Re-enchanting Socialism: How Not To Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

Summary of Part I

In part I of this article Facing the Music I began by arguing that religion very skillfully uses propaganda to convince people they should behave in a docile way relative to elites. It uses architecture, statues, rites of passage, liturgy, sacred music, pilgrimages, holy days, visual symbols and techniques for altering states of consciousness as a means for introducing and sustaining this docility. Though nationalism and sports have different ends than religion, surprisingly the techniques used to induce loyalty are very similar. Nationalism and sports have been built on a religious foundation. The work of Anthony D. Smith is devoted to showing how nationalism has used religious techniques to start and sustain itself. Also, George Mosse’s book Nationalization of the Masses discusses similar themes.

In the case of sports, whether it is through the personal experience of participating in a team sport or following a professional team as a fan, these games often create “flashbulb memories” that are remembered, retold and spread to friends, acquaintances and workmates.

My claim in Part I was that:

  • The socialist movement has failed miserably to understand how religion, nationalism and sports inspire and sustain the interest of the Yankee population over months and years.
  • But even worse, it makes little attempt to use the techniques of religion, nationalism and sports to draw people to it.

In part, the failure of socialists to understand what religion, sports and nationalism give people has to do with whether the socialists are from Protestant or Catholic countries. Historically, Protestants condemned all image-making, singing, dancing and sensual gratification as degenerate Catholicism. Whether they are aware of it or not, I think socialists who live in Protestant countries have unconsciously internalized Protestant cynicism about pageantry and ritual. They think it is nothing but smoke and mirrors since it creates illusions.

On the other hand, Catholicism has been the mothership from which most of the religious techniques are derived. This impacts how people in Catholic countries relate to nationalism and sports in their countries. Furthermore, in Catholic countries, even socialists who are anti-clerical atheists have some appreciation of collective theatricality as being important to socialist gatherings. This can be seen in Spain or Italy on May Day.

I The Means By Which to Enchant Socialism

The importance of remembering the big picture

Religion at its very best invites people to remember the big picture. On a micro level that means that amidst the petty aggravations of the week-day world, there is Sunday, a time for reflection. What is the reflection designed to do? To answer three questions:

  1. What are we?
  2. Where have we been?
  3. Where are we going?

These questions are designed to encourage people to remember that:

  1. The whole (God) is greater than the sum of the parts (human individuals).
  2. The whole is in all the parts.

Optimally, at a micro level, on Sunday, religion is designed to guide people as we descend into the detail of another work-week. In temperate climates in the West, at a macro level, we have religious holidays throughout the year (rather than the week) which are ultimately grounded in the four seasons.

If as socialists, we want people to stay with us despite all distractions of capitalist commodities, despite all the distortions or marginalization of our work, despite the repression we have to deal with, doesn’t it make sense that we try to rejuvenate socialists? We remind them by answering the big questions in our own way:

  1. What are we? Socio-historical beings who shape and control our destiny for better or for worse.
  2. Where have we been? We are a young movement which has many proud moments – the French revolution, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Revolution, to name a few.
  3. Where are we going? We are moving in a direction of communism where all resources are collectively owned.

Isn’t it worth reminding people of these questions and answers, if not weekly, at least seasonally? Why can’t socialists have quarterly seasonal celebrations just the way religion has various Catholic, Jewish or Muslim holy days?

Celebrating revolutionary holidays and socialist heroes

On average, there might be ten holy days per year for Catholics. Nationalism, at least in Yankeedom, has close to the same. Sports has opening day, the All-Star game and the World Series as temporal markers. Does socialism have any “holy days?” We have May Day. But we have many more days than that if we take the time to collect and display them. Recently we bought a 2019 calendar of radical labor history which is filled with labor strikes and revolutionary events every month throughout the year. Conservatively speaking, there are at least five major radical strikes and revolutionary dates per month. Why don’t socialists commit to a project of celebrating clusters of these holidays four times a year? Why aren’t these days celebrated the way May Day is celebrated?

What about socialist heroes and heroines? Baseball has Cooperstown. Musically, we have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Why is there no socialist Cooperstown Hall of Fame? Do we have no socialist heroines or heroes to put into this Hall of Fame? Just in Yankeedom alone, off the top of my head I can name a few – Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kate Richards O’Hare, Carlo Tresca, Mother Jones, Sacco and Vanzetti. Why hasn’t the socialist movement seen fit to celebrate their birthdays the way religion celebrates its saints days and nationalism has its presidents days? During the French Revolution, busts of Rousseau and Voltaire were paraded through the streets of Paris. Why then can’t we celebrate regularly and seasonally the birthdays of our heroes and heroines?

But isn’t this too costly?

One reasonable objection is the time and the cost of doing this. A sympathetic skeptic might say “You are not considering that religious institutions, political organizations and the owners of football teams are extremely wealthy. They have the money to pay people to work full time to create productions for these holy days and patron saints. Socialists do not have this kind of money.”

This is a good point. We know that it takes a great deal of effort to put on, say a socialist conference on a national level. The cost of roundtrip plane fare alone makes this difficult. But is the same thing true at a local level? Celebrating socialist heroes and special days can be done locally in major cities. The important thing is to celebrate them all at the same time on a given day so that people living in big cities can see and share their presence in other cities.

We don’t have time

Another objection a socialist might make is to say, “look, it is enough to get people together to coordinate their efforts around a campaign like the fight for $15 dollars an hour” or a 35-hour workweek. We can’t afford to add to that these celebrations.

This way of looking at things separates content and form. It says specific campaigns (the content) and the celebrations (the form) are separate processes. But do they have to be? Whether or not people are pressed for time and money, the content and form should be part of the same process. It is true that at socialist conferences there is time for recreation, but recreation is not ritual.

If we are to make room for reenchanting rituals that means there is less time to discuss specific socialist current events. I would argue that it is worth it. We must consolidate and support other socialists through renewal and replenishment techniques. In fact, the content of various campaigns should be organized so that they are a sub categorical expression of the historical celebration of revolutionary memories and the celebrations of socialist heroes. I’ll discuss this more later in this article.

Singing and dancing

Of course the mighty Internationale heads any list of music. Any of you who have seen the movie Reds will remember the scene of Jack Reed talking to Russian workers as the Internationale swelled in the background and the red flags flew. However, we have much more than this song. Some of the best radical songs in the world came out of the Industrial Workers of the World songbook. Why aren’t these songs sung on a regular basis throughout the year by socialists, not just Wobblies? Do socialists dance? Well of course we do, but not as much as we could. As Red Emma Goldman once said “If I can’t dance to it, its not my revolution”

Rites of passage

The socialist and communist movements used to have youth groups which initiated them into socialism. People of different ages were given very specific tasks to do relative to up-coming campaigns. There were socialist children’s magazines and books. In his book Ritual, Politics and Power, David Kertzer points out that the communist party in Italy once competed with the Catholic Church over the right to baptize. They did something similar at funerals, according to Kertzer:

“Comrades carry bright red flags, baring the name of the deceased’s party section as well as those of neighboring sections…A local party official delivers the eulogy which, rather than extolling the deceased Christian virtues, pays tribute to his or her dedication to the Communist cause.” (Ritual, Politics and Power, 118)

Socialists badly need to get re-involved in rites of passage once again: socialist births and baptism, coming of age rituals, socialist marriages and socialist deaths. We can’t cede this to religious traditions.

Making pilgrimages

In San Francisco, once a year in July there is something called “LaborFest”. This is a month-long series of movies, talks, music, panels and plays held at various locations around the city. A comrade of mine would give a walking tour of downtown Oakland and revisit some of the various scenes of the General Strike in San Francisco. Between 50 and 100 people attend this walk every year. Most major cities in the United States have their version of special places connected to labor strikes. Why aren’t they celebrated? There could be LaborFests in every major city in Yankeedom.

Sacred sites and new calendars

In her book Romance of the Communist Party, Vivian Gornick reports that one of her interviewees told her of a cooperative housing development called United Workers Coop Association consisting of two five-story buildings, each a block square. There were club rooms, meeting halls, a library, nursery schools, a community center, a print shop and an auditorium. People read, talked, held meetings, danced and flirted. It was a little city within a city. Janet Biehl, Murray Bookchin’s biographer, tells a story of how these places were a substitute home away from home for Murray. The buildings stayed open to the wee small hours of the morning. Why can’t we have these kinds of sacred sites again?

During and after the French Revolution, the leaders created a revolutionary calendar to symbolize the breaking with the old world. Capitalism is failing badly. Don’t we need to get busy with drafts of a new world socialist calendar?

We can’t afford to own these buildings

One objection to this “sacred site” renewal might he the cost of owning, let alone renting a building in a downtown metropolitan area. It is true that the cost of renting or owning city buildings is much higher than fifty or seventy years ago before the gentrification of cities drove out working-class people to the periphery. Still, there are liberal fellow travelers or even upper middle-class socialists who might be in a position to buy buildings through a joint pooling of funds. If these socialists withdrew their money from “socially responsible investments” for the project of building at least semi-permanent socialist centers, it would be a huge advance. With the newfound sympathy and support for socialism in the US among people under 30, those upper middle-class socialists could really make a difference by investing their money or their inheritance in a sacred home for socialists. Is that too far-fetched? I hope not. It is hard to sustain a movement when you don’t have a home you can call your own.

Bringing it on home

To summarize, what we need is designated times of the year, perhaps every season, in which socialists in every major city come together, sing and dance across generations, celebrating “holy days”, the birthdays of the great socialists. At the same gatherings, there is time allotted to celebrate rites of passage and make pilgrimages to the scenes of the great labor struggles in that city.

II Fertile Ground: The Unexplored Relationship Between Materialists and Pagans

Cranky materialists, dry as sawdust

A number of years ago I joined the Humanist community of San Jose. This was an organization for people who hated religion and were either agnostics or atheists and met every Sunday morning for a lecture, discussion and lunch. They were classical left-wing Enlightenment people: pro-science and pro-technology. They looked at religion as deception by religious authorities, errors in human cognition and ignorance or emotional insecurity of the population. For Humanists, as for the Protestants, all music, dance, ritual and imagery would lead you down the road to religious enslavement. It was difficult to have any kind of ceremony – lighting a candle or burning incense – that was not dismissed as superstition.

Unfortunately, many Marxists are cranky materialists as well. While denouncing all the religious holidays, they find themselves isolated and lonely around Christmas time. They see through the commercial side of Christmas, they might not even like Christ, but they haven’t built the institutions to replace it. The winter solstice has meaning for human beings and we must give it up. Marxists need neo-paganism, only they don’t know it.

While neo-paganism is a diverse movement, it is safe to say that what it shares with materialists includes:

  • A belief that the material world and matter is good, rather than an illusion or a reform school for sinners;
  • An appreciation of this life, rather than an afterlife;
  • A sense that nature is self-regulating and not in need of divine intervention; and
  • A belief that nature and society are evolving as opposed to being created once and for all.

What pagans have that most materialist Marxists, at least the Protestant ones, lack is a sense that ritual, singing, dancing rites of passage and all the rest are not superstitious illusions but important ingredients in what makes us human.

Greek mythology in the service of re-enchanting socialism

In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses all had strengthens and weaknesses. In addition, they were in charge of a specific domain of human life. So, for example, Aphrodite was the goddess to go to in matters of love. Hermes was the god of travel and he would be consulted before taking a dangerous journey. If a socialist group wanted to get behind a campaign around building mass transit or lowering the cost of public transportation, if they were operating within the Greek mythology, there would be a celebration or a ritual around the god Hermes. All the major areas of human life were covered by the various gods or goddess: agriculture, industry, family life, friendships, the arts, sciences, physical health, everything. Pagans would have rituals before and after these activities.

Typical areas socialists are interested in are democracy in the work place, harnessing energy, technological innovation, transportation, city life, food production, housing, water, education, circulation of products (money, wages, financial planning), child care, health care and mental health. Every one of these areas can easily be connected to the 10 or 12 gods and goddesses that exist in Greece or in other parts of the world. In the case of May Day, there is a clear relationship with the pagan spring festival and International Workers Day. We can easily connect up the other areas of socialists’ interests to the gods and goddesses.

The same thing could be done with socialist heroes. The characteristics of socialist heroines and heroes can be mapped onto the gods and goddesses of Greece. The value of using an already built-up pagan system is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I am intentionally drawing on Greek mythology because many socialists may object to using any of the symbols and artifacts of Catholicism. Pagan traditions are full of rich history and they can be easily connected to the wiccan feminism that began in the early 1970’s. Relatively speaking, socialism is a very young movement, not even 200 years old. We should take an existing system which has been in place for thousands of years and use it as our skeleton.

I have no doubt many pagan socialists like Starhawk have already stepped forward to connect political activity with pagan rituals. There are many more processes to be connected and many more people are needed. Any socialists who have an appreciation for theatre, interior design and social psychology should step forward. Socialists rightly have no need of God, but we do need the gods and goddesses. More earth, less air; more water, less air; more fire, less air.

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

View all posts by Bruce Lerro →

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