“Marxists are not fortune-tellers. They should, and indeed can, only indicate the general direction of future developments and changes…But when I say there will soon be a high tide of revolution…I am emphatically not speaking of something which in the words of some people ‘is possibly coming,’ something illusory, unattainable and devoid of significance for action. It is like a ship far out at sea whose masthead can already be seen from the shore…”
Mao Zedong 1
Søren Kierkegaard occupies a key position in the tradition of Christian existentialism, and is often referred to as ‘grandfather of existentialism’. His central theme of faith is the subject of this essay. I argue that it is possible to reconcile the Kierkegaardian life-structure and Marxist philosophy of ideology in a way which accounts for the fact of existential despair, as well as its solution, in a materialist context. Marxist philosophers of ideology, such as Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, argue that subjects are constructed by ideology and ultimately determined by the mode of production which characterises their society.2 To that end I contend that Kierkegaard’s religiosity amounts to mere set-dressing - his tendency to frame existential issues within a Christian framework arises from the socio-ideological landscape in which he lived and died. At its root, the Kierkegaardian worldview is one which centres on the individual and her relation to the world she lives in. It is by exploring the subject’s interpellation within a particular material reality that this essay secularises the leap of faith, thereby extracting the lessons which modern Marxists can draw from Kierkegaard’s work.
Despair and angst are concepts central to Kierkegaardian thought. They are both conditions of the human spirit experienced throughout life. Whether or not we are aware of it, all of us are, at some point, in a condition of despair. Despair is not an ‘emotion’ but a sickness of the spirit which arises from a misconception of one’s own nature as a human self. The human self is a synthesis of opposing elements – the infinite and the finite, the temporal and eternal, freedom and necessity.3 In a self-actualised individual these elements exist in perfect balance, but for most of us there is a disjunction between these elements. Thus, we are all at one point in despair, and becoming aware of this reality is the first step on the road to pulling ourselves out of it.4
Awareness of despair gives rise to angst. Angst describes the condition of being faced with decisions that you lack the resources to make wisely. In becoming aware of their despair, one is faced with the limitless possibilities which life offers. Agonised by indecision, one may lapse into a nihilism, an indifference to choice. In what can only be described as a diatribe in the opening pages of Either/Or the pseudonymous Johannes Climacus, an aesthete, writes:
“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both... This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.” 5
The regret which Climacus describes arises from the fact that, in making a commitment to marry or not marry, to laugh or not to laugh, a person gives up an alternative mode of life. Climacus is paralysed by angst. He is unable to commit to anything and hence plagued by a nihilist indifference to any kind of choice.
There are, however, two sides to angst. While the dread of possibility weighs heavily on the soul, Climacus is also aware of the possibilities which the awareness of despair gives rise to. He knows that “life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.” 6 Hence, angst is also the “dizziness of freedom,” the hyperawareness of all life’s possibilities.7 In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard describes this condition as similar to a man standing on the edge of a cliff, terrified of falling, but at the same time tempted to throw himself over the edge.8 Angst is the paralysing indecision to jump or not to jump which arises from our recognition that we are free to do either. Hence, for Kierkegaard angst arises from within the individual: it is a condition of the individual spirit recognising its overwhelming freedom.
Kierkegaard’s analysis does not fully capture the anxious condition. While I wouldn’t dispute that we are all often paralysed by indecision, I argue that angst does not only arise from the abundance of choices one lacks the wisdom to make but also comes from an abundance of choices which one does not have the material resources to make. In both cases one feels compelled to choose but lacks the resources to be able to choose freely or, in other words, to give effect to the infinite theoretical possibilities which life puts before us. Anxious tension of this latter kind is referable to an external conflict between the individual and the material reality in which they are embedded. It recognises that we are all situated within a world of theoretical choices that we are not entitled to make.
Let me use a more concrete example: I have the theoretical choice to go to Oxford and get a law degree. That choice is, superficially, open to me. But my class position constrains me; I have not the networks nor the financial resources to make it a reality. However hard I try, this is not a choice that I can make a material reality, and angst is precisely the emotion which describes this. Angst arises also from the awareness of this fact – of what I theoretically can do but materially cannot do, and yet which I yearn to do anyway.
Thus, angst is the awareness of despair insofar as one who is aware of their despair is faced with the limitless possibilities which life theoretically offers to them, but does not know how to give effect to these theoretical possibilities.9 It follows that when angst is conceptualised as referable to an external conflict between human flourishing and material conditions, despair can also be so conceptualised. Despair, put in Marxist terms, can be understood as a lack of class consciousness. Specifically, a lack of consciousness of the historically determined patterns which govern material relations, and the ways in which these patterns or laws can be directed towards the definite end of overcoming capitalist modes of production.10 The journey out of despair begins with the recognition of this fact, and the more conscious we become of these patterns, the more resources – material and theoretical – we have to govern our choices. Hence, the cosmic state of affairs which gives rise to despair is not simply a lack of harmony with the absolute, but a tension between intensely individualistic traditions in liberal political philosophy and the fact that history is governed by a collective class struggle.
The Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism recognises the presence of “an eternal cycle in which matter moves,”11 and which governs every aspect of reality from ideas to social structures and material objects. It describes a progression in which matter constantly shifts, from one form to another, operating on the macro level through history and the micro level across the life of an individual person. Hence, it “insists … on the absence of boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another… apparently irreconcilable with it.”12
Here, I draw on an Althusserian conception of human agency wherein the dialectical progression of history is a process which lacks a subject.13 For Althusser, there are patterns in history but it does not necessarily progress.This teleological illusion arises because “the present is the result of a past [and therefore] imagines that it was the goal of the past.”14 Knowing where one stands in the ‘topography’ of the present mode of society and, as a matter of historical analysis, why one stands there, generates the ideological tools necessary to co-opt these patterns towards concrete goals. This is consistent with what Engels meant when he wrote that:
“Freedom is the insight into necessity…. Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence of natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.” 15
Marx derived the concept of the dialectic from the philosophy of Hegel, though both Marx and Engels critiqued its idealist tendencies. Hegelians conceived of material reality as a reflection of the Absolute, but, for Marx, ideas reflect material reality, not the other way around.16 Kierkegaard too critiqued Hegel, though on slightly different grounds, arguing that Hegelian philosophy is abstracted from the everyday life of individuals.17 He also rejected the notion that the progression of the Hegelian dialectic would grant access to the Absolute. For Kierkegaard, God is transcendent: “an objective uncertainty.”18 Hence the Kierkegaardian emphasis on faith. Progression along the “stages on life’s way” leads one further away from absolute knowledge of God, but always closer towards the realisation that one must simply have faith. Hence, Kierkegaard inverts the Hegelian dialectic; one does not progress from the actual to the ideal, but rather, the ideal becomes an aspect of their material reality insofar as it becomes clear that the ideal is essentially unattainable. Faith is the closest one can get to the Absolute, which transcends all human endeavour.
Marx inverted another Hegelian concept to develop the idea that consciousness is constructed through our habitual social practices and material conditions. Thus, the totality of the social relations of production:
“constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”19
Taking up this theme, Althusser argues that, insofar as ideas arise from within the consciousness of every individual, they “freely accept” them, and must “‘act according to [their] ideas.’”20 If they do not, a social-corrective mechanism forces the deviant individual to take up beliefs more consistent with their practices.21 The ideas of a subject are inscribed in their material practices, which in turn are governed by the rituals which emerge from an ideological apparatus. Ideologies therefore have a material existence, in that they always exist within a structure, “an apparatus, and its practice.”22 Ideology, so defined, is “the imaginary relation of ... individuals to the real relations in which they live.”23 In this way, faith too has a material basis; it is inscribed in one’s ritualised social practices. As Pascal says, “kneel down, move your lips in prayer and you will believe.”24
When ideology is mediated by the institutions of the state – what Althusser calls ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) – the consciousness which emerges is designed to reproduce itself, and, ultimately, the prevailing mode of production. ISAs are not ideology itself, but “a certain number of realities which present themselves … in the form of distinct and specialised institutions.” Althusser places particular emphasis on the educational ISA, which educates children into certain practices designed to reproduce the prevailing mode of production. ISAs therefore have the potential to give rise to a false consciousness which obscures the individual’s real relation to the material conditions in which they live, their class position.
I argue that the process by which one develops class consciousness is akin to Kierkegaard’s “stages on life’s way.” One must first recognise the various inequities which arise from the capitalist mode of production. At this stage, these distinct instances of injustice are not seen toarise from the structure of the capitalist mode itself. Caught up in the superstructure, one may easily fail to see the woods for the trees. Therefore it may seem as though one is putting out fires as they come up and not making any impact, leading to a loss of identity and a nihilistic resignation.25 To satiate the psychological need for stability and identity, the individual may then embed themselves within an ethical system which attempts to fight back, though often in a disjointed way. It is this very process of struggle which eventually leads one to true consciousness – class consciousness. The fundamental realisation of one’s place in the topography of society, and how one came to be who one is, is inscribed in the practice of class struggle. To paraphrase Marx, ‘workers of the world unite, and then you will come to realise you have nothing to lose but your chains.’
The aesthetic mode of existence is characterised by the conduct of life experiments.26 The aesthete tries everything: indulges in the material pleasures of life, but settles upon nothing, makes no definite choices, and never commits to anything. They avoid serious relationships as these only diminish freedom. Once the fulfilment of pleasures becomes commonplace and banal, this kind of life leads, inevitably, to boredom and meaninglessness In the time between pleasures the aesthete will experience a nihilist indifference to any kind of choice. However, he has a pretty elegant and simple solution to this problem: making choices. Thus, Kierkegaard states:
“…when I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then, I have not stopped laughing. I saw that the meaning of life was to secure a livelihood, and that its goal was to attain a high position; that love’s rich dream was marriage with an heiress; that friendship’s blessing was help in financial difficulties; that wisdom was what the majority assumed it to be; that enthusiasm consisted in making a speech; that it was courage to risk the loss of ten dollars; that kindness consisted in saying, “You are welcome,” at the dinner table; that piety consisted in going to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.”27
The aesthete is disillusioned with social morality, leading them to a hedonistic nihilistic existence. But this only leads to more despair when they discover they have lost a stable sense of identity. This psychological need leads them to adopt the ethical mode of life.28
One of the first signs of existential maturity is adopting the ‘ethical’ mode of life. The ethicist makes hard choices; they recognise themselves as a social being who depends on others and they act according to internalised rules of social morality that are specific to their context. Eventually, this person may realise that the ethical mode of life is flawed, and will attempt to transcend it - to put their faith in a higher power. Kierkegaard suggests that a person eventually moves beyond the ethical mode of life when they realise that they are dependent on finite and temporal things which eventually pass away. Moreover, by internalising social morality, the ethicist forfeits the viewpoint from which they can critique that morality. I argue that this is the more serious of the two flaws. The ethicist lacks the cognitive resources to critique the socially-determined morality on which his identity is based. Psychologically, his sense of self does not allow it.29
To draw out this condition of the ethical life, I refer to Judith Butler’s account of injurious speech as something which interpellates the subject in a social context which they do not recognise.30 For Althusser, identity does not exist prior to the interpellative call, but is a “function of that circuit” in that individuals are always-already interpellated as subjects.31 Thus, “the existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.”32
In critiquing the normative (ideological) structures on which capitalist society is based, the individual risks what Butler calls abjection.33 Bourgeois morality interpellates the subject as one who is subject to and dependent on the capitalist mode of production for survival. Individuals who reject this foundation do not ‘fit’ within the context of the system, and thus society interpellates the individual who rejects it in a social context with which she is not familiar and, moreover, where she is an outcast.
But subjects have agency, and “injurious speech can be resisted by exploiting the space between how the call was intended to be perceived and the “possibilit[ies] for social existence” conferred by it.34 Thus, when the ethicist becomes aware of the futile and injurious casting out of those who reject the ruling ideology, as one which invites struggle towards the future goal of a socialist society, she becomes truly conscious of herself as an individual existing in class society, with the power to change it.
Hence, despair again arises when the ethicist comes to see the inappropriateness of this mode of life for the development of her true self. But this despair is also an opportunity to move beyond the ethical into the final sphere of existence: the religious.
The religious person relates themselves absolutely to a transcendent force. In them, there is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, so that they have achieved true selfhood.35 The achievement of true religiosity depends on two movements.
One must first renounce all worldly things and become indifferent to the finite. In this way, one becomes “a stranger in the world of finitude.”36 Kierkegaard refers to this withdrawal from earthly life as the movement of infinite resignation. He suggests that this state of being often comes about after deep pain or disappointment,37 such as unrequited love.39 This is the shock to the system, so to speak, that causes him to give up on transient material love and transfigure his mortal love into love for a higher power.
Kierkegaard recognises that it is not enough simply to transform one’s attachments to the material world into devotion to a higher power. One must reconcile the inherent transience of the material world with the psychological need to form attachments with people and things in that world. Like the man poised on the edge of the cliff, one must leap into the possibility that what one has lost will be regained, despite the odds, and by the grace of a higher power. The choice to have faith is not one that is rationally justifiable. It is justifiable only by reference to faith itself, and thus in order to be a true Knight of Faith one must constantly renew one’s faith by at every moment making this double movement of infinity and finitude.
Kierkgaardian faith is not necessarily Christian faith. The Judeo-Christian God is the framework through which Kierkegaard conceptualises the Absolute as the necessary force which governs the universe. Marxists also refer to an absolute, a necessary governing force – history, as governed by dialectical materialism.
The materialist conception of history rests on the premise that the production of the means to support human life, and the exchange of the associated products, is the basis of all social structures.39 Thus, social relations are determined in the last instance by the mode of production under which people organise their societies. In this way “men make their own history but they do not make it as they please.”40 This conception of history is often critiqued as overly deterministic, removing historical agency from the subject, but it must be remembered that freedom, for Marx, arises from “the insight into necessity… the knowledge of [natural laws].”41
Class consciousness arises at a certain stage in the development of productive forces and the social division of labour where a ruling class emerges. It manifests itself in an active struggle to overthrow the existing state apparatus which supports classist modes of production. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have done away with the notion that capitalism will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.The bourgeois state apparatus has a seemingly endless capacity to absorb the intermittent crises which plague the economy. We are, right now, living through a crisis and capitalism shows no signs of letting up. Thus, the role of the class-conscious Marxist is to organise the working class to struggle against the productive forces of capitalism, to seize the state machine and to smash it.
Given this position, I argue that the movement of infinite resignation is made when one awakens to their freedom, within the necessity of the laws which govern material relations. The double movement which completes this transition is made when one puts faith in the struggle and the possibility of a future under socialism. In doing so, one cannot be sure that such a society will come about. That is why I term this intellectual condition materialist religiosity. It draws on the Kierkegaardian notion of faith, which exists in the space between the knowledge of what is, and the hope for what will be.
But what is there in this space between probability and knowledge? How does one close the gap? Kierkegaard asserted that we must, at a certain point, suspend our rational judgement and take a leap into faith. That is what I argue here – that rational argument, the cornerstone of western philosophy only gets us so far. At a certain point, we take it for granted that things are proven, but objective knowledge about the future is something we cannot access. Thus, what Kierkegaard terms “faith” arises in the gap between what we know to have happened in the past, and what we hope to make happen in the future. This knowledge is asymptotic. The more evidence that stacks up, the closer we approach certainty – knowledge. But the asymptote constantly approaches infinity, never reaching it. Into this space between rational evidence and certainty, however infinitesimal, we must take a leap of faith.
The existence of a higher power is an “objective uncertainty” – something unreachable by rational or intellectual means.42 To live by faith is therefore a great risk, but in order to be at peace spiritually, we must take this leap of faith.43 The Marxist lives under the material conditions of capitalism but knows that they must not be dependent on them. They accept the transitivity of capitalist socio-economic structures and therefore Communists, like the Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith, appear superficially quite ordinary participants in social life. We are your doctors, your teachers, your janitors, cashiers, librarians, unionists. Inwardly, however, we are constantly making the movements of infinity and finitude, and in doing so, we place our faith in the struggle. But this is not a passive faith. It is a faith that demands action. It demands work, it demands struggle. For, in the words of Marx, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”44
As Marx attempted to bring Hegel down to earth, this paper has argued that so too can the Kierkegaardian leap of faith be secularised and applied to the material conditions of twenty-first century capitalism. This paper has identified a dialectical progression in the Kierkegaardian “stages on life’s way” which gives rise to an opportunity to secularise the concept of faith and place it within a Marxist context. Materialist religiosity arises from the journey towards class consciousness; it is an active faith which demands struggle – both material and ideological. Thus, Kierkegaard teaches modern Marxists to recognise the limits of our method of analysis and to actively pursue our hope that another world is possible.