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Rick Salutin's skepticism.

Rick Salutin counsels the Left to exhibit less zeal and more skepticism. For him the Left has historically behaved like a religious movement, while pretending to be the opposite. In response, I will argue that, as a posture, skepticism may be worthy of a senator of ancient Rome, an eighteenth-century English aristocrat, or a connoisseur of fine Toronto restaurants, but not of someone interested in changing the world.

Skepticism and modern political conservatism have been linked together since at least the time of the French Revolution. According to the view advanced by Edmund Burke and others, the attempt to rationally interpret and change a fundamentally irrational and incomprehensible thing like society can only make things worse. Intervening to abolish slavery, emancipate women, or regulate hours of work threatens societal breakdown.

In sharp contrast, the Marxist tradition, based in its very nature on activism, has a magnificent legacy of self-criticism built into it. Undoubtedly there have been dogmatists and fanatics on the Left. But its greatest thinkers have been deeply realistic and critically minded figures. And, while Marxism is fundamentally atheistic, Marxists have long since learned to work with those who are both religious and interested in creating a better world. To these thinkers, Salutin does a disservice.

This approach of Marx was nowhere better defined than in one of his earliest publications, "For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing": "But if the designing of the future and the proclamation of ready-made solutions for all time is not our affair, then we realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present. I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be ... I am therefore not in favour of setting up any dogmatic flag."

This critical approach was directed against the existing political, religious and philosophical establishment of Marx's time. But Marx applied it to his own thought as well. It was one of Marx's most profound insights that really critical thinking had to both criticize the thought of opponents and constantly criticize its own assumptions, too. This concept of self-critical thinking informs the best in the Marxist tradition.

"Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will"

An important corollary of Marx's view is Antonio Gramsci's formula, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." The political and psychological maturity of this perspective is astonishing. According to Gramsci, seeing the world without illusion is a precondition of any serious politics. Does this mean the Italian counsels a skeptical aloofness in the face of difficulty? On the contrary, it means that he urges optimism. Taking into account things as they are, he advises acting for the best--based on a rational assessment of the situation. By any lights, including those of personal life, this advice is infinitely superior to that of the skeptic who chooses to turn away when faced with difficult circumstances.

It is easy for many to sneer at the worldwide Marxist revolutionary struggle in the twentieth century. But would Salutin really wish to join them, to denigrate, for example, the Vietnamese fight for national liberation? Can he think of a more perfect example of a victorious organized movement based on the patient combination of revolutionary dedication and Marxist political principles? Can the Vietnamese people and leadership really be ridiculed for fanaticism and over-zealousness? Eighty million people living in independence, peace and growing prosperity cannot be dismissed so easily. History will certainly absolve the revolutionary optimism of Ho Chi Minh.

Confusing Religion and Reaction

In his piece, Salutin wrongly conflates secularism and the Left. In fact, the struggle for freedom of conscience and religious equality has been historically a liberal fight. Moreover, it is important to note that in Europe and the Americas it was a fight not merely against organized belief but against a politically established church allied with landed interests. Marxists and socialists have only continued what liberalism started.

In his effort to attack Marxist enthusiasm, Salutin verges on confusing religion and reaction. Religion, which is often a terrain of hope and feeling, ought not to be so easily reduced to political and social reaction and fanaticism. The role of indigenous religion including Islam and American Aboriginal spirituality in the struggle against Western imperialism is well attested. Indeed, the record of Calvinists, Anabaptists, Baptists and Quakers in struggling against absolute government, hierarchical religion and feudalism during the early modern centuries in Europe was also a heroic one.

In Guatemala today there are Mayan peasants who stubbornly cling to their ancestral, indeed, ancient religious beliefs and practices in part as a means of defying the oppression of the army and the white landed elite. Yet these same peasants speak of Marxism as their "sunlight," which helps to illuminate the context of their struggle. Should such people be dismissed as doubly fanatic for their political ideology and their religion? A decent world includes the religion of the Maya. Moreover, all over Latin America the liberation theology developed in the 1960s still plays a role in the revolutionary struggle of that continent. The earliest Christianity is best seen as an anti-imperialist struggle based on communitarian if not communist principles. Grassroots Christian communities and Marxists in Latin America have long worked together politically based on mutual respect. It is not people's degree of rationality or skepticism that should be used to grade people politically. It is where people stand in struggle that should be the measure of political affinity.

Marxists are atheists because they espouse a materialist humanism, which assumes human perfectibility. For those who take this view, the answer to humanity's psychological needs lie in community, work, politics, love, science and art. But those who hold to such a view must respect the fact that some people, including progressive people, require a sense of consolation, assurance, strength, community, identity and ritual, which they find in religion. Marxists may have considered this a drug or the heart of a heartless world. But it is also a set of clues to human needs that must be addressed.
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Title Annotation:CD Debates
Author:Heller, Henry
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:1018
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