Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The dangers of politics as faith

Regular readers will be aware of my longstanding interest in the relationship between progressive politics and religious belief. In my Methodist youth I was a member of the Christian Socialist Movement, and in my brief Catholic phase I was an avid supporter of liberation theology. Now, as an agnostic secular humanist who retains an interest in and occasional attraction to belief, I'm nostalgic for the civilised dialogue that once existed between progressive humanists and liberal believers, and frustrated at the barriers to dialogue thrown up by religious commentators who complain about 'aggressive secularism' and 'Enlightenment fundamentalism' , and these days prefer to express solidarity with believers of other faiths, however illiberal they might be.

However, even when I was an active believer and card-carrying Christian socialist, I was frequently annoyed at the tendency of some left-wing believers to identify with the most extreme leftist positions. I remember, when the CPGB was going through its painful death throes in the late 1980s, that among the minority who held fast to the Stalinist true faith were a number who had been, or still were, religious believers - I seem to recall that one of their leading figures was an ex-nun. More recently I came across a website called 'Agenda for Prophets' which supposedly 'seeks to articulate a prophetic Catholic perspective on Church affairs and on wider social, cultural and political issues', but whose 'root-cause' response to the events of 9/11 and 7/7 could have been penned by George Galloway, and which links to the writings of anti-semitic conspiracy theorist James Petras.

I think this phenomenon can be explained partly by the fact that authoritarian faith and authoritarian politics tend to attract the same kind of psychological type. Many former Catholics have ended up as communists, and vice versa, and some have even tried to hold on to both faiths at the same time. I recognise something of the same tendency in myself, though my preference has been to identify with orthodox religious or political organisations (becoming a Catholic in my 2os, playing around on the fringes of the CP in my 30s) and then take up a liberal or dissenting position (Vatican 2 Catholic, Eurocommunist) within the security of that orthodoxy. 

In addition, I think that the political positions adopted by leftist believers often derive from an idealism and moralism that favours political figures who offer the 'purest' form of political faith. As a consequence, I think they are rarely interested in the boring, mundane business of strategy and political compromise, and tend to transpose their religious fervour to the very different realm of politics. Hence category errors such as Tony Benn's notorious claim that revising Clause 4 was tantamount to daring to rewrite the Ten Commandments. And as with some secular leftists, this politics-as-faith can lead to often naive and gullible identification with some pretty unsavoury characters.
I was reminded of all this the other day when I read a letter in the Catholic weekly, The Tablet (subscription required), from Hugh O'Shaughnessy, a left-wing Catholic journalist who writes on Latin American affairs. His letter complains about criticism of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in recent editions of the magazine, and in particular suggestions that the latter has been exhibiting dictatorial tendencies. O'Shaughnessy comments on Chavez' recent expulsion from the country of two officials from the organisation Human Rights Watch. While acknowledging that the move was a 'diplomatic blunder' (note: not a moral or ethical one), he damns the group's recent report on Venezuela as 'patently biased and unfair' and advises that HRW should be 'more careful about its allegations, given its funding from US agencies, its staff links with the former Pinochet dictatorship, and the widespread feeling in the Middle East that it is biased against the Palestinians and in favour of their Israeli occupiers.'

Let's try to unpack what O'Shaughnessy is saying here. Firstly, he seems to imply that being funded by US agencies automatically disqualifies HRW from commenting on human rights in Venezuela and means that we can disregard their criticisms of Chavez. This kind of smearing-by-association has become a favourite rhetorical tactic on the 'anti-imperialist' left. It used to be the case that you had to work the scare word 'neocon' into your smear, but now apparently any link to the US is enough to disqualify you. Never mind that HRW's concerns about human rights in Chavez' Venezuela have been echoed by Amnesty International and other organisations with no explicit ties to the US.

As for the Pinochet link, I'm no expert on HRW and can't comment. When it comes to the group's work in the Middle East, I've found as many internet sites complaining about anti-Israel as pro-Israel bias. But for a certain kind of leftist these days, being both pro-American and pro-Israeli is a slam dunk: it means anything you say can be disregarded. 

As someone who is well-respected for his writings about the crimes of the Pinochet regime, O'Shaughnessy should surely be more alert to the dictatorial tendencies of politicans like Chavez. Since reading his letter to the Tablet, I've come across other articles that he's written about the Venezuelan leader which suggest a failure to recognise that in Latin America authoritarianism isn't confined to regimes on the political right.

I'd welcome comments from anyone who can either substantiate or refute O'Shaugnessy's accusations about Human Rights Watch.


Eve Garrard said...

Interesting post, Martin, especially your comments on the attraction of purity to certain kinds of leftwinger. It might be instructive to compare that conception of purity with the analogous right-wing version. These desires to be free from all taint or compromise are always a bit worrying.

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment, Eve. Despite some similarities, I think the 'purism' of left wing and right wing believers is somewhat different. The right tends to be obsessed with bodily (and by extension racial) purity, whereas the left tends to seek purity of the idea and of motive. But probably both are based on an illusory perfectionism. In my more pessimistic (and secularist) moments, I wonder if this kind of tendency inevitably taints any kind of religiously-inspired politics...

Martin said...
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Eve Garrard said...

'Illusory perfectionism' captures it beautifully. But surely you needn't be pessimistic about it: no doubt it does taint religiously-inspired politics, but it also taints secular politics, as you point out. And the idealism and moralism which you see as a basis for this perfectionism aren't peculiar to the religious temperament - they may take a religious form, but they needn't. Their presence isn't sufficient for religious politics, and it isn't necessary either, since religious politics needn't be purist. Didn't C.S.Lewis say somewhere that it was precisely because he believed that human nature was fallen and sinful that he was a democrat - our nature is too corruptible for it to be safe to give too much power to any individual?

Martin said...

The C S Lewis quote is interesting, and is certainly a reminder of a particular strain in religious writing on politics - one which focuses on human fallibility and is therefore suspicious of utopian political projects. It's a theme in the work of Jean Bethke Elshtain, whose work I admire - and she in turn was influenced by the work of Reinhold Niebuhr (about whose political writings there's an interesting piece in the latest LRB). Interesting that all of these - Lewis, Elshtain, Niebuhr - are Protestants - and Protestantism has always had a keener sense of human sinfulness and limitation than Catholicism. Maybe it's why left-wing Catholics, more than Protestants, have been more attracted to the grand, systemic, utopian versions of socialism/progressivism (after all, it was a Catholic who invented the word 'utopia'). But even as I write this, I can think of exceptions on both sides...so there's no hard and fast rule, no straight line from a particular theology to a particular kind of politics. The Jewish experience is probably even more complex but commenting on it is probably, as Obama would say, above my pay grade.

MJW said...

Very interesting post, the way that faith in a political belief can be similar to faith in a religious belief is something that fascinates me. Particularly where religious faith is criticised for being irrational yet faith in a political philosophy is allowed to override the requirement for rational explanation.