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The revolutionary spirit of the Buddha

Marx and Engels both took a surprising interest in the ideas of the great Indian spiritual leader

8 mins read
Digital painting of Gautama Buddha [Nikhil Mishra/Pinterest]

In 1861, Karl Marx made one of his rare post-exile visits to his native Germany. While there, he renewed an acquaintance with Friedrich Köppen, one of his student friends from the days of the Young Hegelians. Köppen presented Marx with copies of his two-volume study of Buddhism which the latter later observed in a letter to Engels was an important work. Five years later, Marx was in the English seaside resort of Margate seeking a spa-based treatment for the carbuncles that plagued him in later life. He would often spend the day walking along the beach with a surprising disposition, as he wrote to his daughter Laura: ‘As to myself, I have turned into a perambulating stick, running the greatest part of the day, airing myself, going to bed at 10 o clock, reading nothing, writing less, and altogether working my mind to that state of nothingness which Buddhism considers the climax of human bliss.

In his journalism for the New York Daily Tribune, Marx also displayed an awareness of the liberatory potential of the Buddha’s teachings in contemporary Asia:

‘The religion of the Tartars is Buddhism and Tibet the seat of the great Lama … is the sanctuary of the Buddhist faith … Now on both sides of the Himalayas Buddhism is confessed and as England cannot but support the new Chinese dynasty, the Czar is sure to side with the Tartar tribes, put them in motion against England and awake revolts in Nepal itself.’

Liberatory potential

Engels, in his work Dialectics of Nature, commends early practitioners of the same religion for attaining a degree of insight comparable to the great Greek philosophers. The popular perception of Buddhism as an essentially passive and escapist philosophy might make it surprising to learn that the founding fathers of Marxism did not automatically dismiss it as an entirely reactionary ideology. Closer consideration of the roots and nature of this great Asian belief system reveals that elements of the Buddha’s teachings possess a radical and dialectical potential, challenging oppressive systems and offering a path towards personal and collective liberation. In our time, many in the West have sought solace in Buddhism against the rampant and shallow consumerism which saturates late capitalist culture. As the Thai Buddhist and social activist Sulak Sivaraksa observes: 

‘When an individual places self-interest above all and negates the relation view of “self”, the result is greed and selfishness. Neoliberalist rhetoric deludes people and international organizations into believing that profits from multinational corporations will be fairly distributed in society and that any improvement in material conditions is an absolute gain for society. The ideology of consumption deludes people into believing that constant acquisition of goods and power will lead to happiness.

At the very least, it is obvious that Marx, Engels and Buddha were all inspired by a shared compassion for the poor and sought to end exploitation and injustice. The great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss claimed: ‘Marxism and Buddhism are doing the same thing but at different levels.

Half-Marxist

The possibility for an intersection of views between the left and this ancient faith has also been identified by the world’s best-known living Buddhist. In 1996, the Dalai Lama wrote:

‘Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilisation of the means of production. The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason, I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.

Axial Age

Buddhism emerged in the sixth century BCE in ancient India, a period characterised by the development of class societies, the exploitation of labour based on the rigid caste system and the rise of cohesive state structures. Some historians refer to this era in world history as the Axial Age as it witnessed the emergence of revolutionary thinkers across much of Eurasia: Buddha and Mahavira in India; Confucius, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu in China; the Presocratic philosophers in Greece and the Hebrew prophets who would form the core of the Old Testament. Although it is unlikely there was any meaningful exchange of ideas between these more or less contemporary figures, they all lived through a crucial transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The consequent disruption of established political and religious structures, and the rise of new, mercantile classes operating in urban settings, would explain the popularity of philosophies, including Buddhism, which challenged the old order. 

Caste 

The Brahmans, or priestly caste in India, held significant influence and enjoyed economic privileges, while the lower castes, including peasants, labourers and artisans, faced exploitation and marginalisation. Marx discussed the origins of the caste system as being rooted in the sub-continent’s prior history of invasions: 

‘While these foreign intruders made themselves, as princes, soldiers, priests and landholders, the mastery of the country, the original population, pressed more and more toward the southern extremity of the peninsula, were included in the inferior caste of Sudras, handicraftsmen and artisans, wholly excluded from political or intellectual influence, and restricted exclusively to industrious labour as the servants of the higher classes.

Contradictions

In the Buddha’s native homeland of the Ganges plain in the north-east of the country, new cities and trade routes were developing. According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama (c.563-483 BCE), who would become known as the Buddha, was born into a royal family in the Sakya clan, a member of the Kshatriya or warrior caste. His father, King Śuddhodana, tried to shield him from the harsh realities of poverty, oppression and death which were the daily realities of the lower castes. However Siddhartha, who was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable human beings who ever lived, refused to accept the limits placed on his experience as he grew up. The contradictions and polarisations thrown up by the clashing modes of production would undoubtedly have played a role in his dramatic change of consciousness. 

At the age of about thirty, Siddhartha decided to leave the wife and child who his father had thought would constrain his desire to see life beyond the palace. His wanderings brought him into direct contact with the poverty, sickness and death that blighted the lives of the majority of Indians and led him to the revolutionary decision to reject his previous life of privilege. At Bodhgaya, Siddhartha famously sat under a bodhi tree for three nights and experienced the revelation that self-knowledge is the key to avoid suffering and attain tranquillity.

Middle Path

Known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One, from this point onward, his teachings, or Dharma, would emphasise the Middle Path, a rejection of both the asceticism he had encountered on his wanderings and the excessive luxury of his youth. There was strong egalitarian message in the revolutionary spirit of the Buddha with the potential to undermine the Brahmans’ legitimacy and disrupt the social hierarchy. The establishment of a monastic order, with the radical inclusion of women, based on the rejection of worldly possessions and the pursuit of enlightenment, reinforced the proto-communist elements of the Buddha’s teachings.

Resonance

Crucially, however, Buddhism’s emphasis on personal liberation precluded the promotion of wider social or political revolution. The Buddha’s revolutionary message, that people from all castes were capable of enlightenment, did not extend to a call for the abolition of the caste system. This self-limiting agenda would prove popular with the growing class of merchants and financiers in the cities, benefitting from the larger agricultural surpluses delivering by the introduction of Iron Age technology but not seeking a total transformation of the social order.

The Vaisya caste, which was more common among mercantile traders, had historically been excluded from political power by the landowning Brahmans and Kshatriyas. The Buddha’s message would particularly resonate with this stratum. His condemnation of animal sacrifice undermined the status of the Brahmans and the emphasis on non-violence had an obvious appeal to traders who relied on the diminution of the internecine warfare associated with the Bronze Age kingdoms. In the third century BCE, the universalism of Buddhism appealed to Asoka, ruler of the Mauryan empire, as a source of ideological unity in a similar way to that of Christianity for the Romans a few centuries later.

Four Noble Truths

Marx and Engels famously pioneered a distinctly dialectical understanding of religion, perceiving how it represents an inverted view of the world in precapitalist societies such as ancient India, and how its energy could be channelled for both reactionary and progressive causes. As the former writes: ‘Religion is the general theory of the world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence, because the human essence has not realised its own actuality.

The Four Noble Truths are the core of the Buddha’s message and propose that all living things are subject to a fourfold path of development. This path consists of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the achievement of enlightenment. An epigram attributed to him expresses this perspective of the world:

‘The Buddha hath the causes told 
Of all things springing from a cause.
And also how things cease to be-
Tis this the Mighty Monk proclaims.

Elsewhere, Siddhartha proposes: ‘That being thus, this comes to be; from the coming to be of that, this arises. That being absent, this does not happen; from the cessation of that, this ceases.’

Buddhist dialectics

The social flux of the Greek world of the sixth century BCE produced the dialectical method of thinkers such as Heraclitus and Democritus that was much admired by Marx and Engels, and it is not difficult to see how a similar process in Asia produced the strikingly similar dialectical views of Siddhartha. Buddhist dialectics asserts that everything in nature has a cause (hetu). All features of nature that appear to us (samudaya) are fated to disappear (niradha). Many centuries later Engels, with the additional insights of modern science, would say much the same in Dialectics of Nature: 

‘Millions of years may elapse and hundreds of thousands of generations be born and die, but inexorably the time will come when the declining warmth of the sun will no longer suffice to melt the ice thrusting itself forward from the poles … and the earth, an extinct frozen globe like the moon, will circle in deepest darkness and in an even narrower orbit about the equally extinct sun and at last fall into it.’

Adrian Chan Wyles argues this feature of Buddhism made it a belief system that the founders of Marxism actually regarded more favourably than the one with which they grew up: 

‘It could be further argued that the Buddha’s emphasis upon the use of dialectical analysis to understand reality as an inter-play of ‘form’ and ‘void’, lays the cognitive foundation for Buddhists to be Marxists in potential, and that the transition from personal enlightenment of the individual (Buddhist), to the collective freeing of the working class (Marxist), is theoretically much easier for the Buddhist (as he or she possesses no theistic beliefs to give up), than it is for followers of the theistic religions that comprise the Judeo-Christian traditions.’

Communist Nirvana

Buddhism could be deployed for the consolidation of worldly power by rulers such as Asoka, but also contains a striking critique of established traditions of thought. Like some of his contemporaries in the Greek world, the Buddha’s teachings included clear connotations of atheism and a rejection of the notion of a divinely created universe. The concept of nirvana is traditionally interpreted as a purely individualised pursuit of fulfilment. However left Buddhists such as the twentieth-century Japanese thinker Girō Senoo argue that the highest state of the individual self can only be attained through unity with the universal self that exists in all things. He  believed ‘the capitalist system generates suffering and thus violates the spirit of Buddhism.’ Senoo was surely right that a future communist society would promote ways of thinking and behaving that are far beyond the limits that capitalism imposes on us.

Courtesy: CounterFire

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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