — only in the service of the minority; but because of this, or simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole people.”

The undue extension of this character of preceding revolutions to “the struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation” had now been sharply contradicted by history. History “has done even more: it has not merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion.”

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Althusser’s reading of Marx in the eyes of three of his contemporaries: George Lichtheim, Alain Badiou, and Henri Lefebvre

It has been fifty years since the publication of Louis Althusser’s influential collaboration with his students, Reading Capital. Verso has already announced that it will be publishing, for the first time, a complete English translation of the French original. For forty years, the abridged rendering by Ben Brewster has been available. But this version contains only the portions written by Althusser and Étienne Balibar, and omits the contributions of Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet, and Jacques Rancière (though Brewster did translate Rancière’s essay on value in another publication). The new edition of Reading Capital will compile all of these sections.

Commemorating this anniversary, the new Marxist theory journal Crisis & Critique has moreover dedicated an entire issue to providing a retrospective evaluation of the book. Many celebrated theorists of the past few decades are featured here: Adrian Johnston, Jacques Bidet, and Vittorio Morfino. Establet wrote a rare reflection on his former master, and the literary critic Macherey granted an interview to the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza. Panagiotis Sotiris has an article on Althusserianism and value-form theory, a subject that interests me greatly despite my obvious preference for the New Marx Reading of Helmut Reichelt, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Werner Bonefeld, Michael Heinrich, and Ingo Elbe. You can download Crisis & Critique, 2.2: Reading Capital, 50 Years Later by clicking on the link.

When Reading Capital came out in 1965, it had an immediate incendiary effect. Numerous polemics were written against it, from practically every corner of the Marxist theoretical universe. Lucien Sève and Roger Garaudy, both prominent members of the PCF, attacked it from a more or less “orthodox” angle. Henri Lefebvre, Lucien Goldmann, and Jean-Paul Sartre approached it from a perspective more independent of the official party. Soon even Rancière would turn on his former master, in his vitriolic work Althusser’s Lesson (1974), which reflected his conversion to a more militant strain of Maoism. In Britain, where the abridged translation mentioned above appeared in the early 1970s, the book elicited some initial excitement, especially in the New Left Review crowd. E.P. Thompson eventually came out against it, however, throwing down the gauntlet in his The Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors.

Below you will find three more immediate reactions to the Althusserian reading of Marx. George Lichtheim’s generally unfavorable overview appeared in January 1969. Alain Badiou published his much longer, generally favorable review of Reading Capital in May 1967. Finally, an extract from Lefebvre’s 1971 book on structuralism, later condensed into a critique of The Ideology of Structuralism in 1975, is included as well. Of the three, I am most disposed to Lichtheim’s appraisal. It can be a bit dismissive and its tone is rancorous, but still it gives a good summary of the major weaknesses of Althusserianism. An incisive public intellectual and gifted scholar of the Frankfurt School, as well as of Marxism and socialism as a whole, Lichtheim in another essay on “Dialectical Methodology” heaped scorn upon “the quasi-Marxism of Louis Althusser, for whom a genuinely scientific theory of society remains to be worked out after the unfortunate Hegelian heritage has been shed.” He continued:

Anyone who imagines that [Althusser’s] standpoint is compatible with Marx’s own interpretation of historical materialism is advised to read Alfred Schmidt’s essay “Der strukturalistische Angriff auf die Geschichte” in Beiträge zur marxistischen Erkenntnistheorie (which ought to be translated for the benefit of British and American students of the subject who in their enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss may have missed Sartre’s and Lefebvre’s devastating attacks on Althusser and his school). What we have here is a discussion whose significance far transcends the silly dispute between Western empiricists and Soviet Marxists: a quarrel which has now gone on long enough and should be quietly terminated before the audience dies of fatigue.

Lefebvre, whose early rejoinders against Althusser are cited approvingly by Lichtheim, evidently agreed a few years later when he wrote that “the elimination of Marxism goes hand in hand with the elimination of the dialectic.” This is unsurprising considering Lefebvre had been, along with the translator Norbert Gutermann and the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among the first French Marxists to read the Hegelian Marxist texts of Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács. Nowadays Lefebvre is mostly known for his writings on space and everyday life, while his earlier work on mystification, false consciousness, Romanticism, and dialectic are not as familiar.

I’ve included Badiou’s review here in order to offer a more balanced range of interpretations. Badiou was broadly sympathetic to Althusser’s project, despite having been a student of Sartre in the early 1960s. He rejected the Hegelian Marxist notion of “totality” as metaphysical and confounding, and went even further than Althusser in rejecting terminology like “contradiction” as an unscientific, vestigial holdover of idealism. Evidently, Badiou welcomed Reading Capital as an opportunity for the renewal of Marxist theory, now disburdened of its embarrassing nineteenth-century inheritance.

Anyway, I hope this selection of pieces reacting to Althusser’s For Marx and Reading Capital will grant some sense of the early reception of this work. Lichtheim is especially worth checking out, in my view, as his fate is almost directly the reverse of someone like Badiou’s. Whereas Badiou made some slight waves in the 1960s and 1970s, fading into obscurity in the 1980s and 1990s before enjoying a massive renaissance during the 2000s, Lichtheim’s erudite historical and critical studies of the development of Marxism, socialism, European history, geopolitical conflicts, and philosophy were well known during his lifetime but have since faded into obscurity. Following his suicide in 1973, a series of conferences honored the memory of Lichtheim, the German-born son of Zionists who came to distance himself from liberalism, official Marxism, and Israeli nationalism. Yet today, very little remains of this legacy. Some of his books can be downloaded here:

  1. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study
  2. From Marx to Hegel
  3. Imperialism
  4. Europe in the Twentieth Century
  5. “The Concept of Ideology”

My own estimation of Althusser is not very high. Though it is a seductive method, reading for “symptomatic silences” and filling in the blanks, even applying Marx’s own approach in reading Smith to subsequent readings of Marx, Althusser resorted to this mostly for want of textual support for his claims. His attempt to read structuralist motifs back into Marx’s work was fundamentally misguided. Plus, he made far too much use of metaphors of production: “production of knowledge,” “production of discourse,” etc. Nevertheless, Althusser represents one of the most serious challenges to the Hegelian reading of Marx to date. I will readily defend this seriousness against what I think are unfair or reductive critiques, as in my response to Anne Boyer’s review of the most recent translation of unpublished notebooks by Althusser, “Biography is Destiny.”

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MEGA [Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe] on MEGA

Back in the 1920s, the Russian revolutionary and Marxist scholar David Riazanov began to compile a new, more complete edition of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. He was, unfortunately, purged during the 1930s for supposed involvement in an anti-Soviet conspiracy. Riazanov was thus unable to see this project through to the end. Nevertheless, he set the wheels in motion for future Marxologists and exegetes like Maximilien Rubel, Roman Rosdolski, and Michael Heinrich. Work on the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [MEGA] continues today.

Anyway, I recently happened across a trove of full-text PDFs of the MEGA stored on the New Zealand cloud service known as MEGA, appropriately enough. You can download the files as a .zip file by clicking here. Quietly amused that this arrived to me indirectly via a certain oversharing Francophile lefty editor type. Makes me wonder what all his posturing over “pirate scab PDFs” was really about.


Speaking of which, Budgen — Lars Ulrich of the online left — is apparently upset with me yet again. Class act that he is, Sebastian associated me with the disgusting rape advocate Roosh V. (an antisemitic conspiracy theorist and extreme misogynist) and the disgusting pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shrkeli (who jacked up the price of vital medicines once he’d secured exclusive rights over the drugs). If anyone resembles a douchebag who sells stuff he didn’t develop himself for obscenely inflated prices while monopolizing said product… you would think it was Budgen. Especially considering the company he keeps: people who make fun of others with physical deformities or who have a darker complexion on account of their ethnic background. Roosh V. and Simon Weston are reactionaries, to be sure, but that should hardly be seen as giving one license to make racist or ableist comments about them. Continue reading