‘Max Dunbar is not a commentator I take all that seriously’. Boo hoo. I’ll cry myself to sleep. However it seems that Richard Seymour takes my commentary seriously enough to respond to a twenty-nine word sentence about himself (in this book review) with a 700-word post. I’m not sure I’m the one ‘sniffing around bins’ here.

The offending sentence (Lenin leaves most of the article untouched) was this:

blogger Richard Seymour (currently valiantly struggling to contort his anti-imperialist narrative around the Obama era) declared faith ‘an enabling narrative for liberation struggles’ and atheism ‘an ideological accessory to empire’.

He’s considerately provided links to the longer paragraphs from which the quotes were taken. Quote one:

Religion can be used as a tool for control, but to reduce it to that function without qualification is both erroneous and, if it matters, profoundly anti-marxist. Religion is a work of labour, a performance by people working in different contexts, deriving meanings that appear to be apt for their circumstances. That means that, while it is open to highly reactionary, patriarchal and authoritarian readings – indeed, it may even have a sort of elective affinity with political authoritarianism – it is also open to democratising, emancipatory impulses. It can, even as it engages people in fictions, also furnish people with a means to obtaining lucid insights about human beings.

Here he’s addressing a commentator who is still stuck on the ‘old left’ position (that religion is something the elite uses to keep the masses in line) rather than the ‘new left’ position (that religion is a convenient bulwark against the new American empire).

What other insights do we get? That religion is man made. Thanks for that. I didn’t really believe that the holy books were dictated by a variety of supernatural beings. The next point is that while religion can be ‘open to highly reactionary, patriarchal and authoritarian readings’, it is ‘also open to democratising, emancipatory impulses.’

Theoretically – perhaps. But if you look at the world today, and through history, and consider the role of religion within the world – which ‘reading’ is faith more open to, in practice? Select a nation at random where the priests are in control, and it is likely to be some impoverished and brutal dictatorship from which its unfortunate subjects will be making a mass exodus. And movements based entirely on faith tend to be, at best, socially conservative and, at worst, active terrorists.

What’s more important than the holy books, Seymour says, ‘is the way in which people receive, interpret and operate on those texts.’ But aren’t the texts themselves quite specific, and proscriptive, in regards to how one should interpret them? From Deuteronomy, 13:7-11:

If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse who you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ unknown to you or your ancestors before you… you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death… since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God.

From the Koran, 9:123:

Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous.

Is there a wide range of interpretation for sentences like these?

And here’s full quote number 2:

The ‘war on terror’ and the Israel-Palestine conflict are seen as being driven by ‘religious extremism’ in this purview. Naturally, when discussed in those terms, people like Sam Harris conclude that Islam is the worst religion, the most menacing kind that exists on the planet, mandating all sorts of extreme measures including torture and bombing. Naturally, Amis concludes that the ‘extremists’ (Muslim extremists, he means) have a ‘monopoly on self-righteousness and violence’ and produces all kinds of fulminations about Islam and Muslims to accompany this. This is the quite logical result of a culturalist reading of a dense mesh of geopolitical struggles. To this extent, the ‘new atheism’, where it is not just naive and bossy, is an ideological accessory to empire.

I’m an ecumenical critic of religion rather than anti-Islam and no one could deny the influence of geopolitics on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Yet to dismiss the influence of religion from the clash completely, when the claims of both sides boil down to ‘God gave us this land,’ or indeed to dismiss religion as a driver of war and suffering and exploitation, is naive to the point of wilful blindness.

(Thanks to JohnG in the Shiraz comments)


The SWP echo chamber


6 Responses to “Quotemined”

  1. johng Says:

    Richard’s quote represents the ‘old left’. Your view represents the ‘new’ left, which effectively retreats from socialism to 18th century liberalism (whose views on religion Marx wrote to refute). An upside down world indeed.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    I’m going to regret this, but… could you expand on that, John?

  3. davidmcgrogan Says:

    Never mind if Seymour doesn’t take you seriously; I’m amazed that you even bother engaging with the fellow at all. He’s a trumped up schoolboy who never grew out of his sixth-form Marxist phase, and if he has any talent whatsoever it is surely only for empty rhetoric.

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    He’s got a talent for verbiage, I’ll give him that.

  5. modernityblog Says:


    you write considerably better than Seymour or the assorted SWP cranks close to him

    that vast post-modernist verbiage which some of the contemporary SWPers employ is just a front for their shallow and crude argumentation.

    Go Max, bite him again !

  6. maxdunbar Says:

    As loads of people have remarked, the whole postmodernist jargon is not used to express a point but to intimidate the reader into thinking that they are in the presence of a superior mind. Seymour knows this.

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