Note 5: Marx: On Tribal Religion. 4/18/99
Karl Marx's view of the world's "ancient social organisms of production," as he explains it in Capital (Chapter 1), depends clearly on the assumption that the people living in "ancient" societies, tribal communities especially, were less sophisticated, less knowledgeable, less governable, than their counterparts are in more recent historical epochs. Marx notes, for instance, that the means of production in bourgeois society are much less "simple and transparent" than were the ones employed by primitive and savage tribal people. Marx attributes this obvious difference to the fact that early means of production were
"founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection. They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and Nature, are correspondingly narrow."
The central idea here seems to be connected to the notion that people in the ancient world were "immature" in their development of social relationships, were, in fact, little more than newly born infants, since they had not yet managed to severe the "umbilical cord" connecting them to each other in "primitive tribal communit[ies]," and hence, were not able to conceive of and create means of production that were able to reach beyond the lowest stages of economic development. This perception of tribal society has been an unquestioned belief in Eurocentric discourse for almost as long as Europeans have conceived of being non-tribal themselves. In subsequent developments of Marxian theory, Adorno and Horkheimer, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, go so far as to argue that the formation of subjectivity itself, as an aspect of the development of bourgeois society, was essentially dependent on the choice between the subjection of the self to nature, which is how Marx reads the relationship between primitive (wo)man and the natural world, and the subjection of nature to the self. Hence, in the passage above, when Marx makes the observation that primitive means of production were "founded" on "direct relations of subjection," he means that savage people were overawed by nature and underdetermined in their sense of self because of their subjugation to its blind and menacing force.
Marx clarifies what he means by "narrow" when he continues this general thought in the following statement:
"This narrowness is reflected in the ancient worship of Nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions. The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature."
The assertion that tribal people do not maintain "intelligible and reasonable relations" with each other and with nature is a notion derived in whole from the generalized Eurocentric fallacy that European culture is necessarily, and by definition, as it were, superior to all other forms of human culture and society. The idea that the passage of time alone is somehow responsible for an inevitable improvement in the conditions of human reality is one closely tied to Darwin's theory of evolution, on the one hand, and Marx's notion of historical determinism, on the other. That Darwin's theory better explains the state of the world as we know it today, with respect to the appearance and distribution of animal species in geographical patterns of dispersal, than does a contrary "theory" based on notions of divine creationism, probably goes without saying but, at the same time, applying Darwin's theory to a presumed "evolution" of human culture, as if culture were a single living organism like an elephant or a monkey, say, whose geological history can be plotted and graphed to show its development from first to current stage, which is what Marx attempted to do with respect to culture and society, is an application of Darwin's theory that rests on no reasonable ground whatsoever. The problem with social Darwinism is that evolution requires epochs of geological time for noticeable changes in a species to occur and become visible whereas, measurable changes in human society, of the kind useful in plotting the right moment for a revolution of workers against the bourgeoisie, must occur within a time frame limited to single generations, several years, a few months, or nine-and-one-half hours, for anyone to be able to take advantage of them for the sake of overthrowing an entrenched ideology. Collapsing the time frame in which evolution works to a few hundred or a few thousand years may serve the purpose of generating hope among an oppressed people but it does not make any sense scientifically to talk about changes in society as being produced by evolutionary forces which take millions, not thousands, of years to occur. Tell an oppressed people they must wait 15 million years before conditions are ripe for the revolution and no more than a few incredibly patient people will be likely to join your movement for social change.
A much worse problem with Marx's position here concerns the fact that he has accepted an assumption about the nature of native cultures that is fundamentally misguided and totally false. His first or lowest stage of human culture is based on a Eurocentric fantasy about the Other that has no relevance to anything that has ever existed in the real world of human social relationships whatsoever. In a factual sense, what Marx has set out to do, in describing the evolution of human culture, is to tell us he has arranged a series of bones that belong to elephants gathered from successive epochs of geological time and will use them the describe the evolution of monkeys.
The fallacy has two parts. On the one hand, the assumption is taken that native people, tribal people, people of color, worship nature. That idea is totally false, if not ridiculous and absurd. This issue has to do with orientation and point of view. The idea that tribal people worship natural forces is one that has been projected on to them by European social scientists (anthro(a)pologists mostly) who were misled into this false belief by the missionaries (good Christians and true everyone) who were not able to accept the idea that a person could have a relationship with an unseen force or power that did not presuppose an hierarchical structure based on a differentiation between higher and lower status. Worship requires hierarchy and usually plays itself out in a relationship between a supernatural entity of some kind, God usually, who has been credited with creating the world in which the subservient and powerless worshiper lives out his or her life. This concept has nothing whatsoever to do with the native American, or with any other tribal, belief system. Natural forces, embodied by the concept of spirit, which native people have always been accused of worshiping, are not, and have never been, conceptualized as being supernatural. How can a natural force be supernatural? It is impossible for anyone to worship a natural force because the relationship Europeans describe by use of that term absolutely requires that one side of the connection be supremely superior to the other.
This fact points to the other aspect of the Marxian fallacy. Spirit, because it is wholly natural, is not in process of development to becoming God, as Engels claims in his study of the Iroquois federation in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (Chapter III). Marx depends on this same assumption, of course, in Capital. The point here is that tribal cultures developed their perceptions of relationship with nature, and with the forces that govern natural processes, over long periods of time, as much as 40,000 years, for instance, where the Aborigines of Australia are concerned, and never demonstrated any visible or apparent sign that they were simply working toward a conceptualization of deity with which to replace their belief in the spirit world. This same fact is true in all tribal cultures. In short, the idea that belief in spirits will eventually be transformed into a belief in gods or God, is simply a fantasy that Europeans invented to justify their own colonial intervention in the lives and practices of people who were in possession of material wealth that Europeans desired and ultimately appropriated for their own use from "savage" people who did not deserve to have it.
The Marxian argument that European civilization is the end result of a long evolutionary process that began with primitive human cultures in pursuit of a belief in the spirit world, moved forward from there by converting themselves to polytheism, and eventually achieved a state of belief in a single God who was responsible for the creation of the world, is simply unsupportable from any known facts that have ever, or will ever, be collected. Animism, which isn't even a religion in terms of the way that word is usually applied, the belief system practiced by so-called "primitive" people, is not, and has never been, a lower or earlier stage in a determined progression to Theism. A spirit can never become god. The two concepts are as different from one another as are the bones of elephants and monkeys. To argue that animism will eventually turn into theism is the same as arguing that elephants will eventually evolve into monkeys.
The primary reason this is true, and it seems useful to say what that reason is, concerns the fact that spirit-oriented belief systems were developed by (wo)man as a means of differentiating one kind of natural force from another. While that statement seems to imply the existence of hierarchy or dialectical or differential reasoning on the part of "savages," nothing could be further from the truth. The point of distinguishing between one kind of force and another is not connected to an effort to say which is higher or lower, better or worse, good or evil, on some (wo)man invented or created scale of ontology but rather to establish a credible and dependable methodology for living in close proximity to, and in the direct and absolute presence of, creatures and forces and powers that are both inimical and beneficial to human life. If you do not know the difference between the spirit of the grizzly and the brown bear and live in a place, and under conditions, where you might encounter one or the other in the course of any normal day, your chances of living more than a week or two are very nearly zero. To say that tribal people live in fear of spirits is to mistake prudence and rationality for recklessness and superstition. Only Europeans enter the natural world with fear and trembling, with recklessness and superstition, guiding their every waking moment, their every conscious step. Tribal people have never been afraid of spirits. Why would a tribal person fear something that means only to save his/her life?
When Marx says that tribal people are inferior to Europeans because they have not developed means of production that are based on "intelligible and reasonable relations" with their fellowmen and with nature, he is only mouthing 5000 years worth of Eurocentric stupidity. Put another way: he is only saying what any Eurocentric monotheist must say if he/she is to continuing living in a world that denies and destroys nature for the sake of insatiable greed rather than searching for a way to live productively within the natural limits we all share with our brother the grizzly, the wolf, the deer, the eagle, the crow. Eurocentric concepts of hierarchy give the European the right and the duty to kill the other and never the responsibility to live in close and open proximity with him/her.
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