Thoughts on the White “Left” Imagination: A Response to the Kasama Project on Religion

Let’s not worry ourselves with whether the soul is mortal or immortal when we know that hunger is [deadly]. – Camilo Torres

I normally do not write articles just to vent, but there has been something particularly stupid irritating me for the last few days. As the level of irritation it has caused is higher than the background level I feel I need to say something about it.

Anyway, over at a particularly well known White “leftist” site there was a stink raised last week about pop singer Cee Lo Green’s alterations to the lyrics to John Lennon’s song Imagine. The ‘incident’ occured during Cee Lo’s performance at Time Square’s New Year’s Eve party. What did he do? He changed Lennon’s lyric ““and no religion, too” with “and all religion is true,” which the group in question called a “backwards absurdity.”

But what is the real absurdity? That Cee Lo (who was already performing what these crackers had the gall to call a beloved communist anthem at one of he biggest displays of imperialist wealth and consumerism) changed a supposedly secular/atheist lyric to one that (regardless of Cee Lo’s intentions) challenges the divisive claims of exclusive knowledge about ultimate reality by various institutionalized religions by saying that they are all true? Or, that a White “left” group out there, confident in its own knowledge about ultimate reality, feels that there is nothing more pressing happening in the world at this moment and in need of comment by communists than Cee Lo’s lyrical alterations?

I think the answer should be obvious.

But what is the real issue that this drags out? For myself, based on my past experiences, this stinks of the idea that one must be an atheist to be a revolutionary, or at the very least that to be an atheist is to be a superior revolutionary. If this kind of thing is not openly stated by many so-called revolutionaries (not just those in the group I am picking on at the moment) it is broadcast loud and clear between the lines.

Must You Reject the Spiritual to be Revolutionary?

Maybe it’s my training in the social sciences, but I’ve always found this odd. Many Marxist organizations proudly proclaim their atheism/secularism. The new revolutionary society will do away with religious belief they say. Religion is a “backwards absurdity” they say. All the while they also proclaim an unspoken membership criteria for their grouplets: adherence to atheism/secularism. The message is loud and clear: “if you are religious or spiritual, don’t come around here!”

What these White “leftists” fail to grasp is that religion is not the principal contradiction among the people. To them you can’t be religious/spiritual and also be a revolutionary (or least not a very good one). It’s all the more funny because they criticize Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and his ridiculous anti-religion campaign for critiquing religion without understanding it, while they at the same time continue on the exact same practice, though with perhaps much less bravado.

What really matters is that actual revolutionary practice has proved both of them wrong time and time again. Camilo Torres, whose powerful words I used to open this piece up, was a radical Catholic liberation theologian and priest from Colombia who put his belief in a revolutionary Christ who came as a social savior directly into practice by joining the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second most powerful leftist guerilla army. Later on he was martyred during the protracted arm struggle in that country and his sacrifice inspired many others with similar views to take up actual revolutionary practice as well.

Comrade Torres, a devoted follower of Jesus, was far braver than any of those so-called “leftists” in North America who sit back, proclaiming religion to be a “backwards absurdity” while people starve and die in the ghettos, barrios and reservations.

Comrade Torres was not alone. Throughout Latin America and the Philippines liberation theology lit a beacon of hope and revolution for the most oppressed masses of people. In fact, communistic liberation theology presented such a threat, especially to the imperialist Catholic hierarchy, that the current Pope lead an internal campaign to have it purged. Despite this, today liberation theology continues to inform and inspire groups as diverse as the Zapatista Liberation Army of Mexico, the National Liberation Army in Colombia and various member organizations of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

Beyond Latin America and the Philippines, in the so-called Islamic World, some of the most potent anti-imperialist forces are inspired to action and revolution by their Islamic faith. One has to look no further than Hezbollah, the Party of God in Lebannon. Hezbollah, whose ideology is what one might call left Islamism (as opposed to the right Islamism of Al Qaeda), is one of the most successful resistance organizations in the Arab and Islamic Worlds, and is also one of the most well respected, even by non-Shia and non-Muslims.

In North America we also see people inspired to fight imperialism and capitalism by their spiritual traditions within the indigenous nations. The indigenous traditionalist vision is in fact at its core a liberatory and communist one. That is why capitalist society has always needed to eliminate our societies. We present a dangerous socio-cultural, political and economic counter-examples to their world order, and we often do it on a spiritual basis.

But what does the white “left” have to say about those myriad of courageous anti-imperialist forces? Little, if anything, I imagine, beyond perhaps considering them to be abberations.

Anyway, rant over.

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Posted on January 9, 2012, in Religion & Spirituality, White Leftism & Neocolonialism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Now, I probably shouldn’t even try to hazard a response to this, as I might be dismissed solely on the grounds that I am a “white” leftist. But what do you make of Lenin’s categorical opposition to Pan-Islamism, his vituperative debate against Tan Malaka, and so on:

    “Reactionary Anti-Imperialism”

  2. If you have the time, could you please point to where Mike Ely or the Kasama Project has said that:

    1) Religion is the principal contradiction among the people
    2) Religion will be done away in a revolutionary, presumably socialist, society
    3) Atheists are superior revolutionaries to those who are spiritual.

    With all due respect, I don’t think that this post lives up to the quality of your other writings and instead presents a strawman of Mike Ely and the Kasama Project. However, if they do have these views, then they are wrong and we should struggle against those wrong views.

  3. The same debate over this song took place on a facebook page affiliated with the Socialist Party USA. I got very bitter and nasty with well over a hundred comments. Kasama only drew two comments, meh. Anyway, I agree with your points about this. No one can control the meaning of art (song, poetry, etc), which speaks in multivalent voices and is always subject to appropriation and adaptation to context. I think Cee LO and Lennin had a similar meaning in their performances, the point that religion ought not be a ground of conflict and human division, hate. The white left would do well to read this to avoid further alienation and division that flow from their assertions of revolutionary superiority, which is actually another expression of the imperialist ideology of American exceptionalism. Cheers

  4. @MF:

    My thoughts on Ely and other Kasama members/sympathisers’ (I don’t know if anyone could be considered an official KP member) views on religion is actually largely based on person-person interactions and private conversations. I haven’t spoken to Ely in some time because of reasons I have outlined elsewhere on this blog, but some of the last convos I had with him before breaking off relations, and ones before that, were littered with the kind of sentiment I outlined above. I also was witness to similar things being said by other members. Perhaps I should have made this more clear in the article (which was a hastily written rant anyway).

    Also, I was also speaking in hyperbole when I said that Ely and Co. see religion as the principal contradiction among the people. I was attempting to draw out the (inappropriate in my opinion) level of importance they place on atheism, secularism and scientism. I apologize for that not coming across well.

    @Louis:

    I tend to uphold Mirza Sultan Galiev on those questions. Additionally, as with Marx, I do not think Lenin was perfect in his analysis of such things as I believe even he was afflicted with Eurocentrism (though not to the same degree as Marx).

    @Sage: I didn’t see that debate on the SP-USA page. Do you have a link. Since I got my start in radical politics with SP-USA I am quite interested in this!

    Anyway, I was not attempting to make it seem as if the KP were the only folks who engaged in this kind of thing. I for one noticed atheist rads from other lefty orgs on FB making a similar stink about the ‘incident’ as well. The reason I chose to pick on KP is because they have a highly visibly web presence and because they actually made an article on it. Compare this to members of the FRSO I know who took issue with what happened, but Fight Back! News did not write an article calling Cee Lo’s changes a “backwards absurdity” or calling Imagine a communist classic.

  5. The worst part is when this comes from an “intellectual’ group like Kasama. They should know better and be more materialist about what Marx means when he critiques religion, specifically since he wrote it at a time and in a place where regional religions weren’t particularly liberatory, and anthropological work on world religions (especially as far as what he’s known to have read) isn’t wasn’t particularly strong.

  6. Here is the link to the page http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/groups/2340869151/?notif_t=group_activity

    The thread is a bit down the page as the debate took place a few days back. The name of the affiliated group is Socialist Party USA: America’s Voice for Democratic Socialism, in case the link does not get you to the right spot. ON that page, you will also see I posted the link to your blog with this piece asking people to read it and really consider it.

    As for the denial on behalf of Kasama I saw above, I have seen the militant atheist arrogant posture that holds religion in contempt as that “backward outlook” that must be overcome across many leftist sites; it is a common stance on the white left. I find it very disturbing and alienating, not personally because of any particular religious beliefs, but because it dismisses most people on this earth as in need of emancipation from a white leftist (read more “progressive and enlightened” source of agency). Such arrogant assumptions have no place in revolutionary politics that seek to unify. Plus, as you noted, why waste time on these diversions from really important issues like starvation and the crimes of capitalist/imperialist intervention? I chalk it up to the me-ism in American society, the endless obsessing over incidental particulars in discourse that provide scope for narcissistic self-affirmation. It should be about the “we” rather than the “me.”

  7. I agree with your article. Another thing that struck me though when I read the indignant Kasama original was that this was like the tenth time in the past year he has posted all about John Lennon on a site which is notoriously picky about what it posts. It’s also news to me that ‘Imagine’ is a beloved communist anthem as they said. Since when? It’s idealist crap. I’ve never once seen that song associated with communism. It’s sheer opportunism. Kasama really loves trying to use celebrities to advance its terrible political line. Read the latest horseshit about “Roads” and it’s clear that it’s really not a communist site anymore.

  8. I recently wrote the following regarding this question:

    “That is why I am skeptical as well of what Dri is trying to say, at least here. If religion must be emptied of much of its content in order to make it a tool for liberation, then that begs the question of what good is religion in the first place. No doubt, he would have a good answer to that, but still, the question remains. If, for example, we have to pick and choose between Biblical texts, that indicates to me that the Bible is really not worth keeping as anything more than a book of cultural history. In the end, one could say that this is the most “Catholic” position of all: what matters is not the book, or the theology, or the dogmas, but the community itself. But to base one’s faith on a community that is constantly changing, constantly struggling, constantly redefining itself, seems to be a Sisyphean task. I could probably make the case better than many that the identity “Catholic” has always been up for grabs, that the religiosity of the people has never been the same as that of the elites, that the poor have always used religious symbolism to embody their deepest aspirations. In the end, however, these arguments would only indicate that the truth lies elsewhere: in the ‘secular’ in Hegelian terms, or in the Absolute as the struggle for freedom.”

    The rest here:

    http://elblogdelpelon.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/notes-on-religion/

  9. Good observation on Kasama. I’ve always thought it was funny they mention Sakai (barely offering any real commentary on it besides scornful skepticism), just to say they’ve covered the topic… but to the matter at hand.

    “What these White “leftists” fail to grasp is that religion is not the principal contradiction.”

    I think this pretty much encapsulates the whole issue, and you are right at noting the White “left’s” backwards view on the matter (which, IMO, goes deeper than just questions on religion and more importantly reveal a specifically First Worldist/anti-oppressed approach to “revolutionary” politics). As a side note, where is the line between thinking jesus was the son of god or a prophet on one hand, and on the other a) non-violence solely will bring about significant social change b) the “white working class” is part of the proletariat in any relevant sense, c) or that Bob Avakian is a great/original/not-piggish leader of proletarian internationalism, or any number of myths propagated amongst the white ‘left.’ They all represent revealing ideologies to some extent or another.

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