Charleston: A Political Meditation

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily of the SP-USA or the Faith and Socialist Commission.]

The Socialist Party USA recently chartered its Faith and Socialism Commission. Its purpose is to reach out to communities of conscience and spirituality “as socialists.” As a socialist and secular Buddhist, I joined soon after its chartering invited my membership. It also provoked thoughts on how socialist Buddhists might understand facts regarding recent events in Charleston, in light of causes and conditions under capital. Things mentioned by facts, along with moral constraints, functionally interact (in a sense we will discuss later) to guide the selection of acceptable political action. How facts and ethical considerations comprise a consistent and valid justification for Buddhist political action is the focus of this essay.

To guide the argument, we invoke the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, which represents a summary of the path to enlightenment. Doing so provides the logical structure demanded by Buddhist doctrine for explanations and justifications of any behavior, including proposed political action, in terms of facts and moral principles.

There is dukkha.
“Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Social scientists generally assume that human societies, like individuals, are “rational.” They tend to find ways to mitigate social problems, although they may not implement them. To do so, problems must be identified; then causes and solutions determined. Buddhism supplies the required empirical orientation, logic and moral content to formulate acceptable solutions to social problems. This is done through a fact-based method (mindfulness and meditation) for identifying and understanding the fundamental existential dysfunction ignorance, and its symptom, dukkha. Ignorance involves not understanding the facts, causes and conditions of dukkha. Roughly, dukkha is a persistent “suffering” or “dissatisfaction,” often evident in mental and physical discomforts. It has a mundane manifestation in poverty, war and injustice. It is this mundane sense of the term that is fundamental for engaged Buddhists, socialist or otherwise. When Buddhists engage in political action, their practice guides the understanding of social problems, the range of morally acceptable action, and the selection of some corrective political behavior.

Looking at the facts in Charleston through a Buddhist lens reveals a dukkha of persistent cultural racism, left largely untouched by the Civil Rights Movement. It is enabled by SCOTUS striking down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, thus blesses gerrymandering and voter suppression laws that reduce Black turnout. Those disenfranchised also experience 27 percent and 44 percent child poverty and single parent (caring for children) rates respectively. They do this while watching on Facebook their loved ones gunned down from behind by police.

The historical facts are likewise malignant. Charleston is the capitol of the first state to secede from the Union, and the state that fired the War’s first shot. Rebel aggression continued during Reconstruction, forcing President Grant to declare martial law. This action hindered the ongoing terrorism of the KKK, and other White Supremacist and separatist paramilitary organizations. During 1957, Strom Thurman filibustered the Voting Rights Act, and then Governor Stuart Russell banned Black’s from state universities. Since that time, the pro-slavery and secessionist battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia has waved over Charleston in defiance of its passage.

Dukkha’s Got Causes

The racial motivation of the terroristic massacre and its impact worldwide is the poster child for the mundane doctrine of dukkha (and the absolute, metaphysical Right View). Various, perhaps all, of the famous Rights of Buddhism are abused (Right Speech, Right Action, Right Understanding). The predictable physical and psychological damage follows. Buddhists claim that an individual’s personal identity and behavior, like everything else, can only be understood holistically, referencing systems, and relevant causes and conditions. There are no intrinsic properties for something to be, or to do, something. So causes (White Supremacy) and conditions (personal/social relations of production) matter. From a Buddhist perspective, Dylann Roof’s personal history and his Manifesto reveals a strong racist conditioning that caused the hate crime. That conditioning is born of the ghastly racist history of the state that Roof celebrates. Additionally, he was raised unevenly in a struggling family, which provides the final ingredient in a recipe for massacre.

Buddhists see a persistent racism and massacre ultimately caused by a fundamental ignorance of the true nature of reality. In that reality, karma guarantees that when one suffers, all suffer. Perpetrators fail to recognize how their racist notions and feelings cause themselves chronic psychological and physical discomforts. Victims and victimizers both suffer, though in ways often hard to detect. This suffering is perpetuated and magnified when racist attitudes establish and justification discriminatory behavior and institutions.

Socialists understand that racism functions within capitalism to divide workers into special interest subgroups. Social division attenuates the development of that worker solidarity required for successful organizing. This serves to achieve acceptable levels of capital accumulation by reducing the cost of human (“variable”) capital and worker benefits. Thus, there are causal relations between racism and worker exploitation and alienation. Buddhist socialists can identify the facts illuminated by this Marxian explanation (in the sense of methodologies of social analysis versus specifically political movements) of a systematic capitalist disempowerment with suffering. Without the Marxian critique, important systemic causes and conditions might be overlooked. If data supports the explanation, Buddhists would possess a factual and causal understanding of an instance of capitalist suffering.

Kill the function, kill the dukkha.

I admit to a strongly functional bias. My claim is that Marxian analysis provides functional explanations. For example, racism as a tool reduces worker’s power as capital requires for profit. Facts thus illuminated are then mentioned in Buddhist functional explanations concerning dukkha. For example, how worker disempowerment as a tool creates dukkha associated with unemployment. The structure of the class conflict is clear. Worker disempowerment is good for capital and not for workers. These “functional” explanations make explicit functional systems: (capitalism), states (dukkha), needs (sufficient unemployment), goals (maximize accumulation) and functional items (Jim Crow laws and violence). These explanations, along with corroborating evidence, provide us with greater confidence in our ability to target crucial causal connections for remediation. We appreciate that there is an end to the suffering of racism in the elimination of capitalism.

For Buddhists, analysis should also inform the metaphysical project of personal enlightenment. Here the political meets the personal. Socialists also recognize personal and social interconnections when they explain how personal acts of racist violence are manifestations of a deeper social malady that serves and empowers capital. Fight racism at every turn, and worker organizing becomes easier. Organize effectively, and the social relations of capitalist production can be broken and ownership of the means of production placed in the hands of workers. As the SPUSA Principles declare, “Democratic socialism is a political and economic system with freedom and equality for all, so that people may develop to their fullest potential in harmony with others.” [My italics]

 A Socialist’s Guide to the End of Dukkha

Buddhist and Marxian functional perspectives support a unified explanation of racism as both dukkha and alienation. It also specifies the function of Buddhist and socialist morality premises for determining political action (e.g., Right Action and non-violence). These provide the reasons that join facts to morally approved revolutionary activism.

Mala Duerr identifies positive Buddhist activism:

If life is suffering, why bother with anything? If life is suffering, it makes little sense to involve us with worldly actions meant to relieve that suffering. “Life is suffering” becomes another way to say, “That’s just the way things are,” and that is the antithesis of engaged Buddhism and an activist’s sensibility. We are out to question things as they are, and to re-imagine a way of being that may alleviate suffering.

The SPUSA adds:

The Socialist Party recognizes the intimate link between racism and capitalism and demands the elimination of all forms of discrimination in housing, jobs, education, health care …

The Marxian account is, like Buddhism, strongly holistic, concerning fundamental systematic causes and conditions of social relations under capital. It does not fundamentally reduce class behavior to that of individuals, which is a routine way most conservatives offer social analysis. Socialist principles of compassion, empathy, respect and non-violence inform activism. Buddhism recognizes Marxian alienation as dukkha, and provides a basis for a unified functional account of the racism flying proudly over Charleston.


J. Richard Marra

lives in Connecticut. He received his Doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1977, majoring in Musical Composition and the History of Music Theory. While on the Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, he completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in the Philosophy of Science. He is a member of the Socialist Party USA, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Philosophy of Science Association. His articles have also appeared on the websites of the Secular Buddhist Association and The Hampton Institute. He is a 2014 recipient of the SPUSA's Eugene V. Debs Award. To read other essays by J. Richard Marra, please visit

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