Ellul and Marx: A Re-Appraisal
Last edited: 2/4/2022
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.
Karl Barth famously once remarked the following in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans:
The Gospel neither requires men to engage in the conflict of religions or the conflict of philosophies, nor does it compel them to hold themselves aloof from these controversies. In announcing the limitation of the known world by another that is unknown, the Gospel does not enter into competition with the many attempts to disclose within the known world some more or less unknown and higher form of existence and to make it accessible to men. The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. (Barth 1922, 35)
Nearly a century later, Barth has cemented himself as one of the most renowned theologians in modern history. Despite the number of those who praise him, few seem to carry on this truly radical spirit of his work. One of those people is Jacques Ellul. His critique went beyond any one ideology or group, launching an attack on all of that which forms the foundation for humanity and its its civilizations. He was just as harsh on the counterculture as he was the mainstream, rejecting the movement politics of his left-wing peers in favor of walking a road few traversed on.
Many people (including the man 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”. Given his amenity towards the Situationist Internationale, this is something he seemed to have picked up on.
My “exchanges” with [Jacques] Ellul — that's quite a grand word. Ellul came to see me in Paris. He says that he approves of the SI [Situationist International], which he knows quite well, with two exceptions, one of which, I believe, concerns the hooligans [les bloussons noirs], and the other of which concerns nothing less than his Christian faith. This is obviously quite astonishing. Afterwards, he sent me a copy of his book Propaganda, which is quite remarkable (an excellent example of what I mentioned at the beginning of this letter, concerning details that can be very important. In this book, what is lacking is only the recognition or at least the hypothesis of some kind of force that could constitute an alternative to the evolution that is disparaged). I understand that Ellul is, in this regard, similar to the Christian presence in the N.C. group. (Debord 1962)
On the other hand, the ideas of Marx and his contemporaries prove to give a stronger theoretical foundation to a lot of the social critiques Ellul had to offer.
This is not just another attempted synthesis, but rather instead a response to the challenges put forth by him. In order to make this case, I will be examining Ellul's works one-by-one and reflecting on their bearing on this synthesis.
1. The Radical Character of Christianity (section in progress)
1.1. The Presence of the Kingdom
1.2. Jesus and Marx
One of the most immediate issues you run into with a discussion regarding the intersection of Christianity and communism is the countless “Christian communisms” that have come before. Clichés such as “Jesus sided with the poor, so should we”, the equivocation on what this communism exactly entails and so on and so forth. Jesus and Marx was a book by Ellul which delivered one of the most hard-hitting takedowns of the Christian socialists of his time. And it's precisely because of that fact, that reviewing this book provides an opportunity to distinguish what I am speaking of from just another attempt to subjugate Christianity to ideology.
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.
1.2.1. Socialism versus Christianity
Ellul's anecdote makes sense when you consider all the things Christians and leftists have in common: the incessant need for any topic to be thoroughly moralized first before they are capable of digesting it, a nagging insecurity about their own place in the world which drives them to blindly throw support to random causes.
At the center of this intersection lies the ever-so-vague yet charged concept of “liberation”. In place of substance remains platitudes and bold proclamations. Pressing on said substance will only lead to a doubling-down on the same emotional appeals.
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)
And for countless “socialist Christians” this is where the stumbling block arises, allowing what appears to be a mere synthesis to devolve into a supplanting.
In reality, however, the present tendency to identify with the left (particularly with Communism) is strictly a matter of going with the stream, being carried along by the wind. Such adhesion a purely sociological matter, without value or significance. A person who declares himself a Communist today is the same one who would have been a French Nationalist in 1914, a Monarchist in 1830, a follower of Napoleon in 1804, etc.
In view of the gutting of Communism's content, dearly no obstacle remains to a Christian's joining up. By becoming Communists, Christians follow the general trend and need feel no pricks of conscience or theological reservations. They conform culturally and intellectually to the rest of society. They already represented the prevailing ideology of the “ruling classes,” and by joining Communism they simply reinforce this trend. In this movement, however, Christianity is of course also gutted of all content.
This process is facilitated by the pseudoscientific affirmation that everything is cultural. Since the entire content of God's revelation in Jesus Christ is cultural anyway, one need have no compunctions about getting rid of the outmoded past. What is left of the revelation? Obviously, since the Christian has joined up with Communism, the defender of the poor and the voice of the oppressed, Christianity becomes (in its entirety) the defense of the poor. This includes armed defense, political struggle, etc. (Ellul 1988, 21)
But, some will object: did Jesus not sit with the tax collectors? Did he not instruct us to love and side with the downtrodden? To leave it as such would be a gross oversimplification, to completely deny the Christian concept of sin. How are we to speak of forgiveness without sin? Sin in this context is not some perceived offense against society or it's hierarchies, but a very real offense against the Lord himself.
The paralytic needs forgiveness. We must not be dishonest at this point and try to transpose this term onto a sociopolitical plane. Jesus calls the others “sick,” after all (v. 12). These people do not just have the reputation of being ill: they are ill. Tax collectors are thieves and exploiters of the poor. They harm others. The issue is not only social and moral. These people are not judged just by others to be sinners: Jesus also has no doubt they are sinners.
He does not say to the paralytic or to the prostitutes that they have every reason to be what they are, that He accepts their actions, etc. No: to the paralytic He announces forgiveness (which he truly needs, so that we can perfectly well use the term sin!); to the others Jesus declares He is the physician and the one who calls. And in Israel, after all, call and vocation had a definite spiritual meaning. “Sin” is not an ordinary word Jesus uses for convenience' sake. The Bible strictly defines the term, and nothing would authorize us to claim that in this context Jesus deviates from biblical usage, since He takes the position of God, who forgives sins. In no way does Jesus transpose sin onto the sociopolitical realm. He simply declares that He forgives sin in all its dimensions (including the political and social). (Ellul 1988, 67)
Stripped of all pretenses, it's a bandwagon, a subcultural shibboleth for leftists to act out their “commitment”. When Ellul made this point, he oft alluded to the horrors of the gulag, as the Soviets were the object of fascination for the Christians before him.
Such a stance may seem to crazy to us today, but history repeats itself. What we have been granted Ellul's time is another generation's worth of mistakes for us to shine our hindsight upon.
1.2.2. Noam Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge
The same question which brought Father Montuclard to Stalin drove pop-intellectuals like Noam Chomsky to defend the atrocities committed in Cambodia; everyone in his circles supported it so why shouldn't he? He built his audience on speaking out against American foreign policy, and they're more than willing to listen to him fight back against the American narrative on Cambodia.
In a long, illustrious career, Chomsky has amassed a formidable array of books, articles, and speeches. He has been a tireless advocate for the underdog, and has demonstrated admirable commitment to his principles. The underdogs, however, are not always the good guys, a fact clearly illustrated by the Khmer Rouge...
There is something vaguely unsettling in Chomsky's words, even as he acknowledges the horrible toll of the Cambodian communists: There was an atrocity, people were outraged, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. The reaction is Chomsky's primary concern; genocide itself is a lesser point. (Sharp 2007)
But throughout his defense it becomes clear that his doggedness has little to do with the Cambodian people and moreso about his own pride as an activist. It quickly ceases to be about any plight of the oppressed and becomes instead a matter of Chomsky's own reputation.
One possible explanation is that Chomsky did not truly understand the nature of the Khmer Rouge until the massive exodus of refugees in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion made it impossible to ignore. In this view, Chomsky's errors are rooted in naivete, gullibility, and poor scholarship.
Chomsky is not an expert on Cambodia. He does, however, know enough about Cambodia to sound knowledgeable to people who know nothing at all. Still, how could he have so seriously misjudged the nature of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps it is a natural consequence of being a generalist. Chomsky writes about events all over the world. Can one person really understand all of the intricacies of the politics and history of any one country? Probably. But can one person understand the intricacies of ten countries? One hundred countries? Two hundred? No. There are conflicting accounts of the history of any country and any event. How can anyone without specialized knowledge of a given region evaluate which of those accounts is accurate? In Chomsky's case, he does not evaluate all sources and then determine which stand up to logical inquiry. Rather, he examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be. He does not derive his theories from the evidence. Instead, he selectively gathers “evidence” which supports his theories and ignores the rest. Furthermore, he does not subject sources he regards sympathetically to the same rigorous critical scrutiny that he applies to conflicting accounts. (Sharp 2007)
And from there the usual leftist playbook emerges: moralize, cherrypick, and slander whenever cornered.
A peculiar irony is at the heart of this controversy: Noam Chomsky, the man who has spent years analyzing propaganda, is himself a propagandist. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky in general, whatever one thinks of his theories of media manipulation and the mechanisms of state power, Chomsky's work with regard to Cambodia has been marred by omissions, dubious statistics, and, in some cases, outright misrepresentations. On top of this, Chomsky continues to deny that he was wrong about Cambodia. He responds to criticisms by misrepresenting his own positions, misrepresenting his critics' positions, and describing his detractors as morally lower than “neo-Nazis and neo-Stalinists.”. (Sharp 2007)
Whatever becomes of this “liberation” or what these activists are intended to contribute beyond rhetorical support is left unclear. Yet it is from this principle that the “liberation theologies” of the mid-century arose.
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)
Let us be clear. Showing concern for those in precarious situations is not in and of itself a vice. Neither is sympathizing with their plight or taking action to correct the wrongs which exist all across our world. However none of this absolves us of our responsibility to exercise proper judgment and to exercise these tasks in good faith. Chomsky let himself become caught up in a fad, and his failure in this regard left a black mark on not just his personal character but also the movement he championed.
It's easy to look back on Cambodia decades later, but the lesson we must take from this is that even in our world today, these political bandwagons still exist and they still lead Christians astray. Even if they claim noble intentions, it does not change our responsibility to maintain integrity.
Christians must discern the genuine issues of our time. This way we perform a genuine service to politics and to the society in which we live. We can do this by means of the discernment of spirits, but such understanding must be applied by means of a solid, rigorous, independent analysis of the political, economic, and sociological spheres. This sort of analysis is a practical matter, whereas the discernment of spirits makes it possible, safeguards it, and oversees it. Such analysis must be achieved based on a “point of view” different from that of all ideologies. (Ellul 1988, 5)
1.2.3. Karl Marx
Ironically enough, Ellul's position on the above matter mirrors that of others influenced by Marx such as Theodor Adorno:
For otherwise you will find yourself in the position of what Americans call a joiner, that is to say, a man who always has to join in, who has to have a cause for which he can fight. Such a person is driven by his sheer enthusiasm for the idea that something or other must be done and some movement has to be joined about which he is deluded enough to believe that it will bring about significant changes. And ultimately, this enthusiasm drives him into a kind of hostility towards mind that necessarily negates a genuine unity of theory and practice. (Adorno 1963)
It's indicative of the pattern recurring throughout this book — whether Ellul realizes it or not — he 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.
Marxism reveals the lie of this stripped-down evangelism, showing that if we have taken refuge in spiritual matters, we did so knowingly. We were not concerned with purity, for example, but with hiding what Christians really practiced. We wanted to be oriented toward heaven, so as not to see the injustice, poverty, and exploitation on earth. Communism has grasped everything Christians should have grasped. This “materialism” contains a basic recall of the very truth of the Bible. Materialism restores some weight to our flimsy spirituality...
We owe to Marx the rediscovery of this central truth (according to the popular understanding; actually Hegel preceded Marx on the issue of history and the Bible as history). Marx brought history back to the light: not the history of historians, but history as we find it in the Bible: history filled with meaning, moving in a revealed direction, and culminating in an “apotheosis'' but with everything “situated” in history. Here again Marx brings Christians back to revealed truth.
Finally, we must add a militant and communal spirit to the other ways in which Communism challenges the Church. Christians used to be, and should be, militant. And they have been called to make up a living, active community based on fraternity. But what do we see? Flabby, lazy, individualistic church members, committed to nothing. They sit beside each other on Sunday and proceed to ignore each other completely. They are capable of no sacrifice, they create nothing new. (Ellul 1988, 8-9)
However, even in his praise for Marxism, it's clear that he seems the most confident dissecting Marxism as an ideological phenomenon rather than as a serious form of sociological critique. Perhaps this explains why his discussion of Marxism's theoretical substance consists primarily of handwaving.
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. (Ellul 1988, 15)
Let's address the issue of history, since that's what Ellul bases a good portion of his argument on.
The impact of Leninism on world history, but more importantly the history of Marxism cannot possibly be understated. The same goes for Lenin's contributions to Marxist thought which is extensive enough that it essentially constitutes a body of work unto itself. Both the unfolding of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism find their roots in the dilemma of the Bolshevik model itself: excellent at seizing power, terrible at handling power. The former characteristic allowed it to spread like wildfire across the globe, completely dominating as a form of communist organization, while the latter would give rise to the issues Ellul cites above.
The October revolution produced by far the most formidable organized revolutionary movement in modern history. Its global expansion has no parallel since the conquests of Islam in its first century. A mere thirty to forty years after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, one third of humanity found itself living under regimes directly derived from the ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ (Reed, 1919), and Lenin’s organizational model, the Communist Party. Most of them followed the USSR in a second wave of revolutions which emerged from the second phase of the long world war of 1914–45. (Hobsbawm 2003, 55)
Isn't it a cop-out to blame it on Lenin however? After all, Ellul isn't a stranger to all the novel Marxisms. What makes this different from any of the previous hundred rehabilitation projects:
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)
Let's be clear, Lenin was no idiot: the scale of his contributions prove that. The Bolshevik model wasn't something he invented out of thin air. So where did it come from? The answer is two-fold:
- If there's anything we've learned so far, it's that ideology tends to be heavily shaped by a person's environment. Lenin and the other Marxists of his time were no exception: the 20th century was an age of revolution. The idea of capitalism's inevitable collapse and replacement was just as much a cultural one as it was a socialist one.
It seemed obvious that the old world was doomed. The old society, the old economy, the old political systems had, as the Chinese phrase put it, ‘lost the mandate of heaven’. Humanity was waiting for an alternative. Such as alternative was familiar in 1914. Socialist parties, resting on the support of the expanding working classes of their countries and inspired by a belief in the historic inevitability of their victory, represented this alternative in most countries of Europe. It looked as though only a signal was needed for the peoples to rise, to replace capitalism by socialism, and thus to transform the meaningless sufferings of world war into something more positive: the bloody birth-pains and convulsions of a new world. (Hobsbawm 2003, 55)
- The most important of Marx's later works were not widely distributed and translated until Ellul's time. These works completely turned Marx scholarship on its head and would end up anticipating a lot of the issues in his early work which the rest of the world would have to find out the hard way. One of these is actually referenced by Ellul, the matter of historical materialism. Fittingly enough, it was this assumption by early Marx which the Bolshevik model heavily relied on.
To answer the question posed above, what makes a “return to Marx” any different is that it is a true return. The substance is being re-appraised rather than simply tacked on. The contribution of Marx to this analysis goes beyond just a name and some trite phrases.
The crisis of traditional Marxism, however, in no way obviates the need for a social critique that is adequate to contemporary capitalism. On the contrary, it draws attention to the need for such a critique. Our historical situation can be understood in terms of a transformation of modern, capitalist society that is as far-reaching — socially, politically, economically, and culturally — as the earlier transformation of liberal to state-interventionist capitalism. We seem to be entering yet another historical phase of developed capitalism. (Postone 1993, 12)
Does the above render Ellul's critique moot? No, just misdirected. Once we understand it as being targeted towards Marxists rather than Marx, it makes sense why the following rebuke ends up being the most damning in the book:
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.
Those who are quicker to adapt become “progressive Christians”, while those who show restraint are considered “conservative Christians”. It is through this dichotomy that Christians unwittingly continue to forsake their calling in favor of culture wars. The factions may reach different conclusions, but their rejection of the primacy of Christianity remains the same, whether they realize it or not.
What Ellul neglects, however, is that the element of vogue cuts both ways. These people aren't just fad-Christians, they're fad-communists too. The nature of partisanship is deceptive because it follows this general law: the outward appearance is the inverse of the internal substance. In this context, the underlying lack of seriousness is compensated with vocal affirmations of their dedication. After all, as Ellul himself remarks, ideology is inherently a degeneration:
Let us begin with my definition, a kind of common denominator often used in specialized studies. This one has the advantage of relating concretely to the facts: an ideology is the popularized sentimental degeneration of a political doctrine or worldview; it involves a mixture of passions and rather incoherent intellectual elements, always related to present realities. (Ellul 1988, 1)
There is undeniably an ideology by the name of “communism”; to say otherwise would be to deny history. But behind the marches of the Eastern Bloc still remains a non-ideological core to the contributions of Marx: a critique of alienation under the value-form, crisis theory, and a Hegelian deconstruction of the logic of capital. It no longer is the 60s, the New Left has been long dead. What's left of Marx in our day? Nothing — except for its actual substance. The spotlight has moved onto other ideologies, leaving us with an opportunity to actually cut to the meat of the matter.
If we wish to speak of a communism that goes beyond a mere “-ism”, then we must assert it by counterposing it against the ideology that once bore its name.
2. Ellul's Concept of Revolution
2.1. The Autopsy of Revolution
2.2. Anarchy and Christianity
3. Ellul's Analysis of Society
3.1. The Technological Society
4. Hope in Time of Abandonment
Adorno, Theodor W. “Theory, Practice, and Moral Philosophy”, 1963. http://autodidactproject.org/quote/adornprx.html
Ellul, Jacques. Jesus and Marx: from gospel to ideology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1988.
Hobsbawm, Eric John. Age of extremes: the short twentieth century : 1914-1991. London: Abacus. 2003.
Postone, Moishe. Time, labor, and social domination a reinterpretation of Marx's critical theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (1993) 2009.
Sharp, Bruce. “Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy.” Last modified January 8, 2007. https://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm