Christian and Buddhist Models for the Dissemination of Socialism

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?



5 thoughts on “Christian and Buddhist Models for the Dissemination of Socialism

  1. Note: In describing things this way I have treated “identity” and “doctrine” as if they always go together. However, a friend of mine has pointed out that in Judaism, group identity and shared practice are both very strong, and strongly linked, while doctrine tends to be more negotiable and fluid. So there are more ways of combining these three factors of identity, doctrine, and practice than the two that I have contrasted.


  2. “[I]n the Soviet Union, capitalism persisted through the exploitation of alienated labour-power by a state bureaucratic elite, rather than by private entrepreneurs.”

    One defining aspect of socialist practice hitherto, albeit a catastrophically self-defeating one, is the attack on “bourgeois legality” in the name of unleashing popular power and the progressive forces. What inevitably follows where this practice is successful is that the popular forces soon find themselves under control of an executive committee and/or dictator with no legal limits on their power. Socialism quickly mutates into a pseudomorphosis of the Asiatic mode of production as analysed by Marx and Engels. And since this new Oriental despotism not only effectively owns all land, but all means of production as well, ironically it is a form of capitalism by definition, and moreover inevitably drifts closer and closer in economic practice to the conventional capitalist State, albeit without the latter’s civil liberties (e.g. the present PRC).

    Any truly serious effort to renew the Socialist project will have to confront this gigantic error decisively. Liberal Constitutionalism cannot be reduced to an ideological ruse, nor an obsolete barrier to progress to be done away with.


    • I think that’s a reasonable critique of Marxist-Leninism and its close cousins, but not of socialism as a whole or even of all Marxists. Many socialists do take law, constitutionalism, and democracy quite seriously. This is part of what I mean about the difficulty of specifying a distinctly socialist practice.

      What I have in mind is something slightly different. Although capitalism as a system is global in size and has existed for several hundred years, the exploitation of alienated labour is a practical relationship that operates on a very local scale, in the immediate actions between individuals.

      This relationship which can operate at the most local and microscopic of scales also operates at the most global and macroscopic scales, at which entire classes of people collectively exploit entire other classes of people. A constitutive practice which can do this, operating in a similar way across multiple scales, has tremendous power to shape social action according to its principles.

      What would be the constitutive practice of a socialist society – that is, a society in which working people directly controlled the means of the production of social wealth?


  3. OK I think I get it now. It’s an extremely interesting and important question that takes us to the heart of the difference between capitalism and socialism.

    I propose that an ontologically fundamental difference between the unit-practice of capitalism and that of socialism is that the former is an individual-level practice, while the latter is a truly social practice.

    In Marxist terms, the unit-practice of capitalism is the class practice of classes-in-themselves. Bourgeoisie and proletariat are economic and not social classes; they are internally and externally unified only by their objective relationship to the production process, but not in any meaningfully social way. That is to say, the capitalist unit-practice is a relationship between atomized and de-socialized individuals, united within and between their ranks only by the contractual obligation (cf. Durkheim).

    This stands in contrast to pre-capitalist forms of exploitation, which always take place within and between solidary social units (manor, guild, religious orders, etc.). For Marx, capitalism cannot proceed unless and until the individual is released from these dense social ties. The feudal peasant, in English history, had to undergo a radical process of desocialization (i.e. become one of the “lordless men” of early Modernity) before he could become a proletarian. Meanwhile, the capitalist, for his part, was de-socialized by Puritanism and other radically individualistic forms of Protestantism (which parsed his non-contractual social ties down to the nuclear family and the local congregation), and by Whig political theory (which taught that society itself is no more than a juridico-political contract between equal and radically isolated individuals who have no extra-contractual solidarity whatsoever and by nature cannot).

    Under these conditions, capitalism establishes itself more or less spontaneously (to be sure, with plenty of help from e.g. the anti-vagrancy statutes of the State), through the proliferation, repetition, and aggregation of the capitalist unit-practice throughout the economic sphere until it is the statistically dominant practice (“industrialization”).

    Socialist theory, from the start, critiqued capitalism not only for alienating humans from the fruits of their labour, but from one another as well; through all its variants it seeks to re-socialize the anomic and isolated individual atoms.

    Hence for Marx, the unit-practice of socialism is social; it is the class-practice of a class-for-itself. The working class will eventually come to consciousness of an intrinsic solidarity within its ranks that goes beyond the contractual, and become a genuinely social unit. Acting as a unit, this class seizes control of the means of production, as the first step to the establishment of a new social unity in which everybody is re-socialized, and both economic and social alienation are abolished for good.

    The capitalist unit-practice, then can be carried out individually or “collectively” by a legal association of otherwise-isolated individuals; the socialist unit-practice, only collectively, and moreover by a class acting as a social unit that is more than the sum of its parts.

    On these grounds, I submit that there can be no individual-level socialist practice that through individual-level repetition, proliferation, and aggregation
    could become the dominant practice, since the difference between socialism and capitalism is an absolute difference of quality, not a relative order of magnitude. For example, had the various co-op type schemes proposed by the Left in the 1970s succeeded and proliferated, even if every company in this country was 100% worker-owned and operated Canada would be just as capitalist as it is now, with the only difference that each capitalist would fictively be his own proletarian and vice-versa; there would be no class solidarity between or even within each company. I can’t think of any local practice that wouldn’t run into similar problems one way or another.

    What the Left can have right now, then, is not a homogeneous unit-practice, but a heterogeneous praxis that would seek to foster the objective and subjective conditions whereby the workers could discover their intrinsic social solidarity as a class, and by whatever means Marxist analysis indicates as potentially effective.



    • Very plausible. I think you’re right on the money and have identified a tendency that is common to both authoritarian and democratic forms of radical socialist thought. And what you’ve written helps me to clarify the problem that I’m trying to articulate.

      For me one of the implications of relational theory is that the conceptual opposition between “social” and “individual” is problematic and misleading. Every individual-level practice, and individuality itself, is made possible by a whole configuration of social relations. Norbert Elias argues this in “The Society of Individuals” and elsewhere, although Durkheim has also observed that what he called “the cult of the individual” is no less a social product than was the group solidarity of pre-modern people. In this view, “social” does not mean “solidaristic”, and the most atomized, alienated, anomic individuality is just as social as the most organically integrated group.

      At the same time, every collective phenomenon has some manifestation in individual practice. Even if we are dealing with emergent phenomena, i.e. situations where the collectivity has properties the individual doesn’t have, still the dynamics of group action emerge out of practices that circulate through social relations which pass through concrete human subjects.

      We could take the view that even though the two levels of phenomena are linked, they give rise to qualitatively different and incommensurate phenomena. From there one could reasonably believe that for a project like socialism, the individual “level” doesn’t really matter, since the phenomena one aims to cultivate appear only at the collective level. But this is precisely a point on which I disagree with (what I perceive to be) the socialist common sense.

      My intuition – and that’s as much validity as I can claim for it, really – is that relatively stable social orders depend on practices that can operate in similar ways across scales. Capitalist exploitation can happen between two people in a small firm (or even in one person’s relation to themselves, as in the self-exploiting small entrepreneur), or in a large corporation, or on national or global scales. I argue in my book that the same basic form of political domination (what I call “deferentiation”) repeats itself in relations between individuals and relations between sovereign states. So I wonder if there isn’t some way to think about socialism in terms of a practice or practices that are capable of operating simultaneously at global and local levels.

      Does this add anything new the mix or am I just repeating myself? Does this seem plausible?


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