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Between the sacred and the secular

Why, for the Frankfurt School, democracy's survival depends on reason and religion.

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Marxism has had a long and troubled relationship with religion. In 1843 the young Karl Marx wrote in a critical essay on German philosophy that religion is “the opium of the people”, a phrase that would eventually harden into official atheism for the communist movement, though it poorly represented the true opinions of its founding theorist. After all, Marx also wrote that religion is “the sentiment of a heartless world” and “the soul of soul-less conditions”, as if to suggest that even the most fantastical beliefs bear within themselves a protest against worldly suffering and a promise to redeem us from conditions that might otherwise appear beyond all possible change. To call Marx a “secularist”, then, may be too simple. Marx saw religion as an illusion, but he was too much the dialectician to claim that it could be simply waved aside without granting that even illusions point darkly toward truth.

In the 20th century the story grew even more conflicted. While Soviet Marxism turned with a vengeance against religious believers and sought to dismantle religious institutions, some theorists in the West who saw in Marxism a resource for philosophical speculation felt that dialectics itself demanded a more nuanced understanding of religion, so that its energies could be harnessed for a task of redemption that was directed not to the heavens but to the Earth. Especially in Weimar Germany, Marxism and religion often came together into an explosive combination. Creative and heterodox thinkers such as Ernst Bloch fashioned speculative philosophies of history to show that the religious past contained untapped sources of messianic hope that kept alive the “spirit of utopia” for modern-day revolution. Anarchists such as Gustav Landauer, a leader of post-1918 socialist uprising who was murdered by the far-right in Bavaria, strayed from Marxism into an exotic syncretism of mystical and revolutionary thought. 

This strange chapter in the history of Marxist thought is of special relevance when we consider the ambivalent status of religion among the leading theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, also known as the “Frankfurt School”. Originally founded in the early 1920s as an institute for the study of Marxism and working class history, a commonplace opinion has it that by the 1940s the key members of the Institute had abandoned any hope for social transformation and indulged in a radical pessimism, provoking the rival Marxist theorist Gyorgy Lukács to describe them as inhabitants of the “Grand Hotel Abyss”. This is a caricature, of course; it survives chiefly because the intellectual contributions of critical theory are notoriously difficult to summarise and, especially in recent years, have even invited accusations of conspiracy. The enormous difficulty of the work of the founding thinkers continues to inspire debate among scholars working in the tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory today. This is especially the case when we consider the question of religion – a question that provoked marked disagreement among the original thinkers themselves.

It was Walter Benjamin, the Berlin-born literary and cultural critic who sustained an important affiliation with the Institute, who tried to explain the relationship between Marxism and religion with a memorable image: Marxist theory, he wrote, is like the chess-playing automatism first presented at the imperial court in 18th-century Vienna, whose movements seemed to be governed by nothing but the mechanical operation of levers and wheels. But the true animus of Marxist theory is theology, which in the modern era must hide itself from public view but still lends Marxism its apparently autonomous power, much like the individual who was cleverly concealed within the chess-player’s cabinet and assured its victory. Here, for Benjamin, was the secret of historical materialism (the formal name for Marxist doctrine): though officially opposed to religion, it continues to draw its strength from religious concepts by translating their occluded power into secular terms.

The image is compelling, but, like so much of Benjamin’s work, it presented an enigma rather than an explanation. Benjamin was convinced that the official Marxism of his day had lost its revolutionary potential: it had hardened into a lifeless and unreflective doctrine that conceived of progress as something inevitable, as if utopia were to be born from the steady advance of technology alone. The future would unfold out of the present smoothly and without interruption, making revolution into little more than the final, harmonious chord of human history. This, Benjamin felt, was gravely mistaken. Historical materialism could retain its critical power only if it resisted the consoling dogma of historical progress. History had to be conceived not as a continuum but as broken into pieces, every instant holding the potential for a radical beginning. 

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But this idea of history-in-fragments was foreign to official Marxism. A genuinely revolutionary idea of history was possible only if the historical materialist broke the rules of Marxism and surreptitiously borrowed its notion of time from an unlikely source – theology. Like the messiah breaking in upon the world, each moment in history became a threshold to revolution. Here, then, was the meaning of the chess-playing automaton. For Benjamin, theology was no longer an illusion to be dispelled but the animating force in Marxist theory, the necessary resource if history was to be understood as a theatre of revolutionary possibility.

Benjamin’s attempt to graft together Marxism and theology proved highly controversial, and it drew criticism from partisans in both camps. The militant playwright Bertolt Brecht saw Benjamin’s penchant for mysticism as “ghastly”, while the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem (a sceptic about Marxism) accused his friend of “self-deception”. Despite such criticism, Benjamin’s reflections on religion and politics have attracted a wide following in academic circles, not least because they unsettle conventional assumptions in liberal theory about the need to keep religion and politics in distinct spheres. And not only in liberal theory: Benjamin’s interpretation also violates the conventional understanding of Marxism as a doctrine of unapologetic secularisation. The famous lines in The Communist Manifesto saw in the advent of modernity a process that would dissolve all religious values: “All is that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In Benjamin’s work, this secularising requirement loses its authority, since at least one religious value remains stubbornly in place. Religion does not and cannot vanish; it becomes the animating force in historical materialism itself.

Among his associates in the Institute, Benjamin was often seen as the problem child, a creative if unruly thinker whose musings did not easily fit the stated programme of Frankfurt School critical theory. But his curious idea that theological concepts might be enlisted in the service of secular politics has enjoyed great longevity, and variations on this theme can be found everywhere in circles of social theory, especially where critics are raising doubts about the possibility – and the desirability – of secularisation. 

Much depends, however, on just how secularisation is understood. Right-wing political theorists such as Carl Schmitt (a Nazi apologist) believed that no system of law can be complete if it does not appeal to the decision of a sovereign who bursts in upon the otherwise lifeless mechanism of the state like a miraculous force. This doctrine of political theology was an important inspiration to Benjamin, and it bears an obvious similarity to Benjamin’s notion of theology as the hidden animus in historical materialism. Both cases bring a risk of authoritarianism, since in a democratic polity no decision can be valid if it does not remain open to rational scrutiny and amendment. A theological principle that grounds political life but remains immune to political criticism can easily become a warrant for theocracy.

To avoid this risk, all values, including religious values, must be susceptible to public criticism. But this means that theological concepts have no special privilege in modern politics. They are drawn into the turbulence of public debate and they can survive only if they meet with generalised consent, including among unbelievers or members of other faiths. This proviso does not necessarily rule out the possibility of mutual instruction between religion and politics, and that line of communication has to remain open if secular society is to avoid the temptation of making secularism into something as exclusionary and dogmatic as the theocracy it fears. But under modern conditions of religious pluralism only the neutral medium of public reason can serve as the common language for such a dialogue, lest we slip back into the authoritarian framework where one religion holds sway. 

Benjamin was hardly a theorist of democratic pluralism, and he was unconcerned with the practical question of how to mediate between the rival claims of religion and reason. Still, even in his romantic attachment to theology as the spiritual motor of historical materialism, he understood that its occluded power must be translated into a language accessible to all. Well after Benjamin’s death, the philosopher Theodor W Adorno compressed this thought into an intriguing formula: “Nothing of theological content will persist without being transformed; every content will have to put itself to the test of migrating in the realm of the secular, the profane.”

Unlike Benjamin, Adorno believed that theological concepts retain their value only if they submit to the trial of secularisation. Religion is not preserved in amber; like all aspects of human experience it is vulnerable to time, and it cannot help but change as it passes into new and unforeseen circumstances. Adorno was therefore sceptical as to whether theological values that had held together the intimate communities of the ancient world could retain their validity in the fractured societies of today. “The concept of daily bread,” he wrote, “born from the experience of deprivation under the conditions of uncertain and insufficient material production, cannot simply be translated into the world of bread factories and surplus production.” Nor could he accept the Schmittian notion that, in a world that had in all other respects transformed beyond recognition, the concept of a sovereign God could somehow retain its original power. The longing for a “resolute decision”, he argued, could not suffice to “breathe back meaning” into the disenchanted world.

Not all of the “first-generation” critical theorists shared Adorno’s scepticism about the modern relevance of religion. Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s colleague and for many years the official director of the Institute, was an intriguing case. Though early in his career he disdained metaphysics as a distraction from Marxist materialism, toward the end of his life he underwent a kind of conversion; he came to feel that atheism had become a doctrine of despair while theism alone sustained hope for an escape from the huis clos of modern society. In his admiring foreword to The Dialectical Imagination (1973), Martin Jay’s now-classic study of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer went so far as to imply an intimate bond between religion and critical theory. The essence of religion, he claimed, is the yearning for the “wholly other”, the hope that “earthly horror does not possess the last word”.

Unlike both Horkheimer and Benjamin, it was Adorno who most vigorously defended the necessity of a “migration into the profane” and the principle of secularisation. He allowed for the survival of religious values only if they burst free of religious tradition. The sacred did not vanish; it underwent a shift, reappearing in charged forms of this-worldly transcendence, especially, though not exclusively, in the form of modern art. All the same, Adorno was by no means dogmatic in his atheism, and nowhere in his philosophy did he insist on a sharp dualism between theological and materialist categories. His cast of mind was too dialectical to deny the possibility of a passage from the sacred to the profane.

A similar idea, meanwhile, can be found in recent work by Jürgen Habermas, Adorno’s erstwhile student and the pre-eminent philosopher in the “second generation” of Frankfurt-School critical theory. In an age that has grown sceptical of rational argument, Habermas remains an ardent champion of reason’s democratic possibilities, though he is subtle enough to recognise that modern democracy can only survive if reason does not entirely discount the lessons of religious tradition. In his latest, two-volume book, This Too a History of Philosophy (2019), Habermas seeks to reconstruct the millennia-long dialogue between reason and faith, a “learning process” in which secular reason might still inherit insights from religion without violating the proviso that all religious values be subjected to public criticism. In Adorno’s spirit, Habermas, too, upholds the requirement of a migration into the profane.

Marx believed that the mist of religious illusion would dissipate only when our happiness in this world was fully realised and the illusion was no longer needed. Today those philosophers and social critics who follow the path opened by critical theory embrace the uncertainties of what Habermas has called “post-metaphysical thinking”. They are more inclined to epistemic humility and less inclined to claim for themselves any insights into metaphysical truth. In a world that is now in the grips of a migration crisis when multi-religious and multi-ethnic society has become an irreversible fact, such humility has assumed a new urgency, since little in our current situation can warrant the prediction that religion will vanish any time soon. If religious and irreligious citizens share a common interest in the survival of democratic institutions, the demand for an ongoing dialogue between religion and reason has become a political imperative, though we can hardly miss the final irony that such a dialogue can only proceed within the framework of a secular state.

Peter E Gordon is the Amabel B James professor of history and a faculty affiliate in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard. His books include "Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos" (2010) and "Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization" (2021)