What is Sociohistorical Neopaganism or Neopagan Marxism?

Gods, Goddesses and Radicals

To understand what Neopagan Marxism is, we need to compare it to other sacred and secular systems in order to understand their similarities and differences. Most Marxists know next to nothing about Neopaganism, and they like it that way. However, the inverse is not necessarily true. The Neopagan movement in Yankeedom largely came out of the feminist sacred movement, which was also political. As we will see, some Neopagans are liberal, but many are radicals. Generally, thanks to Starhawk and Z Budapest, many witches integrate their magical rituals with political activity. As for Marxism, there might be a smattering of Marxists who were pagans, but for the most part, they were isolated and didn’t constitute any identifiable subgroup within Neopaganism. Then, at the turn of the century, feminist Marxist Silvia Federici wrote Caliban and the Witch that brought a Marxist understanding to the witch hunts. More recently, about seven years ago, a practicing Marxist Neopagan named Rhyd Wildermuth began a small publishing house called Gods and RadicalsOne of his books was All That is Sacred is Profane: A Pagan Guide to Marxism. In this work, Wildermuth tried to make a Marxian understanding of capitalism understandable to pagans. However, he did not try to make Neopaganism attractive to Marxists. That’s what this article is about.

Overview of Six Theoretical Positions

Table A (Secular and Sacred Belief Systems) shows a full range of six theoretical orientations. The most right-wing of all belief systems are Christian fundamentalists. There are, of course, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists, but I will go with Christian fundamentalists since I know them best. At the other extreme are what I call ‘evangelical atheists.’ These can be either liberal atheist humanists (like Dawkins, Dennett, Hutchens, and Harris) or typical hardline Marxists. In the middle of the spectrum are three other kinds of Neopagans: Atheopagans, soft polytheists, and hard polytheists. I’ve developed my own neopagan category which I call ‘socio-historical’ paganism, or Neopagan Marxism. My narrative will cover only some of the comparative categories; the table at the end covers the full range of similarities and differences.

How Christian Monotheists Are Different from Scientists, Marxists and Various Types of Pagans

As different as they are, all or most Christian fundamentalists:

  • agree to strive for absolute certainty. Spiritual or psychological uncertainly is a sign of sin, that the system is incomplete and/or the work of the devil. All other tendencies accept uncertainty.
  • have dualistic and mutually exclusive opposites. All other tendencies are polar and turn into each other at certain points.
  • are the most extreme belief system in terms of exclusivity. There is only one path. All other paths are erroneous or demonic. Socialists and various kinds of pagans, on the other hand, have limited plurality between groups. Socialists will argue with other socialists more than with liberals or conservatives. Scientists will argue with each other but not with people who don’t play by the rules of science. Pagans tolerate plurality within the pagan community, but less with Christians or Muslims.
  • are the only ones that think the natural world will end in an apocalypse.
  • think heaven and hell are literal places we go after death. With the exception of evangelical atheists (who think heaven and hell are illusions) all the rest save sociohistorical Marxists treat heaven and hell as psychological states of mind.
  • see God as transcendent and intervening in history. Pagans, hard scientists, and Marxists agree that nature is self-regulating and immanent. All tendencies other than Christian fundamentalists go beyond Kohlberg’s third or fourth stage of morality which claims morality is based on fear of punishment or convention.
  • interpret missteps as sin or punishments from God. All the rest think mishaps are due to accident, faulty cognitive interpretations, or explanatory styles, social conditions, or a normal part of learning.
  • are extrinsically motivated and driven by the hope of going to heaven in the afterlife. This makes it difficult for them to enjoy the present. Rather they are focused on past sins and future hopes. Other secular or sacred beliefs are either mixed or (as with scientists and Neopagans) are intrinsically motivated and very present-oriented.
  • are the least self-reflective and think in the most concrete ways. They don’t think much about how their actions and words affect others. All the rest are self-reflective but for different reasons.
  • are also the lowest in mental integration. They are the most likely to cognitively compartmentalize their thoughts and externalize contradictions in their own life by blaming confusion on the work of Satan.
  • are likely to have some kind of brain damage, either from PTSD in wars, or domestic abuse from parents, or rape.

How Fundamentalist Monotheists Are Similar to and Different from Hard Polytheists

Next to the monotheist fundamentalists, there are what have been called ‘hard’ polytheists, who believe in the literal independent existence of many gods. There are many differences between monotheists and hard polytheists as the table shows, but they both agree that a) spiritual sources are real, b) minds can exist independent of brains, and c) they both deemphasize the neocortex side of the brain. They mostly just argue over whether the gods are singular or plural.

How Evangelical Atheists Differ from Christian Fundamentalists

It might surprise you to find that, on the extreme left of the spectrum, we have atheists, that I am calling ‘evangelical’. The reasons for this nomenclature are the following: a) they generally ignore that there could be a psychology to belief that mediates what is true or not; b) neither can tolerate that the secular and sacred are both necessary to human life. Each asks us to choose one or the other; c) though they both proselytize, evangelical atheists do so to a narrow audience (educated lay people); d) both are literalists with scientists sometimes being physical reductionists and Christian monotheists taking God as literal rather than metaphorical.

How Evangelical Atheists (Liberal Humanists and Hardline Marxists) Differ from Neopagans

  • For evangelical atheists, the real existence of heaven and hell are dismissed as illusions. Various Neopagans agree that the real existence of heaven and hell is not a place. However, they do not dismiss them as illusions. Rather they are psychologically real, in extreme states of enjoyment and pain.
  • Because rituals don’t really change the world, scientists and hardline Marxists dismiss ritualism as superstitious nonsense. All Neopagans disagree and argue that mindful rituals are not superstitious.
  • For scientists and hardline Marxists, altered states of consciousness induced by sacred experience do not last. Various neopagans claim that altered states are remembered, transformed into art, and have developmental impact, such as in coming-of-age ceremonies.
  • The relationship between evangelical scientists, hardline Marxists, and neopagans is lopsided. Many Neopagans support science, but with rare exceptions, scientists dismiss neopaganism and conflate it with monotheism.
  • Evangelical scientists say that consciousness is rooted in the brain. Only Atheopagans agree with that. Others say that consciousness is rooted either in society or in the spiritual world.
  • Evangelical scientists and hardline Marxists are the ones that emphasize only the neocortex part of the brain. The others either stress all three layers of the brain, or only the limbic and mammalian parts.
  • For evangelical scientists or hardline Marxists, ghosts, ancestor spirits, and fairies don’t exist. Most Neopagans look at them as psychological. Hard polytheists and evangelical Christians think they are real.
  • Evangelical scientists and hardline Marxists have the company of Atheopagans and sociohistorical psychologists in claiming that humans have not demonstrated scientifically extra-sensory perception. Jungians, hard polytheists, and evangelical Christians believe it exists, but has not been discovered yet.

These eight differences are crucial for understanding the differences between hardline Marxism and the Neopagan sociohistorical Marxism, which I am introducing in this article.

Evangelical Atheists vs Atheopagans

Moving this time from evangelical atheists on the left to Atheopagans (just to the right on the spectrum) there are many important differences.

  • Whereas for evangelical atheists, altered states of sacred consciousness are short-term epiphenomenon; for Atheopagans these states are psychologically real, if not physically real, and they endure in the form of books or artwork
  • While Atheopagans agree with evangelical atheists (that physical reality pre-dates mind), Atheopagans make room for the imagination while suspending judgment in order to create a good ritual.
  • While evangelical atheists deny the value of any religion, Atheopagans believe in a naturalistic religion that is not superstitious.
  • While evangelical atheists think all rituals are mumbo jumbo, Atheopagans think that a non-superstitious ritual can be very beneficial. For them, the ritual is more important than the belief.
  • Evangelical atheists treat the limbic and mammalian parts of the brain as if they were buried in our animal past (and the less said about them, the better). Human beings at their best are looked at as exclusively using the neocortex. Atheopagan rituals strive to use all three parts of the brain: body, emotion, and mind.

Squabbles Among the Neopagans

In between these two extremes of evangelical Christian fundamentalists and evangelical atheists are four intermediate positions: Atheopaganism, sociohistorical Marxism, soft polytheism, and hard polytheism. Hard polytheists are different from the other three in that:

  • gods, goddesses, ghosts, faeries, and ancestor spirits are real independent personalities—not metaphors, sociological projections, nor psychological projections.
  • the magic that is practiced for hard polytheists has real effects in the physical world. For the others, magic has psychological and sociological impact only.
  • unlike other pagans, hard polytheists might imagine that minds can exist without brains.
  • hard polytheists might be more subject to PTSD than Atheopagans and Jungian soft polytheists because there are more working-class people who may have brain damage due to war, domestic violence at home, or rape.
  • like soft polytheists (and unlike Atheopagans and Marxists) hard polytheists question whether there is objective truth and are more likely to value subjective experience.

Atheopagans differ from hard and soft polytheists in that: a) the scientific method is far and away the best way to know things; b) the physical world is real and independent of mind; c) gods, spirits, ancestors are not real; d) consciousness is a product of the brain. Soft and hard polytheists think there is consciousness linked to a spirit world not requiring brains.

Soft Polytheists

Next to the hard polytheists are the soft polytheists. These folks think that gods and goddesses are not literally real, but rather an expression of the ‘collective unconscious’. Jungians argue that gods and goddesses are part of the collective human psyche in general that cut across all human societies. There are many Neopagan Jungians, like James Hillman and Jean Shinoda Bolen. The soft polytheists who follow Jung are suspicious of science and are less critical of the history of religion than hard polytheists. Jungians tend to be old-fashioned conservatives, whereas hard polytheists are mostly New Deal liberals (with a modicum of socialism and fascism in certain heathens).

Sociohistorical Neopaganism vs Atheopaganism

Sociohistorical Marxists are in the center, disagreeing with Atheopagans on the left and Jungians to their right. Atheopagans and Marxists agree that science is the best way to know things, and that the gods are not real. But they differ in the following areas:

  • altered states are not just psychologically real as Atheopagans say; they are sociologically real, depending on one’s social class. (There is no class dimension to Atheopaganism that I am aware of.)
  • while both agree that the understanding of reality should not be literal, Marxists argue that understanding reality is not just the suspending of judgment of an individual. Reality is mediated by the type of society we live in, along with the point in history. Atheopagans are less sensitive that the perception of reality depends on the type of society we live in or the point in history.
  • further, they disagree about the nature of consciousness. For Atheopagans, the brain is both a necessary and sufficient condition for consciousness. For Marxists, the brain is a necessary but not sufficient condition for consciousness. To be a sufficient condition, the brain must be engaged in socio-cultural activity. Thus, labor in society creates a mind, and it is the mind that creates consciousness. So far as I know, Atheopagans make no distinction between the brain and the mind.
  • Atheopagans want to retain an appreciation of religion, calling it naturalistic religion. Neopagan Marxists want to dispense with religion, calling it the heart of a heartless world, the opium of the people. Neopagan Marxists also understand that the root meaning of the term religion is to bind-back, meaning something was lost. What was lost was egalitarian political-economic relations. All religion is class religion. The alternative to class-based religion is magic, which was prevalent prior to monotheism.

Sociohistorical Neopaganism vs Soft Polytheism

Marxian Neopaganism is critical of Jungian soft polytheism over the nature of consciousness. For Jungians, consciousness is ultimately spiritual (like Plato’s eternal forms). For Marxists, there is no spiritual reality, only a sociohistorical layer around the earth, the noosphere, engaging with the biospheric envelope. Secondly, the collective unconscious lumps the experiences of people in the seven different kinds of society into a universal which flattens the distinctions of the seven kinds of society. For soft polytheists, the methodology for altered states inducements is group or individual guided imagination.  Neopagan Marxists argue that group guided imagination can be part of Marxian practical critical political activity.

What is Sociohistorical Paganism?

Sociohistorical paganism has no inconsistency with the tradition of dialectical materialism. It understands that both nature and society are products of dialectical forces of Darwinian natural selection, combined with chance and (with the emergence of the human species) teleonomy, the internal planning of the human species. It also understands human society as evolving as a result of population pressure and depletion of resources, which drive technological innovation as well as economic and political qualitative leaps. It accepts uncertainty as a way of life. Opposites are understood as polar.  Because of the conflict between opposites, a new higher emergent synthesis comes about. Unlike traditional Marxism, sociohistorical paganism has no factions to argue with and has no need for loading the language. It does not strive to convert anyone.

Those of us who are sociohistorical pagans respect the entire legacy of the work of Marx and Engels. We also feel that their impressions of spirituality were too sweeping. One of their biggest failures was to not treat polytheism, animism, and magic as very different from Christian monotheism. Neopagan Marxism attempts to repair this failure to engage. Sociohistorical Neopaganism is inclusive of all socialist groups, and welcomes dialogue with Atheopagans, soft and hard polytheism, as well as Evangelical atheists (of which hardline Marxists are one type).

We respect the process philosophy of Whitehead, Hartshorne, and David Ray Griffin in their attempt to argue that there is an internality in nature all the way down. This does not make us pan-psychics since we believe there is an internality (what Whitehead called prehensions) long before there was any consciousness in nature. However, we believe with Engels that there is a dialectic in nature that goes all the way back to subatomic particles, and that evolution must be understood as a spiral with ever-new emergent properties emerging from conflict. Western humanities’ conception of heaven and hell are sociological projection of alienated humanity. When and if humanity creates socialism, it will approximate heaven on earth. This will go a long way towards dissolving infantile notions of heaven as a place to be taken care of or a hell as a place to suffer.

Unlike all other groups, sociohistorical pagans are committed to discovering a fifth stage of cognitive development beyond Piaget’s formal operations. Originally called “dialectical operations” by Klaus F. Riegal, preliminary work has been done by Michael Basseches.

(Dialectical Thinking in Adult Development) and Otto Laske (Dialectical Thinking for Integral Leaders)

Sociohistorical Neopagans have big plans for rituals. Following the lead of Starhawk and Z Budapest, sociohistorical paganism wishes to incorporate ritual, not only into specific protests and strikes, but also into an ongoing political practice. In addition, we attempt to do once again what the French revolutionaries did: change calendars and populate them with socialist holidays, socialist birthdays, pilgrimages, and rites of passage. We want to bring theatrical practice and collective imagination to socialism.

Unlike hardline Marxists, we want to live completely in the present. We believe that the choice for anyone joining us is not made from guilt or morality, but simply that as people we are irresistible. People want to be like us and want to be part of what we are cooking up. For us, altered states of consciousness in a magical ritual is not some kind of monolithic experience of all members. Different social classes will have different altered states because of their class position. Rituals producing altered states will be opportunities to work through some of the class conflicts between working-class, middle-class, and upper middle-class participants.

Unlike any other group, our perception of reality will depend on the kind of society we come from and the point in history we live in. As I have said in a previous book, From Earthspirits to Skygods the primitive magic-mythology in tribal societies will be very different from the secondary magic of agricultural states. The difference between the high magic of Renaissance Italy is very different from the low magic of witchcraft.

We work with other pagans’ gods and goddesses psychologically and sociologically, even though for us, they are not ontologically real. Ghosts, ancestor spirits, and earth spirits can be claimed by Atheopagans and Jungians to be psychological projections. For us they are sociological and historical projections of human social life and the differences between classes. The characteristics of the gods and goddesses—that they all have strengths and weaknesses—are projections that are worth working with, with the understanding that there is a danger of reification. The characteristics of the gods and goddesses, their identification as departments of life, should be worked in as part of our socialist plans. So, rituals to the god Hermes could accompany socialist transportation plans. Rituals to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, accompany the meetings of socialist farmers.

We agree with hardline Marxists that consciousness cannot be reduced to the brain, but we disagree with some other pagans that consciousness is rooted in nature or in a spiritual world. After the existence of the brain and a central nervous system, consciousness arises (as in bonobos and chimps) as the result of toolmaking, social life, and culture that is the inheritance of social animals. However, self-reflective consciousness is the result of the development of a sociohistorical envelope wrapped around the Earth over the biosphere, which Chardin called the noosphere. Self-reflective consciousness is rooted in sociohistorical activity in creating and sustaining the noosphere.

Lastly, historical sacred oppression is very important to us. Like Neopagan feminist witches, we don’t forget nor forgive what Christianity did during the witch hunts. Neither do we forget nor forgive what the Christians did to the Alexandrian library and how the Church terrorized the likes of Bruno, Galileo and Spinoza. We reject any reconciliation with Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and the whole patriarchal 5000-year albatross. Neither are we seduced by Eastern mysticism, whether it be Hindu or Buddhist, cousins of the western patriarchal family. As one feminist titled one of her plays many years ago, Your 5000 Years Are Up. As sociohistorical Neopagans, we neither forgive nor forget. We will treat the rulers of patriarchy with the same sacred hatred as we treat the capitalists in the secular world.

BELIEF SYSTEMS: SECULAR AND SACRED

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.