Bakunin and the entheogenic challenge to atheism.

Author:Job, Sebastian


As fossil fuelled capitalism drags global civilisation towards the strange attractor of ecological implosion, can we get any help from outside (what the secular mainstream in the west generally recognises as), the human social field? This paper makes the case for the pedagogical potential of the naturally-occurring psychoactive 'entheogens', that is, substances which, taken sacramentally, are held to 'engender the divine within'. Handled in a thoughtful way, these substances, I argue, are potential allies for the remaking of the revolutionary movement in an age where human extinction is now thinkable. Between the existing radical left in its various forms, and this ally, however, there are some obstacles. One such obstacle is the atheism of the dominant European revolutionary tradition. In this paper Mikhail Bakunin's influential critique of religion as a form of human domination, as an enemy of human freedom, is taken as exemplary of this tradition. The testimony, meanwhile, of entheogenic experience puts this familiar leftist-atheist standpoint in question. Drawing on fieldwork and interviews with users of entheogens including ayahuasca, vaporised DMT, and 5-MeO-DMT toad venom, I argue that a left willing to open itself to these experiences could gain a new standpoint from which to oppose and outflank capitalist ecocide.

Keywords: Bakunin, God, Hegel, ayahuasca, entheogens, 5-MeO-DMT, ecology, atheism, left.

'There are no atheists after 0.4mgs of DMT'. (2) Anon. There exists a class of molecules that stands apart from all others. This is the class with the property of radically but temporarily altering human consciousness. New types are invented weekly; many are naturally occurring. Avoiding the pejorative and question-begging flavour of 'hallucinogens', we can speak generically of 'psychoactives'. In the mestizo shamanic tradition in the Iquitos region of Amazonian Peru, where I have worked, many of the naturally occurring psychoactives in traditional use are called 'teacher plants' (plantas maestras), and the pedagogical emphasis here is well merited. (3) However, these substances are also found outside the plant kingdom. As a rule of thumb we can say that the terms 'psychedelics' (LSD, mescaline, DMT, psilocybin), 'dissociatives' (ketamine, salvia divinorum), and 'empathogens' (MDMA, MDA), refer to different types within the broad class of psychoactive substances when there is no explicit emphasis on sacramental usage. 'Entheogen', a neologism which means literally to generate or engender the divine within, refers to any of these substances, natural or synthetic, and indeed others, such as cannabis, coca leaves, and even tobacco, but only when they are employed in the service of healing, enlightenment, initiation, social bonding, and similar intentional uses.

The term 'entheogen' was invented, in 1973, to recall psychedelic enthusiasts to ancient traditions of ritualised use of psychoactives. The term consequently refers to pre-modern as well as contemporary practices. (4) While in common parlance 'psychedelic' might be said to reference the vast and wild terrain of the untutored 'trip,' the 'entheogenic journey' is explicitly oriented to the revelatory and reverential aspects of the experience, and often involves ritual, meditation and incantatory practices aimed at getting on good terms with the substance. It is broadly these kinds of intentional uses of psychoactives that seem to me most promising and that I want to consider here.

In recent decades entheogenic practices have begun to percolate back into, and be reinvented, in modern societies. Hundreds of thousands of people are undergoing the uncanny initiation into the tryptamine zone that is afforded by ayahuasca, vaporised or smoked DMT, 5-MeO-DMT and other substances. They are doing so, for the most part, without churches, without political sanction, and in a context of officially promoted cultural ignorance. The question now arises of the possible historical significance of this reencounter between the entheogens and the modern psyche. Will it remain a marginal affair, an exotic phenomenon of internationalised middle-class youth culture, sooner or later succumbing to the pincer movement of fashion and repression, or, on the contrary, could these psychoactives help to open up a new radical political project? More exactly: if it is clear by now that human survival, not to speak of human flourishing, hangs on our collective capacity to break away from global capitalism's ecocidal dynamic, (5) is there a case for thinking that the entheogens could help to educate, and thereby bring into being, the political subjects who could make the break?

As soon as one considers, however, the possible educative function of the entheogens, one stumbles over a bizarre 'supernatural' terrain. The reports of mystics and shamans come, perhaps, closest to evoking some of what one experiences. However, the main lines of ecological thinking, whether on the left or more generally, proceed in the opposite, broadly philosophically materialist direction. (6) Anything spiritual or religious is seen, if it is considered at all, as a holdover from times when we simply knew far less about how nature works. For entheogenic travellers, meanwhile, a divine dimension to human and natural being starts to seem either a certainty, or at least a fairly plausible premise. It is not uncommon for people to report feeling ecstatically at one with nature, and some go on to become active 'partisans of the plants'. The question arises, then, as to whether the secular and atheist left, along with many others, have closed the book on Spirit prematurely.

In what follows I want to begin some modest Lockean theoretical 'under-labouring' for an Entheogenic Left to come. I do this by confronting the very idea of the political potential of the entheogens with what could be regarded as a famous pre-emptive refutation: Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin's (1814-1876) critique of religion, God, spirituality and the supernatural. Bakunin's standpoint on these matters, carrying the prestige of his extraordinary revolutionary activity, and expressed at a hinge point in the formation of modern political culture, continues to shape what many people take a radical left politics to entail. Humans do not begin to win their political freedom, he argued, until they emancipate themselves from 'the phantom of God'. (7) In other words, political emancipation entails atheism. The problem of God is immediately the problem of human freedom, and only the negation of God opens us to our proper human dignity.

Much of the impact of this message derives from the legend of Bakunin himself--here was a man who lived his freedom! And coming in the wake of the internalisation of the Christian image of God over millennia, there is no doubt Bakunin helped both in the necessary overcoming of this image and in its transformation into a new and active image of free Human Being. But this is also where the problems begin. Bakunin conceived the relation between God and human as ultimately one of implacable opposition: 'But immediately God appears, man is reduced to nothing'. (8) There was, it followed, nothing divine to human beings, and 'over there,' in the experiential direction indicated by the spiritually attuned, there was nothing to be found but self-delusion.

Paul McLaughlin calls the alternative anti-theological perspective developed by Bakunin 'dialectical naturalism'. (9) This was a position further elaborated by Murray Bookchin, the author of the Ecology of Freedom, and one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century ecological movement. (10) It would be unfair to say that Bakunin blindly shepherded the nascent worker's movement towards the bourgeois Enlightenment mechanistic and atomistic view of nature as essentially a realm of objects of potential human use. Nonetheless, as McLaughlin and Bookchin contend, he pursued a totally desacralised image of reality, including of nature, thereby abetting, as I see it, the removal of a decisive obstacle to nature's unchecked despoliation. What is more, Bakunin helped radicalise the prototypically modern image of humans as collective self-legislators (11) in the very moment that he declared, along with all other atheists, that any search for the divine grounds of the human self and human freedom was an irrational atavism. In other words, Bakunin was one of the key thinkers who helped cut us all loose, culturally speaking, from the experience of the eternal, thereby generating a specifically modern way of getting lost.

It should be admitted that talk--in western left circles at any rate--of a 'divine' or 'eternal' dimension to the self, society and nature courts, to put it politely, incomprehension. The heavily freighted word 'God', in particular, stands like a sphinx in the way of comprehension; and yet the sphinx guards the zone we need to investigate. Below I will emphasise that all one need grant words like 'God' or 'divine' or 'eternal' or 'spiritual' is that they are names for powerful and in some cases rationally credible experiences, the ontological status of which is a source of perpetual--if sometimes productive--dispute. My arguments are not, therefore, directed against any approach, including possible versions of atheism and materialism, which attends to these phenomena and their causal effects, and which is willing to engage in non-question begging interrogation of 'knowledge' imparted in these experiences. It is simply the naivete of the declaration that there is 'nothing there' worth thinking about that I want to dispute.

All the same, between the case for 'the spiritual' presented here and 'the materialist' presuppositions and socio-historical preoccupations of the dominant tradition of left politics, there seems to fall what Lyotard called a 'differend': an absence of mutually agreeable criteria by which to judge the veracity of the claims each...

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