Ben Stevenson outlines Christopher Caudwell's historical materialist analysis of religion.
Poet, activist and theoretician Christopher Caudwell wrote extensively on issues of philosophy and idealism in culture and science. His contribution to a Marxist understanding of the way in which religions - in particular the early philosphy of Christianity - has been shaped as a product of the societies they spring from is best encapsulated in his essay "The Breath of Discontent: A Study in Bourgeois Religion".
Caudwell squarely places the development of philosophy within the context of the type of society and the class divisions that produced it.
Caudwell was born Christopher St. John Sprigg in 1907. He left school at 15 and began working as a journalist in Bradford. In the mid 1930s he became interested in Marxism, moving to Poplar, East London, in 1935 and joining the Communist Party. He threw himself into Party activity in the Borough, which saw a great deal of anti-fascist activity at the time. When the Spanish Civil War broke out he drove the ambulance his branch raised money for to Spain. Upon arriving he immediately signed up with the international brigades. He was killed at the Battle of Jarama in 1937, covering a retreat with machine gun fire. His Marxist works were published posthumously under the pseudonym Caudwell so as not to interfere with his reputation as a writer of thrillers.
In analysing the transition from magic to religion in this article, Caudwell shows how various forms of worship are always rooted in the material reality that confronts the practitioners. For instance, where societies practice rain dances to entice the gods or spirits to water their crops, they do so at the time of year that experience tells them the dance will yield results.
Rain dances also show the extent to which magical and religious practices are and were bound up in production. Religious and class structures developed with the division of labour in the production process. For instance, it is wrong to claim that Christianity was ascendant simply because it was more attractive than other religions, rather it was the worldly content of Christianity – the Kingdom of heaven would come on earth, led by the revolutionary Christ. Christ emerged at a time when the Roman Empire was in decay, its social relations becoming a fetter on the production process. Thus people were immediately drawn to the revolutionary Christian ideology.
Caudwell however points out a reformist strain within Christendom from the start. Despite Christ’s constant denunciations of the rich he hesitated before declaring himself messiah, yet when he did so turned his back on seizing power in favour of assuming it through prayer. This was contrary to the Jewish conception of the Messiah and thus he lost the nationalist support of the Jewish working class in doing so (it should be noted here that Roman society did not correspond to the class divisions in society today, thus when Caudwell speaks of the ‘working class’ he more refers to the poor and exploited than those selling their labour power to the bourgeoisie). Caudwell traces the step into reformism in Christ’s refusal to allow Peter to use violence – whipping the money lenders out of the temple but not out of the state.
The church subsequently became much like early cooperative societies, caring for the poor and holding property in common. The strongly decentralising tendency within the movement made it a threat to the Empire, as it attracted the local ruling class who were opposed to excessive taxation by the Roman state. Emboldened by those Caudwell likens to the modern petite bourgeoisie the movement began to openly challenge the Roman concept of the ‘God-Emperor.’
The first emperor to accept the new Christian religion was Constantine, who, claims Caudwell, allowed the Christian’s leaders to betray them in precisely the same way the leaders of social democracy have betrayed the working class in capitalist countries. Under Constantine the revolutionary elements of Christianity became organs of state power, the Kingdom of Heaven was entirely shifted into the ‘next world’.
Caudwell goes on to trace the development of Christianity with the emergence of capitalism and the expressions of class divisions in the various schisms in the Christian faith. ‘The Breath of Discontent’ is a highly recommended read for an illuminating dialectical materialist analysis of religion.