‘Marxism, Religion and Ideology: Themes from David McLellan’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Marxism, Religion and Ideology: Themes from David McLellan

Routledge, New York and Abingdon, Oxon., 2015. 196pp., $145 / £90 hb
ISBN 9781138850613

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


This collection contains ten critical pieces on the salient themes with which Marxist scholar David McLellan has concerned himself in a distinguished and original career. I say ‘original’, for McLellan is a practising Catholic, which makes him something of a rare breed in Marxist circles. His religious thinking, however, provides a rich philosophical scope through which to interpret Marxism while at the same time generating a certain creative tension in his approach toward the great 19th century revolutionist. One of the key themes in this collection, therefore, is the relationship of Marxism to religion – a relation that is interesting and relevant in any period, but particularly ripe for examination in our own era, which has seen the rise of the ‘fundamentalist’ atheism espoused by Dawkins, Hitchens and their cohorts.

Another theme in this collection is the question of continuity between the young and mature Marx. One of McLellan’s crucial achievements, going back to the 1970s, was to demonstrate that the Marx of Capital represented a ripening, a deepening – a concretisation of the themes which were already present in the Paris Manuscripts; the ‘epistemological break’ which Althusser posited, then, was always a vulgar fiction. In a similar vein, the notion of a humanist and moralist Marx, which one often finds contrasted with a more ‘economist’ Marx, is also interrogated. More general discussions revolve around Marx’ methodology, an examination of ideology, the nature of bourgeois right, alienation, and the dogma of neo-liberalism. Finally, McLellan himself concludes the book with a chapter giving his thoughts on the critical appreciations presented by the various commentators.

The collection opens with David Bates on McLellan and method. Bates addresses the way in which McLellan’s methodology underpins his approach to historical biography (McLellan has written biographies on Karl Marx and the Christian philosopher Simone Weil). Bates provides an interesting analysis of the thorny issue of how to interpret Marxist thought. Does one, like Avineri, view the texts against the background of their historical origin;, or should one instead, pace Skinner, provide ‘a thorough reconstruction of the linguistic context’ in order to highlight what it ‘can tell us about what the author was doing in writing what they wrote’ (21)? Bates seems to argue that McLellan follows Avineri while neglecting Skinner. According to Bates, in order to situate Marx in a broader Hegelian context through the ‘continuity’ thesis, McLellan actually picks and chooses his quotations so as to fit his desired picture: ‘the passages’ that McLellan employs, Bates writes, ‘are inevitably torn not only out of their immediate textual context, but also their interlocutory context’ (25). Bates also makes a broader ontological point about the difficulty of biographical writing: ‘the subject is Other to me, I lack the totality of their lived experience; there is no way for me to access their inner world’ (16).

And so Bates suggests that McLellan inclines towards error in as much as he tends to foist his own subjective sensibilities onto the material that he is interpreting. But in the same moment, Bates argues that we cannot truly transcend such subjectivity; we cannot abandon our ‘selfhood’ and truly empathise with the figure whom we are biographizing: ‘it [empathy] cannot aid historical understanding’ (17). In other words, Bates is caught in a contradiction. He argues that the biographer/interpreter tends toward bias because of the character of his or her ‘selfhood’, and at the same time he holds that we cannot escape such subjectivity and truly hope to ‘empathise’. To my mind, he, solves this contradiction in the most artificial of ways: it might not be possible to ‘empathise’, but we can ‘aim at fellow-feeling’ (17). The distinction between ‘empathy’ and ‘fellow feeling’, however, seems almost meaningless.

In some ways, Iain Mackenzie’s piece is trapped on the horns of a similar methodological dilemma: the contradiction between subjectivity and objectivity. MacKenzie focuses on an early work by McLellan – Ideology – in order to argue that a more classical Marxist approach (such as McLellan’s own) is flawed because of its need to find an ‘Archimedean point’ by which the true nature of ideology can be objectively perceived. He writes that ‘McLellan has nonetheless found himself once again searching for an immoveable spot, or two, in the swirling relativist sea’ (136). Such a point, however, cannot be located – at least not in the traditional way – for in trying to establish a stable objective perspective by which the perpetual flux of Ideology might be accurately comprehended, you are nevertheless engaged in an ideological act: the ‘point’ that you seek is never truly ‘objective’, because it too is constituted by the never-ending flux of Ideology with a capital ‘I’.

The objection here is fundamentally Kantian. The endeavour to examine Ideology is itself Ideological, so the instrument of analysis skewers the results in advance. MacKenzie offers a possible solution to this problem by employing the type of post-Marxist thought which also tends to be Kantian at its heart. He cites Laclau: ‘we need … an ontological terrain in which the failure inherent to representability … becomes itself representable, even if only through the traces of non-representability … as in Kant’s noumenon’ (142). Laclau’s approach, however, ignores a vital aspect of the Kantian project. In Kant, one can ‘encounter’ the noumenal reality in the moral and aesthetic spheres, but this is at the cost of reason, the consequence of its finitude and inapplicability. Laclau, on the other hand, continues to attempt a ‘rational’ account of ‘the social’ even as he acknowledges that any such attempt is futile. Laclau’s grasp of philosophy was so limited, however, that it is unlikely he even registered the problem. Perhaps more importantly, MacKenzie does not reference the Hegelian solution to the Kantian paradox: the famous quip Hegel repeats about never entering the water until one has first learnt to swim. Hegel understood that it is only in tracing the arc of its own dynamic that thought is able to arrive at a genuine and concrete objectivity. That one’s thought is Ideological does not damn it to relativism. Indeed, it can attain a fixed point as long as that point is a self-conscious one that encompasses the unfolding, overarching logic of its own forms in and through a totalised process.

Alastair McLeish’s piece involves a critique of Marxist humanism, and it suggests in particular that Marx’s early works contain a utopian template of human nature which is divorced from the historical course of the labour process; a universal template which offers up the image of ‘a Promethean being able to effect changes in nature and to realise himself in doing so’ (86). Such a ‘being’ presents as ‘an ideal form of human existence’ which will actualise a multi-faceted universality in the equally idealised realm of the communist utopia. In this way, then, McLeish is able to attack McLellan’s continuity thesis by positing a break between the earlier and later Marx. Some of McLeish’s concerns are well grounded. Describing the nature of the human being in a future classless society from a perspective rooted within the ontological conditions of the present is fraught with difficulty, as McLellan himself acknowledges, but McLeish’s essential claim is based on a fallacy: universality in the Marxist schema does not just refer to the different jobs and functions one might potentially have (hunter, fisherman, critic), uniting these functions in the remit of the single individual. Under conditions of capitalist production, the labour operation is fragmented, the labourer rendered an abstract, lifeless force, a single, subordinate moment subsumed under a broader, alien process. In Hegelian-Marxist terms the situation can be redeemed by the way in which the worker is able to realise him or herself as the motive, conscious will which sets production into process, providing the inspiration and direction of the labour operation as an organic whole. When one poses the issue of labour in this fashion, one can see that ‘universal’ individual of the early Marx hints at the universality which would be concretised under historically specific conditions in and through the reappropriating of the labour process which comes from an active control of the means of production on the part of the working class and the dissolution of the labour power-capital social relation.

Sean Sayers’ piece builds on the same issue. He provides a defence of McLellan in terms of the continuity thesis: ‘it is wrong to see … the early works as purely ethical and ‘humanist’ in character. Marx’s purpose in the works of 1844 is not simply to pass moral judgement on capitalism’ (49). In fact, Sayers argues, the concept of ‘alienation’ which appears so readily and frequently in the Paris Manuscripts is essential to understanding Marx’ later diagnosis of the commodity form: ‘the theme of alienation and its overcoming is embodied in the concepts of abstract labour and fetishism which have a prominent place in the first chapter of Capital’ (49). Sayers’ essay is a masterclass in both clarity and profundity. He begins by detailing the four aspects of alienated labour that Marx identifies in the Manuscripts, before demonstrating how the ‘estranged labour’ described in the Manuscripts provides the basis for the postulation of ‘abstract labour’ in the later works; a concept upon which the category of ‘exchange value’ is premised. Later, Sayers shows that such a category appeared embryonically in the work of Aristotle and Plato; not simply because they were great thinkers, but because ‘abstract labour’ had become an increasingly important feature of social existence: ‘The social effects of the development of commodity production were becoming apparent in ancient Athens … abstract labour … was beginning to manifest itself socially’ (52).

Admittedly, Sayers’ piece sets an exceptionally high bar, but it is one that Bhikhu Parekh comes close to equalling. Parekh offers what I think is perhaps the most concise but profound explanation of Marx’ critique of bourgeois right I have ever come across. Like McLellan and Sayers, Parekh situates the Marxist critique in a broader consideration of the forms of social-historical existence. In ‘bourgeois society’, argues Parekh, the individual becomes the ‘primary bearer’ of ‘right’ (101). Such individualism implies a profound historical shift. ‘Right’ is no longer derived from a background of ‘communal loyalties, common sentiments and affections, traditional ties, religious belief and common interest’ (102). Rather, it falls inward, receiving its impetus from the physical and spiritual capacities that an individual possesses and which he now experiences as things extraneous to his fundamental being; capabilities that can be alienated, for capitalism has framed the individual as ‘a commodity or an alienable object’ (103). His ‘right’ to work is enshrined precisely because it has achieved fruition in a historical moment the defining economic feature of which is the commodity ‘labour power’ as ‘the source of surplus value’ (103). Thus, bourgeois rights tend to be stamped with ‘all the limitation of the bourgeois individual’ (104); that is, they are isolated, generic categories based on an abstract equality before the market that occludes the concrete economic differences between persons and classes. At the same time, such equality also has a progressive aspect in historical terms, providing the legal umbrella under which ‘the working class can organise and grow’ (105).

Parekh’s superb essay is marred slightly by an erroneous conclusion in which he argues that rights would still pertain in a classless society albeit on a radically transformed basis. The conclusion is wrong because it does not speak to the fact that ‘right’ is premised on a legal superstructure that arises directly out of a system of class exploitation. Right requires ‘legal’ backing, the force of the law, but in communism no such law could pertain because the organic basis for it would no longer exist.

In a roundabout way, Charles Devellennes’ piece commits a similar error. His essay provides an interesting, thoughtful and comprehensive meditation on Marx’s attitude to religion and on the way in which McLellan has been able to locate some of its defining aspects by going back to Marx’s collaboration with figures such as Bruno Bauer. Devellennes contribution is a welcome one, for it shows how Marx, and vicariously McLellan, attacked a more vulgar critique of religion which saw religion as a primitive irrationalism unmoored from living historical development – the type of critique posited by Hitchens et al. But like Parekh, Devellennes overreaches in his conclusions. He argues that Marx eventually came to reject the ‘atheist’ position – ‘he is neither an atheist nor a theist’ (124). In order to supplement such a radical claim Devellennes cites Marx: ‘atheism is a negation of God, through which it asserts the existence of man. But Socialism as such no longer needs such mediation’ (cited 124). The point is certainly ingenious, but it misses the fact that under fully developed socialism Marxism too would no longer be needed, although one can hardly accuse Marx of having transcended the perspective of Marxism.

In keeping with the examination of religious themes, Rowan Williams offers us his account of Rush Rhees’ interpretation of Simone Weil. In his positive appreciation of Rhees’ work, Williams deftly teases out some of the most intriguing elements of Weil’s philosophical repertoire, and thus helps validate McLellan’s interest in this strange but brilliant philosopher. Williams is particularly strong in elucidating Weil’s incredibly rich concept of ‘necessity’; something this review is only able to hint at. Weil, Williams contends, draws upon a mathematical sense of necessity – i.e. a universal, axiomatic one which is indifferent to the whims of the entity who posits it – in order to sublimate this with an ontological sense of God’s relationship to the world – i.e. God’s necessity in a world understood as ‘the vehicle of God’s presence’ (110) – as something which inevitably overwhelms the finite peccadillos of our own will and individual subjectivity. And yet it is only in learning to ‘love’ such necessity, that we able to surrender our contingent whims and desires and experience the world in its ‘full reality … only consenting love surrenders to the otherness of reality’. (110) Of course, this perspective is easier to endorse as an ex-Archbishop of Canterbury than as a Marxist revolutionary, precisely because of the passivity it inculcates; but even if one demurs, one senses the poetry and universal pathos which fissures through such a philosophy. One is also reminded what a profound debt the philosophical project owes to religious thought more generally.

Terrell Carver’s essay provides a lucid and useful account of McLellan’s development as a PhD student under the tutelage of Isaiah Berlin, and goes on to provide an equally useful outline of the way McLellan helped transform Marxist scholarship in the Anglo-world by, among other things, situating the young Marx alongside ‘a number of hitherto unknown, long forgotten or rather undervalued figures of the time: Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Stirner and Moses Hess, as well as numerous other minor characters’. (39) In addition, Mark Cowling offers an Althusser-inspired reading which suggests that the early Marx was essentially Feurbachian in method while the later Marx was historically materialist, and never the twain shall meet. Last but by no means least is Lawrence Wilde’s excellent, sublime piece of writing which manages to show how Marx’s moral outrage at the visceral injustices of 19th century capitalism is married to his historical critique of the same system, and also how the defence of free market dogma which the ideologues propound today was often conducted along similar lines by the representatives of capital in Marx’s own era.

In summary then, not only is this book a monument to the influence that David McLellan’s work has had in shaping the contours of contemporary Marxist debate, especially by helping to harmonise the lithe, beautiful thought of the early Marx with the deep rooted, world-historic foundations which would form the edifice of his later magnum opus; in addition it provides a broader panorama which takes within its sweep some of the richest and most intriguing philosophical and religious themes with sparkling clarity and conviction. 

12 February 2016


  1. This review makes me interested in both the book and the work of McLellan. My only contention is with this statement: “the ‘epistemological break’ which Althusser posited, then, was always a vulgar fiction.” This throwaway statement is, in itself, a “vulgar” one because it demonstrates very little understanding of Althusser’s argument, here, as with most quick dismissals that it has been subjected to by people who do not bother to think through what Althusser meant. While I am interested in what McLellan has to say, here, the way it is described in the review does not make it appear like it really responds to Althusser’s argument.

    I used to dislike Althusser’s claim about an epistemic break but, in the past few years, have started considering it seriously again because: a) I actually read it rather than just take the word of the critical humanists I’d been educated in Marx by; b) I started teaching Feuerbach in my 19th Century Continental Philosophy course. So here it really is interesting that McLellan places Marx alongside Feuerbach because, as much as Marx developed out of Feuerbach, there is no argument that he did not break from Feuerbachianism: we have his Theses on Feuerbach which outright rejects Feuerbach’s non-philosophical project. (Alfred Schmidt, who is also someone who rejects Althusser’s anti-humanist Marxism, has spent time demonstrating how and why Marx broke from Feuerbach’s project.) It’s really hard, after teaching Feuerbach, to completely dismiss Althusser’s arguments: most of the key essays of the young Marx think reality according to Feuerbachian categories, especially that Estranged Labour piece. Moreover, since Althusser’s main point is that we read the young Marx through the mature Marx, and thus import our current understanding of Marxism to these later works to the earlier ones, then it becomes very difficult to claim that the younger is developing into the older because the claim is often made according to a backwards causality that we invert and say: “see, an unbroken maturing.”

    None of this is to say that I agree completely with Althusser in this area (I ping-pong back and forth, actually), or that I think his rejection of the human subject is a good thing for Marxist theory (I don’t, but even by doing it he makes some good arguments), only that these kind of hasty dismissals of important arguments are not entirely helpful.

  2. Thanks to J. Moufawad-Paul for his/her critical but constructive comment. My throwaway statement was certainly a ‘vulgar’ one – in as much as it could not be properly elucidated or substantiated in the context of a review which has little to do with Althusser overall. Perhaps that is not the same as saying I have little understanding of Althusser’s argument – indeed I have examined it, i hope, somewhat more systematically here:

    ‘Against Post-Marxism: How Post-Marxism Annuls Class-Based Historicism and the Possibility of Revolutionary Praxis’

    I certainly agree with the comment that we should read the young Marx through the mature Marx (man to ape and all that), but i don’t think Althusser has any understanding of the later Marx – the way in which the economic categories of Capital have a fundamentally Hegelian and dialectical life and movement – and so that is why he (Althusser) tends to read the young Marx, as ‘purely’ Feuerbachian without being aware of the profound Hegelian trappings which are already present underneath the surface, even at the point of the Paris Manuscripts. Something Lukacs drew attention to, incidentally, before the manuscripts in question were even known to him

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