Religion and modern socialism
The universal human quest for the true and the right
The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all emerged in the Middle East. Different from the religions of China and India (Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism), they formulated a concept of a God who acts in history in defense of the poor and the oppressed. But the Judeo-Christian-Islamic vision of social justice would become corrupted by the integration of religious institutions with structures of political power and empires. They therefore would play a pivotal role in modern European colonialism and imperialism as well as in the anti-imperialist struggles of the colonized.
There has been a tendency in the Western Left to be opposed to and dismissive of religious beliefs, because of the historic role of religion in support of conquest and imperialism. However, there is emerging today in leftist currents of thought an increasing appreciation of the possibilities for religious institutions to participate in human struggles for liberation, based on the concept of a God who acts in human history in defense of the poor and the oppressed. Socialist movements today ought to understand and appreciate said possibility, in order to develop politically effective strategies, in other words, in order to connect to the religious sentiments of the peoples in their nations.
The Judeo-Christian-Islamic double identity: Empire and social justice
In the earliest sacred texts of Ancient Israel, we find a concept of a God who acts in history to liberate the people from oppression and to defend justice for the oppressed. Moreover, the sacred texts report that God called upon the people of Israel to develop a just society, standing in contrast to other nations. Israel should not aspire to be a great nation ruled by a powerful monarch, but a just people.
However, as time passed, Israel became a kingdom like other nations, a tendency that especially expressed itself in the time of David. Some prophets denounced the turn from the Mosaic covenant, denouncing economic injustices as well as the luxury in which kings lived while people were living in poverty. They condemned the widespread lust for economic power; and they declared economic inequality and social injustice to be sins. They defended poor farmers who suffered at the hands of powerful landlords. They called for a change in lifestyle and for social justice. And they proclaimed that history is not governed by powerful empires but by God.
Amos stood out among the prophets as a voice condemning the social injustices of his day. He decried corrupt public officials that reveled in luxury, wealthy merchants that trampled on the poor and the defenseless, and laws that served the interests of the commercial class. He prophesied that if the people do not change their lifestyle and return to faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant, God, acting in the arena of history, would unleash terrible events upon them, including the destruction of Kingdom of Israel, a prophecy that came to pass in those ancient times.
But other prophets, like Isaiah, justified and legitimated the turn from a community seeking social justice to a kingdom like others. Thus, a duality emerged between a religion accommodated to kingdoms and empires, and a purer religion that stood for social justice.
The double identity of empire and social justice continued in Christianity, a distinct religious community formed by the disciples of the Prophet Jesus of Nazareth. The tendency toward empire was stronger in Christianity, because Jesus preached in a time when the tendency to empire had been consolidated, and because the historical record of his teachings is incomplete. Thus, the popes of the European Middle Ages were allied with kings. But the tendency toward the creation of an alternative more just society remained alive, as some priests and nuns established and developed religious orders, seeking religious purity. The double identity expressed itself in Latin America, where the Church was allied with the Latin American estate bourgeoisie, but Latin American liberation theology proclaimed a God who, in the struggle between the rich and the poor, is on the side of the poor
In the Islamic tradition, a similar duality has prevailed. According to Tamim Ansary (Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes), the initial Islamic community formed by the prophet Mohammad was a political-religious community that possessed a social project involving the construction of a righteous community. But Muslims lost their initial purity, and empires emerged with corrupt rulers who lived lavishly and oppressed the people, thus provoking movements for a restoration of Islamic purity. The restoration movements often possessed reactionary manifestations, such as literal interpretation of sacred texts, or rejection of inquiries based on reason (rather than divine revelation). But movements for Islamic renewal sometimes had social revolutionary expression, as was reflected in “Islamic socialism” and in Islamic alliances with the international communist movement.
According to Ayatollah Misbah Iazdi (Enseñanza de la Doctrina Islámica), God selects prophets to transmit messages that convoke humanity to the fulfillment of its destiny of justice and equality, but with complete freedom to decide between justice and sin. These divinely ordained prophets called upon the tyrants to abandon oppression and corruption. However, the prophets confronted opposition from the people, especially the bosses and the rich who were intoxicated with luxury and worldly pleasures. The prophets confronted the egoism and arrogance of those who sought to protect their economic and social positions, such as the rich, the governors, and the educated class.
Because of ignorance, most people do not believe the prophets, Iazdi writes. They tend to fatalistically resign themselves to tyrannical domination. However, the correct road to human happiness can be found, through human reasoning and through listening to the Divine Word, revealed through the prophets. Voluntary compliance with the ethical principles of the Word of God is the road toward human freedom and fulfillment
In a similar vein, Ya‘far Subhani, in La Doctrina del Islam Shi’ah, writes that moral principles, such as the prohibition of domination over other human beings, are unchanging and eternal. And moral principles have long-term implications. A society, Subhani maintains, that constitutes its social relations on a basis of justice attains a good and stable life.
Ayatollah Iazdi distinguishes between divine and materialist worldviews. A divine worldview is based in the belief in a Wise and Omnipotent Creator, in contrast to a materialist world view that denies the existence of God, or at least considers the existence of God to be unimportant for human understanding.
Iazdi maintains that a divine worldview has been proclaimed since the human species first appeared, with the first man and the first Prophet of God, Adam, proclaiming monotheism and adoration of the One God. Throughout human history, societies have been guided by a divine worldview, although often with polytheistic beliefs, which Iazdi views as erroneous deviations that did not grasp the unity of God. The prophets of God, from Adam to Mohammad, preached against polytheism, and called the people to belief in the one God, Creator of the universe, who calls the people to the best and correct road known through Revelation.
Therefore, although with erroneous deviations, human societies since ancient times were guided by a divine worldview and a belief in a Creator. There have always been some individuals or groups who denied the existence of God, but this view was not extended through the society.
However, in Europe during the eighteenth century, a materialist worldview emerged as a generalized belief. Iazdi maintains that materialism emerged as a reaction against the Catholic Church and Western Christianity, including corrupt officials and policies of the Church. And there were other factors contributing to the emergence of the fundamentally erroneous materialist worldview, including insufficient understanding rooted in the lack of education and erroneous reasoning, expressed in the form of superstitions, doubts concerning catastrophes and tragedies, and the mistaken notion that scientific theories are opposed to religious beliefs.
The materialist worldview was exported to other regions of the world, together with the industry and technology of the West. Iazdi maintains that “the phenomenon of the expansion of materialism is the greatest tragedy of humanity,” because the materialist worldview provided the foundation for a false liberation from responsibility and moral limitations, thereby enabling religious and political ideologies that justified an economic development unconstrained by consideration of social and economic consequences, and that legitimated a form of conquest that dismissed the humanity of the conquered, implemented on a global scale.
The Third World synthesis of materialist and spiritual worldviews
The modern Western materialist worldview, the European conquest of the world, and the development of the modern world-system and the capitalist world-economy occurred in stages from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. A rising merchant class allied with monarchs had forged centralized nation-states in Western Europe by the fifteenth century, reducing the power of feudal lords. And a new form of scientific investigation, marginalizing theological considerations, had begun to emerge, which had a natural ally in the emerging bourgeoisie.
The European conquest of the world was launched with the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of most of the Americas, driven by an unconstrained pursuit of money and power. A corrupt Christian Church was unable to constrain the lust for gold, and it was an accomplice to the genocidal conquest of the indigenous peoples. The gold and silver acquired through conquest and forced labor was used to purchase manufactured goods from Northwestern Europe, thus promoting the modernization of agriculture and the expansion of industry in that region.
From the period 1750 to 1914, the project of European domination entered a new phase, with the conquest of vast regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, led by increasingly dynamic British and French imperialisms. With new territories, natural resources, forced labor and markets at their disposal, the European powers experienced the modernization of their industries and a great expansion in their economies. North America participated in the expansion through English and French settler societies. Science was enlisted in support of the cause, and supposedly scientific theories of racial inferiority were created as justifications for the exclusion of the conquered peoples from the universal human rights that the Western democratic revolutions had proclaimed.
The religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam could do little more than adapt to the unfolding project of European modernization and conquest and the establishment of a European-centered capitalist world-economy and a modern world-system under European (and increasingly U.S.) direction. But they adapted in different ways. Christianity, which fractured into different denominations during the process, was an outright accomplice in the project of conquest and domination of the world. Judaism, with far smaller numbers, found a niche as a “middleman minority,” functioning as commercial intermediaries between classes and nations. Islam found itself among the conquered and colonized, inasmuch as virtually all of Islamic lands were claimed by the European imperialist powers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The adaptation of Islam to the reality of the colonial situation took two forms. The first was accommodation to the colonial powers, in which Islamic political establishments played a supportive, subordinate role in Western imperialism, with appropriate material rewards. The second was a retreat to the past, an inward escapist turn, which tended to result in personal piety and/or literal interpretations of the Koran, implying a disengagement from the political dynamics of the colonial situation.
In the non-Islamic colonial situation, similar dynamics occurred, with the two tendencies of materially rewarded accommodation and escape to the past. The retreat to the past could take the form of emphasis on pre-conquest identities and political structures, and/or a return to popular superstitions.
During the course of the twentieth century, a third way appeared and became dominant in the Third World, a third way that rejected both accommodation and retreat to the past, but yet appropriated elements from both; a third way that implied a political reengagement of the colonial situation, but on different terms. Namely, the Third World project of national and social liberation, which expressed itself in a first stage from 1948 to 1979, and subsequently in a stage of renewal, from 1994 to the present.
The Third World project of national and social liberation for the most part accepts certain dimensions of the colonial situation: the political boundaries drawn by the colonial powers; the modern structures of political administration imposed by the colonial powers (in cases in which they had not been previously developed by Islam); the modern concept of democracy, and its notion of the equal civil rights of citizens; and an international world order based in the sovereign equality of nations and trade among nations. And the Third World project sees as desirable many of the advances of modern Western science and their implications for technological development.
At the same time, the Third World project appropriates from Marxist materialism, thus constituting a Third World critique of the European colonialist project. This appropriation is not imitation. The Third World project has developed a form of Marxism-Leninism that is based in reflection on the collective experience of the colonized nations and peoples. Accordingly, the Third World project maintains that human rights are economic and social as well as political and civil; that the most important human right is the right of nations to promote their economic and social development, without interference and interventions from global powers; that political structures must be designed to guarantee the continuous control by the people over the political process, and constraining the power of the elite and/or international corporations; that nations have the right to control over their national resources, and to this end, they have right to nationalize private properties, foreign and domestic; that states have the responsibility to direct their economies in accordance with goals that they have decided as sovereign states, without interference from foreign powers; and that trade must be mutually beneficial to the trading partners, and not imposed by the more powerful nations on the weaker states.
The Third World has expressed these concepts and principles formally, in declarations by heads of Third World governments. The process began in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, when representatives of twenty-nine newly independent Asian and African nations met. Sukarno of Indonesia, Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, Zhou En-lai of China and U Nu of Burma were among its leading participants. In 1961, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, representatives of twenty-three governments of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe created the Non-Aligned Movement. In 1964, seventy-seven nations of the Third World formed the Group of 77 (G-77), an organization that functions as a bloc within the United Nations; and in 1974, the UN General Assembly approved a document on a New International Economic Order, which was supported by the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-77 and the socialist nations, and which affirmed the principles of the right of self-determination of nations and the sovereignty of nations over their natural resources.
The Third World project was derailed in the 1980s by the turn of imperialism to neoliberalism. But the Non-Aligned Movement recovered in classic voice in the twenty-first century. The return was clear by 2006, when Cuba assumed the presidency of the movement for a second time. The Non-Aligned Movement’s 2006 Declaration of Havana, endorsed unanimously by the 118 member nations, called for a “more just and equal world order,” and it lamented “the excessive influence of the rich and powerful nations in the determination of the nature and the direction of international relations.” It rejected the neoliberal project as promoting global inequality and “increasing the marginalization of countries in development.” It affirmed the principles of the UN Charter, including the equality and sovereignty of nations, the non-intervention in the affairs of other states, and “the free determination of the peoples in their struggle against foreign intervention.” It proclaimed that “each country has the sovereign right to determine its own priorities and strategies for development.” It called for the strengthening and democratic reform of the United Nations, and it proposed South-South cooperation as a complement to North-South cooperation. It rejected the politicization of the issue of human rights, and the double standard used by the global powers, as a pretext for intervening in the affairs of nations of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Since 2006, the Non-Aligned Movement has maintained its rejection of the established world order, consistent with its founding principles formulated in Bandung in 1955 and Belgrade in 1961. This most recent period has included the presidencies of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
The most advanced expression of the Third World project of national and social liberation is found in the Third World nations plus China that are constructing socialism. In my August 10, 2021, commentary, “The possible transition to a socialist world-system,” I describe the characteristics of socialism today, based on observations of the countries that are constructing socialism today, namely, China, Vietnam, PDRK, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
The nations that are constructing socialism today have endeavored to develop alternative political structures, alternatives to the structures of representative democracy, which place political power in the hands of the people. In addition, the countries that are constructing socialism believe that the state has an active role to play in the economy, in directing the economy in accordance with the need of the nation for economic and social development and the economic and social rights of the people, including quality education linked to meaningful employment, health care without cost, comfortable housing, and healthy nutrition.
Moreover, the nations that are constructing socialism are seeking to participate with other nations, regardless of their ideological orientation, in the development of mutually beneficial trade among nations. They hope to construct, step-by-step, an alternative world order based on cooperation among nations, as the best guarantor of world peace and prosperity.
Here we ought to appreciate that the Third World project and Third World socialism are rooted in and appropriate from the traditional religious worldview of their peoples. They are constructing their projects on a foundation of moral principles, some of which pertain to persons, such as the right of all persons to education and health care; and some of which pertain to nations, such as the right of nations to sovereignty, without interference in their internal affairs, and the right to engage in mutually beneficial trade with other nations. They take such principles to be eternal and universal principles that ought to guide humanity, necessary for the attainment of world peace and stability. It is not a question of defending their particular interests in a world of competing powers; it is a question of defending the common heritage of humanity, of defending the epistemological and moral foundation for world peace and prosperity. It is not, for them, a question of expressing subjectivity, but of seeing reality accurately and believing in the future of humanity.
Perhaps it would be reasonable to conclude that the Third World socialist projects, the most advanced expression of the Third World project of national and social liberation, are implementing in practice the social justice vision of Islam, the latest and most advanced expression of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.
The Abrahamic religions and socialism today complement and strengthen each other. The religious worldview of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, based in belief in a God who created the universe and who acts in human history, provides fundamental moral principles rooted in divine revelations, prohibiting domination of other humans and mandating doing social justice. The modern socialist revolutionaries provide empirical analysis of the structures of domination and the necessary strategies for human emancipation and human happiness and perfection.
The modern Third World socialist revolutionaries have forged a theory and practice rooted in a cross-cultural synthesis. They began with the historical materialism of Marx and Engels, and evolved on the basis of a dialogue of civilizations between the West and the Third World, which resulted in a synthesis of Western materialism (in its various versions) and Third World national liberation revolutions (in their various manifestations). The synthesis advanced the modern philosophical, historical, and scientific achievement of Marx, forging an integrated philosophical, historical political economy, tied to political practice and social movements. This integrated historical political-economy embraces the moral principles of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as the foundation of its global political project, necessary for guaranteeing world peace and stability.
The discourse of socialists today ought to make clear the overlapping dimensions of its proposal with a religious worldview. It ought to call religious persons to participation in the socialist project, as a practical implementation of the religious vision, a participation that in no sense implies abandonment of traditional religious beliefs and practices. With such an appeal to the masses, socialism could grow in numbers and would be characterized by growing religious diversity among its active membership, united in standing against capitalism and imperialism in decadence.
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