Last updated: 2/18/2021
Note: This essay is a work in progress.
Thesis: There exists an overlooked affinity between the work of Jacques Ellul and post-1968 communist thought. Once a synthesis is performed, it provides a stronger theoretical backing for his theories of technique and revolution while providing an answer to holes in ultra-left theory.
Many people (including himself) characterize Jacques Ellul as an anti-communist. While there is some element of truth to this, the relationship is more complicated than commonly believed. If anything, it seems as if Ellul was rather prescient with identifying flaws in the Orthodox Marxist paradigm, critiques which would only start to gain ground with the “return to Marx”.
In order to make this case, I will be examining Ellul's works one-by-one and reflecting on their implications for this synthesis.
Jesus and Marx (section in progress)
One of the biggest issues with articulating something like this is that any mention of a relationship between Christianity and communism immediately brings to mind clichés like “Jesus sided with the poor, so should we”. In order to demonstrate what sets apart this synthesis from the countless made before me, it's best to start with this book. That's because while it is presented as a critique of the exact sort of project I'm undertaking, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the points Ellul made.
Before we dig any deeper, first it's important to place this work within context. The bulk of Ellul's work is written during the late 20th century, with this one being originally written in 1988. The New Left was in vogue, and as a politically-inclined French academic, Ellul was in quite possibly the best possible position to be exposed to this milieu.
In the specific domain of the French intellectual world, moreover, you can be taken seriously only if you take a position within or with respect to Marxism. Obviously you are uninteresting and none of your ideas has any weight or meaning unless you participate in one of the current exercises: new interpretation of Marx; application of Marx's method to new areas; analysis of political phenomena by means of latent Marxism; opposition to Stalinism in the name of Marx; reinterpretation of forgotten texts; discovery of the Marxism contrary to Marx; an ex-Stalinist explains his repentance; conversions from Marxism to Christianity; attempt to synthesize everything in Marxist thought, etc. (Ellul 1988, 24)
This is best represented with anecdote he cites, in which a Maoist sends him a letter:
Long ago I wrote an article trying to show the fundamental contradiction between Christianity and Communism. I received a long letter from a fine, devoted Protestant from southern France who believed I was utterly mistaken. He found an extraordinary harmony between the Communist and Christian ethic. The Communist ethic, including its tactics and strategy, expressed precisely what was being lived out in Christianity. What proof did he offer? He recommended I read the essential book by Liu Ch'ao-Chi, How to Be a Good Communist. Unfortunately, this devoted Protestant was writing early in 1966, a few months before the cultural revolution, in which Liu became public enemy number one, and his book was considered to be nothing but error! (Ellul 1988, 36)
And that shines light on what the real target seems to be throughout the book: the “Christian-communists” of his time. Neo-Marxist intellectuals, Maoist partisans, and those parroting vague and shallow “liberation theologies”. What these groups share in common was that Christ was viewed as an accessory to rather than the foundation of their thought.
In exactly the same manner, Marxist-materialist theology develops. A person sees no reason to avoid elaborating a theology on the basis of Marxism; it would provide us at last with a theology we can take seriously, since it would be scientific for the first time. “Why not do a Marxist-materialist analysis of the Scriptures? As serious intellectuals, how can we neglect this opportunity to have a different theological point of view? We have to look at all points of view and make use of all the evidence.”
This attitude betrays dilettantism rather than intellectual responsibility, since it finds everything fascinating. Kierkegaard placed such “seriousness” in his lowest category: “interesting” – the opposite of serious. After all, many other theological points of view might also be “interesting” – the devil's, for example! (Ellul 1988, 26-27)
We move, then, from a concealed Christianity to a socialism into which this Christianity is insinuated. At this point proponents claim to have found within this socialism a renewed Christianity and the possibility of wedding the two. Likewise, everything is reduced to a historical political praxis, and the discovery of the truth about Jesus is based on this practice. Thus those who believe in “heaven” and those who do not find their common denominator in praxis. The expression “believe in heaven” turns out to be convenient for those who do not believe in it, since such belief means nothing to them. Casalis's use of the term implies that such belief means nothing to him either.
When this praxis is further equated with the force behind history, one can indeed claim that “every meal taken while sharing historical responsibilities and fellowship has ... eucharistic value; it is a celebration of struggle and hope, in which Christians and non-Christians together do the truth and can be regarded as disciples united in messianic practice” (p. 168). Such a statement dismisses Jesus' “I am the Truth,” with a “No, those who practice politics do the truth.” (Ellul 1988, 140-141)
Liberation theologies unfortunately perpetuate the characteristics of the most despicable traditional theologies! For one thing, they remain amazingly abstract, in spite of their concrete appearance. Their abstraction consists of not asking the decisive concrete question (“liberation for whose benefit?”). In the same way the bourgeois theologies of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries were abstract. Yet they appeared concrete, since they all led to such a practical moral code! In exactly the same way our liberation theologies lead to political strategies and tactics for liberation! Today liberation theologies are abstract in that they fail to question socialist or Communist dictatorships where a tiny minority exercises power over a people more enslaved than ever. (Ellul 1988, 59)
The pattern recurring throughout this book is that Ellul seems to be more critical of Marxists as opposed to Marx himself. To him, Marx was one of many influences he drew from, with various ideas he either incorporated or condemned.
What is left of Marx in our day? Nothing. I say “nothing” even though I take Marxists themselves into account. What do they think of Marx's political economy? It has been quietly swept into a corner; it contains so many errors, ill-conceived explanations, and false predictions that Marxists generally prefer not to mention Marx's political economy in concrete terms... And Marx's strategy? Why, Communism was supposed to come to life in the most economically developed country, where capitalism had reached its greatest potential. In our day we have changed all this, now Communism can come to life in the most poverty-stricken countries. But this is profoundly anti-Marxist; even the most convoluted explanation fails to harmonize the two notions.
What remains, then, are scattered pieces of Marx's thought; Marxists clutch at these, as if by themselves they could have some obscure meaning: class struggle, prevailing ideology, relations of production, etc. Certain quotations of Marx are especially useful-profound phrases that get applied to everything, and that can be interpreted however one likes! As a result, some people marvel: how miraculous that after the end of Stalinism, there are dozens of Marxisms to choose from! Althusser's is unlike Daix's; A. Gramsci surfaces, but differs from Mao. You have a whole gamut of Marxisms to choose from, depending on your size, your ideas, and your place in society. Wonderful how our freedom has progressed! Unfortunately, Marx's thought is utterly gutted as a result: it lies lifeless and incoherent. (Ellul 1988, 15)
Ellul is overly quick to dismiss Marx's political economy here, but the statement reflects a cultural sentiment which proved to be a stumbling block for the very type of Marxist he is critiquing. The important takeaway here is the fact that he acknowledges the dissonance between Marx and Marxists. Despite Ellul's focus being on exposing incoherency in a theological sense, he also clearly understands that it remains a shallow expression of socialism too.
For many... being socialist means denouncing apartheid, colonialism, and imperialism; siding with oppressed people, feminists, homosexuals, and the young against the old (all the while expressing teary-eyed concern for the elderly); pleading the cause of immigrant workers; struggling against requiring too fast a pace of industrial employees, and struggling for raising the minimum wage; attacking Israel's imperialism, etc. Socialism boils down to these matters, more or less. But we are not given any serious reflection. We can never know the basis of a given stance, or what direction it wants to take us. All we have are rather vague principles: siding with the oppressed and fighting for justice. (Ellul 1988, 53)
Once we understand who he is speaking to, it makes sense why the following rebuke ends up being the most damning in the book, because it strikes at the heart of the phenomenon:
Such Christians in our day have failed to realize that they conform to the unfortunately traditional Christian habit of always looking for a way to adapt Christianity to the dominant intellectual and sociological trend. The current commitment of Christians to “socialism-Marxism-Communism” testifies to what a degree this tendency has become the dominant ideology in our society.
Christians have always functioned in the same way: in a given society, a dissenting ideology comes on the scene. Christians fail to observe it. If the ideology grows, they begin to find it interesting, but they refrain from getting involved. If it becomes the dominant ideology (in which case it continues to dissent from the established reality!), the traditional ideology begins to decline seriously. At this point, when the dissenting ideology is certain to win out, Christians rush to get on the bandwagon, thus becoming “extremists.” These neophytes, full of courage and radicalism, try to demonstrate their extremism. But in reality, such “extremism” is nothing but a slavish following of the current sociological trend, often just when this ideology, having become dominant, enters its own crisis of decline. A certain number of Christians, of course, remain faithfully wedded to yesterday's ideology, or even to the one that preceded it. In this case, the Church becomes a battleground where conservatives struggle against progressives. (Ellul 1988, 13-14)
As a missionary religion, Christians lack closed cultural communities which would otherwise prevent assimilation. This leads to Christians being very quick to jump on political bandwagons and use their faith to retroactively justify it.
And this brings us to the actual criticisms Ellul has of Marxism itself. Going over some of the weaker ones before we get onto the real meat of the critique:
- Ellul continually makes reference back to the horrors of the gulag and communist dictatorships as a talking point. The degeneration of Marxism into Stalinism is a topic that is a lot messier than Ellul assumes, but also one that has been beaten to death so I do not plan to discuss it in detail, beyond linking some further reading for those interested.
- Ellul takes for granted the notion that history has proven Marx wrong, without going into much detail on how. Once again, this topic is more complicated than Ellul assumes. The bulk of Marx's critique of political economy still holds (once again, further reading). As for the stuff that doesn't, it's important to understand that the bulk of Marx's later works were inaccessible to the general public until the late sixties. These works revealed a completely new dimension of Marx's thought, alongside with the discarding of weaker elements within his earlier theory.
Autopsy of Revolution
Anarchy and Christianity
The Technological Society
Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes
Hope in Time of Abandonment
Ellul, Jacques. 1988. Jesus and Marx: from gospel to ideology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans Publishing Company.