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

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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.

Affiliations: 1: University of Basel, Switzerland,


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