Tag: Denys Turner

Marxism and Christianity: Chapter Two

Wittgenstein became fond of a line from Goethe, “In the beginning was the deed”. The reason for his attachment to this saying was that it reverses a certain picture of language as something discarnate and inert, somehow floating apart from embodied human life and action. Against this, the later Wittgenstein insisted that language arose out of and lent meaning to particular forms of human life: “to imagine a language game is to imagine a form of life” he writes in the Philosophical Investigations. Action is meaningful, not least because some actions are linguistic (speaking, writing…), but also because the wider array of actions we can perform are incorporated into our lives as linguistic, meaning-bestowing animals – thus kisses, handshakes, salutes, sex, and shared meals, amongst much else. On the other hand meaning is a bodily, practical, matter, incarnate in our somatic lives, which limit its possibilities just as it extends theirs.


Undoubtedly influenced by Wittgenstein (whose thought reached the English Catholic left of the later 20th century through McCabe), Turner adopts this view of the interconnectedness of meaning and corporeality (a corporeality which, because governed by conventions is of necessity social). He uses it to supply an exegesis on Merleau-Ponty’s take on a key Marxist notion, praxis: “…the meaning which works itself out spontaneously in the intercrossing of the activities by which man organises his relations with nature and with other men”. He poses an agenda setting question: if thought is so intimately related to social practice as the applicability of the concept of praxis and the operative picture of meaning might suggest, how can it be that thought misrepresents social reality, as many understandings of ideology seem to suggest that it does?

I am unapologetically signed up to the Wittgenstein/ Turner approach to understanding meaning, but it has a dated feel in the context of contemporary discussions of relationships between Christianity and the political left. Between Turner’s writing and now the reception of postmodernism took place, followed by its disintegration into a myriad of identity politics. Common to these is a stress on the arbitrariness of meaning: why need a kiss mean “I love you”; why need this piece of paper be a banknote? In one sense, of course, this is uncontroversial – things could have meant otherwise. But on the other hand, the line of questioning can become obsessional and perverse. (Wittgenstein remarked that the language-game is “just there, like life”.) Meaning comes to be thought of as too plastic an affair, its rootedness in social practice is either forgotten or written off as inherently oppressive (that some social practices are oppressive does not, of course, entail that all are). Similarly the extent to which we are limited by our bodies is understressed. Whereas Christianity and Marxism alike see hope in the constrained possibilities contained within (or in the case of Christianity, given to) frail fragile bodies, our corporeal natures are now viewed as potential sites of limitless transformation.

The unfortunate thing is that, as far as I can see, the impetus to recover a view in which meaningful bodiliness is a source of some stability is, within contemporary politically-aware Christianity the preserve of reactionaries. Think, for example, about a particular kind of anti-feminist reception of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Yet surely the left needs just as much a better picture of language (and, dare I say, a less ideological one) than that bestowed by the intellectual fads of recent decades. Solidarity is a matter of socially instanced meaning, bodies move with purpose in demonstrations, and words of revolt arise out of lives of toil. It is no small irony that Turner’s favoured picture has the resources to explain its own demise: as the violent upheavals of neoliberal capitalism uprooted the more stable forms of life of the past, people became less able to speak and think of themselves as the linguistic animals they in fact are. The challenge is to recover that ability.


Marxism and Christianity : Introduction and Chapter One

My plan is not generally to precis the chapters of Turner’s book. Those who want to read it can do so for themselves. I want instead to reflect on themes it raises about Marxism and Christianity and their relevance to our current situation. However, there’s a lot of scene setting in the introduction and the first chapter, ‘Ideology’, so it might be good to summarise some of that, if only to orientate future posts.

Turner is going to argue for two claims in the book:

The identity thesis: (True) morality is (in capitalist society) Marxism.

The strong compatibility thesis: Marxism and Christianity are in asymmetrical relations of dependence on one another.

The identity thesis, in particular, is likely to strike many readers as implausible. It is worth, then, emphasising that for an entire classical tradition it would appear less so. The possibility of human flourishing, of living well, is – for Aristotle, for example – tied up with the condition of the polis in which somebody is situated. There is, for this tradition, no particular reason that living in accordance with morality in a given situation must be particularly easy, or even possible (so much for Kant’s view that “ought implies can”). If this is right, of course, much of what passes for morality is entirely misplaced. Turner concurs, writing in the 1980s,

Anyone who, like me, feels crushed between the moral cynicism of a Brezhnev and the moral hypocrisy of a Reagan and who finds in both something rooted in the very structure of our moral world will have identified the controlling concerns of this book. Perhaps also they will be able to identify its governing symbol, that it is, as Terry Eagleton once put it, in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in his refusal to talk morality with the moraliser, that the true significance of morality may be articulated. (p. xi)

Morality, Turner concurs with the mainstream of Marxist tradition, is ideological in capitalist society. Morality appears as moralising. So too, alas, is Christianity manifest as ideological. I’ll say a bit about what the claim that a phenomenon is ideological amounts to in a moment. First, an aspect of Turner’s treatment of Marx that comes through in the first chapter deserves comment.


Turner thinks Marxism is a science. That it is a systematic endeavour that aspires to, and often succeeds in, uncovering truths about society, a process that involves getting behind appearances to an underlying reality. This will feel quite alien to many on the contemporary left, and in particular the Christian left, who decry this kind of  or claims to objectivity in favour of more feeling-driven, vision led, and intellectually amorphous movements, often of the sort that Marx would have denounced as utopian. Marx himself rejects the dichotomy between the heart and the head, between facts and values; the talk of science might suggest bland amoral technocracy. But, for Marx, one of realities uncovered by the science of capitalist society is that the accumulation of capital is rooted in alienation, grounded in the failure of millions to flourish as they could. Description and value judgement coinhere. It is in this tradition that I take Turner to be writing. It is also evident in, for example, Herbert McCabe’s ‘The Class Struggle and Christian Love’, a classic of the Catholic left of the time.

The word ‘ideology’ as used in the Marxist tradition suggests a number of things. Ideology is (in some sense) false, untrue, or misleading. Ideology is lived out in our day to day lives. Ideology is a society’s consciousness of itself. It is by no means obvious that these all amount to the same thing, or are even consistently said of the same phenomenon. Turner’s task in the first part of the book will be to explore this, so that we might better understand the ways morality and Christianity are caught up in ideology.