There is a fundamental contradiction in many of the Marxist studies that are produced in the West. Every time that they speak of Marxism in Asia — in China, Korea or Vietnam — or when they speak of popular movements in Africa such as in Egypt or Libya, they highlight the influence of religion on these political movements and the national adaptation of Marxism. When any Marxist researcher studies, for example, Chinese Marxism, they are obliged to address the influence of Confucius’ philosophy on Chinese culture in a general manner and on Chinese Marxism in particular. Likewise, the influence that Islam has on many African countries is always taken into account in analysis of socialist nations such as Algeria.
When the time comes to look at Marxism in Western politics, however, the influence of Christianity in the construction of the symbolic, subjective and theoretical universe of this Marxism is rarely taken into account. It is as if in Asia, Confucianism has an influence on politics, in Africa, Islam has an influence on politics, but in Brazil, in the US, in France, in Portugal, Christianity does not perform a similar role in forming historic subjectivity. This is a mistake for a very simple and objective reason, which Antonio Gramsci points out in several different passages of Prison Notebooks: the Catholic Church is the longest operating institution in the West. No other institution has managed to stay alive for so long with the capacity to disseminate and circulate ideas and concepts, through a body of intellectual priests, bishops and theologians, organized within a bureaucracy like the Catholic Church has. So it is impossible to speak seriously about Marxism, politics, subjectivity, culture, and the symbolic field in the West without incorporating the role of Christianity in each social formation, in each specific country as elements of analysis.
I believe it is impossible to understand the phenomenon that is poorly described as “populism” (a term which I do not use), of this relationship of the popular classes with people like Lula, Getúlio Vargas, Miguel Arraes, Brizola, Perón, Velasco Ibarra, and Hugo Chávez without understanding the basic configurations of the Catholic relationship between devotees and saints. Obviously this is not the only explanation, but there is a symbolic element in the political structure of this relationship. I have been thinking about this for a long time. It is not my idea — Domenico Losurdo and Roland Boer have written about how the fetish for defeat is one of the fundamental characteristics of Western Marxism and how this is a misunderstood derivative of Christian culture.
There is a great tendency in the eastern left, according to Perry Anderson, to separate western and eastern Marxism. Western Marxism is basically a kind of Marxism which has, as a key characteristic, never exercised political power. It is a Marxism that has, more and more frequently, concerned itself with philosophical and aesthetic issues. It has pulled back, for example, from criticism of political economy and the problem of the conquest of political power. More and more it has taken a historic distance from the concrete experiences of socialist transition in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba and so forth. This western Marxism considers itself to be superior to eastern Marxism because it hasn’t tarnished Marxism by transforming it into an ideology of the State like, for example, Soviet Marxism, and it has never been authoritarian, totalitarian or violent. This Marxism preserves the purity of theory to the detriment of the fact that it has never produced a revolution anywhere on the face of the Earth — this is a very important point. Wherever a victorious socialist revolution has taken place in the West, like Cuba, it is much more closely associated with the so-called eastern Marxism than with this western Marxism produced in Western Europe, the United States, Canada and parts of South America. This Marxism is proud of its purity, and this is the first elemental characteristic that derives from Christianity.
Gramsci shows that one of the main historical concerns of the Catholic Church has been to control the reading and the diffusion of Christianity, blocking the rise and spread of popular, autonomous and base level interpretations and thereby saving the purity of the historic doctrine. Therefore, the Catholic Church can say that Christianity is love, equality, loving thy neighbor, compassion and non-violence, despite the fact that it has been a fundamental weapon in the legitimization of slavery, the crusades and colonialism, and despite the coziness of various elements of the Catholic Church with Nazi-fascism and the military dictatorships. There is a constant throughout the entire history of Christianity which is that these elements don’t corrupt the doctrine. They are either false expressions of Christianity, or they are facts, like potatoes in a sack, that have no theoretical, political or, most importantly, theological meaning. So, the fact that history denies the affirmation that Christianity is based on compassion and peace does not change or challenge the doctrine.
Many Marxists act the same way. Their biggest worry is the purity of the doctrine. Every time that historical facts challenge the doctrine or show the complexity of the practical operationality of elements of the theory, they deny that these elements are part of the story of Marxist theory and doctrine. This is, for example, what doctrines of betrayal are built on. Every movement that appears to stray a bit from these “pure” models that were created a priori is explained through the concept of betrayal, or is explained as “state capitalism”. Therefore, nothing is socialism and everything is state capitalism. Nothing is socialist transition and everything is state capitalism. The revolution is only a revolution during that glorious moment of taking political power. Starting from the moment of building a new social order, its over. Revolution is always a political process which has two moments: a moment of destruction of the old capitalist order and taking power, and a moment of building a new order. The contradictions, the problems, the failures, the mistakes, sometimes even the crimes, mainly happen during this moment of building the new order. So when the time comes to evaluate the building of a new social order — which is where, apparently, the practice always appears to stray from the purity of theory — the specific appears corrupted in the face of the universal. It is at this point that the idea of betrayal is evoked, that the idea of counter revolution is evoked, and that the idea of State Capitalism appears in order to preserve the purity of theory.
A great example of this was when the Soviet Union entered its process of terminal crisis. As the end of the Soviet Union approached many western Marxists announced that it was a great event in the history of Marxism because finally Marxism was liberated from that experiment that was born during the October Revolution, that distorted Marxism, that transformed Marxism into a mere State ideology. Now, without having to explain the ball and chain of the Soviet Union, Marxism could finally be liberated and reach its emancipatory potential.
Another factor that is very common in the western left is to treat suffering and extreme poverty as elements of superiority. It is very common in Western leftist culture to support martyrs and suffering. Everyone today likes Salvador Allende. Why? Salvador Allende is a victim, a martyr. He was assassinated in Pinochet’s coup d' etat. When Hugo Chávez was alive, many sectors of the left turned their nose up at him. If he had been killed, for example, in the 2002 Coup attempt, he would be adored by the immense majority of the western left today, as a symbol of suffering and martyrdom. Since he continued exercising power as leader of a political process which, by necessity, had various contradictions, he was increasingly abandoned, as time passed — I don’t even have to mention what has happened to Maduro here. These same sectors which celebrate and support the idea of Allende because he defended democratic socialism do not see or do not want to see that Allende governed almost entirely through decrees. At the time, the Chilean constitution had a legal mechanism which enabled the executive branch to govern by decrees that did not have to be approved by parliament or the Supreme Court. So Allende was able to make laws through decrees which bypassed Congress and the Supreme Court. Since Allende did not have a majority in Congress and suffered a lot from the bourgeois opposition, he basically governed through decree throughout his entire mandate. This kind of action today is enough justification to label any left leader that practices it as authoritarian, to compare him to Trump, Bolsonaro, or Orban. If Allende was alive today he would also be criticized, but he died.
Another example of this is the situation with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. To most western leftists, Che Guevara represents a rebel dreamer. In real life he was not, but they have built this image around him. Che Guevara died immolated in the jungles of Bolivia, so now he is a symbol of sacrifice, martyrdom and the agony of defeat. Fidel stayed in Cuba as leader of the Cuban Revolution and all of the contradictions of this process. Today he is viewed as a bureaucrat, without charm or appeal, by many if not the majority of the western left. Che Guevara is an eternal symbol of resistance, of dreaming, of utopia that is unfulfilled because of death.
Another example of this is the contrast in how the People’s Republic of Korea is treated compared to Palestine. Both nations engaged in the same struggle — the anti-colonial fight for national independence. In the case of Korea, the struggle was made from a socialist perspective. Korea succeeded, despite being a country that is fractured by imperialism. It has an economy that is relatively strong, with a reasonably high level of industrialization, a very strong national army and capacity to launch nuclear weapons. So, Korea is not a defenseless nation. Palestinians are a people who are deeply oppressed, in a situation of extreme poverty, that don’t have a national economy because they don’t have a national state. They don’t have an army or military or economic power. Therefore, Palestine is the total incarnation of the metaphor of David vs Goliath, except that this David doesn’t have a chance of beating Goliath in political and military conflict. Therefore, almost everyone in the international left likes Palestine. People become ecstatic looking at those images — which I don’t think are very fantastic — of a child or teenager using a sling to launch a rock at a tank. Look, this is a clear example of heroism but it is also a symbol of barbarism. This is a people who do not have the capacity to defend themselves facing an imperialist colonial power that is armed to the teeth. They do not have an equal capacity of resistance, but this is romanticized. Western leftists like this situation of oppression, suffering and martyrdom.
Another very well known case is that of Vietnam. Everyone supported Vietnam when it was under attack, being destroyed and bombed for over 30 years. Vietnam beat Japan in WW2, then had to fight France, and then had to fight the United States. It passed 30 straight years without being able to build a damn school or hospital because a bomb would drop, first from France and then the United States, and destroy it. When the country was finally able to beat all of the colonial and neocolonial powers and have the opportunity to start planning, to build highways, electrical systems, schools and universities without having bombs land on them the next day and destroy everything that was being done, the country was abandoned by the majority of the left. It lost its charm, it lost its enchantment. There is a fetish for defeat in the western left. It is an idea that defeat is something majestic.
A clear example of this fetish is in the case of the coup in Bolivia. Slavoj Žižek, the famous critical thinker, wrote an article called Bolivia: the Anatomy of a Coup, and what was his big concern? It was to show that Evo Morales was democratic, that Evo Morales did not purge or jail traitors during coup attempts in the past, and that now these same people committed a coup against him. In other words, Žižek praises the very element which led to the defeat of the revolution in Bolivia as proof of ethical and moral superiority. Look how marvelous Bolivia is today. Every day an activist is murdered or jailed, but they have the moral consolation of not have been repressive or authoritarian with the Bolivian bourgeoisie.
A third element that is common in the western left comes from the Christian concept that salvation is not a product of a person’s actions, but a decision made by God. It is the notion that, although you work to do good deeds, to follow biblical law, to be a good person and so forth, your salvation is a decision of God’s. Subjective efforts related to the central point of Marxism, which is the conquest of political power (as Lenin said, “everything outside of political power is an illusion”), have been devalued due to this influence from Christian culture, even though the majority of Marxist intellectuals are atheists. Instead, the highest value becomes an eternal position of resistance, which produces a sense of pride. When Bernie Sanders lost the democratic primary for the second time, a renowned Marxist professor at the University of São Paulo posted on Facebook, “We fought like never before. We lost as usual but the fight continues. Now, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez is the future of Socialism in the United States.” The Marxist logic of thinking of all political conflicts in terms of strategy, tactics, coalition politics, programs, of critically analyzing mistakes to avoid making them again, of hitting the enemy from a political or even military standpoint in order to take power has simply vanished, replaced by an eternal movement of resistance as if it were proof of divine grace. The very logic that should be the essence of politics, which is the logic of strategy, is devalued as resistance becomes an end in itself.
Together, the three elements that I just described create a kind of narcissistic orgasm of defeat and purity. The subject takes pride in not having any relationship with the entire historic concrete movement of the working class socialist and liberation revolutions. They take pride in not having any theoretical or political connection to the revolutions in China, Russia, Vietnam, Algeria, Mozambique and Angola. They are, instead, proud of the supposed purity that their theory is not contaminated by the hardship of exercising power, by the contradictions of historical processes. Being pure is what provokes this narcissistic orgasm. This purity is what makes them feel superior. It makes them feel that they have a privileged moral and ethical standpoint compared to the other leftists who, for example, recognize the Chinese Revolution or the Cuban revolution and, therefore, accept authoritarianism and accept an economy that is not based on the total realization of self-management. This kind of Marxism has no critical power. It can produce and does produce a lot of good analysis of reality but it is incapable of producing a movement that is strategic and revolutionary that aims to take political power. Therefore, the process of rebuilding a revolutionary Marxism in the West has to recognize these symbolic elements, which have become ingrained in Western Marxism, that were smuggled in as contraband from Christianity. These elements have to be submitted to radical criticism and surpassed.