One notable aspect of the post-secular world is the renewed interest in religion and theology amongst the once ultra-secular radical Left. Since the mid 1980s, philosophers and activists of the far Left have shown growing interest in religious traditions. In the realm of philosophy, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, Michael Lowy and Daniel Bensaid are only the better known examples of this trend. Amongst activists too, more attention is being paid to religion, although this has been much slower to develop.
In 1994, Chris Harman, then a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party, published his influential pamphlet The Prophet and the Proletariat, a left wing appraisal of political Islam. His colleague David Crouch more recently turned his attention towards the question of religion in the Bolshevik party. The American Trotskyist Paul LeBlanc has also advocated a rapprochement of the contemporary Left with Christian traditions. This interest has partly stemmed from a practical need to work alongside religious minorities in anti-war or anti-racism campaigns. However, the practicalities of politics in a post-9/11world are only one side of the story.
I tend to agree with Vincent Pecora when, in his most recent post, he claims that the collapse of a socialist teleology bound up in the Cold War accelerated some of the processes that we now understand as post-secular. It is not just that the fall of the USSR starved secular nationalist or socialist movements in the Third World of a diplomatic ally, opening up the space for more religious-inspired movements to step in. More importantly, the collapse of the USSR inaugurated a period where it has become impossible to imagine an alternative to liberal capitalist democracy.
This development was not because everyone alligned with the far Left unquestionably supported the Soviet Union. In her work on May ’68, Kristen Ross has shown that even though most leftists in the 1960s had no illusions in the USSR as a workers’ paradise, the existence of the USSR testified to the possibility of alternatives to capitalism. The collapse of the USSR was not just the collapse of the Stalinist model of socialism, it was also the collapse of a dichotomy that had opened a space wherein other alternatives could be conceived. Furthermore, the decline or degeneration (either bureaucratic or criminal) of mass social movements has starved the Left of social forces that might have the power to create something new.
It is in the midst of this suffocating situation that the turn towards theology has become relevant for the Left. In the current situation, to maintain hope for serious social change requires unwavering belief or faith in a telos. It strikes me, for example, that something like Badiou’s ‘event’ functions as a kind of miracle that will come out of nowhere and radically change the present, creating the opportunity for something completely different in the future. There is a certain messianic hope bound up in this thinking that appeals to a Left in retreat.
The question I’m posing in my research, however, is about the meaning of ‘in retreat’. Obviously there has been a messianic hope bound up in Communist thought from the beginning. Faith—or belief in a telos—provides an obvious overlap between religious and Communist traditions. Less constant, however, is in what the belief is invested and how it is justified. The new post-secular Left is distanced from its predecessors (old and new alike) by its notion that the messianic moment can’t be guaranteed by scientific, sociological or historical data. Faith is foregrounded.
The development of the new post-secular Left, however, opens the door to a reading of earlier Communist thinkers that can be more in tune with their potential theologico-political underpinnings. Belief and faith in a telos were of key importance to Communist movements throughout the 20th century. Never was this more clear than in Yugoslavia during the partisan struggle of WWII. In 1945, after having led the First Proletarian Division that liberated Belgrade from Nazi rule, the one-time surrealist poet, Koca Popovic, composed several analyses of the war and the partisan victory. In one of these articles, The contribution and meaning of the National Liberation Army in the war against fascism, he outlined the reasons for their unforeseen victory:
At first many statesmen and foreign politicians considered our uprising to be a proud but hopeless, even suicidal moral protest….Such estimations were founded on the ominous calculation that the passing of time wears down the activity of people, on an underestimation of the vitality of a struggling, oppressed people, and on an underestimation of the relentless and criminal ruthlessness of the occupier. However, during the struggle it became clear to all well-meaning observers that ours was not a defiant protest, but a deep and sound belief, which deeds confirmed and events justified.
I’m fascinated by the difference between ‘defiant protest’ and ‘deep and sound belief’ made by Popovic. The difference lies precisely in the telos. A protest is limited to the present moment, it is a sudden, reflexive act. Belief, on the other hand, is teleological, it points to a future moment. Belief allows one’s decisions and actions in the present to be viewed from the perspective of an end point. The ‘ominous calculation’ of the Allies was to measure politics in the here and now, and not from such an end point. For Popovic, ‘realistic politics’ would have meant surrender to fascism. Only belief or faith (vera) could guarantee victory. The challenge for my research is to outline upon what this faith was founded and what the messianic moment it promised looked like.