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It seems you've inverted Marxism

Reader comment on item: Islam's Inadvertent Patterns

Submitted by James Strom (United States), Mar 10, 2014 at 11:31

Marx famously argued that the means of production determined the habits and ideologies of society. Here you point out a convincing counterexample in which belief, including religion, dominates society, including its mode of production.

And, by the way, all the evidence was available in Marx's time.


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Daniel Pipes replies:

Happy to invert Marx, whose theory of materialism diminishes the human spirit even as it distorts the forces of history. For more on my views, an extract from my 1983 book, In the Path of God:

The philosophical doctrine of materialism impedes comprehension of religion in politics even more than secularism. This doctrine originated in the nineteenth century, when European intellectuals, expressing unlimited confidence in rationality and science, formulated elaborate theories to demonstrate how predictably mankind responds to its environment. One of these theories was Karl Marx's historical materialism which emphasized the importance of changes in economic conditions. According to Marx, the system of labor (slave, serf, capitalist, or socialist) determines all other aspects of society, including its politics, social relations, and culture. Neo-Marxists later modified this theory to allow more flexibility, but Marxist thought continues to emphasize the role of economic relations, while discounting the importance of ideas (scornfully dismissed as "ideology"). Individuals may believe they are motivated by ideals -- patriotism, religious fervor, justice, and humanitarianism -- but materialists invariably discern hidden economic motives. They believe that a calculus of cost and benefit, often unconscious, determines most actions. For example, abolitionists in the United States thought they were motivated by morality to fight the slave trade, but the materialists would argue that slavery hurt their economic interests. So, too, material concerns spurred American rebels in 1776, French revolutionaries in 1789, and Nazi supporters in the 1930s.

The trouble with this is that the theory of materialism reduces humans to one-dimensional beings, and the truth is not so simple. Economic factors indisputably have a major role (and they had been quite neglected before Marx), but they do not singly determine behavior. One cannot ignore the wide range of emotions that are not tied to material self-interest: loyalties to family, tribe, ethnic group, language group, neighbors, nation, race, class, or religion sometimes overlap with material interests and sometimes run contrary to them. Material factors alone fail to account for the actions of a George III or a Hitler. They cannot explain the endurance of Communist rule so long after its economic deficiencies have become manifest. Nor can they explain why Japan, an island almost barren of natural resources, is so much better off than mineral-rich Zaire. Much less do material factors show why so many people willingly give up their lives for political causes they believe in.

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