Buddhism and Marxism: Reflections of an Outcast by J. Richard Marra

During 2016, I wrote an article entitled “Explaining Marxian Engaged Buddhism” for The Secular Buddhist Association. The article reworked thoughts previously offered in The Socialist. Both articles provided a strategy for “engaged” Buddhists wishing to use Marxian theory to inform political activities, while avoiding inconsistency with Buddhist practice. 

The central issue concerns Buddhism’s disapproval of exaggerated allegiances to “doctrines,” political or otherwise. As the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and political activist Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn explains, “Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones.” Extreme devotion to ideologies exemplifies what Buddhist’s identify as an “attachment:” An unwholesome mental factor that hinders the Buddhist goal of eliminating self-centeredness. In addition, Buddhists wish not to incite anger or hatred, the latter representing a “root” cause of human suffering. Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, in his Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning, reminds Buddhist that, “If one has the thesis of real entities, Awful and vicious views arise, Which give birth to attachment and aversion; From this contentions ensue.”  The articles’ value, by my lights, lies in revealing how Marxian theory and Buddhism are complimentary in a way that justifies claims that Marxian engaged Buddhism is both coherent and doctrinally defensible, beyond any purportedly shared moral principles.

The solution is based upon a distinction between Marxian historical materialism as a scientific research program (admittedly a controversial claim) from “Marxism”as a political doctrine. The former offers objective evidence for Marx’s explanation of the material and historical development of capitalist production and social relations. The latter is informed by both Marxian science and Marxist humanitarian principles. By restricting justifications for specific Buddhist political action to Marxian scientific explanation and evidence, the desired practical integration of engaged Buddhism and socialism removes the doctrinal issue regarding ideological attachment.

The claims of Marxian science are, as with all scientific explanation, subject to revision or rejection. Nevertheless, Buddhists are quite comfortable with this situation. This is because Buddhists consider all mental constructions, including scientific theories, as both fabricated and impermanent. In addition, Buddhists are committed to valid argumentation and objective evidence, and exercise that obligation with respect to Buddhist doctrine as well. His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains the matter succinctly: “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” This attitude provides a powerful antidote for any attachment to doctrines, theories, or ideologies. Buddhists are thus advised to be both reasonable and objective; to avoid fallacy, and disregard hearsay and biased “received truths.” The Kalama Sutta champions this “critical” Buddhist attitude.

The article for The Socialist was intended to be part of a series of pieces, written by comrades, celebrating the Party’s newly created “Faith and Socialism” Commission. Contributions would be published as a demonstration of a welcoming attitude toward people of faith. While the Commission’s membership applauded the effort and the editorial board tepidly approved it, a subsequent call for submissions was largely met with a dismissive silence. This rebuff was not surprising, as socialists (regardless of whether they actually read Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right“) routinely announce that religion represents an “opiate of the people.” Thus, my folly, based on a presumption that my socialist comrades would treat peoples’ spiritual commitments with dignity, was exposed.

The Secular Buddhist Association posting garnered many extended comments. Most were strongly critical, some sarcastic, and others obliquely hostile. Some comments were obviously fallacious, which I found surprising given the Association’s celebrated moral high-mindedness and well-educated membership. Nevertheless, the motivation behind the objections was understandable. Buddhists wished not to pollute their psycho-ethical worldview with a materialistic humanism based on an account of humanity’s productive interaction with its physical environment and the social relations that emerge from it.

Nevertheless, some prominent Buddhists embrace Marxian theory. For example, His Holiness The Dalai Lama explains his doctrinal reconciliation of Buddhism and Marxism.

“Of all the modern economic theories…Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes–that is, the majority–as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair….”

Ultimately, my best efforts largely failed to convince readers that Buddhism and Marxian science might complement one another for the greater good of humanity. I came to appreciate that for some Buddhists, Marxism represents a mere fabrication; and for some Marxists, religion is an addicting illusion.

These efforts confirm three truths about human communication. First, failing to convince does not necessarily represent a deficiency in communication. The reverse also holds: Failing to communicate accurately does not necessarily defeat persuasion. Second, readers routinely complain when they feel their worldviews are deeply threatened. Finally, no apparent consensus regarding a political matter necessarily guarantees an objective agreement regarding the meaning of concepts that define it.

From this, I conclude that the more negative comments a post receives, the greater its likelihood of being helpful to a conscientious political advocate. This is because failing to convince offers an opportunity to uncover and remove potential weaknesses and errors in argumentation and communication. Again the reverse holds: Effective dialogue can reveal inconsistencies between what people individually take as the meaning of terms, even given a publicly-declared consensus. In addition, criticisms arrive packaged in ideologies, whose content and logic can be revealed through continuing debate. With regard to religious beliefs, the success of advocacy in part depends upon recognizing “un-give-up-able” ideological commitments that no amount of incessant and stubborn badgering will dislodge, but will only likely reinforce.

In this regard, socialist activists might take a lesson from the Buddhist commitment to non-violent communication. Taking every political complaint as a call to arms encourages misunderstanding and conflict, while recognizing objection as a call for compassion and equanimity can lead to intellectual and moral growth, and provide a basis for political solidarity. Appreciating those uncertainties and ideological contexts within communication that might weaken or even defeat persuasion protects against intellectual carelessness, and ideological narcissism.

Several lessons emerge from this experience. First, science teaches us that religion serves human needs that are irrelevant to, or at least distant from, socialist political concerns. Therefore, caution should be exercised regarding the soundness of claims regarding supposed religious hazards to socialist revolution. Mindlessly parroting an old saw about addictive religion misrepresents the science of religion and a long history of religion’s positive contributions to humanity. Socialist activists harm their political project by demeaning deeply held religious beliefs, while also committing a fallacy by suppressing uncomfortable scientific evidence. The religious baby need not be thrown out with the capitalist bathwater.

Second, acknowledging results from the science of religion helps activists to avoid a central incongruity in political practice: Advocating for social virtues shared among socialists and people of faith, while tacitly suggesting that the faithful be prepared to give up the “un-give-up-able” once they have achieved Marxist enlightenment. The poor living in dilapidated inner cities, under a racist capitalism, will demonstrate along side socialists for jobs, health care, and community controlled policing; but they won’t do so in order to detox themselves from an alleged religious poison.

Thirdly, ignoring religious leaders (who represent traditional sources of solace for the economically and socially beleaguered) just because religion is “counter-revolutionary” cedes the moral battlefield to right-wing capitalist oppressors, who are practiced in claiming the high ground for a “moral majority.”

Finally, humanitarian activists of all faiths should exercise a courage that grows from a desire to forge a loving, compassionate, socially positive, and peaceful human existence. Buddhists hold these “Four Immeasurables” at the center of their “practice,” and employ them effectively to weaken that self-centeredness that hinders the development of the celebrated socialist egalitarian attitude.

Avoiding difficult conversations and ignoring the science of human needs defeats socialist advocacy. Socialist activists would be well served to harken to the Buddhist Immeasurables and to the rationality of the scientific attitude; leaving tired, thoughtless, and self-serving slogans to those who have nothing else to offer – like America’s capitalist ruling class.

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