From Geneva to Moscow, via Manchester

The unacknowledged but pervasive tension and dishonest mingling of ultra-determinist historical materialism and hyperactive voluntarism/subjectivism has been shown to be a hallmark of the totalitarian turn in Leninism, Stalinism. According to Leo Kofler this particularly shows when things don’t go to plan

‚Das Hinüberschieben der Schuld für das Mißlingen der bürokratischen Pläne auf die Schulter von subversiven und renitenten Elementen, die von der Absicht besessen sind, den sozialistischen Aufbau zu stören, ist deshalb ein besonders interessantes Moment in der bürokratischen Ideologie, weil hier in vollstem Widerspruch zur mechanistischen, die Rolle des Subjektiven unterschätzenden Auffassung des Prozesses plötzlich und unvermittelt eine Überbetonung subjektiver Gegebenheiten zum Vorschein kommt. Ein solches Verfallen in kontradiktorische Extreme ist überhaupt charakteristisch für jedes nichtdialektische Denken.‘ (Kofler 1970: 64)

The assignment of guilt for the failure of bureaucratic plans to subversive and renitent elements possessed by a desire to undermine socialist development is a particularly interesting aspect in the bureaucratic ideology, because here – contradicting completely the mechanist view of history which underestimates the role of the subjective – suddenly and abruptly subjective factors are overrated. Falling into such contradictory extremes is characteristic of all non-dialectical thought

‘Non-dialectical’ here is to be understood as a view that is not capable to understand subjective factors as part of an objective reality and therefore objective reality as also constituted by subjective factors. While this was the starting position, in the Marxist tradition honest attempts to explain human freedom out of material conditions, rather than just conceding various degrees of influence (always asserting, of course, that ‘in the last consequence’, it’s material conditions that matter) are rare.

This non-dialectical approach has an unexpected ancestor in Calvinism. Sociologists tend to think of Jean Calvin as theologian whose world historical significance derives from the ironic consequences of his predeterminarianism on the mentality of early capitalist entrepreneurs, businessmen and workers. That excludes him from the ancestry of modern communism. Yet Calvin, spiritual leader of the moral commonwealth of Geneva, was a social revolutionary as well. And Calvinist Geneva – with its theocratic/republican rule and with its purges and show trials – was an inspiration to the English Puritan Revolutionaries under Cromwell. When Vladimir Putin recently justified his lack of enthusiasm for destructing Stalin statues by equating Stalin and Cromwell, he had a point despite the different scales of mass slaughter in the name of God and/or History.

Both in the Puritan and the Marxist-Leninist case we have ideologies that propose historical inevitability at the same time as understanding the realisation of what has been predetermined as a task to be carried out by individuals. Both currents saw themselves compelled to punish heretics and opponents in spectacular fashion, penalising them for what they could not help doing given their destined state as fallen or their historical role as class enemy. Compare Kofler’s statement on Stalinism to what the – sympathetic – biographer of Jean Calvin, Basil Hall has to say about the tension between predestination and the evil agency of Man:

If God is the principle of causation, is He not therefore the author of evil? God forbid, says Calvin, man sins not under the pressure of external constraint, but voluntarily, for his very nature leads him to sin, and, before God, men are none the less blameworthy since their nature is corrupt, and that is sufficient to condemn them. There is, however, a non sequitur here. Calvin has stated the metaphysical fact of divine causality at the heart of the universe, and then, when pressed to show where lies the origin of evil, he slips over into a psychological explanation: evil is willed by man, for it is his bias, and God is not concerned, save to use this evil disposition either to dominate it for His glory or as a means of punishment.’ (Hall 1956: 20f.)

It is tempting, but probably too farfetched, to liken the Marxist-Leninist triad of historical-materialist inevitability, authority of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin as its revelation, and Communist Party as its visible representation and agent in the world to the Calvinists doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the doctrine of the scripture and the doctrine of the church. Yet the task of the visible Church to persecute the ungodly mitigates the contradiction between predestined course of things and the human freedom to do evil in a similar way that the Party was to negotiate between the inevitable course of History and the inertia of the proletarians and the stubborn opposition of the class enemy.

‘Calvin was unique among Protestants in holding that the Church must manage her own affairs with the greatest possible independence of the temporal authority and yet maintain a real relation with that authority: he alone revived in Protestantism the old papal principle that the temporal and spiritual powers were like two swords in one sheath. New also was Calvin’s insistence on the Church’s public discipline for all members of the community and on the duty of the temporal authorities as Christian men to maintain this discipline even with legal penalties. This principle of discipline is the most characteristic element in Calvin’s Geneva: given the belief that God was sovereign, that man before God was nothing, and that to God was due all glory, it followed inevitably that all men must honour God in their doctrine and life – even if they have to be compelled to do so.’ (Hall 1956: 24f.)

The big question now is – what to make of this odd parallel. Is there an historical genealogy? This is unlikely beyond the notion that, according to Karl Löwith, modern historiography is very much a derivative of Christian soteriology, and Marxism is a theory that explicitly does not know any science but one: history. I would suggest looking for ironical links and elective affinities along similar lines as the Calvinist inspiration of capitalism. Could it not be that, as response to high capitalism of the Manchester variety, some of the soteriological traits not of Puritan theology but of capitalist praxis have seeped into the revolutionary superstructures of the Communist Party?

As Marx and Marxist theorists from Lukács to Adorno have exposed, the capitalist process presents itself as ahistorical, natural process, while at the same time presupposing a society of autonomous property-owning individuals. The counterfactual plausibility of this assumption can be gauged by looking at the readiness to accept, only a few years after yet another spectacular failure to predict a dramatic economic downturn, the forecasts and advice of economists. They are viewed like meteorologists – imprecisions and errors in the forecasts are not ascribed to the fact that as process constituted by human action “the economy” is fundamentally different from a physical process like the weather (although of course the meteorologists increasingly have to acknowledge the consequences of human action). It is all down to human error. Least of all reflected upon is the fact that the advice of economists themselves is an influence on economic and political action. That this is true for Marxist political economy has already been seen by Eduard Bernstein – and while the extent of influence of the works of economists like John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman on policymakers may be disputed, that there was such an influence is beyond doubt. The same social science that presents itself as analysis of a quasi-natural process also produces a priestly caste of spiritual guides advising on how to realise that natural process. A secular theology committed to a pair of mutually exclusive tenets of the quasi-natural, objective course of events in the reified hyper-subject “economy” and of full individual responsibility of economic subjects. The contradiction is solved undialectically yet elegantly: As harmony, balance and universal happiness are achieved by all individuals following their own (presumably naturally given) self-interest in a rational way by quasi-divine means (the market mechanism as invisible hand), there is a pre-established harmony between individual agency and historical process. Everybody getswhat they deserve – which is the same as everybody is what they earn.

What is more – the system can even stomach the fact that there are people who lack proper rationality or self-interest as they exclude themselves from the process and go to hell-on-earth, i.e. become penniless. It is only when the reprobate become too numerous that a more decisive counteraction is required – and then the total order of efficient production can be re-established by means of a Fascist apparatus.

Revolutionary Marxist leaders will have been exposed to the same impression of a natural process of economic development as anybody else, even though Marx’s work contains ample warnings against this optical illusion. The “vulgar economics” of which Marx spoke frequently found its mirror image in “vulgar Marxism” that interpreted the economic process of capital accumulation as taking a different course and producing different outcomes, but nonetheless reified it as an inevitable natural process nonetheless. And they can be forgiven as formulae like the one stating that capital transforms itself into an ‘automatic subject’ (Kapital verwandelt sich in ein automatisches Subjekt – the English version tones down to ‘assumes an automatically active character’) have beenmisunderstood as a structuralist credo by interpreters far from vulgar.

Against this background the possibility that there is a very zig-zaggy line from Calvinism-Cromwellism over enforcedly laissez-faire capitalism to Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism looks like a distinct possibility.


The 17th century Puritan Richard Baxter’s account of Cromwell strikes me as fascinatingly analoguous to orthodox Marxists critiques of Leninism: Instead of trusting in the predestined/determined course of events, Lenin/Trotsky/Stalin felt themselves destined to accelerate history. And instead of trusting God’s plan, Cromwell and allies

‘thought that God had called them by successes to govern and take care of the Commonwealth and of the interest of all his people in the land; and that if they stood by and suffered the parliament to do that which they thought was dangerous, it would be required at their hands, whom they thought God had made the guardians of the land. Having thus forced his conscience to justify all his cause (the cutting off the king, the setting up himself and his adherents, the pulling down the parliament and the Scots), he thinketh that the end being good and necessary, the necessary means cannot be bad.’ (Baxter 1974: 88)

Baxter, Richard (1974): The Autobiography of Richard Baxter  (Edited by N. H. Keeble), London: J.M. Dent

Hall, Basil (1956): John Calvin, London: Historical Association

Kofler, Leo (1970): Stalinismus und Bürokratie: Zwei Aufsätze, Neuwied: Luchterhand

Islamisation as Westernisation?

Reading and learning for a proposal on Turkish/European Muslim Consumer Identifications I am still going through the literature – I am intrigued by what I just found in Hakan Yavuz’sIslamic Political Identity in Turkey on Islamic revival and liberal capitalism (which makes particular sense in the light of how Turkey managed to weather the credit crunch). Yavuz sees the emergence of a Muslim parallel to the Protestant ethic that helped to bring about Western capitalism – facilitated by Turgut Özal’s economic reforms in the 1980s and incorporated by the Islamic business association MÜSİAD,

‘The MÜSİAD represents the complex intersection of religion and economics among the new Anatolian bourgeoisie. This process could only have been consolidated with the help of Özal’s economic liberalization. This policy also promoted the construction of an Islamic “Protestant ethic” by stressing puritanical, this-worldly values that seemed to anticipate rewards for a virtuous life in the hereafter as well. This new bourgeoisie, organized around either Nurcu or Nakşibendi groups, criticized “superstitious” beliefs, stressed a surprisingly rational understanding of faith, and defined Islam (in MÜSİAD publications) as the religion of progress. The dynamic interaction between contemporary Islamic movements and market forces, however, indicates that Turkish modernization is not necessarily a carbon copy of Westernization. Whereas in the West, the embourgeoisement of religion led to the process of disenchantment, the Turkish case indicates that disenchantment and reenchantment can coexist. For example, in the case of the MÜSİAD, religion has become intertwined with the market economy. […] The utilization of religious practices and idioms to justify the market economy has become the major source for the inner secularization of Islam.’ (Yavuz 2003: 95)

I think the only point that Yavuz has got wrong here is that this pathway into neoliberal capitalism contrasts with what happens in “the West” – which doesn’t quite square with his assertion that we are seeing an “Islamic Protestant ethic” at work here. While there certainly is a marked disenchantment in the West, the persistence of religious practice and belief in the USA (as opposed to the relatively low figures in the UK, France and some other European countries), indicates that one could see the Turkish transformation as a move from the imposition of a French-inspired state secularism to an American-inspired market secularism which allows for a wide range of religious self expressions. Also, the “reenchantment” Yavuz cites can be understood as a consumerisation of religion (he acknowledges the role of consumption for the newly emerged Islamic bourgeoisie – Yavuz 2003: 97ff.), and the West (and particularly the US) is no stranger to such reenchantment – George Ritzer framed a whole book on consumerism in those terms (Ritzer 2005). Of course that doesn’t make the Turkish path a “carbon copy” – but neither is there necessarily an essential difference beyond the differences we find between country that much too easily are thrown into the big category “the West”.

Further, Yavuz states that contrary to a traditional sociological belief, in the Turkish case Islam does not promote quietist acceptance of fate but rather encourages individual initiative

‘Turkey has experienced the growth of an entrepreneurial spirit that has had an important impact on Islamic identity. Risk taking, the emergence of group individuality, and joint venturism are features of this entrepreneurial spirit. Willingness to take risks is significant because it involves liberation from blind submission to a higher order. The spirit of risk taking brings to the Turkish identity debate an approximation (protoindividualism) of the idiomatic character of individualism as understood in the West.’ (Yavuz 2003: 97)

If that’s the case Islamic revival in Turkey is not only not anti-Western or non-Western – Islamisation of business may be seen as straightforward Westernisation or even Americanisation. Try this: In the following quote replace references to Muhammad and Islam with references to Jesus and Christianity, references to the two Sufi-inspired movements with references to Protestant denominations and then ask yourself whether the statement could not be about the USA

‘The existence of a “market” of religious ideas is a requirement for achieving a pluralistic democracy. Muslim merchants in the MÜSİAD compete to offer an economic basis for the sustenance of a moral community. They tend to see Islam as a pool of ideas and strategies that can be employed to justify social acts in the market environment. Thus religious enthusiasm, along with earning profits, are the main motivating forces behind the expanding Turkish market. The Nakşibendi and Nurcu communities emphasize the merchant ethics of the Prophet Muhammad and try to fuse these with the values of modern capitalism.’ (Yavuz 2003: 95)

If still unconvinced, have a look at Bruce Barton’s best-selling 1925 The Man Nobody Knows in which the American master advertiser sets out the idea of Jesus as a role model for the successful business man (also see Elzey 1978).

Barton, Bruce (1925): The Man Nobody Knows, London: Constable

Elzey, Wayne (1978): ‘Jesus the Salesman: A Reassessment of The Man Nobody Knows‘, InJournal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.46, No.2, pp.151-77.

Ritzer, George (2005): Enchanting a Disenchanted World, London: Sage.

Yavuz, M. Hakan (2003): Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, Oxford: Oxford University Press

update 13th october 2010

Further down the book I found this about Esad Coşan’s views of Islam and the market – Coşan took over as leader of the Nakşibendi Gümüşhanevi order whose leader until 1980, Mehmet Zahid Kotku, was the spiritual inspiration of, among others, Turgut Özal and Necmettin Erbakan:

Indeed, some of his speeches and articles were very similar to the speeches of presidents of corporations informing shareholders about the economic condition of a company. Worship of God, for a follower of Coşan, can be realized in the marketplace. Coşan says: “Trade is real and permanent in an individual’s life. Other activities are utopian, hypothetical, and imaginary; whereas trade is the most realistic. As far as I am concerned, those who do not have trade experience do not turn out to be good humans. The most pragmatic and realistic people are businessmen and merchants. If a businessman is also a Muslim, he is the most in tune with his religious situation in life.” In other words, Qur’anic verses were turned into slogans as a project in economic competition. The market conditions of the 1980s led to the process of recreating a new, abstract, highly centralized and economically conscious Islam, which was embraced by the modern urban population.’ (Yavuz 2003: 143)

While even the notion that ‘Muslims would view the liberating and rationalizing “hidden hand” of market forces as a reflection of divine wisdom.’ (Yavuz 2003: 142) does not necessarily mirror what Weber portrays as the Calvinist dilemma in which the market becomes a source of divine signs of grace, it is clear that it stipulates a logic of economic probation in which personal moral value is reflected in economic success – clearly a functional equivalent…