Jesus and Marx
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:52

Jesus and Marx

Published in Religion

Through exploring points of contact between Jesus of Nazareth, Karl Marx, and Lenin, Roland Boer finds new and richer layers of shared meanings betwen the Bible and communism, and between theology and politics.

I am by no means the first to compare Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx. Actually, I am somewhat wary of such comparisons, not because I do not think there are some striking intersections or likenesses, but because those who undertake such comparisons tend to assume that Jesus is the source and Marx the borrower. This trap is an easy one, since Jesus of Nazareth existed some 1800 years or more before Marx. Yet temporal priority does not necessarily mean logical, political or ontological priority. In other words, rather than assuming that religion provides the absolute fount of ideas and practices, it is really only one code, one language for expressing these ideas. Politics may provide another language, philosophy another, and so on.

This translatability has a number of ramifications, of which I can mention two. First, the absolute claims of any language disappear and they become relative to one another. Second, the translations overlap only partially, for their fit is never complete. They have some elements of an idea in common, but other elements lie beyond the overlap. Thus, in each case meanings in one language extend beyond the translated term in the other language. This situation leads to both the enrichment of the idea in question, but also to potential losses as the idea moves from language to language. With these preliminary thoughts in mind, I would like to explore five points of contact, five translatable terms between Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx.

From Each … To Each …

To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to each according to his ability (Matthew 25:15)

And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need (Acts 2:45)

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need! (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

At the heart of both Christian communism and Marxian communism is this basic precept: that we should contribute according to our ability and receive according to our need. Simple enough in its formulation, it is exceedingly difficult to put into practice. Christian communist groups continue to exist today in many parts of the world (see, for instance,, and their precepts may be outlined easily enough: a common belief in the resurrection of Christ; communal living; communism of goods and production, with the proceeds of any production allocated throughout the community according to need. Often meals are held in common, although private space is acknowledged. All of this is based on both the sayings of Jesus and the depictions of early Christian communism in Acts 2 and 4.

Marxian communism initially attempted to define itself over against Christian communism by arguing that the latter concerned only a communism of consumption. By simply selling property and redistributing the wealth, as in Acts 2 and 4, they did not change the system at all, as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg argued. Marxian communism would therefore take the next step and make the means of production communal along with consumption. Since then, however, Christian communists have responded by emphasizing the need for communal production as well.

Private Property

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:24; see also Matthew 19:24 and Luke 18:25)

The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

The scathing criticisms of private property that we find in the mouth of Jesus are well known. “Go, sell what you have,” he tells the rich man who asks for the secret of eternal life (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; see also Luke 12:33). Again and again, we encounter the polemic against property, the possession of which is regarded as an evil and as a massive hindrance to joining the kingdom of God. Jesus valorises simplicity over luxury and forgoes the influence and power that comes with wealth. In short, everything about him stands against the deep values of the Hellenistic propertied classes. In the words of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix’s magisterial The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, “I am tempted to say that in this respect the opinions of Jesus were nearer to those of Bertholt Brecht than to those held by some of the Fathers of the Church and by some Christians today.”

Why oppose private property, which had been invented by the Romans a little over a century before the time of Jesus? The reason is that private property, as the Romans first defined it, is based upon slavery. More specifically, private property (dominium from dominus, master) relies on the reduction of one human being to the status of thing (res) that is “owned” by another human being who has absolute, inalienable power over that thing. With this basic meaning, the Romans then extended the sense of private property to cover most things in our lives. And this is the sense of private property that has come down to us, through a complex history in which the meaning of private property was lost and was then recovered to become the basis for capitalism. As for Jesus, his implacable opposition to private property is clearly due to its basis in slavery.

Marx comes to a surprisingly similar conclusion via a different path. For Marx, private property arises in the context of alienated wage-labour, in which workers sell their labour power to another in order to make products that are not the worker’s. These products become commodities that are then sold in order to generate profit for those who do not work. We need to remind ourselves that the unemployed for Marx are not those at the bottom of the economic pile, but those at the top, the capitalists who do not work but make their wealth on the backs of those who do. In many places, Marx speaks of wage-labour as nothing better than slave labour – which brings us back to the critique of property in the Gospels.

From Below

So the last will be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16; see also Mark 10:31 and Luke 13:30)

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists … express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

Marx is famous for championing history “from below,” from the perspective of the working class, of the poor, of everyday people who show not merely a remarkable ability to take the initiative, but who are actually the prime movers of history. Peasants, slaves, serfs, colonised people, workers – these and more are the real causes of what happens in the world. The “big men” – so often the focus of history and politics – are constantly trying to respond to these real causes. They may seek to express their deepest wishes, but more often than not they try to curtail the radical demands of ordinary people.

In the Gospels, Jesus wishes to spend far more time with the despised and dregs of society – prostitutes, winos, “sinners’ and so forth. These are the “little ones” (Matthew 10:42; 18:6-14; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2), the “least” (Matthew 25:40-5), the “last.” In the thorough shakeup of the “kingdom of God,” these are the ones who will be raised up and made first. A distinct angle on this approach from below may be found in a spatial analysis. Palestine at the time of Jesus was arranged in terms of polis and chora. The former designates the Hellenistic city, with its Greek architecture, language, culture, religion and practices. The polis was the location of power, wealth, the ruling class and the colonizing army of the Romans. By contrast, the chora was the countryside around about the cities. Here the language was Aramaic, the culture Palestinian, and the villages operated according to tried and true practices of communal agriculture. The chora was also poor, overworked and yet living on the edge of starvation, for the polis drew all its requirements from the chora, irrespective of whether the latter could in fact do so without affecting its own livelihood. What is noticeable about the Gospel stories is that Jesus’ whole concern is with the people of the chora. Apart from his final turn to Jerusalem, he studiously avoided the polis. This was a thoroughly consistent concern with those from below.


I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to metanoia (Luke 5:32)

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change (verändern) it (Theses on Feuerbach)

Here there seems to be a great gulf between Jesus and Marx. The traditional way in which the Greek metanoia has been translated is “repentance.” Given the way “repentance” has been interpreted and framed by the church, Jesus here seems to be referring to the need for “sinners” to confess their “sins” and to begin leading a righteous life. Repentance becomes an individual act in which one turns away from debauchery, revelry, dishonesty and the pleasures of life in order to turn towards God. This seems far indeed from the sense of social, political and economic transformation that is embodied in Marx’s famous thesis I quoted above.

Let us look at this biblical text again, since the individualised interpretation of modern, evangelical Christians is far from the truth. Recall that the “sinners” are actually those rejected by society, the “little ones” among whom Jesus feels at home. They are rejected by the self-described “righteous,” the ones whom Jesus criticises, condemns and avoids. But what about metanoia? Its basic meaning is a change of mind, or rather a change of existence, a complete about-turn in life – in short, a thorough transformation that begins from below. Now the meaning of the last becoming first, and the first last, takes on a somewhat different meaning. Here the words of Mary also take a deeper, political resonance: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52). We have come rather close to Marx’s revolution, except that the one propounded by Jesus includes a religious revolution.

Miracles Can Happen

And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34)

In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle (Lenin)

For my final point, I wish to be a little provocative and bring together Jesus and Lenin on the question of miracle. As is well known, the Gospels are full of cures (for blindness, deafness, lameness, leprosy and flows of blood), of exorcisms, and of miracles in which nature itself performs in a unique fashion. Far less well-known is the fact that Lenin often described a revolution in terms of a miracle. But what does it mean for Lenin to say that revolution is a miracle?

First, miracle is not, in Hume-derived terms, an event that is inexplicable according to the “laws” of nature, nor is it a moment or an event that changes the very coordinates of existence. Rather, a miracle is a point of contact between two seemingly incommensurable worlds. In theological terms, a miracle is a touching between heaven and earth, or the moment when transcendence is bent towards immanence. In the Gospels, a miracle occurs when heaven touches earth, or, more appropriately, when earth draws heaven down to its level. For Lenin, the two worlds are not so much heaven and earth but the expected and the unexpected. No matter how much one may devote to organisation in preparation for the revolution, whether in terms of party structure, publicity organs, propaganda, parliamentary involvement, agitation on the streets or military training, the actual moment of revolution inevitably occurs without forewarning, a spark that turns instantaneously into a conflagration.

After the revolution in 1917, Lenin’s usage increases even more. The new government was faced with impossible challenges. They were systematically attacked by the “white” armies, which were supported by an international consortium (United Kingdom, France, USA, Japan etc.). The country was ruined after the First World War, in terms of industry, transport, and grain production. And the new government sought to build a new social, political and economic order. In this context, Lenin speaks again and again of miracles, of “miracles of proletarian organisation,” of miracles “without parallel.”. He is not averse to designating an individual a “miracle worker,” such as Miron Konstantinovich Vladimirov, the Military Commissar Extraordinary of the Railways. If he can, in the face of a chronic shortage of materials “perform a miracle” by repairing two railway lines instead of one, he “will indeed be a miracle worker.” All of which may be summed up: “The history of our proletarian revolution is full of such miracles.” Here the word “miracle” has been enriched in an unexpected direction.

Together Again

From each according to his or her ability, to each according to need; sustained critique of private property; understanding the world from below, from the perspective of ordinary people who are the real history makers; the radical potential of metanoia; the political translation of miracle as revolution itself. I have suggested that in each case we find a point of contact between Jesus and Marx (and Lenin). That contact sets off a whole series of new layers of meaning, enabled by the translation of terms between the Bible and communists, between theology and politics. And both are richer for it.
The Fall of Adam and Eve
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:52

Marx's revolutionary reading of the Bible

Published in Religion

Roland Boer continues his series on Marxism and religion with a look at some examples of how Marx interpreted the Bible.

The mention of Marx and the Bible will evoke in many readers the famous family Bible in Capital, where it becomes a commodity – along with the piece of linen and the coat. Marx wrote:

Let us now accompany the owner of some commodity – say, our old friend the weaver of linen – to the scene of action, the market. His 20 yards of linen has a definite price, £2. He exchanges it for the £2, and then, like a man of the good old stamp that he is, he parts with the £2 for a family Bible of the same price. The linen, which in his eyes is a mere commodity, a depository of value, he alienates in exchange for gold, which is the linen’s value-form, and this form he again parts with for another commodity, the Bible, which is destined to enter his house as an object of utility and of edification to its inmates.

I cannot help wondering whether these examples were actually drawn from the Marx family’s daily experience. They may well have been the objects regularly taken to the pawnbroker to meet immediate costs of food and rent. Yet, the Bible is far more pervasive in Marx’s works than this reference in Capital. Allusions and references appear in many different guises. They appear in efforts to outwit censors; to attack the ruling class; to attack opponents in the communist movement; as personal references; and as economic allusions. Out of these myriad references, I would like to give three examples.

A Bullet for the Prussian King

In mid-1844, the Prussian king – Friedrich Wilhelm IV – wrote a public letter. It dealt with a recent assassination attempt, which he had survived. Marx offered a sustained criticism of this letter, full of theological allusions. For example, the king wrote: ‘when the hand of the Almighty cast the deadly bullet away from My breast to the ground’. In response, Marx comments:

It does not seem altogether appropriate to cause the ‘bullet’ to be warded off directly by the hand of God, since in this way even a slight degree of consistent thought will arrive at the false conclusion that God at the same time both guided the hand of the criminal and diverted the bullet away from the king; for how can one presume a one-sided action on the part of God?

Of course, God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the righteous and unrighteous (Mathew 5:45). But Marx’s polemic – in the Rheinische Zeitung which he edited in the early 1840s – was dangerously subversive. Further, the Prussian king states that he always goes about ‘while looking upward to the divine Saviour’. Marx responds:

That His Majesty ‘goes while looking upwards to God’ ‘to complete what has been begun, to carry out what has been prepared’, does not seem to offer a good prospect for either the completion or the carrying out. In order to complete what has been begun and to carry out what has been prepared one must keep one’s eyes firmly fixed on what has been begun and prepared and not look away from these objects to gaze into the blue sky.

Moths and Rust

A second example concerns a favoured biblical text, dealing with moths and rust and treasure in heaven. Marx writes:

Thus political economy – despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance – is a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour [den weder Motten noch Raub fressen] – your capital.

The reference is to the Gospel of Matthew 6:19-21 (see also Luke 12:33-34), where Jesus says:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Marx’s sense of the biblical text is quite astute. The text itself is situated in a collection of sayings concerning prayer, fasting and avoiding worry. Indeed, we should not concern ourselves about food and clothes and dwellings, since birds and lilies care little for such things since they receive them from God (Matthew 6:25-34). In other words, our hearts are so often where our treasures are. Yet Marx also gives it one of his typical turns: he speaks not of the treasure in heaven but of the treasure on earth. This is no ordinary treasure, a collection of material possessions which may rot, mould or be eaten by vermin. It is nothing less than the ‘eternal’ treasure of capital.

I would add here that this passage in Marx should also be understood in light of personal circumstances. Marx was hopeless with money, for he spent what little the family had without thought for the morrow. He was usually in debt, with he and Jenny continually fighting off creditors. They could hardly afford to sing, dance and go to the theatre. One wonders whether this passage also expresses a utopian wish for what they could not do.

The Devil and the Truth

My third example is an interpretation of Genesis 3 – the story of serpent and eating of the forbidden fruit. In the early 1840s, while he was the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx mercilessly attacked the activities of the Rhine Province Assembly (largely filled with nobles). On one occasion the speaker of the Assembly quoted the words of the serpent, addressed to Eve, in Genesis 3:4-5: ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’.

Marx replies that ‘the devil did not lie to us then, for God himself says, “Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil”’ (Genesis 3:22). With this observation, Marx has picked up a long tradition that recognises the truth of the words of the serpent (who is usually understood as the devil, but is not so designated in the biblical text). In this crucial story at the beginning of the Bible, it is the serpent and not God who speaks the truth. Indeed, the fact that the woman listens to the serpent was understood by some alternative (or ‘heretical’) groups, as a genuine rebellion against an oppressive god. In this light, other references in the Bible to serpents were seen in a new way: Moses’ staff turning into a serpent (Exodus 4:2-5; 6:8-12); the bronze serpent set up by Moses in the desert for healing (Numbers 21: 4-9); or John 3:14 in the New Testament, which reads: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. At this point, Marx’s satirical response actually touched on a revolutionary reading of the Bible.
Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:52

Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism

Published in Cultural Theory

Roland Boer continues his series of article on Marxism and religion, with an examination of the relationship of Marx and Engels to the Theological Young Hegelians: Strauss, Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner.

In order to develop their own system of thought, Marx and Engels had to distinguish themselves from the overwhelming theological frame in which German thought operated in the 1830s and 1840s. This framework was embodied above all in the work of the Young Hegelians, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. Let me say a little more about these crucial engagements.

Ludwig Feuerbach’s Projections

Alongside David Friedrich Strauss’s controversial Life of Jesus (1839), Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity from 1841 was one of the most significant texts of the time. Marx saw the idea that religion and the gods were projections of human beings as a huge breakthrough. He used and extended what may be called the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ at a number of points in his own work. Feuerbach’s idea is an inversion since it argues that previous thought about religion began at the wrong point, namely in the middle. God was not a pre-existing being who determined human existence; rather, human beings determine God’s existence, whom they then assume to be all-powerful over human beings.

Marx took up this argument and claimed that it marked the end of the criticism of religion: ‘For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism’. He went on to suggest that the first great phase of criticism – the criticism of religion – began with Luther and ended with Feuerbach. The next revolutionary phase began after Feuerbach and Marx saw himself as part of this new phase.

For Marx, Feuerbach was the last word on religion. Statements such as the following are pure Feuerbach:

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.

However, Marx also wanted to go beyond Feuerbach on two counts. First, since human beings project religion from within themselves, the place to begin analysis is not in the heavens, but here on earth with flesh-and-blood people. Second, the fact that people do make such projections was a signal that something was wrong here on earth. If people placed their hopes and dreams elsewhere, then that meant they could not be realized here and now. So the presence of religion becomes a sign of alienation, of economic and social oppression. That needs to be fixed. We find this theme very strongly in the famous Theses on Feuerbach, especially the fourth and eleventh theses:

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Marx would go on to use the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ in a number of ways, not least to argue that Hegel’s position on the state was exactly the same as theology: it began with abstracted ideas such as state, sovereignty, constitution and tried to make human beings fit. Much later on, in 1886, Engels filled this picture out in his lucid prose and showed why Feuerbach was so important for the development of historical materialism.

Bruno Bauer’s A-Theology

Given Feuerbach’s importance, it is not for nothing that the first section of The German Ideology should be devoted to his work. But there is also a section given over to Bruno Bauer. After the joint work of The German Ideology, Marx would come back to Bauer in a number of writings, initially to defend him but then later to attack him mercilessly. Why? The basic reason was that Bauer had achieved a radical republican and democratic position through his biblical criticism and theology. Marx in particular was thoroughly opposed to such a possibility: theology dealt with heaven and was not concerned with earth – that was the task of the new historical materialism.

For Marx, Bauer was far too much under the influence of Hegel’s idealist method and in many respects Marx’s distancing from Bauer was an effort to come to terms with Hegel. So we find the repeated and often heavily satirical criticism (especially in the joint work with Engels, The Holy Family) that ‘Saint Bruno’ Bauer left matters in the realm of theology and thereby stunted his critical work. Marx was also excising the influence of someone who had been a close friend, first as joint members of the Young Hegelian Doktorklub from 1837, later as a teacher of the book of Isaiah at the University of Berlin in 1839 and as one who might have gained Marx a position.

The problem was that Bauer was dismissed from Berlin in 1839 for his radical theological and political positions. He argued that the church was ossified and dogmatic, for it claimed universal status for a particular person and group. In the same way that we find a struggle in the Bible between free self-consciousness and religious dogmatism, so also in Bauer’s own time the religious dogmatism of the church needed to be overthrown. In its place Bauer argued for atheism, a democratic Jesus for all and republicanism.

Max Stirner’s World History

So we find Marx and Engels at the point where Feuerbach’s inversion has enabled them to step beyond the criticism of religion and focus on the criticism of the earthly conditions of human struggle, and Bauer’s radical theology had to be negated since religion cannot provide – so they argued – a radical critique. The engagement with Max Stirner was different. Most people do not bother with the endless pages of The German Ideology given over to a detailed refutation of Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, preferring to stop after the early description of the new historical materialist method.

However, the Stirner section is crucial for the following reason: Marx and Engels developed the first coherent statement of historical materialism in response to Stirner’s own theory of world history. The way they wrote the manuscript (which was never published in their lifetimes) is important: as they wrote sections on Stirner they found that increasingly coherent statements of an alternative position began to emerge in their own thought. Some of these statements remained in the Stirner section, while others were moved to the beginning of the manuscript and placed in the Feuerbach section.

As these responses to Stirner became longer and more elaborate, we find the following: in contrast to Stirner’s radical focus on the individual, Marx and Engels developed a collective focus. Instead of Stirner’s valuation of spiritual religion, they sought an approach that was very much of this world. Above all, Stirner wanted to provide a schema of world history that was pitched against Hegel. The reason why Marx and Engels devoted so much attention to him is that they too want a schema of world history that overturns Hegel.

The catch is that the very effort at producing a theory of world history was still very much engaged with religion. One only has to look at the structure of Marx and Engel’s criticism – which moves through the major books of the Bible, quotes the Bible ad nauseam, and criticizes Stirner’s prophetic role and theological dabbling – to see that what is at stake is religion. In the same way that the final edited form of the Bible moves from creation to the end of history and the new Jerusalem, so also does Hegel offer a theory of world history in terms of the unfolding of spirit, and so also does Stirner do so in terms of the ego. But what about Marx and Engels?

I suggest that the content of their proposal – with its collective and materialist concern with modes of production – is quite different from the proposals of the Bible, Hegel and Stirner. But the form of their proposal is analogous. By this I mean that the construction by Marx and Engels of a new historical narrative was based on a crucial lever: the Bible may have had Christ, Hegel may have had the world spirit, and Stirner may have had the ego. For Marx and Engels it was nothing other than contradiction, or rather, the contradictions within modes of production, contradictions that manifest themselves as class-conflict and revolution. In other words, the engagement with Stirner was the crucible of historical materialism, from which emerged a new approach to history that turns on contradiction.
Universalism, People and Song: A Last Toast to Burns
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:52

Universalism, People and Song: A Last Toast to Burns

Published in Poetry

Below is the text of Chris Bartter's address to the Socialist Correspondent Burns Supper held in the UNISON, Glasgow City branch office, February 2015. It was on the theme of What Makes Robert Burns Immortal?

An Immortal Memory? That’s some claim, isn’t it? Particularly for a 37 year-old failed farmer and exciseman. But it is said that only the good die young. Or should the saying be reversed – only those who die young are good? For they don’t have the opportunity to renege on their youthful idealism, or for their early promise to be unfulfilled. However, Burns has had a huge impact on the literary, political, and musical world – not just in Scotland - but across the globe. In some circles that would be enough to consider his memory immortal, but you’re not going to get away as easily as that! Following the eloquent contribution of last year’s speaker, David Kenvyn, I am pleased to still be able to add the views of a fellow countryman after the febrile debate of the last two years – and hopefully I will not be considered as a ‘settler’ or even worse a ‘colonist’.

Invention or Necessity?

Of course we are all products of our background – and to deny one’s upbringing seems to me to be not only a futile exercise but also a self-damaging one. In these days of avatars and false identities it may be sometimes tempting like Jeffrey Archer to invent a beneficial back story, but, I suggest, would probably have as much long term success to ones reputation as his had! Of course literature has more than its fair share of invention – indeed it is an essential part of the genre – and I’ll deal with that later.

One of the myths generally noised abroad – particularly current in Scotland for some reason - is that the English do not know about Burns. If that was once true – and I don’t think it was, I remember learning Burns’ songs at school, at least as much, and probably more than I learnt Shakespeare’s – it certainly has changed and continues to change. Due to the influence of Burns within politics – especially socialist politics, the advocacy of expatriate Scots and literary studies, a basic knowledge of Burns’ life and works in England is at least equivalent to that of Shakespeare, certainly outwith the academic industry that surrounds Shakespeare.

It is, of course, a false comparison on merit, in any case. A comparison between a sixteenth century dramatist and poet and an eighteenth century poet and songwriter is probably as valuable as comparing, say, Oscar Wilde and Adrian Mitchell. But there are now many Burns studies, Burns suppers, Burns admirers and even Burns marketing opportunities – there is even a specially brewed Burns Ale that is made by Shepherd Neame, brewers from Faversham in Kent!

Who was Burns?

So who was Robert Burns? And what makes his legacy immortal? A poet, songwriter and a young man who had an impact both during his short life, and subsequently. He was no ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ – in fact he was taught by both his own father, and by university graduate, John Murdoch. His parents attached great importance to their sons’ education. However he was no stranger to following the plough, and was born and brought up in poverty. This had a significant impact on his life, both in his search for a career that gave him the financial stability to write, and in the empathy he always had with his fellow workers.

It's hardly in a body's pow'r
To keep, at times, frae being sour,
To see how things are shar'd;
How best o' chiels are whiles in want,
While coofs on countless thousands rant,
And ken na how to wair't;
- Robert Burns: Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet.

The ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ myth, of course is one that was invented by the Edinburgh literary (and indeed political) establishment of the time, so they could create a Scottish Bard who was acceptable to them. Burns, of course went along with this myth in public, creating almost a dual personality, while he was in Edinburgh anyway. Not that this kind of duality is unusual in the literary and artistic world. One of the main influences on Burns, James MacPherson, purported to act as an amanuensis for the Gaelic Bard ‘Ossian’ of whom there is no evidence for his existence. And one can give other examples of the creation of characters, and names to cloak actors, writers and musicians throughout history – from Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, Mary Ann Evans, Eric Arthur Blair, through to Jimmy Miller and Richard Starkey. (A special prize for anyone who gets all of the better known names for these!)

International impact

Burns was and is hugely important in the international literary canon, influencing, apart from Scottish writers as diverse as Scott and MacDiarmid, writers the world over. American Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was reputed to carry a book of Burns in his pocket and wrote these lines about Burns’ verses.

No more these simple flowers belong
To Scottish maid and lover;
Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.
- John Greenleaf Whittier, On Receiving a Sprig of Heather in Blossom

This particular reference to song is one I intend to return to. His influence continued in the US – John Steinbeck quotes him in the title of his book Of Mice and Men and JD Salinger deliberately makes Holden Caulfield misquote Burns in The Catcher in the Rye. Burns’ impact is also particularly strong in Russia and especially the Soviet Union, where he was dubbed the ‘People’s Poet’ and where the first ever Burns commemorative stamp was issued in 1956 –the 160th Anniversary of his death. A Russian translation of his work by Samuel Marshak sold over 600,000 copies. And who of that generation will forget the astounding Scotland/GDR Friendship Society Burns Suppers, organized by the late Peter Smith!

Even in China Burns was celebrated – apparently the marching song of the Chinese resistance in WW2 was a translation of My Heart’s in the Highlands

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
- Robert Burns, My Heart’s in the Highlands

You can hear the Chinese Resistance in these lines, can’t you! Interestingly this was also an indication that Burns was quite prepared to write in standard English as well as Scots, when he thought the need arose.

The struggle against oppression

Possibly as pertinent, although less politically charged is the influence of Burns on English writers. He is an important (if not the main) forerunner of the romantic movement – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, all acknowledged their debt to Burns. Well I said ‘less politically charged’, but maybe that isn’t so true. Both Wordsworth and his contemporary, Southey were strong early supporters of the French Revolution as was Burns.

When Brunswick’s great Prince cam a cruisin’ to France
Republican billies to cowe,
Bauld Brunswick’s great Prince wad hae shawn better sense,At hame wi his Princess to mowe.
- Robert Burns: When Princes an Prelates

And if anyone is wondering over a translation of the word ‘mowe’ in the above quote, let us just say, that it is taken from the Merry Muses of Caledonia – the verses of Burns that polite society tend to gloss over! Of course both Southey and Wordsworth changed their views latterly – Southey dramatically so. No-one can of course say what Burns’ subsequent view of the French Revolution was, as he died in 1796, after the period known as The Terror, but before Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor. One might as well claim to know how he would have voted in the recent referendum!
Personally I’m with the 20th Century Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, who when asked what he thought about the French Revolution is reputed to have replied “It’s too early to say.”!

But support for uprising and ordinary working people is a clear Burns trait. His political writings show his sympathies with people struggling against oppression – the French revolution, The American War of independence, and here, from The Slave’s Lament.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

Indeed Abraham Lincoln himself was a big Burns fan – apparently memorising much of Burns by heart. Of course Lincoln was a friend of Scottish Presbyterian minister, James Smith – who he appointed consul to Scotland and who is buried in the Calton Burial Ground in Glasgow.

Music opens doors

Burns’ influence on the development of music and on many later musicians too, are many and varied. Bob Dylan has cited ‘My luve is like a red, red rose’ as the lyric that had the biggest effect on his life. A majority of folk-based musicians acknowledge their debt to him. One of them, Dick Gaughan, along with Dave Swarbrick and a Canadian band formed by Jason Wilson have been exploring Scottish and Jamaican musical links recently. There is some fertile ground to be covered here, as the Scottish links to Jamaica are considerable, and, of course, almost included Burns himself at one point, though I’m far from sure that just adding No Woman, No Cry, to the end of A Red Red Rose is particularly successful. Auld Lang Syne is recognized by the Guiness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English Language – somewhat ironically!

Indeed a copy of the manuscript version of Auld Lang Syne was commemorated on a £2 coin. The manuscript I’m glad to say, currently resides in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow in the foremost collection of Burns-related material in the world. It resides there due to the work of my partner, Doreen Kean. It was Doreen’s work in pulling together the finances that allowed the city to purchase the MS from Christies in New York.

The immortal threads

So, What ARE the things that make Burns’ memory immortal? There are three clear threads that run through Burns’ work that I think ensure his immortality – threads that are linked but separate. Firstly, his ability to use specific personal images to allow us to visualize the scene, but more than this – to use an individual event or scene to shine a light onto general and universal truths. This needs the talent to both visualize the scene in a way people can relate to – the first lines from Tam O’Shanter for example:

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,

Immediately that shows me a scene at the end of the working day where people are on the lookout for a drink after work – something that I’m sure we’ve all experienced! And it also needs the talent to relate these events to general principles – later in Tam O’Shanter for example Burns has the “glorious” Tam

O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!

Haven’t we all put the world to rights over a drink? As a former colleague of mine once said: ‘The difference between us and Marx, is that Marx remembered to write it down!”

This use of the everyday to throw light on general principles is a major part of Burns’ genius, in To a Louse for example, where the sight of a louse on a lady’s bonnet in church takes us via concern, outrage and humour to the realization that she is about to fall foul of the gossip and fingerpointing that he himself has had to suffer –

Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin’.
And finally it ends in the general truth,
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
Now Westlin’ Winds as well, where a fairly standard romantic nature ballad suddenly leads to a condemnation of man’s attack on nature
Avaunt, away, the cruel sway
Tyrannic man's dominion
The sportsman's joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion

This universality is something that has separated the genius from the good throughout literature. Recently we have had to put up with a good deal of nonsense talked about the Great War. But if we go back to the poets who wrote about it at the time, we can see clearly that those that were able to ‘universalise the suffering’ about them – to broaden their vision like Wilfred Owen, ultimately made more long term impact with their verse than did the impressively sharp personal barbs of Siegfried Sassoon. Perhaps we should draw a veil over Jeffrey Archer’s favourite First World War poet (Rupert Brooke) but can I briefly put in a plea for a Scottish poet who seems to me unfairly ignored? Charles Hamilton Sorley may have died very early in the war, but his poems do seem to me to have that broad universal vision.

Art in the Community

Secondly, this ability mostly comes from writers who are close to, or based in, a community. Writers who have an empathy and understanding of the motivations of ordinary people are able to universalize the personal, far better than those who are brought up to look at life as something that is purely something for their personal exploitation and their individual pleasure. This is obviously a strength of Burns’. He wasn’t keen on the Edinburgh establishment, and his poems and songs based in his local communities have a life and reality about them. I’ve already mentioned Tam O’Shanter, here’s the opening of The Cotter’s Saturday Night:

The toil-worn Cotter frae his labor goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

Thirdly, artists who use and understand music – especially but not only – folk music are also more likely to have this talent. Music and song is a superb way to identify a concern, clarify an issue, to open doors. Folk songs – and that’s what many of Burns’ songs are – deal with the lives of ordinary working people, their trials and struggles, and also gives a voice to those people. Music and song too, are important for their ability to spread words and ideas into different environments – as Whittier had it

Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.

Burns was, in my view, as important for his songs as for his poems – possibly more so. He spent much of his short life working to collect lyrics and tunes, to write, and write down, traditional songs he heard at home and on his travels. He was involved with two collections of Scottish songs, and by far the most important is Johnson’s Scottish Musical Museum.

Burns came across James Johnson, and his massive project, when he visited Edinburgh the first time in 1786. He was immediately fascinated with the idea, and began to collect and seek out local people's songs, eventually contributing around 200 songs in total, about a third of the whole work. Obviously this kind of work predated the kind of work that Cecil Sharp, Frank Kidson, AL Lloyd and of course Hamish Henderson did much later. In reality, however, Burns is probably closest to another songwriter and collector - Ewan MacColl - as he often rewrote old songs and introduced new songs to old tunes. Amongst the songs he added to The Musical Museum were:- Auld Lang Syne, My love is like a Red, Red Rose, The Battle of Sherramuir, Scots Wha Hae, Green Grow the Rushes, O, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, The Winter it is Past, Comin' Thro the Rye and John Anderson, My Jo, and many more.

An immortal legacy?

So then – what is Burns’ legacy? Is it immortal? I refer those of you still listening back to Zhou Enlai! But what we can clearly see is that Burns’ work contains the key factors to maintain its own, and his immortality. It rests in his work. He could pick up and describe the lives of ordinary people. He could relate those incidents to the great principles of life. He could (and did) stand on their side, speak up for their struggles, and call for a better world (incidentally, not a bad philosophy for a political party!). Those talents and his use of song and lyrics mean that his verse has been accessible to other talents – both literary and musical. Especially musical – for ‘the soil of song’ is the key factor that has meant Burns’ work has ‘bloomed the whole world over’ Then raise your glasses and drink a toast to Robert Burns – to his immortal memory!

This text was first published in Socialist Correspondent Issue 22, Spring 2015.