Suppose you discover a great truth. How do you go about spreading it?
One way would be to form a group of people who identify themselves by their acceptance of specific doctrines which express that truth, and then try to get more and more people to join that group.
Another way would be to construct a distinctive practice, something people can use in their everyday lives, that embodies or leads towards that truth, and get more and more people to employ that practice.
Successful religions do both, of course. Christian denominations have strong group identities defined by adherence to specific doctrines. Most importantly, of course, Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God and who was resurrected from the dead in order to provide eternal life to all those who accept him. It’s almost impossible to call yourself a Christian and be accepted as such by other Christians without believing in the divinity and resurrection of Christ.
Christianity also has its distinctive practices, especially prayer and the sacraments. These are very important – they are crucial to living a Christian life and to the ongoing reproduction of the community of the faithful.
However, these practices are explicitly tied to the doctrine and thereby to group identity. It’s hard to imagine a Christian evangelist teaching people to pray, for example, and not minding which god they pray to.
This priority of doctrine over practice is underscored in the Christian New Testament. 1 Corithians 13 notwithstanding, the recurring message of the New Testament is that for a person to be saved the most crucial thing is that they accept the divinity and resurrection of the Christ. Everything else, however important, appears as secondary.
In Buddhism, the situation is somewhat reversed. Not everywhere and always: in Sri Lanka, for instance, the group identity of Sinhalese Buddhists is very strong and is part of what defines their difference from and hostility towards the Hindu Tamils. Tibetan Buddhism is likewise strongly tied to Tibetan national identity and resistance to the genocidal Chinese occupation. And even outside of these situations charged by violent political conflicts, the various regional Buddhist traditions do form strong identity-groups, and the doctrines do matter to people.
But in The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to its Philosophy and Practice, for instance, Traleg Kyabgon defines meditational practice as the most important thing about Buddhism. The truth of Buddhism can be achieved only through meditation, and the doctrines of Buddhism are secondary. Even the divinity or otherwise of the Buddha is a matter of debate among Buddhists.
Anecdotally I’ve even heard of Buddhist teachers saying that Buddhism itself is secondary. What matters is the pursuit of enlightenment through meditation, and Buddhism itself, and all of its specific doctrines, are just tools to assist you in this pursuit.
And indeed Buddhist meditational practices have spread into Western societies both in secular and Christianized forms. There are Christian meditators influenced by Buddhism. Secular psychologists have adapted Buddhist meditation techniques into cognitive behavioural therapy. Buddhists don’t seem to regard these appropriations as blasphemous.
So, we have two general strategies for disseminating a transcendant truth: one that prioritizes group identity, and one that prioritizes a distinctive practice.
In the history of revolutionary socialism, it seems to me that the former strategy has tended to predominate. What has mattered most to socialist revolutionaries, successful or otherwise, seems to me to have been that you agree with their doctrines and adopt their identity. I find this especially prominent among Marxists, or at least among Marxist theorists.
Practices are important, don’t get me wrong. But practices vary widely among people who identify themselves, and are recognized by others, as Marxists, let alone as revolutionary socialists (a label which also includes many anarchists and even some social democrats, for instance). Does one form a revolutionary vanguard party and seek to overthrow the state? or a workers’ party and seek to achieve state power through liberal-democratic elections? Does one work to build a broad social movement? Does one organize that movement on democratic or authoritarian principles? Does one work within the trade unions to radicalize them? or foster the creation of worker co-operatives and communes? All of these and other modes of practice have been the preferred strategy for one group or another of socialists in general and Marxists in particular.
Talk about these ‘strategic differences’ suggests that the goal is one and the same, and that the disagreements are only about the best path to that goal. But what is that goal? We have labels for it, like “workers owning the means of production”. But what does that look like in practice? Nobody seems to agree.
To show how much of a problem this is, let me point out that in Capital, Marx observes that capitalism does have just such a defining practice: the exploitation of alientated labour-power, carried out through the appropriation of surplus value from workers by capitalists. It follows from Marx’s analysis that wherever labour-power is commodified and exploited, you have capitalism. Capitalism does not need its identity as capitalism, does not need people to adhere to any specific doctrines, in order to persist.
So, for instance, in the Soviet Union, capitalism persisted through the exploitation of alienated labour-power by a state bureaucratic elite, rather than by private entrepreneurs. The capitalist nature of the Soviet economy was disguised by the very substantial socialization of the means of consumption, but effective control of the means of production was as decisively out of the hands of ordinary workers as it was in the United States.
Practices can spread like viruses, even across the boundaries of mutually antagonistic group identities. They can reproduce particular social relations even in the context of identities and doctrines explicitly opposed to those very relations.
Capitalism has its distinctive practice. What is socialism’s?