Marxism as Religion: A Personal Recollection
Branko Milanovic on Marxism's religion-like ability to address fear.
A couple of days ago, I was writing a part of my forthcoming book (with the provisional, and not very clever, title “Globalization and inequality”) dealing with war. You have to have a section on war in today’s books because all of your stories about convergence, divergence, global middle class, r>g and the like can be totally swept away by war, and especially by a world war.
I then remembered a small episode in my life, from much earlier times when the threat of nuclear war really loomed large in everyday life. Like many of my peers, I have been strongly influenced by the Cold War. We lived, until the late 1960s-early 1970s constantly in its shadow. I was in elementary school when the Cuban missile crisis happened and I still remember the feeling of dread that took over everybody. For sure, Yugoslavia, where I lived then, was a non-aligned, although Communist, country and we did not expect that the first volley of missiles would hit us. It was even unclear who might shoot at Yugoslavia. But the fear of the abyss was nevertheless palpable.
Around that time, we also studied elementary Marxism with its teleological succession of socio-economic formations: primitive Communism, slave-owning society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and then, the blossoming of all, Communism. We learned that every society had to go through these stages and that the ultimate and inevitable final stage of all human societies was Communism. Then, living in the shadow of a nuclear cataclysm, I combined what I had just learned about the ineluctable advance of humanity with the threat of war. If all of mankind had to reach Communism, I thought, then we cannot have a nuclear holocaust now since it would destroy the mankind before it had acceded to Communism. Thus I decided that Marxism provides a very effective rebuttal to any possibility of a nuclear war. My fears receded. For, I thought, if there is a war, the scientific study of where the mankind is going would be proven incorrect. And, on that soothing note, I went to bed, sure that no world war would break out.
Now, almost half-a-century later, as I was writing about the war, I realized how Marxism in that case really fulfilled the essential functions of a religion. It is often said that Marxism, with its succession of social stages and with the beliefs it engenders in people, is a secular religion. But in this case it was more than that: it dispelled the fears of death, like any “serious” religion would.
Now when I see the clouds of a nuclear war appearing again, and no longer believe in Marxist schemata nor in the ineluctable future of the mankind, nor in religion, there is nothing, I thought, to make me forget the fear of war.
This post first appeared on Branko's blog and was reposted with permission.
Image credit: Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)