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Belief and the Left

If we leftists are asked what we believe in, what do we say?
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #21, September 1995

I believe in coyotes
And time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference
What you want
And what you need
There's a key
— REM, "I Believe"

If we leftists are asked what we believe in, what do we say? Does anyone say "I believe in Marxism"; or "I believe in the following human rights: liberty, equality, and solidarity"; or "I believe that capitalism does not represent the best of all possible economic systems"? All these responses sound a little strange, don't they? Leftists aren't expected to talk about their beliefs. Leftists offer analyses. They point out injustices. They critique the powers-that-be. So it would seem odd to hear one of us respond "I believe in x, y, and z". But what if one were to say, "I don't believe in anything at all"?

Today leftists live in a world where the right wing is ascendant. Progressive movements are on the defensive around the globe. When we confront the idea of belief, we cannot help but notice that an unholy alliance of religious and political conservatives has been a prime factor in the undermining of leftist causes. Wherever we turn, we see self-righteous believers trying to force their reactionary agenda down everyone else's throats. For these reasons, it would hardly be surprising for leftists to assume that there is something bad about acting on the basis of beliefs. There is an understandable temptation to think that not believing in anything might be the best way to mount a challenge to right-wing believers. What we leftists need to ask ourselves is whether succumbing to this temptation is a good thing.

Religious Belief

Belief has always posed problems for leftists. Its connection with religion is a big reason. Leftists have always been wary of religion. There are good historical reasons for their suspicion. Leftist politics originated during a time when religion seemed a fundamental impediment to progress. During the second half of the eighteenth century, intellectuals critiqued the superstitious, inflexible aspects of religious institutions in the name of reason. Radicals pointed out the alliances between religious and secular nobility. By the time Marxism and anarchism, the two dominant traditions in contemporary leftist theory, were taking shape in the middle of the nineteenth century, hostility towards religious institutions was firmly established as a cornerstone of progressive thought.

Marxism and anarchism did not just promote critiques of religious institutions. Unlike many nineteenth-century progressive movements, they were not interested in freeing the essence of religion from its institutional chains. Rather, they encouraged critiques of all religious belief. To put this another way, Marxists and anarchists weren't mere reformers upset by the divergence of religious practice from religious theory, but radicals bent on attacking religion in the abstract. To understand why, we need a better sense of what constitutes religious belief.

Of the countless individuals who have attempted to capture the essence of religious belief in words, turn-of-the-century American philosopher and psychologist William James was more successful than most. His commitment to presenting a diversity of opinion makes his landmark work The Varieties of Religious Experience a good place to turn for a definition of religious belief. Or definitions, rather: he offers several. Initially, he defines religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." As James continues his exploration of religious experience, however, he complicates this definition. First, he cautions that we must not conceive of divinity too narrowly. It is possible to have a godless religion so long as it revolves around "first things in being and power," primal forces that "overarch and envelop" from which "there is no escape."

If we admit that a religion without god is possible, we have a great deal of slack to use in defining religious belief. Why not just define religious belief as human beings' response, not to the "foreground of existence" but what underlies it, "that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, loveable or odious?" In other words,why not define religious belief as human beings' "total reaction upon life," and religions as "total attitudes" towards the world that are shared by many? James considers this possibility, but rejects it in the end, because not everyone has a total attitude towards life deserving to be called religious. He excludes "trifling, sneering attitudes" towards the whole of life that refuse to take life seriously or give it purpose, arguing that "there must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious."

Later, he suggests a different way of defining religious belief. Religious feeling extends believers' "range of life," giving them "a new sphere of power." Although they lose their struggle with the forces of nature, they gain a paradoxical strength that "redeems and vivifies an interior world which otherwise would be an empty waste." The religious individual's lack of control over the world outside is compensated for by a feeling of internal power. James takes pains to point out that this feeling is not the product of a refusal to see things as they really are. It is "no mere feeling of escape. It cares no longer to escape." Rather, it is a feeling of surrender. But a particular kind of surrender. James distinguishes between a non-religious surrender that grimly recognizes that "we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe" and a religious surrender that takes pleasure in this fact. Religion "makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary." It functions as what is popularly referred to as a 'rationalization' for what is inevitable. James concludes by defining religion as "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."

We can distill James' different definitions of religion into a basic description of religious belief. Religious individuals have what we might call a 'total picture' of life that relates their own existence to the world in which they live. They recognize the limits of their individual bodies and minds. Relative to their world's expanse, their bodies are like the smallest bits of dust; to its unfathomable age, their lives but a fraction of a second. They are infinitesimal. But they do not despair, for they feel a connection between themselves and the rest of the universe. Were the universe itself meaningless, this would be no consolation. But they rejoice at this connection, because they believe that a divine force has imbued the world with meaning. So long as they are part of a meaningful universe, their own lives have meaning. And they gladly surrender themselves to its vastness.

What do leftists find objectionable about religious beliefs defined in this way? For an answer, we turn to the work of nineteenth-century anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach, which greatly influenced the young Karl Marx and many anarchists. In his book The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach offers an exceedingly thorough critique of the religious impulse. Like William James, he agrees that religious beliefs express the relation between individual human beings and a world that dwarfs them. Religion, he writes, is "consciousness of the infinite." The problem is that it is a false consciousness.

Feuerbach insists that the infinity which human beings feel connected to by their religious beliefs is their own creation. Understanding his argument requires that we set aside all religious beliefs to recognize that we have no indisputable, objective proof that gods exist. But we do have overwhelming evidence that gods exist for human beings. People can clearly imagine the existence of a primal power that is omniscient, ominpresent,and omnipotent. Feuerbach's point hinges on this power to imagine the infinite. If an all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present power exists in our imagination, it is already inside us. There is something infinite within us. If religion is "consciousness of the infinite," it "cannot be otherwise than human beings' consciousness of, not their finite and limited being, but rather their infinite being."

What is this "infinite being?" Feuerbach argues that we are able to imagine something infinite because we are conscious that our individual human lives are part of human history and that our individual consciousness is part of the collective consciousness of humankind. Thus, though human beings are mortal as individuals, they achieve a kind of immortality by understanding themselves as a species. By contrast, animals possess instincts which ensure their survival, but no consciousness of themselves as members of a species. Their perspective on the world is limited to their own experience. Human beings' consciousness, on the other hand, is capable of grasping what exceeds their individual experience. Indeed, "consciousness in the strict or true sense and consciousness of the infinite are inseparable; limited consciousness is not consciousness." When human beings imagine infinity, they are really imagining their own immortality as a species, what Feuerbach calls their 'species-being.'

Religions conceal this process from believers. When people hold religious beliefs, they imagine that infinity is the province of the divine, not the mortal. A gulf appears to separate human beings from the infinite, one they can only bridge by surrendering to a higher power. A desire to collapse this gulf leads leads believers to imagine that this higher power is incarnated in a physical being or contained in a spiritual force. In other words, they ascribe this higher power to something outside themselves. Without realizing it, they project what is really a human power to imagine the infinite onto an external object, whether animate or inanimate. This external object is then seen to embody power that human beings lack.

If we return to James' statement that religious belief "redeems and vivifies an interior world which otherwise would be an empty waste," we get a better sense of what Feuerbach is driving at. According to his argument, the "empty waste" or lack here is produced by religious belief. Religious beliefs lead people to think that they never had a power that they have really given away. Religion is based on an illusory inversion. Human beings find comfort in religion because it makes them feel compensated for a loss that religious belief has itself produced.

Unfortunately, believers underestimate themselves and their species. They fail to realize that "Absolute Being, the God of human beings, is their own being." They do not understand that gods and spirits are their own creation, objects they project from within: "the power of the object over them is therefore the power of their own being." Religious belief deludes human beings into accepting a degraded image of themselves. In turn, this degraded self-image leads them into surrendering to forces that they themselves have created.

Feuerbach's critique of religion is echoed throughout seminal Marxist and anarchist texts. Religious belief repeatedly comes under attack for ceding human powers to gods and spirits. To put this in more familiar leftist language, religious belief alienates human beings from their own capacities. Because religions date back to the earliest human civilizations, religious belief is the privileged example of belief that contributes to alienation. The early Marx's description of alienated labor closely mirrors Feuerbach's description of religion. The theory of commodity fetishism in later Marx clearly takes the mechanisms of religious belief as a starting point. Indeed, whenever leftists critique a process for projecting human subjectivity onto an external object, they implicitly invoke this example — even if they do not realize they are doing so.

Non-Religious Belief

It is important to recognize that religious beliefs' privileged status as a model implies that non-religious beliefs can be just as significant from a leftist standpoint. Certainly, religious beliefs foreground human beings externalization of the infinite in ways that other beliefs do not. But that does not mean that non-religious beliefs are any less objectionable in practice. For example, leftists' other principle objection to religious belief as William James describes it is that it encourages believers to surrender to the status-quo. After all, when people come to terms with their lack of control and reconcile themselves with the world, they usually lose the desire to instigate change. When you accept what is, you stop worrying about what should be.

It is abundantly clear, however, that non-religious beliefs can also encourage surrender to the status-quo. They may not operate on as deep a level as religious beliefs, but they can perform the same functions. This is why leftists have often generalized their wariness about religious belief into a suspicion of all belief. Again, there are historical reasons for this. The intellectual context from which Marxism and anarchism emerged was powerfully influenced by the increasing scope and influence of modern science. Many educated people subscribed to materialist doctrines that encouraged them to dismiss as superstition all beliefs for which objective proof was lacking. On the left, Marxist thinkers were particularly susceptible to the desire to sound scientific at all costs. Marx himself frequently succumbed to it. Many of his followers have devoted themselves to removing all traces of 'unscientific' thought from the Marxist tradition. Today, this obsession with science may strike us as disturbingly single-minded. But leftists of the nineteenth century did have good reasons for wanting to do away with beliefs in general. They saw themselves pressing onward with the Enlightenment's goal of eradicating unfounded superstition. In the model of progress they subscribed to, beliefs were the residue of an earlier stage of human development, to be discarded when something better came along.

While contemporary leftists have turned away from this model of progress, they still have good reasons to be suspicious of belief. Wherever the Left has struggled for political power, unquestioned beliefs have been a significant obstacle. How we act in the world depends on the way we see the world and our place within it. As Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci explained in the 1930s, in most modern societies the status-quo is maintained not only by threat of force, but because enough people believe in a picture of the world beneficial to the powers-that-be. The rule of those powers-that-be is more than a matter of outright domination: they also exert 'hegemony' over society. To put this another way, if the ruling class' hegemony is reasonably secure, beliefs that rationalize or otherwise support that class' power will prevail in the minds of many or most of those people *not* in the ruling class. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the ruling beliefs will be those that benefit the ruling class.

But is the problem here that people hold beliefs? Or that they hold the wrong ones? Should leftists strive to replace beliefs with something better? Or should they only concern themselves with unquestioned beliefs? These are the crucial questions belief poses for leftist politics.

Rethinking Belief

Because ruling beliefs play such an important role in upholding the status-quo, it makes sense for leftists struggling for power to show what is wrong with them. This is where the concept of ideology proves useful. Traditionally, leftists have thought of ideology as belief gone wrong. Some have defined this 'wrongness' in absolute terms, as if some beliefs are necessarily true and others necessarily false. Others have emphasized the importance of historical context, suggesting that a belief may be right in one context, but wrong in another. In either case, decisions about whether a particular belief is right or wrong must be made. These are judgments.

Where do judgments originate? How are they grounded? Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of many twentieth-century thinkers to ponder this question. Although he was raised in the same pro-science, anti-belief context as many intellectuals who have sought to move beyond belief, he ultimately reached different conclusions about its nature and function. In his posthumously published notebook On Certainty, composed in 1950 and 1951, he undermines the notion that judgements can be made with pure objectivity. Indvidual decisions, he argues, are always made in reference to a general understanding of the way the world works. Echoing William James' description of religious belief as human beings' "total reaction" to the world they live in, Wittgenstein calls this background of assumptions a "picture of the world." However much we would like to believe that this picture of the world is the product of rigorous experimentation, it is not something we ever test as a whole. He writes, "I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness." Rather, "it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false." An individual's picture of the world comprises a background of assumptions that underpin decisions or actions in the foreground of conscious life.

Wittgenstein explicitly links this background of assumptions to religious belief, suggesting that the individual propositions that comprise our picture of the world can be likened to "a kind of mythology." When we state a conviction about something, that conviction is not "consciously arrived at" but rather "anchored in all my questions and answers, so anchored that I cannot touch it." An individual's picture of the world forms the system within which all decisions are made. This system is something children assimilate as they grow up, As Wittgenstein puts it, "the child learns to believe a host of act according to those beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are liable to shift." He adds that "what stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it." Moreover, "the child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief" and only makes sense in reference to belief.

In the end, Wittgenstein's point is simple, yet of extreme importance. We imagine that we know some things, only because we assume other things. Just as doubt only exists in relation to belief, knowledge only exists in relation to the background of assumptions that comprise our picture of the world. Even the hardest science must found itself on the softness of belief. Whenever we test a proposition, we are able to do so because we protect other propositions from being tested. Wittgenstein expresses this with an apt metaphor: "Much seems to be fixed, and it is removed from the traffic. It is so to speak shunted onto an unused siding." The boxcars shunted onto an unused siding are no more special than those in motion; what matters is that some remain stationary. In other words, we can't do without some solid ground.

Arguments like Wittgenstein's — and there are many in circulation right now — suggest that leftists are deluding themselves if they aspire to move beyond unfounded belief to the certainty of pure knowledge. Historically, leftists have distanced themselves from belief. But arguments that we cannot help but act on the basis of our beliefs are not going to go away. Indeed, their proponents have tended to portray the self-righteous certainty exhibited by many leftists as blind arogance and folly. The question we leftists must ask ourselves is whether it might not be more productive to recognize these arguments' validity. What would leftist politics stand to lose in doing so? And what would it stand to gain?

Unless we want to imply that leftists are inherently superior to everyone else — a seemingly untenable position for anyone committed to equality — we should concede that leftists make decisions like everyone else: against a background of assumptions, both about the way the world is and about the way it should be.

Let's take a closer look at the insights to be gained by acknowledging that we can never abolish or escape belief. To many people, the idea that we act on assumptions proves unsettling. But stop and think about it. If we had to stop and reflect on our background of assumptions every time we made a decision with moral or political consequences, we would waste the better part of each day paralyzed by self-questioning. For better or worse, most of us learn to make such decisions by rote. Instead of stopping to inventory all the assumptions that underlie our decision-making process, we usually make the sort of decisions that we are accustomed to making. If we decide to do x in a particular situation, it is usually because we have decided to do x when confronted by analogous situations in the past. Because leftists spend much of their time showing how other people are led astray by the wrong beliefs, they are prone to forget that they too make decisions by rote. But they do, and often for the right reasons.

Fictions Worth Believing In

What motivates an individual to put others first? Surely, her or his beliefs have a lot to do with it. We expect religious altruism to proclaim the beliefs that motivate it. But leftist altruism usually shys away from such proclamations. If we cease thinking that all belief is unseemly, however, it becomes possible for us to issue them. Returning to the problems leftists have had with both religious and non-religious beliefs, we must ask ourselves what sort of beliefs would not be a bad fit with leftist politics. If the problem with most beliefs is that they encourage people to project their own capacities onto external objects and then surrender to them, is it possible to hold beliefs that do the opposite?

When Marx decribes how the production of commodities alienates human beings from their own labor, he grounds his argument by claiming that it is natural for human beings to labor. Do we have firm proof of this claim? No. In fact, it is impossible to imagine what that sort of proof would look like. Try as we might, we will never find human beings in their 'natural' state, uncorrupted by social relationships. Marx himself makes this argument. Why then does he ground his theories in something that can't be proven? Because, as Wittgenstein makes clear, we need solid ground for our systems of thought. Marx chooses 'solid ground' well-suited to his overall goals.

It would be fair to term this 'solid ground' a belief. Marx and his followers believe that human beings would labor without coercion in a state of nature. What does it mean to hold such a belief? Doing so does not require that one imagine that gods and spirits lord over humanity. Nor does it demand that people calmly acquiesce to the status-quo. On the contrary, it encourages them to push for radical change. This is just one example of the sort of belief leftists can hold, of course, yet it plainly demonstrates that beliefs are not necessarily conservative or reactionary. The only thing 100% true about belief is that we really can't do without it, no matter how hard we try.

So how should leftists respond to the problems posed by belief? By proclaiming their own beliefs without shame or reluctance. It shouldn't seem strange to here leftists say "I believe in Marxism" or "I believe in liberty, equality, and solidarity" or "Capitalism is not the best of all possible systems." Maybe the rest of the world would pay more attention to leftists if they took more time to explain the principles that motivate them. As I wrote in my piece "Useful Fictions" in Bad Subjects issue #19, our ways of looking at the world are always 'fictions', because we can never have direct access to reality. The pictures of the world Wittgenstein talks about are representations of reality, the means with which we imagine our relation to our real conditions of existence.

We don't usually get to choose our pictures of the world as children. Even when we are adults, there are some assumptions that we are hard pressed to do without, regardless of our political convictions. But our picture of the world can be radically revised, particularly those aspects of it that relate to moral and political committments. When we become aware of the background of assumptions that inform our everyday decisions, we may not be able to pick and choose what to discard and what to keep at will. But we also aren't devoid of choices. Leftists need to find what Joe Sartelle's article in Bad Subjects' first issue calls "fictions worth believing in" rather than continuing to believe in the fiction of a politics free of belief.

Charlie Bertsch is an Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. He is currently at work on a dissertation entitled "Subverting the System: Models of Resistance in Post-WWII American Culture." He'd like to take this opportunity to name-check baseball players Cal Ripken Jr. and his less sung former Orioles teammate Eddie Murray, whose line in the box score makes the sports page that much more attractive. He can be contacted at the following e-mail address:

Copyright © 1995 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.