A Protest Against Real Distress: Religion and Revolutionary Struggle

by Charley Earp on February 22, 2013

In response to Dario Cankovic’s Socialism and Religion, Redux:

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions.”

— Karl Marx, Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right

I have a love/hate relationship with religion and layers upon layers of both antipathy and affection for this complex reality. The same thing could be said for the revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary struggle is my primary allegiance; my personal happiness means very little while millions languish under the yokes of the death-systems of capitalism, sexism, racism, authoritarianism, and ecocide (to name only five of the central enemies of all beings on earth.) It seems most urgent to me today that we build alliances with all who are committed to the revolutionary struggle and that emphasizing our common ground is critical. I’m very aware that most people on the far left will disagree with my approach to religion, but it seems to me that the left really has no choice but to rethink how it will work with all potential revolutionaries, the majority of whom are religious — because the majority of humanity is religious.

Why would atheist Marxists not eagerly embrace and recruit working-class Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Neo-Pagans into their revolutionary organizations? Why would they not encourage the elaboration of Communist principles that speak directly to potential revolutionaries of all religious and irreligious traditions using language that makes the claim that, yes, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, the Goddess, and Marx are all important in the historic human struggle for emancipation? I have no hesitation in saying that Jesus was a proto-Communist. His mission in the gospels is the “liberation of the oppressed” as so richly developed in the Liberation Theology movement that was a significant force in the Nicaraguan revolution and other radical movements in the region.

Although Liberation Theology is not well-known on the left, its origins can be seen as far back as the 1524 Peasants’ War in Germany or the English radical Diggers in 1649-50. Each of these groups called for the overthrow not only of the State and institution of a radical new economy, but also appropriated the religious traditions of Christianity as ultimate support for revolution; God was on the side of the poor and oppressed, not the ruling classes.

The modern Liberation Theology movement also takes in various struggles such as the slave rebellions in the US and elsewhere, which explicitly referenced the story of Moses freeing the Hebrew slaves from Egypt as a paradigm for a Divine revolution. In Latin America in the 1960s, radical priests and even a few bishops began to protest the crushing poverty of their region in terms that identified the suffering of Jesus with the suffering of the poor. This was greeted with ambivalence by the Vatican leadership. In the US, Black Freedom Struggles were led by ministers such as Dr. King and Malcolm X, who each demanded that racism fall before Divine Judgment. James Cone of Union Seminary wrote several influential books, such as Black Theology and Black Power in 1968. This theology was a direct influence on Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor.

Does not the primary importance of praxis over theoria demand that we subordinate abstract questions such as whether God or Heaven exists to the practical mobilization of militant activists? If religion inspires many to dedicated struggle on behalf of the oppressed of the earth, why force the expression of that dedication outside of Communist organizations? I consider the hostility of atheist Marxists (and anarchists) to religion to be one of the most critical factors in the failures of the Communist movement to win world support.

I am quite convinced that miracles do not happen and that invisible intelligent beings do not interfere in the ordinary world. However, if 79% of French Catholics consider “God” to be an impersonal “force, energy, or spirit” who says that those Catholics don’t have the right to forcibly take over the Catholic Church and throw out the old supernaturalist definitions and promote their more modern interpretation of religious narratives? This has already happened within the Unitarian Universalist congregations of the world and in fact within many progressive protestant traditions. Georg Hegel himself can be credited with offering significant contributions to rethinking the meaning of the Christian tradition. Long live God(dess) as the World Spirit of Revolution!

The Pope, the creeds, and the accumulated dogmas of the ages mean very little to the average parishioner and never really did, even in the 4th century when the Nicene Creed was adopted. If one values the views of the average church-goer over the arcane and intricate proclamations of scholastic theology, then in France at least, the masses have decided that God is what they want to call what they believe, not what the church tells them to believe. In other words, the “Fathers of the Church” have already lost mass legitimacy and religion is being redefined — though not discarded — in favor of creative re-imagining by the majority of believers. My point should be easily understood by Communists who struggle on behalf of the oppressed; religion and its fundamental aspects rightly belongs to the masses, not hierarchal elites who prevent the people from having any voice in the matter!

In fact, there has been throughout the history of Christianity, and all other religious traditions, a continual struggle from below against dogmatic ideologues of privilege who insist that only their view of religion can prevail.

Charley Earp is a Quaker Communist living in Chicago. He is currently the acting Chair of the Socialist Party USA’s Commission on Religion and Ethics. His father was a Pentecostal preacher.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Shane H February 22, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Well said.

I left Catholicism at the age of 13 and never looked back but I don’t understand the hostility to religion. Of course there’s plenty to criticise about it – and most believers could do a better job of doing that.

To me its a case of ‘be their fruits you shall know them’ and as a Marxist I assess people by their practice not by their theories. There are plenty of instances in which Christians were comrades were on the right side of the struggle for justice (whatever their beliefs may have been) and conversely times when Marxists stood against the movement for justice (or killed in the name of some ‘higher end’.

I don’t understand why Catholic women want to be ordained by a Church as patriarchal and out of touch as the Catholic one but I know which side of their fight I am on. Its not my struggle but more power to them. I’m not sure why Gays are so keen on marriage equality but I know which side I am on in their struggle.

On a more theoretical level I thought the aim of dialectical thinking was to transcend or supersede these kinds of binaries. We are all fighting for a better world – what happens after we die? Whether there’s a god well we can settle that after the revolution. Serious Christians and other religious thinkers have spent a lot of time thinking about these questions in the way Marxists have so perhaps we might even learn something from them. Certainly more than from the current crop of ‘new atheists’ whose thinking hasn’t evolved beyond social Darwinism. Dawkins et al need to be challenged on that – atheist or not – and we need to link up with Islamic liberation theology and well as other Muslims in struggle against the reactionaries in their own ranks as well as the imperialists on our side of the struggle.

For Marxists ideas results from social forces – and so they recur while the forces of oppression and exploitation exist – then people will struggle against them and they will use the ideas they have to hand in a weapon in that struggle – historically and geographically that has meant religious ideas are the form that the struggle takes. Marxists need to recognise how to support others who are fighting those same reactionary forces in contexts where we might not choose to struggle rather than demanding everyone get with their atheist program.

In the meantime we fight and learn together in the fight for a better world.



Richard Estes February 22, 2013 at 11:06 pm

Progressive religious people are much more promising allies than atheists like Dawkins. His social darwinism is an integral part of his worldview. He is no more likely to evolve away from it than Marxists are likely to repudiate class analysis and dialectical thinking.


Steven Davison February 23, 2013 at 11:58 am

Charley, what do you mean by “miracles’?


Charley Earp February 23, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Violations of natural laws.


Danny February 24, 2013 at 12:24 am

Well said! I agree.


Daniel Ibn Zayd March 10, 2013 at 12:53 am

The secular distance from the street reflects a certain bourgeois luxury of distance that allows some on the left to remove themselves from religion without considering that not everyone has this ability. This then turns around and becomes oppressive when demanded of those who feel attached to their faith. Some more references would of course include Gustavo Gutierrez in South America and the activist priesthood in Hispanic/Chicano California, as well as Ali Shari’ati from Iran. A great history of this in terms of Islam can be found in Hamid Dabashi’s Islamic Liberation Theology. Peace.


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