Marxism and Spirituality

“Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life ‘on the scales of destiny’ when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.” (Rosa Luxemburg)

“Dum spiro spero! [While there is life, there’s hope!] […] As long as I breathe, I shall fight for the future […].” (Leon Trotsky)

Buddhist spirituality is based on three premises* that, in their most basic sense, are quintessentially Marxist:

  1. All things are impermanent. From the cells in our bodies to world systems, all is in flux, and all is momentary. This is not a pessimistic belief, since change is seen as the door to liberation. We can change!
  2. Everything is interconnected. There is me, but I am also part of ecosystems, organs, societies, and companions. There is no fixed, unchanging, separate selfhood.
  3. Life is suffering. Our lives consist of a constant search for happiness through which we suffer. Until we reach our spiritual potential, nothing can satisfy us.
My ascent of Snowdon in 2009. Mountains are a humble reminder of impermanence, interconnection, and a perpetual quest for spiritual fulfilment.

My ascent of Snowdon in 2009. Mountains are a humble reminder of impermanence, interconnection, and a perpetual quest for spiritual fulfilment.

Non-religious, spiritual strivings (be it through Buddhist meditation or psychotherapy) may become so focused on one’s own mind or one’s own relationships as to be apolitical. Marxist strivings can become so externalised to the self to the cost of our individual well-being. But if we understand spirituality as the nourishment of ourselves as part-and-parcel of the incorporeality of the cosmos – ‘the world fills me with awe’; ‘life is beautiful, wonderful, and mysterious’; ‘we belong to one another, nature, and the universe’ – this is not incompatible with the political struggle for the universal solidarity of the corporeal body of the working class, which can democratically organise our world on the social provision of need and liberty. In this sense, Marxism is both material and spiritual. Let us consider the three principles of Buddhism through a spirit of Marxism as narrated by Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg.

All things are impermanent

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: “All that is solid melts into air […].”

Karl Marx: “In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.”

Antonio Gramsci: “Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day. That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates. […] the date becomes an obstacle, a parapet that stops us from seeing that history continues to unfold along the same fundamental unchanging line, without abrupt stops, like when at the cinema the film rips and there is an interval of dazzling light. That’s why I hate New Year’s. I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigour. No spiritual time-serving. I would like every hour of my life to be new, though connected to the ones that have passed. […] I await socialism for this reason too. Because it will hurl into the trash all of these dates which have no resonance in our spirit […].”

Vladimir Lenin: “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.”

Everything is interconnected

Karl Marx: “Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”

Friedrich Engels:  “Let us not […] flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly. And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men [sic] not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.”

Life is suffering

Karl Marx: “Man [sic] as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering being – and because he feels that he suffers, a passionate being.”

Karl Marx: “The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume – your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life. Everything which the political economist takes from you in terms of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth, and everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you: it can eat, drink, go dancing, go to the theatre, it can appropriate art, learning, historical curiosities, political power, it can travel, it is capable of doing all those thing for you; it can buy everything: it is genuine wealth, genuine ability. But for all that, it only likes to create itself, to buy itself, for after all everything else is its servant. And when I have the master I have the servant, and I have no need of his servant. So all passions and all activity are lost in greed. The worker is only permitted to have enough for him [sic] to live, and he is only permitted to live in order to have.”

Karl Marx: “Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

See also, my post, Socialism: a nice idea, but is it viable?

*Acknowledgement: Alice Fowler

3 thoughts on “Marxism and Spirituality

  1. Pingback: Marx and the Buddha on Wall Street | Anaemic On A Bike

  2. A lot of fine talk from thorough going materialists who believe that thought is derivative from matter.

  3. Pingback: Gramsci on why every day should feel like a New Year’s Day | Anaemic On A Bike

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