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For my own benefit and for the curiosity of anyone who may so desire, I will be outlining my thoughts as I read Alistair Kee’s Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology in a short series of posts over the next few days. Don’t expect much. It’s just going to be a flyby over some highlights…

Chapters 1-3

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In the opening chapter, Kee presents a quick biographical sketch of Marx’s life, paying special attention to his religious upbringing and his conversion to neo-Hegelian philosophy. Kee briefly discusses a couple of Marx’s early essays from his days at the Friedrich Willhelm Gymnasium in Trier that deal heavily with the Christian faith. Kee denies that Marx was ever a Christian convert. Rather, he claims that Marx’s work on Christianity, while largely based on a fascination with theoretical concepts contained therein, was primarily an effect of the societal pressures of the day. Nevertheless, religion clearly played a large role in Marx’s early formative years; and the values of Judaism and Christianity were particularly significant factors in developing Marx’s pre-university ideas.

In Marx’s first years at university, he was primarily interested in poetry. However, his father, who wanted Karl to have a sensible career, required him to “move to the more ‘serious’ University of Berlin” (8). While there, Marx continued to compose poetry. However, Kee notes an existential struggle arising in his work. The following poem, noted by Kee, demonstrates Marx’s emergent disillusionment with German Idealism:

Kant and Fichte soar to heavens blue                                                                                                                                                Seeking for some distant land,                                                                                                                                                  I but seek to grasp profound and true                                                                                                                                                That which – in the street I find.

Interestingly for Kee, this poem which seems to express Marx’s desire to explore the mundane is actually attributed to Hegel’s influence. Whether an accurate reading of Hegel or not, it was this stage in Marx’s life that brought about a crisis. He was growing more and more frustrated with the unreality of Romanticism (both existentially and academically), which, like idealist philosophy, erected an “opposition between what is and what ought to be” (9). In Hegel, by contrast, he found a starting point in the mundane to overcome this dualism, a position that would prepare the way for another future conversion to historical materialism.

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The second chapter addresses Marx’s changing view on religion. Whereas the young Marx found much positivity in religion, by the time he penned his dissertation this view seems to have profoundly changed. According to Kee, it wasn’t so much that Marx rejected the theoretical foundations of religion as much as the religious control on society exhibited through the melding of the church and the Prussian state. For Marx, at this point, religion still had personal merit. It was the growing use of religion by the state that caused him to pay attention to the nefarious possibilities of human imagination.

Kee then turns his attention to the discussion of Hegel’s work and its reception/adoption into a new generation of thinkers. Of particular notice are David Strauss and Bruno Bauer, who each had significant roles in Marx’s development. Primarily recognized for their critical philosophy, the Young Hegelians fervently attacked both religion and the state. Given Hegel’s positive perception of both, the Young Hegelians presented Marx with a different view of the state and religion. Although not entirely antagonistic to both at this time, Marx was heavily influenced by their critical spirit. (Kee also address Feuerbach momentarily here and then more extensively in chapter 3).

Still, at this point, Marx was not ready to discount the role of religion altogether. Even in Marx’s notorious maxim when religion is referred to as “the opium of the people,” he is not referring to religion tout court, but rather to religion as that which merely seeks to cover the pain of real existence, that which seeks to justify the is through an ought. However, as his work developed, his view towards religion became more sour. It was now viewed as something that actually legitimates an unjust world. It is an unnecessary chain that binds humans to a less than full existence.

Seeking to understand possible sources for human liberation, Marx turned to the humanism of both Feuerbach and Strauss. However, not finding any class in Germany that perfectly embodied the “evils of society to such an extent that all oppression would be overcome by its defeat” (37), Marx had to envision a class that was bound by “radical chains, a class in civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal” (quoting Marx, 38). Once such a class was liberated, it would not merely be the liberation of a particular social class in the midst of a wider social context, but it would be the complete creation of a new humanity. Thus, Kee asserts, “Marx has taken the further step [further than Feuerbach and Strauss] of projecting the historical attributes of the work of Christ on to a non-existent historical social class” (38). Christology provides him with the model of human liberation.

This leads Kee to ask why “Marx had to pin his hopes for the reconciliation of mankind to a non-existent class rather than [the] ever-present Christian church (39). With Marx’s first criticism of religion being that “it performs a reconciliation of what is and what ought to be, or rather that it uses its authority to persuade people that what is ought to be,” Kee closes the chapter with two critical remarks directed at Christians.

1. “This criticism challenges religious people to be more truly religious; specifically it challenges Christians to be more truly Christian. Religion should always be personal but never private. The ending of religious legitimation cannot be brought about simply by the good intentions of individuals. Marx points out the social reality of religion, and it is clear that if the abuses of religion to which he points are to be eliminated, then certain structural changes and re-alignments will have to be effected [emphasis added]” (39).

2. If human liberation/redemption “is to be a historical and not merely metaphysical reality, if it is to be political and not merely pious, then Christians must exhibit as a social sphere the first signs of the liberation for which Marx looked” (40).

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This chapter really has two tasks: (1) to highlight Marx’s philosophy of reversal and (2) to show how Marx’s critique of religion differed from the rest of Marx’s criticisms.

Taking Feuerbach’s thesis of projection to another level, Marx would now assert that religion is “the source of an error”:

Man, who looked for a superhuman being in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but the reflection of himself, will no longer be disposed to find but the semblance of himself, only an inhuman being, where he seeks and must seek his true reality (45).

Now viewed as the alienating reversal of reality, religion must be overcome. But religion is not the only human reversal that must be defeated. Secular institutions also fall under a similar criticism. In fact, as Marx said, “criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.” It is itself complete and necessary, “but it merely clears the deck for all other forms of criticism to be undertaken” (48).  It is in Hegel that Marx identifies the sweeping pattern of reversal that was only represented in Feuerbach in limited fashion. Although he believes that Hegel stood the correct method on its head, Marx adopted this pattern of reversal and applied it to his nascent historical materialism:

Hegel starts from the state and makes man the subjectified state; democracy starts from man and makes the state the objectified man. Just as it is not religion which creates man but man who creates religion, so it is not the constitution which creates the people but the people which creates the constitution (quoting Marx, 50-51).

The problem with this reversal is that humans are not aware of it. Thus, their product alienates them from their “species being” by becoming the objective master that exerts power over them. Economically, this reversal and subsequent alienation takes form through commodity production, forced labour, and the de-socialization of the human species.

Kee then turns to specifically address private property in Marx’s thought. Coming to really understand the essence of private property through the work of Adam Smith, Marx rejected the view of the communists in Paris who sought the abolition of private property as their primary goal.

They did not understand about the subjective essence of labour, or the subjective essence of private property. Consequently they shared the common assumption of the objective nature of private property. For them the question was whether private property could be commonly owned or not. And if not, it was to be destroyed. Nothing could be further from Marx’s view (58).

He rejected this view because (1) It did not understand the “relationship between work and alienated labor” and was not “guided by the desire to achieve the species life”; (2) “[It] had not looked into the subjective essence of private property, namely labour”; and (3) Because of the first two points, they are merely creating “the community as the universal capitalist” (59). In opposition, Marx’s communism would take into account his entire critical philosophy and his analysis of economic relations. “It is not a negative, destructive movement, but a positive overcoming of all forms of human alienation (59):

Communism is the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being (quoting Marx, 59).

Kee claims that similar to the role of atheism in Marx, so too is the role of private property. It is not that such is the final goal. Both atheism and communism “deal with alienations created by inverted worlds.” They are “merely stages in a process… [the process of developing] the species life of mankind” (60).

In the final section of the chapter, Kee seeks primarily to demonstrate how Marx’s inversion of reality (his philosophy of reversal) that arose from his study of religion and that was applied to other spheres of life fails to properly be applied to religion. As an inheritor of Feuerbach’s system, Marx’s theory, according to Kee, was flawed in that there was a fundamental flaw in his understanding of Feuerbach’s theory. Although the latter is generally identified as “turning Hegel on his head,” Kee claims that such is not in fact the case. Rather, Feuerbach remained within the Hegelian system and merely offered an extended example of Hegelianism by claiming that religion is the “product of mind, the accumulated sedimented consciousness of a whole society or culture” (62). Of course, there is a reversal: for Hegel, man is the product of Mind, whereas the opposite is the case for Feuerbach. But, as Kee notes, “[It] is not a reversal in reality, merely a reversal within the Hegelian order” (62).

For Marx, there is still a reversal, but one that is altered. Rather than follow the Feuerbachian reversal of Hegel with regard to the state, Marx asserts that the state is a product of man, not human consciousness, through a long historical process which “shows to date no sign of being rational” (62). This form of reversal is the common form for Marx’s theory… except when dealing with religion. When the latter is addressed, Marx remains within the paradigm of the Young Hegelians. Rather than addressing religion as it is, he addresses it as it ought to be. Again, following the example of Feuerbach’s idealist theory of species-being, Marx does not begin with human experience, but with an “inadequate [idea] of man” (65). According to Kee, this brings up a crucial question: “What is the human essence of religion?” Marx of course did not answer this question. But, for Kee, it may be possible to think through this area that Marx never fully addresses. He claims that

In no other instance did [Marx] draw the conclusion that an inversion of reality meant that the phenomenon should be completely dismissed. In each case he assumed that it must be rescued, for the sake of man’s true life. Thus on Marx’s own terms religion exists and has a perfect right to do so, if and only if its human essence can be restored (67).

This is the primary task set forth for the book (the second half deals with this task and Marx’s relation to Liberation Theology). But in order to do so Kee asserts there are two things that need to be done. The first is that Marx’s reversal to religion needs to be applied more extensively to religion. And the second is that religion needs to be regarded as a secular sphere; a sphere in which we “dispense with that world-view in which religion is by nature and necessity a source and expression of human alienation” (68). In other words, Kee’s priority is “to seek the essence of religion in its secular mode, and to avoid new reifications which would in turn produce new or reconstituted institutions of alienation” (68).

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