Doomsday religions & bourgeois pessimism

By Sam Marcy ( April 6, 1995)

The struggle between science and superstition seems never to end. The same can be said for the struggle between religion and the capitalist state. As long as such excruciating social contradictions as those that are rending capitalism asunder can be found all over the globe, as long as there are such extremes between super-abundant wealth and the misery of millions, all sorts of solutions are going to be put forth. This is not to say that contradictions between wealth and poverty did not exist in earlier epochs. Indeed, haven't they always constituted the essential elements for religious struggle against the state and its authorities? More religions than just Christianity were formed in reaction to the existence of extreme wealth amidst overwhelming poverty.

The cry to drive the money changers out of the temples arose out of class struggle in ancient slave societies. That slogan, with slight changes, could well be raised in the struggles today against the modern super-rich and the Wall Street fraternity. Ever since uncontrollable imperialist competition ushered in the first bloody world war, the optimism that accompanied the earlier stages of capitalist development has given way to a profound pessimism. Even capitalism's greatest achievements in science and technology, applied to all the continents, the air, outer space, the seven seas and even under water, have not brought about that great outburst of enthusiasm one might have expected.

In the early part of the 19th century, poets like Shelley and Byron could wax lyrical about the great human accomplishments to come. And their ringing words called forth to battle all those ready to give their lives for this new society that was springing from the rot of feudalism. But no longer.

Pessimism grows in Japan

The general pessimism engendered by capitalist relations is in the spotlight most of all right now in Japan. The Japanese government is accusing a religious cult, the Aum Shinri Kyo, of being behind the release of the deadly nerve gas sarin in five subway cars in downtown Tokyo on March 20. Ten people died from the poison gas and some 5,000 more were hospitalized with injuries.

Shoko Asahara, the leader of the cult, is reported to preach a doomsday scenario for the future--a war between the U.S. and Japan in 1997 in which Japan is totally destroyed. Asahara and other leaders of the group disappeared after the disaster. But press accounts say that in a video released since then he accuses the U.S. military of having spread the poison by plane.

Why does such an apocalyptic view seem to thrive? It does so on the basis of the pessimistic outlook and destiny of imperialist Japan. Not just this cult but many militarist bourgeois currents in Japan constantly bemoan that it is hemmed in on all sides--by Russia to the north, China to the west, and the U.S. with its colossal naval and military presence in the Pacific.

But there are other, revolutionary currents. In the 1970s, during a momentary upward movement in the class struggle, the youth of Japan spoke in their own voice and shared none of this pessimism. They were full of optimism and anticipation for the great potential of the Japanese working class to rise to its feet and challenge the imperialist ruling class.

The gloomy outlook that a cultist like Asahara sees as eternity is in reality a momentary, passing development. It does not represent the great future and happy life for the masses that is possible given Japan's tremendous development in science, technology and industry. What prevents this is not some fate or destiny, but the incubus of private property interests and their offspring, monopoly capital.

The same phenomenon has appeared in the U.S. Should we pass off David Koresh of the Branch Davidians and Jim Jones, both of whom also preached an imminent doomsday and apocalypse?

The Vale of Tears

The Vale of Tears appears in religion as a recurrent theme. It arose from the scarcity of food, arable land and resources in earlier times. But humanity has now passed that stage, at least in what is possible if not actual. The problem at this stage of capitalism is not scarcity but super-abundance. Yet for hundreds of millions around the world, life has not progressed much beyond the stone age because of the monopolization of wealth. What remains now is to free production from private property and organize it on a truly rational and human basis.

The bourgeoisie can indulge in a little pessimism in their after-dinner discussions as they sip on the finest liqueurs and wines. The proletarian cannot emulate the bourgeois in this kind of self-indulgence.

Pessimism comes from the ancient as well as the modern ruling classes. It is no part of working-class ideology. And while the bourgeoisie imposes its own pessimism on society as a whole, let's not take a momentary condition of the workers as their permanent status. The workers show their best qualities in struggle, the bourgeoisie their worst.

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