The question of religion cannot be adequately posed and articulated outside the frame of politics as the actuality of historically concrete forms of oppression and determinate struggles for and/or against the concrete operations of social power. This is precisely why any insistence on taking a hermeneutic and historicising approach to that question deserves to be attended to with some seriousness. However, such seriousness will be contingent, first and foremost, on how effectively one is able to work towards freeing such a hermeneutic approach from the grip of institutionalised liberal academics — a secure world it currently inhabits in utter innocuousness deprived of its subversive sting — and mobilised by the militancy of political struggles to be rendered their indispensable and integral strategic component.
And for that, revolutionary political militancy will need to be equally, and dialectically, suspicious of both academicism and its own ideology of pragmatism. An effective response to religion/s as ideologies of nationalist and other forms of identitarian bigotry and oppression — something that capitalist class power articulates in order to reinforce and reproduce itself — depends perhaps on how much one is able to move away from viewing religions as ahistorical and merely self-enclosed institutionalities, forms and representations of power. This is a presupposition that is shared by both (liberal) secularists, and their communitarian ‘opponents’ such as the infinitely banal Ashish Nandys of the world. The way forward lies, rather, through the rigours of working a historicising materialist hermeneutic that grasps religions as internally divided and divisible terrains of quotidian social power and political struggles.
It will, therefore, probably be productive to make a small detour here in order to briefly clarify and distinguish the various theoretical approaches at stake in the articulation of liberal-secular and communitarian political projects, as also the project that one is attempting to propose as a radical departure from both.
First, the project of liberal historicising that is undepinned and guided by the approach of Hegelian historicism. This approach seeks to reveal the historical gap between the performative and the epistemological in the conception and practice of religion/s. It then goes on to insist that precisely on account of such a gap — which is to say, due to the historical incapacity of religious systems to render their performativity epistemologically transparent to themselves – religion as a form of social practice ought to be designated traditional, pre-modern and backward, and abandoned. What such an intellectual paradigm proposes, instead, is the social form that is inhabited by the subject of such historicising inquiry, which is external to the social form of the religious that is its object, ought to displace the latter as the form of social practice and thus politics. This is the modality of liberal/secular politics at its rigorous best. The most distinguished and radical exemplars of such an approach would be Romila Thapar, and even D.D. Kosambi.
Second, the genealogical approach to historicising of systems and forms of social being and practice underpinned by the religious conception. This approach too registers the gap between the performative and the constantive (read the ideological). But then it goes on to suggest that as far as pragmatics go this gap does not really matter. Its argument being the performative dimension of the religious, regardless of whether or not such performativity is epistemologically transparent to itself, is self-sufficient in overcoming the gap between itself and its ideological knowledge. What it overlooks is the fact that ideology and knowledge are not purely cognitive and that they are a materiality that frames and articulates the performative, causing it to undermine itself in its effects. This is the sum and substance of the politico-theoretical articulation of ‘weak thinking’ that is integral to the philosophical approach of genealogy. As a consequence, what it yields by way of politics is an ethics of the self, whose effect is, at best, the political project of radical communitarianism if not communitarian populist reaction.
In both these approaches, theory and the problem of epistemology, in the way their deployment is envisaged, remain an externalised normativity. The politics of historical knowledge they produce is, as a consequence, one of anachronic interpolation.
That brings us to the historical-materialist approach to historicising – something that is often confused and conflated with liberal historicising of a Hegelian historicist vintage by the best among its self-declared practitioners. In this approach, historical moments are sought to be grasped in terms of concrete instantiations of rupture with History but also, simultaneously, how such concrete instants of rupture are once again subsumed by the dialectical machine that is history, rendering those moments of rupture their very opposite. Historical materialism — which seeks to inquire into History by thinking the dialectic and the anti-dialectical difference together, but in their separateness — also seeks to reveal the gap between the performative and the epistemological in the historical conception and practice of religion/s. In this it’s no different from liberal historicising rooted in historicism. But then it also attempts to make sense of and explain the reason behind this unbridgeable gap. Thence, its modes-of-production narrative. As a result, what it proposes, unlike the project of liberal historicising, is not that religious forms ought to be designated traditional, pre-modern and backward; and that they be considered reactionary as forms of social practice. Rather, by revealing the gap between the performative and the epistemological in the historical operation of religious forms — and demonstrating the limit-reason as to why that gap is not sought to be closed in and by that historical operation of the religious – it seeks to arm the religious subjects of various so-called pre-modern spatio-temporalities, in the here and now of the contemporary, with the knowledge of the performative dimension and temporality that religion/s are in their historical operation.
That way, historicising of the religious, if it is truly historical-materialist in approach, will work towards enabling religious subjects to grasp the religious forms they inhabit, and which interpellate them as those subjects, in terms of its historically performative dimension. This, needless to say, is meant to politically impel those religious subjects to deploy the religious register of their everyday life in terms of the knowledge of the performative dimension of the religious in its historical operation. Something that would render what is a practico-inert ideological register in the here and now of lived experience into a positive ideological register that instantiates and materialises the science of subversive performativity in that very moment of lived experience of the religious subject in its concrete everyday specificity. That would, therefore, not amount to, like in the intellectual project of liberal historicising and its concomitant politics of secularism, an out-of-hand rejection of the discursive resources constitutive of the religious as a register and form of transformative social practice and politics. On the contrary, it would imply the deployment of religious discursive resources to forge an organic idiom of transformative politics that in its deployment causes the religious register and form of social being to internally mutate through a sharpening of the material cleavages internal to that register as a homogenising ideological appearance.
Hence, the question that all those committed to a political project against various customary forms of religio-communal oppression need to ask is how have discursive resources of religion/s become constitutive ideologies of bigoted oppression, class domination, and hegemony of capitalist modernity. Concomitantly, they also need to ask, how, and in what concrete circumstances, can religious discursive/ideological resources — and what kind of resources — be mobilised as idioms of political struggles for emancipation from power. For, in such struggles what is at stake is not secularism but a militantly materialist and thus historically grounded atheism. This is the politico-theoretical lesson that comes to us from Marx’s critique of liberal-secular atheism, particularly that of Feurbach and such Young Hegelians as Bruno Bauer. Or, Engels’ analysis of different Christianities — of Martin Luther, Jan Hus and Thomas Muenzer — in terms of their different material bases and operation in his, The Peasant War in Germany.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the liberation theology movements of Latin America, and the theologically-inflected but politically militant theoretical interventions of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch (his ‘Atheism in Christianity’ is a telling example), Jacob Taubes, Swami Sahajananda Saraswati (‘Maharudra ka Maha Tandav’, ‘Gita Hriday’), Rahul Sankrityayan (remember his polemic on Ram rajya with Karpatri Maharaj), Maulana Bhasani, Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, Roland Boer, Enrique Dussel and Aziz Al-Azmeh — to just name a few — point precisely in such a strategic direction.