Engels and revolutionary religion
Friday, 28 April 2017 08:15

Engels and revolutionary religion

Published in Religion

Can religion foster revolutionary movements? Roland Boer continues his series on marxism and religion, with a discussion of Engels's growing understanding of the political ambivalence of Christianity. It complements James Crossley's article on the Radical Jesus.

Friedrich Engels is not often given due credit for his distinct contributions to the socialist tradition. This neglect is as much the case in Western Marxism as it is in China, where I work for a good part of each year. In order to make a small contribution to rehabilitating Engels, I would like to explore what may be called his own Aufhebung of religion – understanding the untranslatable term Aufhebung as both end and transformation, both completion and conversion into new forms. Marx may have developed his own Aufhebung religion in terms of the fetish (in which it became a core feature of capitalism as the ‘Capital-fetish’, or when money seems to produce more money in and if itself), but Engels took a somewhat different approach.

His answer was a challenge to both socialists and to religious specialists: religion may foster, if not itself become, a revolutionary movement. Engels grew up as a devout, if critical Christian. His family was of the Reformed (Calvinist) part of Christianity. Indeed, his mother was of Dutch background, coming from a country – Holland – that was deeply Calvinist in its north. Engels may have been devout, but he was also critical. He saw the many hypocrisies of the people in his hometown (Elberfeld, part of the twin town of Wuppertal). Their deep piety was coupled with the vicious exploitation of poor workers, with disdain for the plight of the latter. As they read their Bibles, they also contemplated ever new ways to turn a profit, not caring how it was done.

At the same time, Engels’s was engaged in studying the latest philosophy and biblical criticism. This study challenged his ‘Wuppertal faith’, pushing him to new horizons and arguments with his close but devout friends (especially Wilhelm and Friedrich Graeber). Their arguments concerned the Bible, theology and philosophy. But in the process of those arguments he gradually came to lose his faith – with much soul-searching and turmoil.

As he did so, Engels began to notice an ambivalence in Christianity. It may be deeply conservative, opposed to new discoveries in science and philosophy, opposed to new political directions and supportive of the status quo. At the same time, it could also challenge the very same powers in a revolutionary manner. This insight first appears in some of his comments on the minister of his local church, the renowned preacher, Reverend F.W. Krummacher (who eventually became court chaplain at Potsdam). Krummacher may take some ridiculous theological positions, but he also criticises earthly rulers and riches as undesirable in God’s sight. If Krummacher had been a little more specific, Engels suggests, and criticised the Prussian government directly, he may well have been seen as a religious revolutionary. Indeed, in his younger years, Krummacher was precisely such a firebrand.

This insight into the political ambivalence of Christianity would grow over the years. On the one hand, we often find in Engels’s works statements concerning the negative and reactionary elements of religion. He writes that religion is a source of mystification and deception. Sometimes for Engels the struggle for communism is also the struggle against the evil effects of religion. Yet, he argues again and again for the revolutionary potential of Christianity. Already in his early twenties, he notes what should be called a revolutionary Christian tradition, with leaders such as Thomas Müntzer, Etienne Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling. This is the first time he mentions such a revolutionary tradition, and it would become a key element of his later work, as also in the detailed studies of Karl Kautsky. Over the following years, Engels would develop this argument further, beginning with a study of the Peasant Revolution in Germany in the sixteenth century. Led by Thomas Müntzer, the direct inspiration of this revolution was Christian theology, or rather, the Bible.

Engels was still warming up to his central argument. The final statement appeared just before his death in 1895, although he had been thinking about it for 40 years. Here he argued that the origins of Christianity were revolutionary. The proposal challenged both his fellow socialists, who were suspicious of religion and its reactionary tendencies, and the churches, which were keen to emphasise the figure of a gentle Jesus and the other-worldly piety of the early Christians. Engels based his argument on three points: 1) early Christianity drew its followers from amongst the poor and exploited, the peasants, slaves and unemployed urban poor; 2) early Christianity shared many of the features of the communist revolutionary movement in which he was involved – such as sects, struggles, lack of finance, and false prophets; and 3) eventually it took over the Roman Empire.

We may disagree with some aspects of Engels’s argument. But my point is that he makes this argument at all. He sums up his position from a work of the same time:
It is now, almost to the year, sixteen centuries since a dangerous party of overthrow was likewise active in the Roman empire. It undermined religion and all the foundations of the state; it flatly denied that Caesar’s will was the supreme law; it was without a fatherland, was international; it spread over the whole empire, from Gaul to Asia, and beyond the frontiers of the empire. It had long carried on seditious activities underground in secret; for a considerable time, however, it had felt strong enough to come out into the open. This party of overthrow … was known by the name of Christians.

Not only did this argument influence the work of subsequent Marxists, but it also left a lasting impression among biblical critics and theologians, who continue to debate these issues today. James Crossley's recent article on the Radical Jesus, for example, deals with these issues.

But did Marx know of Engels’s argument, and even approve of it? It seems as though he did, as various comments indicate. One example will suffice: Marx compares the persecution of the International Working Men’s Association with the persecution of the early Christians by the Romans. These earlier assaults had not saved Rome, and so also the assaults on the workers’ movement would not save the capitalist system.