Martin Hägglund’s Case for Socialism

Martin Hägglund’s Case for Socialism

Either This World or the Next

Do we need to give up God to embrace socialism?


Why should we be in favor of socialism? Many thinkers—philosophers, economists, sociologists, political theorists—have labored over this question and advanced arguments of various kinds. Some appeal to fairness: Only a fundamental change in the distribution of property and social goods will arrange society in such a way that capital and inherited wealth do not award advantages mainly to a privileged few. Others invoke the idea of human flourishing: People can realize themselves and achieve true happiness only if they have the freedom to pursue their individual and collective goals, and they can do that only if they do not find their life paths obstructed at every turn by economic need. Then there is the instability claim: As an economic system, capitalism is intrinsically unsound and, quite apart from any moral considerations, will eventually collapse under the weight of its dysfunction, even if we seek to allay its difficulties through stopgap efforts in social welfare and massive incursions of foreign debt.

A different and rather novel sort of argument for socialism is that we must return to the most rudimentary philosophical questions concerning what we take human life to be and why we care about it at all. We will then come to the conclusion that socialism is the only political and economic system that responds to these questions in a suitable way. This is the approach taken by Martin Hägglund in his searching new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. A professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale, Hägglund brings to his argument an unusually wide array of resources—philosophical, literary, and political—that he braids together into a passionate case for democratic socialism. His claims are not primarily economic, nor are they grounded in considerations of fairness or utility. We should endorse socialism, he insists, because it is the only arrangement of society that answers to our fundamental conception of ourselves as beings concerned with our own finitude. We are, Hägglund observes, fragile creatures who exist without any “final guarantee” in the success of our commitments. Our lives are precarious, but it is our unrestrained investment in this precious life that leads us to socialism and the creation of a society that can afford us genuine fulfillment. “You cannot shut down your sense of uncertainty and risk without also shutting down your capacity to feel joy, connection, and love,” he writes. And it is this sense of uncertainty and risk—the possibility that everything might not hold together—that underwrites our worldly commitment to one another; if we were not finite, such commitment would not be possible at all.

This concern with our own finitude is what Hägglund calls “secular faith.” In a series of chapters that address key thinkers in the canons of philosophy and religion—Augustine, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Martin Luther King Jr.—Hägglund attempts to show how this secular faith has served and should continue to serve as the necessary condition for all of our worldly actions and thus why socialism and secular faith naturally complement each other. Most provocative are those portions of This Life in which Hägglund tries to show how traditional religion fatally misconstrues the value of human life by locating it in an eternal realm beyond mortal bounds. We must commit not to eternity, he argues, but to our own worldly being. Yet like a belief in eternity, this commitment to the finite world is every bit as much a leap of faith.

Hägglund understands, of course, that talk of secular “faith” sounds paradoxical and may invite misunderstanding. He is not interested in secularism in the juridical or institutional sense, as in the Jeffersonian “wall of separation” between church and state. Nor is Hägglund concerned with the question that might trouble a specialist in comparative politics—whether a socialist system can thrive only in a broadly secular culture—though this question haunts his book. His quarry is more elusive and more philosophical, while his conclusions are more tendentious.

This Life is a work of great originality that dares to tackle some of the most contested questions in philosophy and religion. But for a book that tries to turn us toward the concrete facts of this-worldly life, its conception of religion is remarkably abstract. Hägglund never truly reckons with egalitarian movements, past or present, that were animated by religious belief. More troubling still, his arguments suggest a stark choice: Either you are a religious believer whose eyes remain fixed on eternity, to the exclusion of all worldly things, or you are not a religious believer (even if you say otherwise), since what you truly value most are the worldly attachments and material needs that make socialism a meaningful form of life.

Hägglund devotes a great share of his book to readings in the history of philosophy. His chief illustrations are Christian: In chapters on Augustine and Kierkegaard, he argues that both thinkers are essentially at war with their own better insights. They want to uphold the value of human life but ultimately obscure this value by placing their confidence not in time but in eternity. Likewise, in sections on Marx and King, he demonstrates the power of a secular faith that directs its energies toward the transformation of this world, even if King understood himself to be acting from religious motives. Ultimately, Hägglund wants to claim that socialism is incompatible with religion and that it can be intelligible only as a manifestation of our secular faith.

Hägglund begins with Augustine as the thinker who perhaps did more than any other to set the terms for Christian belief. Augustine’s pursuit of salvation promises an end to all worldly cares, and yet, Hägglund argues, even Augustine could not resolve the conflict between his faith in God and his fidelity to the world. Of one friendship, Augustine writes that it was “sweet to me beyond all the sweetnesses of life”—a sign, Hägglund suggests, that beneath his official declarations of attachment to eternity, even Augustine felt an “intense attachment” and vulnerability to “the rhythms of time.” But this means Augustine could not help but betray his own teachings.

When he turns to Kierkegaard, Hägglund identifies an even more striking case of the ambivalence between religious and secular faith. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard meditates on the biblical story of Abraham, who is prepared to obey a divine command to slaughter his son Isaac as a demonstration of his faith and yet believes that through this sacrifice, Isaac will somehow be restored to him. Here, too, Hägglund writes, we can detect a hidden moment of secular faith. Try as hard as he may to turn his back on the world, even Abraham cannot wholly forswear the deeper if paradoxical commitment to worldly life he seems ready to surrender.

For Hägglund, the examples of Augustine and Kierkegaard show us that even the most esteemed Christian thinkers remain poised in indecision between their religious and worldly commitments. Secular faith, it turns out, has long lay coiled in the heart of religious thinking, but Hägglund feels they are essentially incompatible and we must try our best to liberate the secular from its religious husk. His interpretations are dramatic but strongly dualistic, leaving us with the impression that only the secular deserves salvation while religion by definition has no love for the world. For Hägglund, as for Kierkegaard, the biblical story about Abraham and Isaac serves as a lesson in the necessity of absolute belief: Inward faith must overrule our outward commitments to society. But the tale also contains other lessons. When an angel intervenes to stop Isaac’s death, Abraham is reminded that his social commitments are sacred and should be trusted even more than a voice from the heavens. Read this way—from the end rather than the middle—the tale appears not as a panegyric to religious faith but rather as a warning against fanaticism.

This is an insight Hägglund seems to miss. Throughout its history, religion did not need to await the arrival of secularism to spawn its own criticism; it already contained the kinds of challenges that would become commonplace in the modern era—voices that railed against moral indifference and demanded that the pious turn their fullest attention to injustice in this world.

To be sure, Hägglund himself wants to interpret his chosen texts with an eye to their inner tensions. Following the method known as “immanent critique,” he wants to expose contradictions by showing the dissonance between religion’s stated norms and its actual commitments. To demonstrate that something is wrong with the life we currently lead, we need not invoke any transcendent ideas beyond that life; we simply need to identify the self-contradictions. Hägglund wields this method as a cudgel against religion. He fastens his attention only on those moments when religion might appear to be in conflict with itself but fails to see that religious traditions have often anticipated his objections.

For perhaps obvious reasons, when Hägglund turns to Marx’s this-worldly critique of capitalism, he is far more charitable. Marx, Hägglund argues, is an exemplar of secular faith. He knew that there were no norms beyond his social and historical moment to which he could appeal to identify the depredations of capitalism, so instead he developed his critique by showing how capitalist society did not live up to its own principles. Liberal capitalism sought to uphold the ideal of freedom above all else, Marx noted, but ultimately the system it created undermined this ideal. Overcoming the unfreedom it has produced thus demands that we redirect our attention toward what Hägglund calls the “free time” that capitalism has colonized. Marx, Hägglund concludes, is the great exemplar of secular faith, awakening us to the priority of our freedom as finite beings. This interpretation of Marx, which draws some inspiration from the late Marxist theorist Moishe Postone, has moments of great originality. In Hägglund’s book, this chapter plays a pivotal role, serving as the primary illustration as to why socialism and secular faith belong together, and why humanity must look past religion if we are to find our freedom.

When Hägglund turns to Martin Luther King Jr., however, his interpretation invites serious controversy. King poses a challenge to Hägglund’s dualism between religious and secular faith, since he intertwined worldly activism with Christian belief and apparently saw no contradiction between the two. To his credit, Hägglund grapples with King’s example, but he does not shy away from his boldest conclusion: When King appeals to God in the cause of worldly justice, Hägglund asserts, he simply cannot mean “the religious notion of an eternal God.” By insisting that “the struggle for social freedom” is “an end in itself,” King proves himself to be a devotee of secular faith even if he sometimes invokes an otherworldly language.

Hägglund insists on this verdict, even when he quotes the famous lines from King’s final speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land.

This speech, Hägglund tells us, does not convey “a vision of eternal life,” nor is it “a vision of the new Jerusalem.” Instead it is “a vision of what we the people can achieve, a vision of the new Memphis.”

One can perhaps appreciate why Hägglund would reach such a conclusion. By the end of his life, King had begun to shift his priorities from the struggle for civil rights and integration to more radical demands focused on economic redistribution and a fundamental transformation of American society, and Hägglund sees this as a shift not just in politics but also in metaphysics. Embedded in King’s radicalism, he argues, is a devotion to the world that cannot be squared with a religious devotion to eternity. King, it turns out, is a knight of secular faith.

Seen in a historical light, Hägglund’s argument may strike us as highly dubious. There is a long tradition of Christian socialism in the United States and in Europe as well. Hägglund not only ignores this tradition; he risks a serious misunderstanding of King’s activism when he omits the most moving lines that come toward the end of the Memphis speech. “So I’m happy tonight,” King told his audience. “I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Hägglund’s scholarship and his political commitments are both to be commended. But his readiness to pronounce upon the true coherence of King’s innermost motives strikes me as audacious in the extreme. Though I can hardly claim any expertise regarding the civil rights movement, even a superficial understanding of its history would suggest that for King and many of its other participants, there was no essential contradiction between politics and prophesy. Their Christianity was intrinsic to their sense of what they were doing as political agents, and they would have been surprised to learn that they were mistaken about the innermost sources of their own actions.

To be sure, Hägglund is not interested in professed motives; he is interested only in the philosophical coherence of human conduct. But his interpretation of King as a secularist is nevertheless an indication that something in This Life has gone awry. The book rarely descends from the lofty heights of philosophical speculation to make contact with the long and complex empirical record of religion in the world. This record is so rich that it would take more than a lifetime to master all of the relevant sources. But with his extraordinary confidence in his definitions, Hägglund does not refrain from offering a final verdict on what religion has been and what it can be. “Neither Jesus nor Buddha nor Muhammad,” he writes, “has anything to say about freedom as an end in itself.” This is not accidental, he continues, because from a religious perspective, “what ultimately matters is not to lead a life but to be saved from being alive.”

Part of Hägglund’s difficulty, it seems, is that he is too quick to see in religion only a stark choice: either this world or the next. Either you invest all of your values in the here and now or you evacuate your life of all meaning by turning to the afterlife. This either/or choice looks suspiciously Kierkegaardian, but it poorly captures the lived reality of Christianity. Nor does it speak to the complexity and variety of its teachings. Although I am not a Christian, I recognize why these teachings might still inspire. Consider, for example, the astonishing doctrine of the incarnation itself, a mystery that Christian theologians have interpreted in myriad ways. Among its most powerful insights is that even the eternal cannot remain unscathed. When I gaze upon an image of Christ in agony upon the cross, I am confronted with the moving if terrifying idea that God, too, can be finite. The divine is not beyond time but actually descends into time and suffers all of the passions of humanity.

This is the paradoxical idea that has inspired so many Christians across the millennia and has turned them, quite often, not away from the world but toward it, demanding that they treat each individual as a miraculous apparition—an image of God. Latin American liberation theology helped inspire Gustavo Gutiérrez in Peru and his allies in Brazil and elsewhere to interpret Christianity as a revolutionary praxis that sought not to escape from the world but to transform it from within by emancipating the poor and the oppressed. In the North Atlantic, Christian socialists once stood on the front lines in the battle for economic justice. Hägglund ignores this complicated record, I suspect, since it does not accord with his tidy distinction between this life and the afterlife.

In many religions, incidentally, the promise of an afterlife does not beckon quite so brightly as Hägglund seems to believe. In Judaism, for example, moral concern is directed squarely toward this life alone, while the promise of an eternal life beyond death appears with relative infrequency. Hell, or Sheol, is a realm of boredom, not endless punishment (though the rabbis do speak of Gehenna as the place for those who are wicked). Heaven is not a gated community that awaits the pious as their final reward; it is a dwelling place for God alone. Ethical conduct is its own reward. Maimonides, arguably the greatest of the medieval Jewish philosophers, insisted that a human being can never transcend the bounds of finitude to unite with the eternal. Similar themes also appear in the writings of his Muslim contemporaries Al Farabi and Avicenna. Incidentally, Maimonides and Avicenna were not just metaphysicians but also physicians, caretakers of the body as well as the soul. In the history of religion, this is hardly uncommon. The great virtuosos of spiritual tradition were not, as Hägglund implies, all monastics taking flight from the world. Just as often they were spiritual reformers, leveraging eternal values for the sake of mortal life.

Does it really matter that Hägglund gets so much of the history of religion wrong? Maybe so, maybe not. More pertinent to his purpose are questions of metaphysics and philosophy, and when it comes to those, his erudition is on grand display. He has much to say that is truly instructive in his readings of Augustine, Kierkegaard, and Marx. Hägglund also offers some fascinating remarks on the multivolume writings of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Only in a brief section on Adorno does Hägglund really stumble, when he dismisses Adorno’s thinking as essentially “religious.” It’s a striking claim, since the esteemed philosopher of dialectical negation was at heart a materialist who invoked religious concepts only for the sake of this-worldly criticism. The idea of redemption, for example, is of value for Adorno only as a standard that casts light on the world’s distortion; the reality of redemption “hardly matters.”

Quarrel as one might with certain details in his textual interpretation, Hägglund is a discerning critic whose command of the philosophical tradition is formidable. For his own philosophical authorities, he appeals chiefly to Hegel and Heidegger as well as Marx. In fact, much of the language of Hägglund’s book is identifiably Heideggerian, and the core premises that animate his arguments are ones that will be recognizable to those who have read Being and Time.

For Hägglund, as for Heidegger, the history of religion is essentially the history of a metaphysical error. Ultimate value is assigned to a timeless ground beyond the world, with the pernicious consequence that humanity has adopted a posture of world denial or nihilism. For Heidegger, the proper domain of human concern is our own “worldhood,” since this is the realm in which we devote ourselves to the things we care about most. But our worldhood is never anchored in eternity. If we have a stake in our life, this is because it is thoroughly temporal. Our being is “at issue” only because it must come to an end. On this point, Hägglund proves himself a faithful disciple of Heidegger. “Most fundamentally,” he writes, “I must live in relation to my irrevocable death—otherwise I would believe that my time is infinite and there would be no urgency in dedicating my life to anything.” Later in the book, Hägglund repeats this claim in even bolder terms: “Life can matter only in light of death.”

But is it only death that gives life meaning? Though he returns to this assertion throughout his book, Hägglund never truly offers a clear explanation as to why finitude confers value. Suppose you tell me that global warming will overtake the earth within a year and that nothing we can do will prevent the catastrophe. The sense of inevitability might not encourage action but instead awaken feelings of disabling fatalism. Finitude, it seems, is hardly a necessary condition for caring about life; it might even inhibit me from caring at all. Now suppose I believe in karma: Even the simplest act in my current life will bear upon who I will be in the life to come. In this case, it seems that a belief that points beyond my death might very well encourage me to care a great deal about each and every aspect of my present conduct.

Such examples suggest that Hägglund is too quick to affirm the place of finitude as the source of all meaning and too eager to blame religion for our flight from the world. In fact, when we consider religious traditions in all of their extravagant diversity, we may begin to wonder how religion can be assigned any singular doctrine at all. For many religious believers, the recognition of a higher meaning beyond life is precisely why they care so much about their moral and political conduct in this world. I suspect this was the sort of sentiment that animated King in his political struggles, and a similar sense of worldly commitment has inspired Christian socialists and liberation theologians alike.

For all of its this-worldly pathos, This Life elevates its existential insights to a set of invariant truths that are conspicuously indifferent to worldly fact. Although I have no personal interest in an eternal life, I don’t suppose I am the only one to doubt the shopworn truism that the anticipation of my death is the highest condition for my life’s meaning. This may sound like a discovery of great pathos, but it is one that holds true only for certain cultures and at certain moments in history. Nor does it help that the ponderous bromides of mid-20th-century existentialism bear an unfortunate resemblance to self-help literature. (“My time with family and friends is precious,” Hägglund tells us, “because we have to make the most of it.”)

Still, let us suppose for the sake of argument that we accept Hägglund’s distinction between secular faith and religion. The first directs us to time and asks us to accept that life matters only in the light of death. The second turns us resolutely to the afterlife and bids us grant that life matters only in the light of eternity. Here, we confront the most poignant irony of the book: It assigns to death the role of an ens realissimum, or highest reality, that bears an uncanny resemblance to the God it has displaced. For the believer, God is the ultimate source of value. For Hägglund, it is finitude. This, I suspect, may be a sign that he has not fully escaped the matrix of Christianity. The old distinction between time and eternity remains in place; only their values have been inverted.

This is perhaps unsurprising, since Hägglund is deeply invested in a philosophical tradition that inherited a great many of its metaphysical problems—and even its language—from the Christian tradition. But what should trouble us about this inversion is that it rehearses the same game of epistemic superiority that religious believers have used in their endless battle against those who do not believe. The religious believer is certain that the unbeliever is in error. Hägglund is no less certain that the believer is in error. To be sure, certain religious traditions have also counseled humility: If we cannot know the ways of God, they have reasoned, then we should not dare to judge the ways of humanity. This doctrine of apophatic (or negative) theology ranks among the most powerful themes in the history of religion. A secular philosophy that places a similar emphasis on human finitude might be expected to sustain a similar posture of epistemic humility and an openness to doubt. But in Hägglund’s book, such virtues are in short supply.

There is one last question that we might ask of This Life: Is it really necessary or even prudent to build up the political case for democratic socialism with appeals to metaphysical first principles? Hägglund’s birthplace, Sweden, has long stood as a paradigm of social democratic success; it also ranks among the most secular countries in the world. So perhaps it should not surprise us that he sees secularism and socialism as wedded in a coherent philosophical worldview. But it is chastening to think that a great many of the people with whom we share the globe today still define themselves as religious. This is especially the case when one looks beyond the most privileged regions of Northern Europe and the urban centers of North America.

In the cool eyes of the unbeliever, these people subscribe to beliefs that may appear misguided or even foolish. But we should still find a way to speak not for these people but with them, especially when it comes to the political arrangements that will benefit us all. Dismissing their beliefs as the wrong metaphysical grounding for socialism will not get us terribly far. But if we direct our attention to more material and political concerns—to housing, health care, education, economic equity, and popular rule—we may realize that the old battle lines between the secular and the religious are losing their grip.

Whether we really need to bind together politics and metaphysics in the way Hägglund does remains an open question, but given the urgency of the tasks that confront us, it may be best to forgo the task of metaphysical grounding altogether. When it comes to economic justice, after all, the most compelling arguments are political, not metaphysical. n

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