Whitehead as Counterrevolutionary? Toward Christian-Marxist Dialogue

by Clark M. Williamson

Clark M. Williamson is Professor of Theology at Christian Theological Seminary. He is editor of Encounter.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 176-186, Vol. 4, Number 3, Fall, 1974. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Both the Marxist analysis of history and Whitehead’s metaphysics require modification in light of each other. The author indicates both the adequacy and applicability of Whitehead’s philosophy to Marx’s social analysis.


In the previous essay, Justice and the Class Struggle. A Challenge for Process Theology," George Pixley has put decisively before all process thinkers a host of issues arising from the struggle for justice and humanization which are at the heart of the conflict within the world today. He raises three issues, mainly involving justice, as a challenge for process theology. In doing so, he has done process thought a favor, by raising in a new way the question of the adequacy and applicability of Whitehead’s philosophy. According to Whitehead, adequacy "means that the texture of observed experience, as illustrating the philosophic scheme, is such that all related experience must exhibit the same texture" (PR 5). And since Whitehead also states that "The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system" (MT 237), it is obvious that the challenge which Pixley poses is eminently fair and cannot be evaded.

William A. Christian designates those concepts which constitute Whitehead’s categoreal scheme as his "systematic language." He refers to the use of those concepts "to interpret sense experience, the order of nature, art, morality, or religion" as Whitehead’s "post-systematic language" (IWM 3). By way of response to Pixley’s challenge, I will utilize for the most part this "post-systematic language," with only occasional lapses into metaphysical language.

As Whitehead describes it,

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation. (PR 7)

When the plane lands on the field of the analysis of the social system, we may find that both the Marxist analysis of history and Whitehead’s metaphysics require modification in light of each other. Indeed, Pixley suggests by implication that the latter does.

Pixley charges Whitehead’s thought with three things: (1) that it is "at the very least . . . open to appropriation for counterrevolutionary purposes;" (2) that "Justice shines by its absence" from Whitehead’s list of five cultural aims as the measure of civilized life; and (3) that Whitehead’s philosophy contains within it latent counterrevolutionary tendencies." Nevertheless, he thinks that a revolutionary process theology is possible, although we must conclude that this is so in spite of Whitehead. His basic challenge is to the adequacy and applicability of Whitehead’s philosophy.

In this paper our first task will be to try to indicate both the adequacy and applicability of Whitehead’s philosophy to Marx’s social analysis. This will be done by noting six important points of convergence between the two. After that four points will be raised in response to this challenge.

II. Correspondences

1. Both Marxism and process thought view metaphysics as a "social requirement." Roger Garaudy points out that Marxist thought makes a radical break with positivism. Positivism limits human thought to the arena of the given and hence is essentially conservative or reactionary. It gives us "not only a world without God but also a world without man" (1:64). Metaphysics, which is by definition a critique of the given, makes sense of, and thereby enables, the "passion for the possible" which allows us to see that this world, as given, can be "a different world, a changed world . . . (1:66). The Czech philosopher, Vitezslav Gardavsky, comes even closer to Whitehead’s view of the matter in his account of metaphysics:

Metaphysics represents in objective terms a social requirement. Mankind evolves by transcending itself, and by transforming the limits set for it by nature into historical limits, thanks to man’s many-sided practical activity. This means that metaphysics represents the reflective aspect, or alternatively the theoretical aspect, of practical behaviour.... It deliberates on the problem of the type of subjective identity which transcends itself, and yet at the same time is constantly threatened with being swallowed up once again by insatiable nature, and thus losing its meaning for mankind. (GINYD 204)

Steve Weissman severely criticizes the death-of-God theologians (with the possible exception of Altizer) for the absence from their thought of "some secular standard by which this particular intellectually normative and ethically good world might be judged" (NT 5:26). Their anti-metaphysical stance leaves them with "little evidence of any systematic standard of criticism and self-criticism" (NT 5:26). He points out that without "generalized critical thinking," which transcends the given, criticism of the specific might well become affirmation of the whole" (NT 5:31). He issues a "plea that we come to grips with the structure rather than the superficialities of the world as it is" (NT 5:31).

For Whitehead the speculative reason, which functions to promote the art of life (FR 4), "directs and criticizes the urge towards the attainment of an end realized in imagination but not in fact" (FR 8). Hence, "the secret of progress is the speculative interest in abstract schemes of morphology" (FR 73). He invites us to

suppose that a hundred thousand years ago our ancestors had been wise positivists. They sought for no reasons. What they had observed was sheer matter of fact. It was the development of no necessity. They would have searched for no reasons underlying facts immediately observed. Civilization would never have developed. (MT 203)

The "gadfly driving civilization from its ancient safeties . . . is this desire to state the principles in their abstraction" (AI 141); "metaphysical understanding guides imagination and justifies purpose. Apart from metaphysical presupposition there can be no civilization" (AI 128). The bounty of philosophy includes

insight and foresight, and a sense of the worth of life, in short, that sense of importance which nerves all civilized effort. Mankind can flourish in the lower stages of life with merely barbaric flashes of thought. But when civilization culminates, the absence of a coordinating philosophy of life, spread throughout the community, spells decadence, boredom, and the slackening of effort (AI 98).

In each age of the world distinguished by high activity there will be found at its culmination, and among the agencies leading to that culmination, some profound cosmological outlook, implicitly accepted, impressing its own type upon the current springs of action (AI 12; cf. AI 83).

2. Both Marxism and process thought represent a materialist philosophy of history. The meaning of Marxist materialism is badly misconstrued when interpreted in a precritical, i.e., a pre-Kantian way. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx insisted that what distinguished his own materialism from all previous ones was that they had articulated only the passive and not the active aspect of materialism. As Garaudy puts it, "Marx showed that man goes out and reaches out to things with his projects, with his plans, his hypotheses and his models. Before being a pure reflection of things, knowledge is a construction of things" (IH 3). What Marxist materialism conies down to, then, is that it is man who creates his own history, albeit always in a context in which the situation deriving from the past must be taken into account. Lenin’s remark, "We must dream," follows strictly from Marx’s post-Kantian understanding of subjective creativity. For Marx, we make our own history, but not exactly as we please, under circumstances which we are free to choose (Marx, Selected Works, II, 315; cf. Garaudy, AD 70-75).

In every period of historical change, Whitehead discerns two forces at work: senseless agencies and persuasive agencies.

The well-marked transition from one age into another can always be traced to some analogues to Steam and Democracy, or -- if you prefer it -- to some analogues to Barbarians and Christians. Senseless agencies and formulated aspirations cooperate in the work of driving mankind from its old anchorage. (AI 6; italics mine)

Again: "The great transitions are due to a coincidence of forces derived from both sides of the world, its physical and its spiritual natures" (AI 18; cf. 18f, 26f, 44f, 46f, 67-69, 70, and 76). Perhaps his most Marxist-sounding statement is: "The great convulsions happen when the economic urge on the masses has dove-tailed with some simplified ideal end. Intellect and instinct then combine, and some ancient social order passes away" (AI 67). In his discussion of how both senseless and persuasive agencies cooperate in history, Whitehead explicitly takes account of the role of the development of technology (AI 27), the class structure (AI 44f), commerce, science, geography, and population pressure (AI 76).

In sum: for Marx, consciousness, subjectivity, ideal aims (e.g., the classless society) are fully as important as are the persuasive agencies for Whitehead and, vice versa, for Whitehead the senseless agencies are fully as important as are the economic conditions for Marx. Although Whitehead did not know much about Marx and accepted the opinion of his theory that was stated by the "learned economists," much of Marx’s outlook can be reconstructed from Whitehead’s own writings. Even the Marxist understanding of ideology finds its close parallel in Whitehead:

More often changes in the social pattern of intellectual emphasis arise from a shift of power from one class or group of classes, to another class or group of classes. . . .

With the shift of dominant classes, points of view which in one epoch are submerged, only to be detected by an occasional ripple, later emerge into the foreground of action and literary expression. (AI 44)

Although Whitehead seems to reject the Marxist idea of the class war (AI 35), he knew that society built on iniquity resulted either in its self-destruction or a correction built on the insertion of some new theory into the social structure (AI 14). Furthermore, he knew that "Strife is at least as real a fact in the world as Harmony" (AI 32), and that "the mere doctrines of freedom, individualism, and competition, had produced a resurgence of something very like industrial slavery at the base of society" in the 19th century (AI 34). And, I think, his understanding of process by no means excludes the important role which Marx gives to contradiction: "process is the way by which the universe escapes from the exclusions of inconsistency" (MT 75).

3. Both Marxism and Whitehead accept the premise of relativism, the prophetic premise, with regard to all established social order. This premise, that all historical achievements are relative, postulates the possibility of a radical break with all forms of social alienation. It can also be referred to as the prophetic premise, since it was the biblical prophets who first taught that "no work of man’s hand or brain should ever be regarded as absolute, as permanent, as definitive" (Garaudy, 1:68). Marxism has a negative anthropology (of which, more later) from which it derives by implication a negative ethics and politics "which prevent us from saying this or that is the good or perfect order and thus enclosing them too in a definition" (1:68). Man as a project must have the freedom of projecting his own prophetic nature. Of Christianity, the Marxist philosopher Garaudy says that it "stimulates historical creativity by revealing the transitory character of every historical present" (AD 59).

Whitehead also relativizes the historical present: "Nor can we accept the present age as our final standard. We can live, and we can live well. But we feel the urge of the trend upwards; we still look toward the better life" (FR 81). Of Hebrew and Greek thought he avers that they effectively express "this critical discontent, which is the gadfly of civilization" (AI 11).

[A] general idea is always a danger to the existing order. The whole bundle of its conceivable special embodiments in various usages of society constitutes a program of reform. At any moment the smoldering unhappiness of mankind may seize on some such program and initiate a period of rapid change guided by the light of its doctrines. (AI 15)

The spirit and vitality of adventure are such that "sooner or later the leap of imagination reaches beyond the safe limits of the epoch, and beyond the safe limits of learned rules of taste. It then produces the dislocations and confusions marking the advent of new ideals for civilized effort" (AI 279).

There is this marvelous paragraph in Modes of Thought:

The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order. The Universe refuses the deadening influence of complete conformity. And yet in its refusal, it passes towards novel order as a primary requisite for important experience. (119)

As is well known, Whitehead differentiates between "order as the condition for excellence, and order as stifling the freshness of living" (PR 514). "The art of progress," he says, "is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society" (PR 515; cf. 516).

4. Both Marxism and Whitehead have a doctrine of man which can properly be termed a "negative anthropology." For Marxist thought, man is surely not simply a marionette put on the stage of history by social and political structures. Such an anti-humanistic, mechanical understanding of man is the contrary of that of Marx, who defined man in terms of his project. What is specifically human in man is that he is not the simple product of the past and its structures, but a being who ceaselessly creates possible futures. "Marxism is not a closed humanism" (RE 137). Rather, man’s reality is always being invented. Marxist humanism strongly maintains that the distinctive nature of human activity is its capacity of creating projects, positing ends. Such activity is not regarded as the simple upshot of the conditions which attend its birth. It was in this sense that Engels insisted on "the relative independence of superstructures" (AD 74), which have a "movement of their own." And it was in this sense that Marx, advocating a dialectical rather than a simplistic materialism, stressed that "ideas become a material force once they have laid hold of the masses" (AD 74). For Marxism, to exist is to create; existence precedes essence. There is no such thing as the nature of man.

For Whitehead, "Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of nature" (AI 78). The doctrine of the uniformity of nature is only a partial truth.

When we examine the specializations of societies which determine values with some particularity, such specializations as societies of men, forests, deserts, prairies, icefields, we find, within limits, plasticity. The story of Plato’s idea is the story of its energizing within a local plastic environment. It has a creative power, making possible its own approach to realization. (AI 42)

In an actual occasion the process of transition from prehended data to issue is "the process of self-determination." The essence of actuality is the aim at "self-formation" (MT, 131).

Thus the characteristics of life are absolute self-enjoyment, creative activity, aim. Here ‘aim’ evidently involves the entertainment of the purely ideal so as to be directive of the creative process. (MT 208)

Looked at from the point of view of its prehension of past occasions, an actual entity (say, in the personally ordered society of actual entities which constitute the "self" of a human being) can be viewed as conditioned by, caused by, the other entities which it objectifies. Looked at from the point of view of its immediate pattern of self-enjoyment, an actual entity can be regarded as self-creative. Looked at from the point of view of its conceptual anticipation of the future, an actual entity can be considered as the teleological aim at a novel ideal. Within limits, as also for Marx, it is creative and plastic, having no nature to the realization of which it must aspire. The entity is never just a subject, but a subject-superject (PR 43), having an "emergent unity" (PR 71), guided by a subjective aim "determining its own self-creation" (PR 108).

5. Both Marxism and Whitehead affirm transcendence as a fundamental dimension of reality. Transcendence posits that it is possible for us to free ourselves from a given natural or social-historical order and to mold our own future. Such a Marxist as Garaudy would insist that if we include man in what is meant by reality then reality is made up not simply of what already is but, in addition, of all which is not yet actual. For him, transcendence rejects the dualism of body and soul, of time and eternity, etc., and is not a picture story of how everything is going to end up but means keeping ourselves aware that "[t]omorrow can be different. Tomorrow cannot be reduced to factors operative today" (1:67). He is even able to say that transcendence allows for the resuscitation of the concept of the supernatural "in its most beautiful and authentic sense: that of the surpassing of nature" (AD 121). Transcendence is the basic assumption of all revolutionary activity and such activity requires transcendence more than realism.

For Whitehead,

every actual entity, including God, is something individual for its own sake; and thereby transcends the rest of actuality. . . . To be causa sui means that the process of concrescence is its own reason for the decision in respect to the qualitative clothing of feelings. It is finally responsible for the decision by which any lure for feeling is admitted to efficiency. The freedom inherent in the universe is constituted by this element of self-causation. (PR 135)

"Every actual entity, in virtue of its novelty, transcends its universe" (PR 143); "every actual entity also shares with God the characteristic of transcending all other actual entities, including God" (PR 339). Whitehead relates this understanding to the social problem in declaring that "Transcendence of mere . . . order is necessary for dealing with the unforeseen, for progress, for excitement. . . . A power of incorporating vague and disorderly elements of experience is essential for the advance into novelty" (MT 109). More specifically, he reminds us that life is an attack against the machinelike monotony which life can assume. The attempt to seek asylum from this attack, in "a policy of sociological defense, is doomed to failure" (AI 80).

6. Both Marxism and Whitehead take a dialectical approach to religion with regard to its relation to society. Too often, Marx is regarded as having an understanding of religion that can be reduced to a simple formula, the uncomplicated remark that religion "is the opium of the people." Marx may well have developed this famous definition from Honoré de Balzac’s remark that lotteries are the "opium of misery." Marx’s attitude toward religion is more complicated than that:

Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. (CBW 153)

And Engels compared early Christianity with the modem working-class movement, contrasting it with the later, dogmatically fixed ideology of the Roman state (CBW 155). For Garaudy, religion is an opiate only (1) when it devalues the problems of this life as relatively unimportant, (2) when it conceives God as jealous of the autonomy of man, and (3) when it has recourse to a God of the gaps who supernaturally intervenes to solve human problems (RE 115-17). Hence, Christianity is viewed as characterized by an internal dialectic between the Constantinian tradition, with its practice of justifying the state and the ruling classes, and the apocalyptic tradition, associated with the awareness of the masses of their power and their occasional effort to translate the apocalypse into history (AD 56). The obvious basis of this view is that for a Marxist religion is a human project (what else could it be?) and as such is a breaking away from and a transcending of the given, which can take the form either of justifying the existing order or protesting it (AD 76).

For Whitehead, Christianity has sometimes "abandoned this world to the evil prince thereof, and concentrated thought upon another world and a better life" (AI 32). However, the greatness of Christianity was first manifest when its founders, utterly convinced of the imminent end of the world, "gave free reign to their absolute ethical intuitions respecting ideal possibilities without a thought of the preservation of society" (AI 16). "So long as the Galilean images are but the dreams of an unrealized world, so long they must spread the infection of an uneasy spirit" (AI 17).

III. Conclusion

Finally, in response to Pixley’s paper, I want to articulate two questions which are pertinent to raise in the consideration of Marxism today, then to deal with the explicit question of justice, and lastly to make a proposal for the consideration of process thinkers.

1. The first question has to do with Marxist humanism or with Marxism as a humanism: how, at the very core of an estranged humanity, are we able to rely on the hope calling us to a fully human future, when this project itself is nothing but the visualization of alienated people? Is not the project itself, in any concrete sense, always infected with the very alienation it seeks to overcome?

As yet, I have found no adequate answer to this question in my studies of Marxist thought. Process thought has an answer in its understanding of the world’s effect upon God and God’s subsequent effect upon the world. God receives into his consequent aspect all the actualities of the world, harmonizes its conflicts (thus providing the orderliness of the world), relegates what is merely destructive evil to triviality, and in his role as leading the world into novel adventures, offers to each concrescing occasion an initial aim which has been redeemed from the alienations of the past. Thus process thought can articulate a philosophy or theology of promise (not just "hope") as what John B. Cobb has named the "call forward" (GW 45). There is reason to think that such a conceptuality can make more adequate sense of the possibility of new beginnings and new creations in history than a pure humanism can.

2. Although Marxism is a "methodology of historical initiative," it does not address the problem of fatigue, of loss of nerve, when human beings are finally frustrated in taking history into their own hands and are no longer motivated to accept their own freedom but instead seek, in Erich Fromm’s words, an escape from freedom. We can see this problem rather clearly in the ennui which became characteristic of American life after a series of failures in the effort to extricate ourselves from the Vietnam war.

Is not the Christian understanding of man and God as coworkers both more realistic and more promising, and is not the emphasis on the "special providence of God for each occasion" more adequate, to deal with this difficulty? It is useful to point out that in Whitehead’s vision of reality it is God and the worship of God which are the sources of this "refreshment" (PR 533) so necessary to the maintenance of human initiative.

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

It is the one element in human experience which persistently shows an upward trend. It fades and then recurs. But when it renews its force, it recurs with an added richness and purity of content. The fact of the religious vision, and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. (SMW 171)

The Marxist understanding of transcendence with its quest for a Just and fully human future seems to require this kind of completion.

3. With regard to the question of justice, the claim that Whitehead’s philosophy contains "latent counterrevolutionary tendencies," and the call for a revolutionary process theology, there seem to remain only a few necessary remarks. By the attempt (doubtless brief and not altogether convincing) to show the adequacy of Whitehead to Marxist analysis, I hope to have laid to rest the notion that his thought contains counterrevolutionary tendencies. I remain to be convinced otherwise. The absence of justice from Whitehead’s list of cultural aims is verbal, not conceptual. There is abundant evidence for this point of view in the earlier parts of Pixley’s own paper. Nevertheless, Whitehead’s own writings on the history of society show that "peace" is unstable apart from justice and that the union of zest with peace accounts for the adventurous aim toward transcending the relative justice and injustice of any given social order. Even a good social order requires transcending to avoid becoming deadening, which implies that the concept of justice, too, for Whitehead is relative. And God’s own aim, which is at strength of beauty for the creatures and for himself, certainly subsumes justice under itself. The more justice, the more just that justice is, the greater the strength of beauty, both in an occasion and as shared by occasions. Morality for Whitehead is associated with breadth of outlook and breadth of outlook with strength of character and beauty (see "The Category of Subjective Intensity" PR 41).

It would seem, furthermore, that the concept of justice as an absolute comes both to absolute theists and Marxist atheists from the Greek understanding of being as self-identical. And justice as an absolute easily produces a quest for justice which can often, in the hands of either Christians or Marxists, end in inhumanism. Both the prophetic tradition as renewed in Protestantism and process thought remind us that justice is always to be transcended, that it is always to be gone "beyond." If we remember the contingency and relativity of justice, we will be aware that it always contains elements of injustice, however great or small; we will deny its absolute character and subject it to the critique of love and adventure. For Christians this would mean substituting the Greek dike by the Christian caritas and the unmoved mover by the God who is the poet of the world.

4 Is a revolutionary process theology possible? This is Pixley’s most intriguing question and one which I hope will be given serious consideration by process thinkers. Put differently, it is the question of Marx to us, whether we shall be content merely to interpret the world or whether we shall seek to contribute to its change. I do not suppose that doing theology and philosophy implies that one is only interpreting the world. But Altizer may well be right in his comment that process theologians are "clearly related to the social world of modern American liberal Protestantism" (TA 199). Hence, the challenge is not to process thought, but to process thinkers.

We might be more helpful in changing the world by giving consideration to topics which, to my knowledge, are not much treated by process thinkers. For example, by way of a modest proposal, process thought seems singularly well equipped to develop a theology of work, in the full Marxist sweep of the term: man’s self-creativity in society. On this score, we might have recourse to the wider scope of resources found in process thought outside of Whitehead, but by no means incompatible with the latter. Two notions in William James suggest themselves as helpful places, perhaps, to start thinking about such a theology and philosophy of work. One is his notion of truth itself as a process:

The truth of an idea is not the stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process; the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its validation. (P 133)

The other is James’s notion of participation with God in bringing to completion this unfinished world, but I wish to cite a paragraph just prior to that discussion:

Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow, are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete. Why should we not take them at their face-value? Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world -- why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this? (P 186; italics mine)

If we fully grasp the implications of this we will see that faith is not merely a matter of a certain understanding of the world, which is important, but a certain way of standing up before the world, of living in it. And we shall see that the transformation of the earth, its new creation, is not solely a reorganization of its social and technical aspects nor just the institution of new political and economic relationships among people; it is also a profound spiritual metamorphosis of mankind, a revolution.



AD -- Roger Garaudy. From Anathema to Dialogue. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.

CBW -- Anne Freemantle, ed. Communism: Basic Writings. New York:Mentor Books, 1970.

GINYD -- Vitezslav Gardavsky. God is Not Yet Dead. Penguin Books, 1973.

GW -- John B. Cobb, Jr. God and the World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.

IH -- O. Blanchette, S. J., ed. Initiative in History. Christian-Marxist discussions with Garaudy. Published by the Church Society for College Work. An Occasional Paper.

IWM -- William A. Christian. An Interpretation of Whiteheads Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

NT -- Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman, eds. New Theology no. 5. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

P -- William James. Pragmatism. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1963.

RE -- Roger Garaudy. Reconquête de l’Espoir. Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1971.

TA -- John B. Cobb, Jr., ed. The Theology of Altizer. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970.

I. Roger Garaudy. "Faith and Revolution." The Ecumenical Review, 25/1 (January, 1973), 59-79.