Is Religion Opium Of The Masses, Or Marxism Opium Of The Elites?

Is Religion Opium Of The Masses, Or Marxism Opium Of The Elites?

by Lakshmi Bandlamudi - Sunday, February 13, 2022 07:09 PM IST
Is Religion Opium Of The Masses, Or Marxism Opium Of The Elites?Statue of Karl Max in Dessau, Germany
  • The left does not hesitate to attack the ‘religious right’, warning people of the dangers of dogma and erosion of secularism, but it fails to examine its own dogma and the licence it gives itself to discredit or legitimise other schools of thought.

Lobhah Sadã Vicintyo

Lubdhebhyah Sarvato Bhayam Drstam

Kary | Akarya | Vicaro

Lobha | Visamjnasya n’Asty Eva.

Beware of Avarice

The Threat of the Avaricious is Evident Everywhere

Someone Oblivious with Greed

Does Not Care What is Right and Wrong.

Kshemendra. The Grace of Guile. 2. Greed.

Lord Shiva in his dancing form as Nataraja keeps one foot on Asura Apasmar, who embodies ignorance, selfishness, and greed, in order to subdue the dangerous power of the demonic force. He does not kill the demon, but contains him.

The four vices that humans are most susceptible to are kama — lust, krodha — anger, lobha greed, and moha desire, and these must be kept under control through disciplined practice as they cannot be eliminated.

The Dharmic traditions recognise lust, anger, greed, and desire as human traits and, in good measure, are even necessary driving forces, but in excess become human vices and blind the individual from distinguishing between right and wrong.

These ideas, emanating from religious and/or spiritual traditions, in this day and age are placed under the banner of the “right wing” in an undifferentiated manner, as if all religions are the same.

How does the so-called left address the problem of greed?

The father of the old leftist ideology, Karl Marx, located the genesis of greed in capitalism. He saw economic class as the single most stratifying factor in society — that is, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat — between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Furthermore, human intellect itself is mediated by tool use and production that is constantly changing.

According to Marx, the very basis of human consciousness is grounded in material conditions. Our cognitive capacities, ideas, and ideals change with technological development. As modes of production change, they conflict with the existing social system and, subsequently, new social equations are drawn.

These ideas have their merit, according to their internal logic, and not so difficult to see as one among the many schools of thought. But this school makes a huge leap in its recommendation: since economic class is the only dividing line in society, Marx along with Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto to build a classless society.

Thus, from 1917, the year of the Communist Revolution, began an unprecedented social experiment in many parts of the world to eliminate class and, by extension, crush greed.

Did it succeed? And at what cost?

While religion promoted individual discipline to keep greed under control, the left controlled society in an attempt to eliminate greed. Interestingly, Marx did predict accurately as to what was bound to happen when capitalism, with its inherent greed, is left unchecked, but his prescription for a classless society is most certainly a failed one.

Marx was not calling for monitoring and regulating capitalism, because, by its very nature, greed is unstoppable, and hence the call for a classless society.

Although communism as a political system started collapsing from 1989 in much of eastern Europe, culminating in the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the left as an ideology, despite being ill-defined, became deep-rooted and dominant in many parts of the world — particularly in universities, mass media, and various other institutions.

The left has become a large tent for a potpourri of social causes — class, gender, race, sexual identity, and various other aggrieved groups — real or perceived. Taking Marx’s dictum that religion is the opium of the masses quite seriously, the left, to a large part, shows disdain for organised religion.

Many questions crop up when we see numerous manifestations of Marxism as the left in various parts of the world. How did they manage to discredit established religions and turn themselves into a religion? It is instructive to note that dogmas come in many forms.

Is standing under the banner of "left" a flimsy cover for disingenuity, or is it an honest utopian dream? Or is it a weapon to disrupt institutions? Or does it justify self-certification for purportedly advancing noble ideals? After all, virtue signalling is done quite unabashedly.

Ironically, the countries that suffered immensely from the totalitarian governments that implemented communism are moving away from it, whereas in free, democratic countries, the left has become a dominant force.

Life Under Communism

My academic and scholarly work revolves around numerous Russian thinkers, who suffered immensely under the Stalin era, and I shall present my arguments based on the lives of two thinkers — Lev Semonovich Vygotsky (1896-1934), a socio-historical epistemologist and developmental psychologist, and Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975), a literary theorist and philosophical anthropologist.

This approach, I think, gives a human face to atrocities faced by citizens and intellectuals under closed totalitarian communist regimes.

Vygotsky is an extraordinary and insightful theorist of the mind and human development, often referred to as the Mozart of psychology. Despite his stellar academic record in school, he had to struggle to get admission in the University of Moscow because only 3 per cent of the enrollment was allotted to Jewish students and he gained admission only by chance when the university switched to a lottery system for Jewish applicants.

Even before the Communist takeover, Vygotsky had to face a virulent form of anti-Semitism. He graduated from college in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, and from then on, his academic path took numerous twists and turns — from a law degree to a doctorate in psychology.

Vygotsky grounded his theory of the mind at the intersection of two lines — the natural line that includes genetic and psychological factors unique to the individual, and the cultural line that includes material tools, laws, and a value system that is collectively shared in a culture.

He stressed the primacy of tool use and production and its direct connection to human intelligence, and this aspect endorses the dialectical materialism of Marxist theory. But Vygotsky’s equal emphasis on the natural line was unacceptable to the then communist regime.

Any idea that even slightly deviated from the official communist agenda faced scrutiny, ban, and punishment. Had Vygotsky not succumbed to tuberculosis in 1934 at a young age of 38, he would have faced what most intellectuals faced during that time — be sent to Siberia or be killed.

Vygotsky faced a double jeopardy — anti-Semitism and his theory not fitting into the strict Marxist mold. Therefore, even after his death, his writings were not spared, and they were banned for several decades. Only from the mid-seventies did a few of his works that suited the official agenda were released.

A brilliant thinker who gave incredible insights into the workings of the mind was subjected to the most brutal form of ‘mind control’ by the communists, even long after his death. Such was the nature of closed totalitarian regimes.

Among the influential thinkers of the twentieth century, it is difficult to find someone who was as fascinated with the plenitude of differences — not in terms of ethnicity but in the realm of ideas — as Bakhtin was, and he built his philosophy of dialogue on the grounds of divergent viewpoints.

But he, too, lived and suffered in times when culture was forcibly homogenised and dialogue was virtually impossible. Like a prisoner who yearns for freedom, Bakhtin yearned for dialogue in a painfully monologic and authoritarian world.

Like Vygotsky, Bakhtin’s entry into adult life coincided with the Communist Revolution. Bakhtin was clearly out of step with Marxist thinking and didn’t care much about structural revolution in society. He despised simple-minded solutions to complex human problems. Instead, he favoured dialogue between divergent viewpoints and ideals.

Bakhtin insisted on multivoicedness in culture and abhorred single-voiced ideologies, as he considered them to be just loud and ineffective in bringing about any change. It is a lot easier to take to the streets and hold banners and shout slogans in a shrill voice, whereas bringing about real change needs patience and strategy, and the effort gives a lot of heartache.

Bakhtin did not romanticise dialogue. He understood the challenges and was acutely mindful that you can’t have dialogue with a gun to your head. Also, dialogue is not possible when one party gives the opening and a fair hearing and the other party simply takes advantage of the opening to trespass and control the terrain — be it consciousness or geographical space.

Like the much-admired writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bakhtin, too, saw Christ as a great interlocutor in dialogue — for that matter, dialogue itself was a form of communion with Christ — and he embraced the Russian orthodox church not as a codified religion, but as a deep feeling for faith. His activities in the church took him to jail and because he was suffering from debilitating bone disease, he was shifted to a hospital.

Like any intellect living under oppressive conditions with a gun to their head, Bakhtin and the members in his study circle had to learn to write by concealing many of their inner ideas and convictions and, hence, their words had to be suggestive and multi-layered.

I was in Russia in 1995 to conduct research and participate in a conference marking the centennial year of Bakhtin, and what I heard repeatedly from the surviving members of the Bakhtin Circle and other scholars was that they had to learn to write in riddles and always insert escape clauses in the event that they were interrogated by officials.

In 1996, I went as a Fulbright scholar to Bulgaria and Romania and writers there also conveyed the same dilemma. If readers recognised the hidden message, writers felt elated and validated.

In the routine purge of intellectuals, many members of the Bakhtin Circle were killed. Across Eastern Europe, I heard people lament about how the church and/or god was taken away from them and communist leaders appointed themselves as gods.

Bakhtin’s work on Dostoevsky’s poetics is one of the finest works in literary theory, and yet, Bakhtin felt he could not do justice, that is, address the fundamental question on how Dostoevsky agonised all his life on the nature of man’s relationship with god. He felt that on the graceless Soviet soil, beneath the unfree sky, all scholarship is morally flawed. This was life under communism.

Communism in China is even more treacherous. First, what we have been witnessing in China since the collapse of the Soviet Union is that communism is an empty label, sans ideology. It is state-controlled capitalism without freedom, making it a capitalist dictatorship.

I went to China as a Fulbright scholar in 2004 and very quickly realised that this was cleverly managed to present China in an exceptionally positive light. Unlike my Fulbright experience in Bulgaria and Romania, where writers and academics would freely share their thoughts and struggles, the China experience was completely staged. We heard only what they wanted us to hear.

In Russia and eastern Europe, we would hear ample stories about underground resistance, but in China, no such stories were communicated. We heard voices of resistance only when we arrived in Hong Kong.

Furthermore, China is incredibly adept in understanding fault lines in various open and vulnerable countries and exploiting them to their advantage. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the world is beholden to the Chinese market and labour.

Left In Open Societies

What constitutes the left in this day and age?

It is a million-dollar question. Are they fighting for a specific cause? Do they have a firm ideological foundation to place their demands? Or is it like China, where communism is just a label — an empty label — bereft of ideology?

Or is it a cover for rebels without a cause or a perceived cause? Or is it a platform for self-appointed saviours of the world? Or a bandwagon to jump on to for feel-good activism?

In universities, is Marxism one among the many theoretical models that are taught and its interpretive tools deployed to make sense of class inequities?

I would say ‘yes’ to this question and it ought to be that way. After all, no thinker in the twentieth century brought about such revolutionary change in many societies as Marx did and that fact must be acknowledged whether one agrees with his theory or not. His theoretical principles do have immense value; it is the recommendation that has failed and implemented at a great cost to freedom.

I, too, teach Marx since Vygotsky’s theory of cognition is built on the fundamentals of dialectical materialism. Having acknowledged this aspect, it is only fair to ask — based on trends and ground realities — about the groups that stand under the large umbrella called the "left."

Whatever is the nature of the groups that stand under this banner, the left does seem to have gained an upper hand in language games.

Consider the words and phrases associated with the left — liberal, progressive, modern, intellectual, secular. These words make the ideology desirable. The right is associated with the words religious, traditional, anti-science, and intolerance, and naturally nobody wants to be associated with it. The ground reality could be otherwise and complicated, but labels give or take away legitimacy.

Since the left carries with it a veneer of desirability and, more importantly, dominance and power in universities, it can easily be used to deceive. The gap between proclamations and actions, despite being wide, do find false justification. It creates an illusion of fighting for the right cause and signal virtue.

The left does not hesitate to go full-throated in its attack of the ‘religious right’, warning people of the dangers of dogma and erosion of secularism, but it fails to examine its own dogma and the licence it gives itself to discredit or legitimise theories.

By no means am I implying that the right is free of hypocrisy. When you see a bogus mendicant or religious leader, by all means they must be exposed and held accountable, and the same rule must be applied to academic priests, too. I find it appalling when left-leaning academics, mainly in Western academia, try to squeeze Vygotsky and Bakhtin, who suffered under communism, into the Marxist mould, as if without that frame, legitimacy cannot be sanctioned.

These thinkers stand tall in their own right; however, nuances, context, and history of their work are often overlooked. It is easy for many insidious acts to go undetected, as it is done under the guise of academic freedom. False equivalences are drawn freely: the politics and cultural divides of one country are mapped on to another.

For instance, parallels are drawn between the racial politics of America and the caste classification of India, with total disregard to the history and meaning of these social constructs or applying the argument of majoritarianism selectively to argue for minority rights violation.

The left-dominated media in India and in the West characterise the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) law as a human rights violation. The ground realities are completely overlooked. All nuances are erased to render absolute repudiation to claim moral superiority.

When universities become platforms for such insidious activities, they no longer awaken student minds; instead, they become a factory for mass production of warriors who are unclear about what for and why they are fighting.

Vivek Agnihotri aptly labelled such educators as “urban Naxals.” In his earlier film, Buddha in a Traffic Jam, we meet one such professor played by Anupam Kher, who recruits unsuspecting and idealist students to carry out his so-called activities of helping the tribal community, which in reality is a sinister and deceptive project.

When young minds are brain-washed like this, they take the licence to hurl invectives indiscriminately. When Agnihotri visited Jadavpur University to deliver a talk and show his film, he was surrounded by a very angry mob of students holding placards and screaming, “Bloody fascist Brahmin… Go back, Agnihotri.”

In his upcoming film, The Kashmir Files, we come across another urban Naxal professor, played by Pallavi Joshi, who instigates her students to fight for azadi in Kashmir. The irony and tragedy are glaring: institutions that ought to keep minds free to explore turns impressionable minds into prisoners of their bogus freedom cry.

The thinkers under the brutal Stalin era, discussed earlier, wrote fearlessly and even tactfully despite dangers to their lives, whereas universities in free societies groom students to become foot soldiers for manufactured social justice causes.

I am not suggesting real conflicts don’t exist, but to correct them, students need exposure to competing ideas and not cancel culture.

Can any of the brain-washed students think freely on their own when they are beholden to the whims of their educators? Can students roam, in Rabindranath Tagore’s words in Gitanjali, “where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls,” when they are themselves busy fragmenting the world?

Sadly, unlike the intellectuals in communist countries, these urban Naxals, even while enjoying privilege and freedom, pull students into ideological prisons that they have constructed where everything is topsy-turvy — fair is foul, foul is fair — and meanings are detached from words.

For sure, Marxism — not even in its original form — has become the opium of the elites.

Dr. Lakshmi Bandlamudi is Professor of Psychology at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY.
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