Religious in Form, Socialist in Content: Socialist Narratives and the Question of Civil Religion

In: Journal of Religion in Europe
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  • 1 University of Basel, Switzerland

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Socialist narratives have a long history of being interpreted as religious in content and form. Scholars draw on concepts such as ‘political religion,’ ‘secular religion,’ and ‘civil religion’ to describe an alleged world-transcending quality of socialism. These concepts possess, however, normative implications since they often suggest a difference from ‘true’ or ‘real’ religion. The following article does not select a specific definition to confirm or repudiate the alleged character of socialism as a civil religion; nor will it suggest another term to describe this character more appropriately. Instead, it addresses the as-religion reflex evidenced in such acts of classification themselves by asking the question: what are the aesthetic conditions for a political system to be perceived as religious? By analysing various implementation strategies of the German Democratic Republic’s master narrative—captured in the motto “socialism will triumph”—this paper examines the narrative structures through which real socialism produced meaning. Literary-aesthetic analysis reveals that meaning and relevance were created through a carefully selected set of literary patterns. These patterns can induce the as-religion reflex even when the narrative content is considered to be secular. Reflections and analytical differentiations of form and content prove crucial to classifying narratives as expressions of civil religion.

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  • 3

     See, respectively, Rolf Schieder, Civil Religion: Die religiöse Dimension politischer Kultur (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1987); Carsten Bagge Laustsen, “Studying Politics and Religion: How to Distinguish Religious Politics, Civil Religion, Political Religion, and Political Theology,” Journal of Religion in Europe 6/4 (2013), 428–463, at 440. The latter author also discusses four different approaches to studying the entwinement of religion and politics.

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  • 4

    Laustsen, “Studying Politics and Religion,” 440.

  • 7

    José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 95; James Thrower, Marxism-Leninism as the Civil Religion of Soviet Society: God’s Commissar (Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1992); Thomas Schmidt, “Vom Bürger zum Werktätigen: Die arbeiterliche Zivilreligion in der ddr,” in: Christel Gärtner, Detlef Pollack, & Monika Wohlrab-Sahr (eds.), Atheismus und religiöse Indifferenz (Opladen: Leske & Budrich, 2003), 315–336.

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  • 10

    Laustsen, “Studying Politics and Religion,” 445.

  • 12

    Hendrik de Man, Zur Psychologie des Sozialismus (Jena: Diederichs, 1927), 94–95.

  • 13

    Marcin Kula, “Communism as Religion,” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 6/3 (2005), 371–381, at 371–372.

  • 17

    Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). As a theorist, Iser is not interested in analysing actual readings of texts. Instead, he proceeds from an ideal “implied reader.” His theory of aesthetic response (Wirkungstheorie) therefore differs from other reader-response theories (Rezeptionstheorien). A concise and informative overview of the historical conditions of reader-response theory is provided by Winfried Fluck, “Why We Need Fiction: Reception Aesthetics, Literary Anthropology, Funktionsgeschichte,” in: Laura Bieger & Johannes Voelz (eds.), Winfried Fluck: Romance with America? Essays on Culture, Literature, and American Studies (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2009), 365–384, especially 365–369.

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  • 29

    Reinhard Lauer, Geschichte der russischen Literatur: Von 1700 bis zur Gegenwart (Munich: Beck, 2000), 665. The concept turned out differently in the various socialist countries. In East Germany, socialist realism was enforced in the context of the Bitterfelder Weg, a cultural and socio-political programme promoting the development of proletarian lay art. It was implemented through the political decision of the socialist party in 1958 and was explicitly supposed to contribute to the education of the people’s worldview. The basic idea of the programme—with its slogan “Put pen to paper, miner!”—was a close contact between writers and workers. The artist was to participate in the production process to better understand the worker. The Bitterfelder Weg was primarily focussed on the depiction of everyday professional life and technical development. Initially successful, the initiative failed after a few years. See Wolfgang Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der ddr (Berlin: AtV, 2000), 129–130. However, some influential writings resulted from the movement, shaping the development of literature in the gdr toward socialist realism, for instance Erik Neutsch’s Trace of Stones (1964) which was later made into a film starring the famous Manfred Krug, and Brigitte Reimann’s Arrival in Daily Life (1961).

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  • 30

    Irina Gutkin, The Cultural Origins of the Socialist Realist Aesthetic: 1890–1934 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 51.

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  • 33

    Dobrenko, “Socialist Realism,” 103.

  • 35

    Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 150.

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  • 38

    White, Metahistory, 152.

  • 43

    Groys, “Utopian Mass Culture,” 24. Sometimes, the socialist players adopted this critique and translated it into a virtue. See Lauer, Geschichte, 681.

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  • 46

    Regina Hastedt, Die Tage mit Sepp Zach (Berlin: Verlag Tribüne, 1960), 113. The source text states: “In den nächsten Wochen arbeitete ich wie nie zuvor, und abends fiel ich wie tot ins Bett. Manchmal, vor dem Einschlafen, lauschte ich in mich hinein. Da war etwas Neues. Ich began die Kraft zu spüren, von der Hennecke und seine Genossen immer faselten. Ich war fünfundvierzeig und dachte, ich sei ausgewachsen. Und nun kam das über mich. So gewaltig, so überwältigend, daß ich nicht wußte, wohin mit mir selbst. Da schlug ich dem Adolf einmal richtig auf die Schultern. Bis ich darüber sprechen konnte, das dauerte noch Jahre. Aber unser Sein entwickelte sich schneller als das Bewußtsein.” Translation by author.

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  • 51

    Clark, The Soviet Novel, 10. Despite some variations in narrative settings or style (see Clark’s systematisation of basic novel types in ibid., 255–260), the working-class hero was an inherent part of Eastern European narrative cultures. See Silke Satjukow & Rainer Gries (eds.), Sozialistische Helden: Eine Kulturgeschichte von Propagandafiguren in Osteuropa und der ddr (Berlin: Chr. Links, 2002). The anthology contains Soviet, Czech, Polish, and Hungarian versions of the working class-hero narrative.

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  • 53

    Hastedt, Tage, 167–168.

  • 57

    Gutkin, Cultural Origins, 38.

  • 59

    Dobrenko, “Socialist Realism,” 110.

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