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About Missives from Marx

Missives from Marx is written by an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and covers a range of topics, including: religion, the academic study of religion, teaching in religious studies, popular culture, politics, ideology, discourse, etc. This blog is written pseudonymously and will remain as such at least until I get tenure.

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Is this blog really Marxist? Although I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a socialist or communist party, I am theoretically informed by the writings of Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Fredric Jameson, Bruce Lincoln, Nikolas Rose, Iris Marion Young, Elizabeth Kamark Minnich, Wendy Brown, and others. These thinkers (whether or not they explicitly self-identify as Marxist) share the following in common:

1) an interest in the importance and the influence of ideology or discourse on social arrangements and social power

2) an interest in studying elements of culture and society in relationship to society as a whole rather than in isolation

3) an interest in studying elements of culture and society that permit some individuals or some groups to dominate or exploit others, and

4) a belief that showing others how ideology, discourse, and social structures function will give those who are dominated some of the tools they need to overcome domination.

Insofar as I share these four things, which I believe are relatively central to the spirit of Marx’s corpus, I don’t think it is a stretch to identify as being a part of the Marxist tradition.

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However, calling myself a Marxist is dangerous—lots of associations may spring to your mind, which don’t apply to me. Please note the following:

1) While I think that existing modes of production are relatively central to how our lives are ordered, I reject economic determinism—as has pretty much every Marxist since Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

2) I reject 20th century communisms (Soviet, Chinese, etc.) as viable options. I find the lack of human rights in these sorts of states to be abhorrent.

3) I reject, along with Althusser, Foucault, Judith Butler, and others, the humanist idea that there is some essential human subjectivity repressed by social conventions. On the contrary, I believe that social conventions create subjects.

4) I do not believe that religious ideologies always support the status quo, although they often do. Religious traditions can be used to maintain or challlenge the status quo.

I’ll probably add to this list every time someone says to me: “You’re a Marxist, so you must believe ….”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2009 1:06 am

    Economic determinism is an interesting concept. I struggle to find any evidence of direct economic determinism in Marx’ writings. On the other hand, I struggle to find any Marxism in Althusser’s contention that the economic determines in the last instance only insofar as it determines which determinant the last instance shall be. None of this has anything to do with Weber.

    As for whether or not religious ideologies support the status-quo, this depends on what we’re talking about as the status-quo. Puritanism was the dominant ideology of the Englishmen who overthrew autocracy in the English Revolution. No few Latin American revolutions have occurred with the active support of Catholics, if not the Catholic Church. That said, there is always that moment at which religion – like the doctrine of natural rights, in the case of the Putney Debates – becomes a constraint to genuine social revolution.

    Providing we’re not defining religion simply as a belief in some sort of divinity.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 28, 2009 9:33 am

    Dave, I too am ambivalent about whether or not one can rightly find economic determinism in Marx’s writings. Others clearly claim to have done so, but even those who do claim to find it don’t accept economic determinism these days (for the most part). I do think Weber is important because he shows that religious traditions can shape economics, as opposed to the idea that economics always determines religious traditions.

    On the status quo: yes, it seems that traditions that challenge the status quo often (usually?) institute their own status quo. However, I wonder what you mean by “genuine” social revolution. I’m pretty wary of words like “genuine” and “authentic” …

  3. February 27, 2010 6:59 pm

    Wonderful stuff you’ve been putting out here. I am also an assistant professor of religion, though I’ve taken the occasionally nerve-wracking decision to publish online in my own name. And, like you, I draw enormous inspiration from Marx, though I am unable to refer to myself as a ‘marxist’ without flinching.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 28, 2010 12:06 am

    Hi Erik, haha, yes! It all depends on which brand of Marxism we’re talking about. I like Marx–>Gramsci–>Althusser–>Foucault/Bourdieu. I can pretty comfortably call myself a “Marxist” in that line of thinkers.

  5. July 9, 2010 7:46 pm

    Was wondering how religious studies are taught. I went on a personal search for truth and, of course, found a cornucopia of supposed truths.

    Priests and Pastors I know have told me that seminary taught a doctrine and little investigation is done. During my education-investigation I found many themes and oddities.

    I found a theme common to Catholic Church documents, where controversies, supposedly named after the founders, appear to be derogatory names or titles in the original languages.

    Much appears mythological , even politically inspired. Anyways, is investigation taught or history and then which history. Bdrex

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 10, 2010 8:58 am

    I should mention that by no means is my approach to religious studies representative of religious studies in general—mine is definitely a minority voice in the discipline!

    I’m not sure I understand you’re question about history or investigation. Are you talking about the history of Christianity?

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