Imagining Other.


Marxism, Religion, and Modern Society.


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A few thoughts, sparked off by an article: “Thank God for time off”, by Giles Fraser.                                     Jan/Feb 2008.

                                                                                                                                                                                2,197 words

Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, had an interesting piece in Guardian 22.11.07: it was subtitled “Religion is one of the last ways to escape the modern oppression of being defined by work’ and in it he argues that “our brand of modernity turns people into things defined by their function. All too often, we are what we do.” He then points out that this was the sort of thing said by Marxists “back when they were a more potent cultural force.” But now, he says, it is modernity which defines us by our functions - or by our achievements and actions - “through league-tables, productivity, efficiency savings” etc., and in modernity we are treated as “tools in some vast machine-like system.”


Fraser’s points arose from a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which the Archbishop attacked US foreign policy (this aspect grabbed the headlines!) but in which he also attacked “modernity” for “eating away at the soul.”


How then do we counter this “eating away of the soul”? Fraser argues that this is where religion, art, even holidays come in – provided we indulge in them for their own sake, not to make us better workers! In particular he believes that “religion resists the oppressive efficiency of time management because there is nothing to measure.” Contrary to those who argue that God cannot exist because He cannot be empirically verified, Fraser says that “a world where everything is measurable and testable is a world in which competition can find its way into every nook and cranny of life.”  He acknowledges Marx’s comment that capitalism turns everything into commodities, and therefore everyone into objects – but he says that Marxism’s “uncompromising materialism” is part of the problem: it fails to prevent - even contributes to - the processes that it condemns. 


There is a certain amount in this that I would agree with (especially the criticism of how we are subjected to constant dehumanising pressure to work and to produce). However I have two major problems concerning: (a) Fraser’s narrow and incomplete view of Marxism, and (b) his view that the answer to the problem is religion.


(a) I would want to point out, first, that the same sort of critique of those Marxists who have a narrow, materialistic, deterministic point of view has been made by many on the left, and especially by anarchists. Some thinkers who were originally Marxists, such as Cornelius Castoriadis, gave up Marxism altogether because they believed that Marx could only be interpreted in this deterministic (“materialist”) way. See footnote (*) below.


Second, whilst it is true that there are Marxists who are obsessed with “measurable” phenomena such as the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, it is important to remember that the “hard” “material” basis of Marx’s theory was developed as a critique of capitalism. If we take Marxism as a “closed” theory, and take everything he describes as being permanently in existence, then of course we cannot escape from the materialism. Yet in his portrayal of “communist” society Marx seems to say that we will be no longer be controlled by material forces, and that we will no longer base social arrangements on what is measurable. Perhaps Marx and Engels’ most well-known phrase describing communism is: “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (from the Communist Manifesto) – this surely must mean that in communism we will have give up trying to measure the value of one’s labour or one’s production (since there will be no question of taking from society only the amount that you have earned)?


A similar point can be made with regard to “defining people by what they do” – which some (including Fraser, it seems!) attribute to Marx. Marx’s view that under communism we would do what we want – hunt, fish, etc – without ever being a hunter or a fisherman, has often been ridiculed. (I return to this quote more fully below…) Aside from whether this condition could ever be reached, Marx’s statement surely indicates that it is in capitalism that we are turned into beings defined by what we do. Taking another portrayal of communism - in “The German Ideology” - we find Marx trying to understand the origins of the division of labour and the excessive specialisation (which contributes to but does not alone explain our becoming what we do) that comes from the way the division of labour has been developed under capitalism.


He argues that originally (in distant history) the distribution (or division) of labour arose out of “natural” differences between individuals, especially in the family (“where wife and children are slaves of the husband”); this relationship therefore was a manifestation of the first form of property. In a startling phrase, Marx says that “Division of labour and private property are identical expressions.” Engels examined this further in his writing on the origins of private property and the family – and later writers (especially feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir) have argued that Marx and Engels’ explanation is not thorough enough; it is a short but significant step, and one that requires further explanation, from saying “this job is mine and that is yours” to saying “my job is more important than yours, and therefore you are subordinate to me.” And it is taking yet another step to say “you therefore belong to me”.  I shall comment further on this shortly.


In his discussion of the relationship between “what we are” and “what we do” Marx (again, in The German Ideology) identifies the problem as: “man’s own deed became an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” Why “forced upon him”? For Marx it is clear that some people have more power than others, which then enables them to own and control the work (the “labour power”) of others. To my mind Marx’s argument is inadequate to explain how this unequal distribution of power came about - though it is clearly a result of social inequality. The problem is: how did society come to accept that some had the right to control others’ labour?  Personally, I like Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist explanation, which is roughly that some activities (“projects”) enable people to define their existence – to develop and to grow as human beings; and other activities are routine, boring and unfulfilling. The extra power that men had acquired came partly from their physical strength, but more importantly because the biological nature of women meant that they were restricted in their activities (i.e. to breast-feed children); thus men came to control property, but also what de Beauvoir calls “projects” - activities that enabled them to develop and grow - whilst making sure that other less fulfilling activities were allocated to women. To help explain how a certain distribution of power came to be so rigidly and deeply instituted, I would add an explanation that actually arises from Marx’s dictum about class, and class power over ideas and meanings: “the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.” It seems to me that it is social arrangements (not facts of nature) that lead to a society regarding one kind of activity as more valuable than another, and if one group has control over ideas – as feminists argue men did, and as Marxists argue property-owners did, – it is easy for them to enforce their social position through control over ideas.  


This de-humanising and enslaving of people - and this alienation - can (for Marx) only be ended in communist society, with the abolition of the division of labour: “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes… [and where it is possible] for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, cowherd, or critic.”


Marx adds that: “this fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now” [my emphasis].  Again, I take this to mean that we can reach a kind of society where we are no longer subject to material forces. (Extracts from Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan, 1977, p 169).


In short, Marx did not say that “we are what we do” – but that it is capitalist society that convinces us of this. Not a million miles from Giles Fraser’s point of view!


(b) How does religion help in all this?  For Fraser, it involves doing things (such as prayer) that don’t seem to be “for anything at all” – it “resists the oppressive efficiency of time management because there is nothing to measure.” But as I have argued, it is capitalism that makes us measure things – and the abolition of wages and private property would entail ending the necessity for such measurement. Moreover, there are other activities – the arts especially – that do things for us that cannot be measured, “nourishing the soul”, if you like. I agree with Fraser that this kind of activity is essential – but why should I choose religion to do this for me?


In fact, what exactly does a religious outlook suggest is the alternative to “I am what I do?”  Is it “I am what I believe”?


Surely if we take “doing” in a broad sense, and not just relating to our “jobs” there is value in saying that we are what we do? After all, Jesus’ words: “By their fruits ye shall know them” surely mean that a Christian should work in such a way as to contribute to a more “Christian” world? And the – to me – central notion of “love” is after all an activity. To say: “I am what I believe” cannot be enough: we are not isolated individuals, believing whatever we each believe to be true. The strength of Marxism was that it tried to formulate the interdependence of the individual and the community – an interdependence that works on all levels: biology, language, thought and belief, production… Yes, this is a (kind of )“materialist” approach – but Marxists who have treated his ideas in a humanist way recognise the value of culture, the arts etc (E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams – and earlier William Morris). After all, we are material as well as spiritual beings; but the problem with religion, for me, is that it splits off the spiritual, thereby enabling too many of its followers to ignore altogether (or even to despise) the material (political, economic etc) reality around them; and for some Christians (too many by far!) the spirit represents what is “good” in us, and the body is “bad”... Christianity’s record on the equal treatment of women is surely connected to this despising of the flesh!



Finally, a few quick points:


I am pleased that the Archbishop and presumably Giles Fraser nevertheless do care about American foreign policy!


What about the problem that religious ideas can be part of the controlling set of beliefs, used by whoever has power to strengthen their position? Granted, Marxism has served the same nefarious purpose – and I personally would not call myself a Marxist for this very reason. Yet I do believe that there were valuable insights in Marx, and I believe that the ideal society he was working for, without the evils of individual alienation, inequality, class distinction, the exploitation of man by man (or woman!), the nation-state and war, is worth pursuing. Though I would have to add “sustainability” and care for the natural environment, of course…


I do not find the label “modernism” helpful: the characteristics that the Archbishop criticised are not exclusive to the modern period – rather, as I have argued, they can be seen as endemic to capitalism; the need to time a labourer’s work came in with the abandonment of agricultural for industrial/factory work. Of course, religious thinkers prefer not to use such a politically-loaded word!


It follows from some of what I have written above that we do not need religious explanations to show the limitations of some aspects of Marx’s thought: to me existentialism is helpful, as is feminism. I am certainly not suggesting that those on the left, let alone Marxists, have the only good ideas about individual fulfilment. I also very much like Satish Kumar’s saying “You are, therefore I am.” But that’s another story!




(*) Note: I owe a debt to the late Cornelius Castoriadis for “sparking off” some of the above ideas – see:


-  my essay on Castoriadis:  Recommencing Revolution


-  and the informative website: