Friday, October 03, 2008

Chris Knight in the Weekly Worker

From Despair to Where? points me to this great, fascinating, inspiring, timely article titled "Science, Religion, and language" in the Weekly Worker by our old friend Chris Knight (see my post about his important book, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture). A few key passages follow.

On hunter-gathers and "primitive communism":
It is not just that hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, that they share and they do not have private property. The key thing for Marxists and communists is that there can be no communism without abundance - in fact without super-abundance. Scarcity of any kind leads to conflict, which itself leads to inequality.

I sometimes meet comrades who think that hunter-gatherers lived in poverty and scarcity. They are so, so wrong. That misconception was put right long ago - for example, by Marshall Sahlins in his brilliant book Stone Age economics. One chapter is about “the original affluent society”. The crucial point is that hunter-gatherers live in abundance. Yet too many comrades conceptualise everything through western ideology, leading them to conclude, for instance, that if people do not have televisions they must be living in poverty.

Some of the tribes we have been living with and studying have access to both worlds - they can go to the flesh pots and get a taste of western life. They tire of it and go back home. All I can say is that they have the world’s best diet, the most healthy possible nutrition and plenty of spare time to enjoy all the pleasures of life. The world’s wealthiest people spend a fortune to enjoy a week’s safari and hunting. But the Hazda of Tanzania and others like them have this all the year round and, once you live with them, you can understand why they have no desire at all to go down the road of so-called ‘development’, any more than in the distant past, our hunter-gatherer ancestors actively wanted to get involved in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and eventually class society.

So these people have an experience of real abundance.
On religion:
If you think religion is stupid, then, as a Marxist, you have a paradox, because you say that hunter-gatherers are communist and they are stupid. The paradox is resolved when you realise that, the more you practise your religion, every day of the week, the more you regard everything as sacred, the less it is religion. In a way, the more it is religion, the less it is religion.

So when Marxists talk about abolishing religion, we mean abolishing the illusory communism which religion is. But you cannot abolish the illusory communism without realising communism. The argument we put forward in the Radical Anthropology Group is that the human revolution - the process of becoming human, with the establishment of communism - involved the idea of the sanctity of things as an essential component. The ultimate idea of religion and the point about it which perhaps all of us could accept is simple: some things are sacred. For capitalism, nothing is sacred. Everything has a price.
And on language and religion:
Because language relates fundamentally to institutional facts, semantics is also concerned with institutional facts, not with brute facts. So that only a creature that has become immersed in a world of shared fantasy - in a sense only a religious creature - can have language. As we became human, as we turned the world upside down through revolution, that communist world was a world of fantasy in a sense, but shared fantasy. When fantasies are shared, when they are generalised in the power that they can give, then that is a very different thing from fiction, from lying or hallucination. Children learn language and the use of words fundamentally through fantasy. If a young child does not get into fantasy worlds, if it cannot get the idea of ‘let’s pretend’, then that is some cause for concern. Lack of pretend-play capacity is one of the diagnostic features of autism.

I will end with this - Jerome Lewis has shown in his study of the Mbendjele that religion is actually play. The point about this play is that, as with all children’s games, it is quite serious. When you are in the playground, the most important thing about a person you are fond of is that they let you play with them. Likewise, the rules of the various games that the forest people play are very important. They are sacred.

Play, ritual, collective work and religion are the same thing for the forest people that Jerome is studying. The point is that they play in a way that allows them to continue playing through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. When they play the same games as adults, that is religion. It does not matter what you call it. If you think religion is stupid, then that is fine. You can then call what the forest people do something else - maybe magic or whatever.

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