Maternity and Revolution
Friday, 14 June 2024 19:08

Maternity and Revolution

Published in Religion

Professor Terry Eagleton discusses the revolutionary politics of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of Jesus and John the Baptist. Image above: The Visitation, by Lorenzo Maitani and Associates, Orvieto cathedral

The dramatist Edward Bond speaks in the preface to his play Lear of the ‘biological expectations’ with which we are born - the expectation that the baby’s ‘unpreparedness will be cared for, that it will be given not only food but emotional reassurance, that its vulnerability will be shielded, that it will be born into a world waiting to receive it, and that knows how to receive it’. This, Bond suggests, would signify a true culture, which is why he refuses to use the term of contemporary capitalist civilisation. Politics begins in the maternity unit.

The beginning and end of life are linked in various ways. There are, for example, those who are born for death. In an astonishing scene in the first chapter of his gospel, Luke stages an encounter between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant, though neither is an image of conventional domesticity. Elizabeth is beyond the usual childbearing age, while Mary is a virgin who has conceived a child. This has happened, so the gospel of St. John tells us, ‘not by the will of man’, so that Mary falls outside the patriarchal set-up of first-century Palestine. The child in her womb is the fruit of a love more powerful and all-encompassing than the marital kind.

DARET Jacques Visitation

Visitation by Jacques Daret, c. 1435

When Elizabeth sets eyes on Mary, the child in her womb leaps for joy. He won’t, however, be joyful for all that long. He grows up to be John the Baptist, a wild-looking, hippie-like figure like a refugee from Woodstock who hangs out in the desert on a diet of locusts and honey, and whose wrathful prophecies panic the political establishment into beheading him. The child Mary is carrying will also grow up to be executed, though in his case by the occupying Roman power. He, too, is disposed of as a potential threat to the state. Neither man has much time for the family, an institution of which Jesus is consistently critical. His mission takes precedence over domestic bonds, and he is notably brusque with his kinsfolk.  He has come, he declares, not to unite families but to turn their members against each other.  Both men are vagrant, celibate, without home, property, profession or much of a future.

Even so, the tone of Luke’s account is triumphant. Mary and Elizabeth do not talk about breast feeding or morning sickness but revolutionary politics. In a sisterly dialogue, the younger woman responds to her cousin’s greeting by bursting out joyfully with a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps she sings and dances as she does so. Yahweh, she announces, ‘has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and raised up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away’.

As an obscure young woman from a notoriously backward part of Palestine, Mary is comparing her own elevation as mother of Jesus to the raising up of the poor.  Her pregnancy is a sign of the victory of the anawim, the humble and despised of the world. Some New Testament scholars have claimed that the words which Luke puts into Mary’s mouth here are part of a Zealot chant, the Zealots being underground anti-imperial insurrectionists. There were probably a few of them in Jesus’s entourage. Whether or not Mary’s words are Zealot-inspired, they are almost a cliché of the Jewish Scriptures. You will know Yahweh for who he is when you see riches lavished on the downtrodden. The only authentic power is one which is born of weakness.

Artemisia Gentileschi Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Women as a whole belonged to the dumped and discarded of Jesus’s age. The other prominent Mary in the Gospels is Mary Magdalene, who despite the fact that she may have been a sex worker is granted the privilege of being among the first to discover that Jesus’s tomb is empty. This is a daring move on the evangelist’s part, since the testimony of women was dismissed at the time as worthless. Questions of maternity, sexuality, sexual reproduction and so on are nowadays regarded as political issues, but they were not considered such when Luke was writing. (He may have been a physician on the staff of St. Paul, and so would know something about pregnancy).  Despite this, the (probably fictional) scene he sets up strikingly prefigures the political landscape of the present. Once again, politics begins with maternity. One might add that Mary as mother is the subject of some of the most beautiful lines W.B. Yeats ever wrote:  

      What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
      This fallen star my milk sustains,
      This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
      Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
      And makes my hair stand up?  
                                             

-  from‘The Mother of God’  by W. B. Yeats 

Your Solidarity be Praised: Review of 'The Orgreave Stations' by William Hershaw
Friday, 14 June 2024 19:08

Your Solidarity be Praised: Review of 'The Orgreave Stations' by William Hershaw

Published in Poetry

Jim Aitken reviews The Orgreave Stations by William Hershaw, illustrated by Les McConnell, some of whose images in the book accompany this review

The Orgreave Stations’ , published by Culture Matters, is the companion set of poems to his earlier work The Sair Road’ (2018).

The Sair Road Scots Cover resized

These earlier poems remain the finest poems written in Scots this century. These two books of poems complement each other in that they both use the Stations of the Cross as an organising structure, and in both books Jesus is a miner at the heart of the struggles in the Fife and South Yorkshire coalfields.

In both books Hershaw’s Jesus has been stripped of any hint of organised religion and there is no attempt at any point to proselytise for any religious faith. However, the Jesus we witness in Orgreave offers a religiosity that is remarkably similar to our understanding of what socialism should be. This Jesus would certainly be recognised by the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Keir Hardie. For Jesus of Orgreave ‘a Christian has to be a socialist.’  

Yet the Stations remain purely structural and the appearance of Jesus as a miner serves to add a moral dimension to the story of Jesus handed down from the New Testament. Each Station uses an opening quote from the Gospels to add further context to the moral imperatives that Jesus of Orgreave proclaims.

Hershaw tells us in his Introduction that the use of the Stations and the role of Jesus as miner in the action is for the purpose of ‘symbolic religious imagery’ so that the poem can bring out ‘the full moral implications’ of what the destruction of a once proud industry meant.

The NUM – the 'enemy within'

Orgreave is 40 years old this year and for those miners who were there it must seem as if it was yesterday. It was a deeply traumatic event for the striking miners, to be met on one side by mounted police and on the other by police handling dogs to form the welcoming party. Orgreave, as Hershaw tells us, was ‘a pre-planned ambush.’ All the resources open to the British state were used to smash an irritant trade union that Thatcher at the time labelled ‘the enemy within.’

 As well as the 14 Stations, Hershaw gives us a poem called Early Doors: At the Cross which precedes the Stations, and After Hours: Fear No More which comes after the Stations. Much of the poem is written in iambic pentameters, and Hershaw also uses a version of the sestina rhyme scheme (ABABCC) for his final poem. These poetic devices bring seriousness and gravitas to the sequence of poems, since the subject matter clearly demanded nothing less.

S1 resized

Station 1: The Road to Gethsemane Allotments

In the first Station Jesus calls his fellow miners ‘comrades’ and tells them to forgive those who seek their demise – ‘love the lousy lot.’ He also uses a couple of mining metaphors to labour this point. In one he says they should think on their own ‘slag heap of faults’ before they condemn others. And in another he asks them to make sure ‘their lives are pit-propped with love.’

While love remains the essence of the Christian message, it is also the basis of socialism. People, after all, become socialists because they care about others. A genuine socialist society would be one without hatred or division and the Jesus of Orgreave gets himself into deep trouble for preaching such a gospel of love.

S4 resized

Station 4: Big Pete

Jesus is duly arrested – ‘You’re lifted, Trotsky – in the fucking van’ and he is sent to jail. Jesus’ comrade, Big Pete, is shown to have his doubts as he seems to fall victim to what the right-wing press are saying, ‘The papers say that Thatcher will not turn.’ And he worries about the fact ‘There’s even some in Labour who agree.’ The then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, now an unelected Lord, argued at the time for a ballot just as the Tory press told him to do. It has ever been thus with Labour, just as it is today with Starmer praising Thatcher and saying he will stick to Tory spending plans if elected, so that nothing will really change. The poor, marginalised and oppressed will remain unloved.

S4 Pilate resized

Station 5: Judged by Pilate

In Station 5 Jesus is judged by a smarmy Pilate who tells him, ‘Instead of helping losers, help yourself.’ Pilate recognises the strengths that Jesus has and asks him to come on board – ‘there’s room for those like you.’ Jesus can even become ‘a stakeholder in days to come.’ Jesus of Orgreave stands firm but these lines make us think about all the former Labour MPs and trade union leaders who have taken ermine, becoming so-called stakeholders in a system that continually exploits others at home and abroad.

After the brutal battle at Orgreave where the police ‘Brought batons down upon unfended heads, and sent dogs on the miners and called them ‘commie scum’, the action changes to an earlier time. Jesus was once the Safety Rep., approaching the pit manager to tell him about poor ventilation down the pit. He gets nowhere and is told by the boss, ‘I’ve seen your sort/ Out to create bother, always complain.’ In these short but prescient comments we can think of other miscarriages of justice – Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough and Grenfell, Windrush, the Post Office, the blood transfusion scandal, and many more besides. Bosses are especially chosen because they can be relied upon to put Caesar first.

The case of Paula Vennells, the former CEO at the Post Office, is an excellent example in recent times. It makes the comment of Hershaw that a Christian has to be a socialist somewhat ironic in her case – at the time she was CEO at the Post Office she also served as an Anglican priest. The Christian message is to love one another, and she obviously loved the Caesar she served more than the sub-postmasters beneath her.

The solidarity of the miners

Also, in another time Jesus recalls when he was saved by Simon of Cyrene after he slipped. Together they managed to lift a pit prop and the message here was,’ When they both worked as one, their load was light.’ These ‘other’ sections enable Hershaw to follow the original Stations but also allow him to show us the importance of solidarity. The miners were a workforce defined by their solidarity due to the nature of the job underneath the earth.

S8 resized

Station 8: Simon of Cyrene

That solidarity was dangerous when it was expressed above ground, when miners demanded better wages and conditions and were prepared to strike to save their jobs and their communities. As Shelley said in those famous lines ‘Ye are many – they are few’: working together workers can change the world, they can inherit it. The Pilates, however, seek only to divide worker from worker and in this they are aided by a class-compliant press and media.

S9 resized

Station 9: The Women

Similarly, in following the original Stations, Hershaw can make important mention of the work done by the wives and partners of miners during their year-long struggle. For him the Government was, ’Furious at your will to make ends meet.’ Their contribution must never be forgotten. Just like the faithfulness and loyalty of women like Mary Magdalene in the Gospels, it was the selflessness of the women against pit closures that shamed the ‘shallow lives’ of the Government and of all who supported them.

The crucifixion of Jesus is brought about through a pit accident; this recalls the thousands of fatal pit accidents that happened to miners down the years. Many of these accidents, of course, could have been prevented had bosses acted on advice given by Safety Reps and others. The miners of yesteryear are in fact no different to the football fans at Hillsborough, the sub-postmasters or the residents of Grenfell – all are sacrificed on the altar of Caesar.

Orgreave was our bloody Calvary

In Station 12 Jesus is on the cross, and he speaks to his mother. This speech is essentially what has happened after Orgreave and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. The victory of deep reaction has brought ‘Cultural and material poverty.’ It has brought the rejection that Society exists and all ‘To serve a selfish ideology.’ And this has been achieved through the violence of the state as their ‘dogs of war’ were used to attack ‘its own helpless folk… unleashed on communities.’  Universal Credit, homelessness (a lifestyle choice, according to Suella Braverman), zero hours contracts, student fees, drink and drug addiction, denial of the right to strike or protest and so much more besides – all these things flow from what happened after the Battle of Orgreave and the defeat of the strike.

S10 resized

Station 10: The Crucifixion

And yet, in the immediate post-war world there was hope for the working class. Jesus, we are told, ‘was born in a post-war dream/Jesus was born in a housing scheme.’ At that time, he had been born ‘with the highest of hopes.’ The defeat for the miners at Orgreave has given rise to a lived nightmare now for many. For this reason, Hershaw says, ‘Orgreave was our bloody Calvary.’

In Station 14 Jesus has died and there is an inquest into his tragic death; a death like so many miners before him. Hershaw mentions the names of Joe Green and Davie Jones, two miners who died during the strike while picketing to save their jobs, their communities and their class. Hershaw gives a telling line when he says, ‘Profit’s never mentioned at an inquest.’ How sickeningly accurate this line is.

The question now, of course, is will there be a resurrection for the working class? Hershaw offers two differing outcomes. In the pre-Station poem Early Doors: At the Cross he muses that ‘a new Happyland will come.’ But at the end of the Stations in After Hours: Fear no more he looks back on the great struggle of the miners to say, ‘May all your struggles now be past/ All souls like coal must turn to ash.’ While the earlier quote of a new Happyland sounds promising, the latter one suggests the opposite. Hershaw is being deliberately ambiguous because we do not know what will happen in the future. He is not saying we will be saved by believing in him though he does say, ‘Your solidarity be praised.’ Until that solidarity grows and people begin to realise that the state in which they live is geared only to the few and not the many, then a Happyland will come – but if this is not realised, then it will all turn to ash.

The Orgreave Stations is a profound reminder of how great the stakes are. The heroic struggle of the miners has to be remembered and celebrated precisely because it tells us about the need for solidarity. At the same time Hershaw’s Orgreave Stations makes us realise how he has lifted the poetic bar to a higher level by invoking the figure of Jesus the miner. This Jesus preaches socialism and his creed is dangerous to the ruling classes. The message of the New Testament is remarkably similar in that both creeds place love at the heart of their message.

Marxism is about political love

In a recent article in The London Review of Books (25th April) by Terry Eagleton (republished by Culture Matters here) called ‘Where does culture come from?’ he discusses the issue of ‘clashing self-fulfilments’ which he resolves by reference to Marx. Marx, he tells us, gives the name ‘communism’ to what Eagleton calls ‘reciprocal self-realisation.’ He then goes further and quotes from The Communist Manifesto – ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

This is the high moral ground upon which any socialist or communist society should be based. No-one is excluded or victimised in such a society. There is recognition that we are all one body. Eagleton comments further:

When the fulfilment of one individual is the ground or condition of the fulfilment of another, and vice versa, we call this love. Marxism is about political love.

This is precisely what Hershaw is saying in The Orgreave Stations. Jesus of Orgreave embodies this kind of political love through his solidarity with the miners. This solidarity, of course, extends to everyone who wishes a better, fairer society, even to those who do not wish it. Such generosity is unthinkable in a class-based society where a ruling class decides on who the winners and losers will be.

In Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, we see something similar when he says, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Comments like this had been around in the early days of the socialist movement and Marx simply refined it. However, a remarkably similar comment can be found in Acts of the Apostles where the lifestyle of the community of believers in Jerusalem is described as ‘communal.’ This meant that no-one retained any individual possession of goods – ‘distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.’

The Jesus of the New Testament and the Jesus of Orgreave recognise this communality. This is what makes them dangerous, precisely because their views challenge the vested interests of the few. Socialism is the higher creed in terms of morality since it represents sharing, fairness, kindness and care. These are lethal values for those who represent greed, selfishness, expropriation and exploitation.

Jesus of Orgreave, Grenfell, Windrush and Hillsborough

The Orgreave Stations expresses a high moral level, a socialism that stands as the antidote to all the profanities in our late capitalist world. It should also be remembered that when we consider the Stations of Jesus of Orgreave, we are also talking about his Passion, the short final period before his death. The Passion comes from the Latin patior meaning to suffer, bear, endure. That is what the miners did at Orgreave and throughout their strike. That is also what the working class continues to do. Jesus of Orgreave is also Jesus of Grenfell, Jesus of Windrush, Jesus of Hillsborough, of Ballymurphy and the Bogside and of the sub-postmasters.

Hershaw’s text makes us think about the renewal, or the resurrection, of socialist ideas and practices. Such is the power and the implications of these poems. They make us return to source, to the Christian values that set out to change the world. This poem makes us think of the words of Nikolai Ostrovsky:

Man’s dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the liberation of mankind.

Jesus of Orgreave has no burning shame or torturing regrets. He sought the liberation of mankind and he did so without the baggage of any denominational dogmatics. His story lives as the story of the class he came from lives on. It has to, after all, since it remains the only hope for humanity and for our world.

Hershaw’s poem has been blessed by wonderful illustrations, by Les McConnell, some of which illustrate this review. They not only enhance the pages of the text but give it an updated twist, by illustrating ordinary people who are recognisable and relevant to the period of the strike. The artistic solidarity of the poet and his illustrator could be said to be a match made in heaven.

The Orgreave Stations is available here. There will be a launch of the book at a memorial event on Saturday 15th June, at 2pm at the Willie Clarke Centre, Lochore, Fife. 

Terry Eagleton: Where Does Culture Come From?
Friday, 14 June 2024 19:08

Terry Eagleton: Where Does Culture Come From?

Published in Cultural Commentary

In the closing Winter Lecture for the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton discusses the origin and uses of culture. Half-way through the piece, Fran Lock and Alan Morrison provide a complementary chorus of new poems. We are deeply grateful to the LRB and 'the dreadful Terry Eagleton', as King Charles called him, for their kind permissions to republish his lecture.

In​ Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley finds himself living in Beersheba, the area of Oxford we know as Jericho, home at the time to a community of craftsmen and artisans who maintained the fabric of the university. It doesn’t take Jude long to realise that he and his fellow craftsmen are, so to speak, the material base without which the intellectual superstructure of the colleges couldn’t exist: without their work, as he says, ‘the hard readers could not read, nor the high thinkers live.’

He comes to recognise, in a word, that the origin of culture is labour. This is true etymologically as well. One of the original meanings of the word culture is the tending of natural growth, which is to say agriculture, and a cognate word, coulter, means the blade of a plough. The kinship between culture and agriculture was brought home to me some years ago when I was driving with the dean of arts of a state university in the US past farms blooming with luxuriant crops. ‘Might get a couple of professorships out of that,’ the dean remarked.

This is not the way culture generally likes to see itself. Like the Oedipal child, it tends to disavow its lowly parentage and fantasise that it sprang from its own loins, self-generating and self-fashioning. Thought, for idealist philosophers, is self-dependent. You can’t nip behind it to something more fundamental, since that itself would have to be captured in a thought. Geist goes all the way down.

art for arts sake

There’s n irony here, since few things bind art so closely to its material context as its claim to stand free of that context. This is because the work of art as autonomous and self-determining, an idea born sometime in the late 18th century, is the model of a version of the human subject that has been rapidly gaining ground in actual life. Men and women are now seen as authors of themselves, as a result of the deepening influence of liberalism and possessive individualism and – to perpetrate a dreadful cliché – the rise of the middle classes. (If you open a history book at random, it will say three things about the period you light on: it was essentially an age of transition; it was a period of rapid change; and the middle classes went on rising. That’s the reason God put the middle classes on earth: to rise like the sun, but, unlike the sun, without ever setting.)

You can’t have culture in the sense of galleries and museums and publishing houses unless society has evolved to the point where it can produce an economic surplus. Only then can some people be released from the business of keeping the tribe alive in order to constitute a caste of priests, bards, DJs, hermeneuticists, bassoon players, LRB interns, gaffers on film sets and the like. In fact, you might define culture as a surplus over strict need. We need to eat, but we don’t need to eat at the Ivy. We need clothes in cold climates, but they don’t have to be designed by Stella McCartney. The problem with this definition is that a capacity for surplus is built into the human animal. For both good and ill, we’re continually in excess of ourselves. Culture is reckoned into our nature. King Lear is much concerned with this ambiguity.

Wanted: Culture, to legitimate the social order......

Since the material production that gives birth to culture is racked by conflict, bits of this culture tend to be used from time to time to legitimate the social order that strives to contain or resolve the conflict, and this is known as ideology. Not all culture is ideological at any given time, but any part of it, however abstract or high-minded, can serve this function in specific circumstances. At the same time, however, culture can muster vigorous resistance to the dominant powers.

TE banksy

Banksy musters some vigorous resistance to the dominant powers

This resistance is more likely to occur, curiously enough, once art becomes just another commodity in the marketplace and the artist just another petty commodity producer. Before that, in traditional or pre-modern society, culture generally serves as an instrument of political and religious sovereignty, which means among other things that there are steady jobs for cultural workers as court poets, genealogists, licensed fools, painters and architects patronised by the landed gentry, composers in the pay of princes and so on. In those situations you also know more or less whom you are writing or painting for, whereas in the marketplace your audience becomes anonymous.

The world no longer owes the cultural worker a living. Ironically, however, it’s the integration of art into the market that gives it a degree of freedom. Once it’s primarily a commodity, culture becomes autonomous. Deprived of its traditional features, it may curve back on itself, taking itself as its own raison d’être in the manner of some modernist art; it is also free to serve as critique on a sizeable scale for the first time. The miseries of commodification are also an enthralling moment of emancipation. History, as Marx reminds us, progresses by its bad side. In the very process of being pushed to the margin, the artist begins to claim visionary, prophetic, bohemian or subversive status – partly because those on the edges can indeed sometimes see further than those in the middle, but also to compensate for a loss of centrality. A movement called Romanticism is born.

....and so capitalism gives culture a job to do

At roughly the same time, so is industrial capitalism, which with admirable convenience gives culture a job to do just as it’s in danger of being driven out by philistine mill-owners. There’s now a growing divide between the symbolic realm and the world of utility, a divide that runs all the way down the human body. Values and energies for which there isn’t much call in the workaday world of bodily labour are siphoned off into a sphere of their own, which consists of three major sectors: art, sexuality and religion. One of these endangered values is the creative imagination, which was invented in the late 18th century and is nowadays revered among artistic types, though organising genocide in Gaza requires quite a lot of it too.

The distance that opens up between the symbolic and the utilitarian, while threatening to rob culture of its social function, is also the operative distance you need for critique. Culture would expose the crippled, diminished condition of industrial-capitalist humanity through its full and free expression of human powers and capacities, a theme that runs from Schiller and Ruskin to Morris and Marcuse. Art or culture can issue a powerful rebuke to society not so much by virtue of what it says but because of the strange, pointless, intensely libidinal thing that it is. It’s one of the few remaining activities in an increasingly instrumentalised world that exists purely for its own sake, and the point of political change is to make this condition available to human beings as well. Where art was, there shall humanity be.

TE cropped show culture some love2

PCS workers issuing a powerful rebuke to society 

The harmonious realisation of one’s powers as a delightful end in itself: if this is what the aesthetic comes to be about, it’s also the ethics of Romantic humanism, which includes the ethics of Karl Marx. The aesthetic becomes important when it isn’t simply about art. Marx’s thought concerns the material conditions that would make life for its own sake possible for whole societies, one such condition being the shortening of the working day. Marxism is about leisure, not labour. The only good reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you don’t like, is that you don’t like to work. For Oscar Wilde, who was closer in this respect to Marx than to Morris, communism was the condition in which we would lie around all day in various interesting postures of jouissance, dressed in loose crimson garments, reciting Homer to one another and sipping absinthe. And that was just the working day.

7. Photo opkennardphillippspigment print 2005.width 1000

Half in love with the powers that repress us? Image by kennardphillips

There are problems with this vision, as there are with any ethics. Are all your powers to be realised? What about that obsessive desire to beat up Tony Blair? Or should one realise only those impulses that spring from the authentic core of the self? But by what criteria do we judge this? What if my self-realisation clashes with yours? And why should all-round expression beat devoting oneself to a single cause, like Alexei Navalny or Emma Raducanu? Do human capabilities really grow malevolent only by being alienated, lopsided or repressed? And what if we’re half in love with the powers that alienate and repress us, installed as they are inside the human subject rather than purely external to it?

Hegel and Marx have an answer of a kind to the problem of clashing self-fulfilments, which goes like this: realise only those capabilities which allow others to do the same. Marx’s name for this reciprocal self-realisation is ‘communism’. As the Communist Manifesto puts it, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. When the fulfilment of one individual is the ground or condition of the fulfilment of another, and vice versa, we call this love. 

Jesus

And the hands that act on it...

by Fran Lock

their charnel austerity, logged in the body.
a city repellent to memory, walk. this bleak
referendum of razors, indifferent justice,
law like a nail knocked into hunger. the law
is a meat-hook with your name on it, kid.
breathe. with the rhythm of syndrome,
the dark particulate scraped from a lung.
breathe. stertor, stridor, inspiratory stress.
productive cough that closes the throat.
their mouths are feudal thresholds. have
alphabets, inscribed against empathy.
say: this is the world, and what're you
going to do about it? step out. step out
of step. break that masochists pact,
patterned into apathy: work-or-death
and worked-to-death. the moment
becomes the movement, the moment
we decide to move. flip this tyranny
of tyrian shekels; pathologies of profit,
their sick vocations of control. love.
as conspicuous sabotage, direct action,
conductor of heat and dissonance. in
a world we cannot occupy or exit, be
the hand that lights the match, the arm
that bears the torch.

Marxism is about political love. I mean love, of course, in its real sense – agape, caritas – not the sexual, erotic, romantic varieties by which late capitalist society is so mesmerised. We’re speaking of the kind of love that can be deeply disagreeable and isn’t necessarily to do with feeling, that is a social practice rather than a sentiment, and which is in danger of getting you killed.

Agape

by Alan Morrison

agape - agape - agape -
love without possessiveness
platonic love
spiritual love
political love
love without possessions
love unfettered by desire
love without covetousness
love without expectation
hearts without property
hearts freed from property
love devout in poverty
agape - agape - agape -
love as common ownership
unconditional love
universal love
communism of souls
souls in common ownership
hearts & souls in fellowship
no hedges in heaven
only untethered purple heathland
lavender heather
lavender ever
& ever
love as common good
numinous communism
eudemonia -
welfare of all
capitalism can never
make us happy
pits us against ourselves
in pursuit of profit
& empty property
only love without covetousness
love without possessiveness
love for one & all
universal
unconditional
can approach that utopian
conception to be happy
agape - agape - agape -

Wanted: Culture, to buy off anarchy

Early industrial capitalism had another mission for culture to accomplish. A new actor had just appeared on the political scene – the industrial working class – and was threatening to be obstreperous. Culture, in the sense of the refined and civilised, was needed to buy off the other half of Matthew Arnold’s title, anarchy. Unless liberal values were disseminated to the masses, the masses might end up sabotaging liberal culture. Religion had traditionally bred a sense of duty, deference, altruism and spiritual edification in the common people. But religious belief was now on the wane, as the industrial middle classes demythologised social existence through their secular activities and, ironically, ended up depleting what had been a precious ideological resource. Culture, then, had to take over from the churches, as artists transubstantiated the profane stuff of everyday life into eternal truth.

What else was happening around the time of Romanticism and the industrial revolution? The revolution in France. One might do worse than claim that this was what thrust culture to the fore in the modern age – but culture as a riposte to the revolution, as an antidote to political turbulence. Politics involves decision, calculation, practical rationality, and takes place in the present, whereas culture seems to inhabit a different dimension, where customs and pieties evolve for the most part spontaneously, unconsciously, with almost glacial slowness, and may therefore pose a challenge to the very notion of throwing up barricades.

The name for this contrast in Britain is Edmund Burke, who came from a nation, Ireland, where the sovereign power had failed to root itself in the affections of the people because it was a colonialist power. In Burke’s view, this rooting wasn’t happening in revolutionary France either, since the Jacobins and their successors didn’t understand that if the law is to be feared, it is also to be loved. What you need in Burke’s opinion is a law which, though male, will deck itself out in the alluring female garments of culture. Power must beguile and seduce if it isn’t to drive us into Oedipal revolt. The potentially terrifying sublimity of the masculine must be tempered by the beauty of the feminine; this aestheticising of power, Burke writes in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, is what the French revolutionaries calamitously failed to achieve. You mustn’t, to be sure, aestheticise away the masculinity of the law. The ugly bulge of its phallus must be visible from time to time through its diaphanous robes, so that citizens may be suitably cowed and intimidated when they need to be. But the law can’t work by terror alone, which is why it must become a cross-dresser.

TE Edmund Burke caricature 1790

Edmund Burke pontificating against the French Revolution

Burke believed that the cultural domain – the sphere of customs, habits, sentiments, prejudices and the like – was fundamental in a way that the politics to which he devoted a lifetime were not, and he was right to think so. There have been some suspect ways of elevating the cultural over the political, but Burke, who began his literary career as an aesthetician, neither despises politics from the Olympian standpoint of high culture, nor dissolves politics into cultural affairs. Instead, he recognises that culture in the anthropological sense is the place where power has to bed itself down if it is to be effective. If the political doesn’t find a home in the cultural, its sovereignty won’t take hold. You don’t have to detest the Jacobins or idealise Marie Antoinette to take the point.

Despite his aversion to Jacobinism, Burke ended up feeling some sympathy for the revolutionary United Irish movement, an extraordinary sentiment for a British Member of Parliament. The Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, also an MP, was even more dedicated to the United Irish cause. He was, in fact, a secret fellow-traveller – a fact that, had it been widely known, might have wiped the smiles off the faces of his London audiences. The United Irishmen were Enlightenment anti-colonialists, not Romantic nationalists, but the rise of Romantic nationalism in the early 19th century once more brought culture to the centre of political life.

Nationalism was the most successful revolutionary movement of the modern age, toppling despots and dismantling empires; and culture in both its aesthetic and anthropological senses proved vital in this project. With revolutionary nationalism, culture in the sense of language, custom, folklore, history, tradition, religion, ethnicity and so on becomes something people will kill for. Or die for. Not many people are prepared to kill for Balzac or Bowie, but culture in this more specialised sense also plays a key role in nationalist politics. There are jobs for artists once more, as from Yeats and MacDiarmid to Sibelius and Senghor they become public figures and political activists. In fact, nationalism has been described as the most poetic form of politics. When the British shot some Irish nationalist rebels in 1916, a British army officer is said to have remarked: ‘We have done Ireland a service: we have rid it of some second-rate poets.’

Wanted: Culture, to rival religious faith

The nation itself resembles a work of art, being autonomous, unified, self-founding and self-originating. As this language might suggest, both art and the nation rank among the many surrogates for the Almighty that the modern age has come up with. Aesthetic culture mimics religion in its communal rites, priesthood of artists, search for transcendence and sense of the numinous. If it fails to replace religion, this is, among other things, because culture in the artistic sense involves too few people, while culture in the sense of a distinctive way of life involves too much conflict. No symbolic system in history has been able to rival religious faith, which forges a bond between the routine behaviour of billions of individuals and ultimate, imperishable truths. It’s the most enduring, deep-rooted, universal form of popular culture that history has ever witnessed, yet you won’t find it on a single cultural studies course from Sydney to San Diego.

For​ the liberal humanist heritage, culture mattered because it represented certain fundamental, universal values that might constitute a common ground between those who were otherwise divided. It was a ground on which we could converge simply by virtue of our shared humanity, and in this sense it was an enlightened notion; you didn’t have to be the son of a viscount to take part. Since our shared humanity was rather an abstract concept, however, something that brought it back to lived experience was needed, something you could see and touch and weigh in your hand: this was known as art or literature. If someone asked you what you lived by, you gave them not a religious sermon or a political pamphlet but a volume of Shakespeare.

The self-interest of this project, as with almost all appeals to unity, is obvious enough: culture, like the bourgeois state for Marx, represents an abstract community and equality which compensate for actual antagonisms and inequities. In the presence of the essential and universal, we are invited to suspend superficial distinctions of class, gender, ethnicity and the like. Even so, liberal humanism captured a truth, albeit in a self-serving form: what human beings have in common is in the end more important than their differences. It’s just that, politically speaking, the end is a long time coming.

Wanted: Culture, to make profits and fight wars for political demands

The vision of culture as common ground was challenged from the late 1960s by a series of developments. Students were entering higher education from backgrounds that made them disinclined to sign up to this consensus. The concept of culture began to lose its innocence. It had already been compromised by its association with racist ideology and imperialist anthropology in the 19th century, and contaminated by political strife in the context of revolutionary nationalism. From the end of the 19th century, culture became a highly lucrative industry, as cultural production was increasingly integrated into production in general, and the manufacture of mass fantasy became deeply profitable. This, we might note, isn’t yet postmodernism. Postmodernism happens not just with the arrival of mass culture but with the aestheticising of social existence, from design and advertising to branding, politics as spectacle, tattoos, purple hair and ridiculously large glasses. Culture, once the antithesis of material production, has now been folded into production.

Modernism, now a century behind us, was the last time culture offered itself as a full-blooded critique of society, a critique launched mainly from the radical right. If it does so no longer, neither does culture in the sense of a specific form of life. Most such life-forms today are out not to question the framework of modern civilisation but to be included within it. Inclusion, however, isn’t a good in itself, any more than diversity is. One thinks fondly of Samuel Goldwyn’s cry: ‘Include me out!’

All of this is sometimes known as cultural politics, and has given rise in our time to the so-called culture wars. For Schiller and Arnold, the phrase ‘culture wars’ would have been an oxymoron like, say, ‘business ethics’ (Beckett is said to have remarked that he had a strong weakness for an oxymoron). Culture in their eyes was the solution to strife, not an example of it. Now, culture is no longer a way of transcending the political but the language in which certain key political demands are framed and fought out. From being a spiritual solution, it has become part of the problem. And we have shifted in the process from culture to cultures.

TE culture wars Picture1

Both types of culture are currently under threat from different kinds of levelling. Thinking about aesthetic culture is increasingly shaped by the commodity form, which elides all distinctions and equalises all values. In some postmodern circles, this is celebrated as anti-elitist. But distinctions of value are a routine part of life, if not between Dryden and Pope then between Morrissey and Liam Gallagher. In this respect, anti-elitists who like to see themselves as close to common life are deluded. At the same time, cultures in the sense of distinctive forms of life are levelled by advanced capitalism, as every hairdressing salon and Korean restaurant on the planet comes to look like every other, despite the prattle about difference and diversity. In an era when the culture industry’s power is at its most formidable, culture in both of its main senses is being pitched into crisis.

Culture in our time has become nothing less than a full-blooded ideology, generally known as culturalism. Along with biologism, economism, moralism, historicism and the like, it is one of the major intellectual reductionisms of the day. On this theory, culture goes all the way down. The nature of humanity is culture. Behind this doctrine lurks an aversion to nature (one of culture’s traditional antitheses) as obdurate, inflexible, brutely given and resistant to change. At precisely the point where nature is capricious, unpredictable and alarmingly fast-moving, culturalism insists on regarding it as inert and immobile.

It’s not that culture is our nature, but that it is of our nature. It’s both possible and necessary because of the kinds of body we have. Necessary, because there’s a gap in our nature that culture in the sense of physical care must move into quickly if we are to survive as infants. Possible, because our bodies, unlike those of snails and spiders, are able to extend themselves outward by the power of language or conceptual thought, as well as by the way we are constructed to labour on the world. This prosthesis to our bodies is known as civilisation. The only problem, as Greek tragedy was aware, is that we can extend ourselves too far, lose contact with our sensuous, instinctual being, overreach ourselves and bring ourselves to nothing. But that’s another story. 

This video of the lecture is worth watching not only for the Q and A session, but for Terry's closing rendition in song of Raglan Road 

Terry Eagleton is a British literary theorist, critic, and public intellectual. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. He has published over forty books, anmd hundreds of articles and reviews, and is the most influential contemporary cultural theorist. 

Fran Lock is an editor, essayist, the author of numerous chapbooks and thirteen poetry collections, most recently Hyena! (Poetry Bus Press), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2023. She is a Commissioning Editor at Culture Matters, and she edits the Soul Food column for Communist Review

Alan Morrison is a Sussex-based poet. His collections include A Tapestry of Absent Sitters (2009), Keir Hardie Street (2010; shortlisted for the 2011 Tillie Olsen Award, Working-Class Studies Association, USA), Captive Dragons (2011), Blaze a Vanishing (2013), Shadows Waltz Haltingly (2015), Tan Raptures (2017), Shabbigentile (2019), Gum Arabic (2020), Anxious Corporals (2021), Green Hauntings (2022), Wolves Come Grovelling (2023) and Rag Argonauts (2024). He was joint winner of the 2018 Bread & Roses Poetry Award, and was highly commended in the inaugural Shelley Memorial Poetry Competition 2022. He edits The Recusant and Militant Thistles, and is book designer for Culture Matters

 

Good Friday
Friday, 14 June 2024 19:08

Good Friday

Published in Poetry

Good Friday

by Steven Taylor

When you’ve climbed up on the roof
of the last remaining house in Gaza
throw away the ladder and dare them
to demolish you, safe in the knowledge

that Keir Starmer will do nothing

not even mention you were standing
in solidarity and defiance with
all those other people buried beneath
the rubble, or knowingly being starved

by the Labour Friends of Israel

I am ashamed of Labour,

their contribution to the genocide
but it’s pretty much as expected
from Starmer and his supporters

Jesus has been suspended

prior to his expulsion. He’s
certainly not a candidate
or Party representative. We
don’t go in for (futile) gestures

Because Labour

under Starmer
is serious about government

Whose Bad Books?
Friday, 14 June 2024 19:08

Whose Bad Books?

Published in Poetry

Whose Bad Books?

by Christopher Norris, with image by Martin Gollan

1

Our pastor, he said ‘Praise the Lord,
Give praise unto His name,
And spread the gospel news abroad:
To save your souls He came!’.

He said ‘The grapes of wrath are stored
For those who bear the blame
That drags us mortals Satan-ward
To feed the Devil’s flame’.

I harkened, took it all on board,
And told my kids ‘For shame,
Listen up else you’ll be zero-scored
When God decides the game’.

But then I thought: ‘There’s things ignored
In all that he’d proclaim,
Things apt to strike a jarring chord
With folk outside the frame.

2

That Jesus, he had stuff to say
That goes for black and white,
Good news our pastor could convey
And help set old wrongs right.

You know, the bits not only they
But us black folks can cite
Because there ain’t no earthly way
They’ll spread the racist blight.

Truth, justice, peace on earth - let’s pray
Those words shed kindly light
And quench the flame whose kindling may
Burn fierce in darkest night.

A good man, Jesus, when he’d play
It down, that touch of spite
That blasted the fig-tree to pay
Those chatterers back alright!

3

But Christ-as-God’s the one who’ll see
You burn in Hell should you
Risk any word or deed that He
Deems wicked or taboo.

Old monks devised the Trinity
In hopes that it might do
To silence such rank heresy
Amongst the errant crew.

Still look around and you’ll agree:
It’s God, not Christ, that slew
Those legions of the damned whose plea
The wrong God listened to.

The one to whom they bend the knee,
The God of Soldier Blue,
Is He whose old book’s held to be
The sole book good and true.

It holds the one and only key,
The single passe-partout
Vouchsafed by Him to guarantee
They pay the homage due.

And when the tribal lords decree
Some holy war or new
Crusade to wage they’ll soon make free
With Joshua’s hullabaloo.

I hear it in their hymnody,
With our old pastor, too,
When he takes such unChristian glee
In tales of butchery.

It’s in the blood-filled oratory,
The martial tropes on cue,
The monotheists’ battle-spree
To get a God’s-eye view.

4

But nearer home I saw it fill
The airwaves, tv screens,
And op eds: ‘they went out to kill,
Those two black female teens.

A woman elderly and ill
They killed by brutal means,
A Bible teacher who’d instil
God’s grace in wolverines.

Don’t blame their parents’ lack of skill,
Don’t blame it on their genes,
Don’t say it’s what their home-lives drill
Them into - death-machines!

No, we’ll not walk safe streets until
We’ve junked those childhood scenes
Of violence, want, and horrorsville
So justice intervenes.

5

For the Lord tells us: eye-for-eye
And tooth-for-tooth’s the law,
And those two girls have got to die
To quit the moral score’.

That’s what he said, the lawyer guy,
And the DA then swore
That it would anger God on high
If sins weren’t answered for.

It’s how they think, the folk who buy
That vengeful line - what more
Effective way to block the cry
Of conscience they ignore?

It’s him, the Moloch-god, who’ll pry
Into the hate-filled core
Of minds long driven far awry
By that god-awful lore.

Those old books have the sinners fry,
And their god wipe the floor
With infidels who dare to try
The penalties in store.

O there’s good bits, you can’t deny,
Like passages that soar
On prophet-wings to touch the sky
Or heaven’s gleaming shore.

Yet always there’s some sinner nigh,
Some tribe to shock and awe,
Or angel to touch Jacob’s thigh:
‘Not yours but God’s, this war!’.

Our pastor has his own supply
Of bible-quotes he’ll draw
So swiftly on you never spy
Some massacre in the raw.

But that’s the itch they satisfy,
The itch of tooth and claw
To hear him conjure deeds we’d shy
From once through the church-door.

6

And now each latest bulletin
From Gaza lets us know
Once more how massacres begin
When preachers run the show.

The same old talk - ‘wages of sin’,
‘God’s children’ or ‘God’s foe’,
‘We chosen ones’, ‘you devil’s kin’,
And suchlike to-and-fro.

It’s still the same old tales they spin,
The tales that strike a blow
For each hate-manual and its twin -
Two creeds, same war-tableaux.

Sometimes I think the guys who’d pin
The death-rap on those low-
Life scapegoat girls are mirrored in
The siege of Jericho,

Since that’s the mythic origin
Of what the victims owe
To bible-lore when victors win
On points scored long ago.

The truth ‘all one beneath the skin,
All kindred, bro and bro’,
Gets lost each time the trumpets’ din
Brings yet more grief and woe.

For it’s the vengeful god within
That answers when they blow
And spike some war-primed endorphin
With carnage to bestow. 

7

I catch the bible-bashing tone
In that DA’s appeal
For the death-sentence to be thrown
At those too hurt to heal.

I catch it in the battle-zone
Reports of those whose zeal
For far-off kills by bomb or drone
They’re hard-put to conceal.

But you’ve a language all your own,
You holy men who deal
In sanctifying missions flown
Or fusillades of steel.

It’s your God churns the flesh and bone,
Whips up the hate they feel,
His chosen ones, or sees them blown
To bits unless they kneel.

He taunts the victims as they groan
On the inquisitor’s wheel,
And tells his flock ‘Let them atone
Beneath the Seventh Seal’.

For it’s a savage seed they’ve sown,
Those scriptures that reveal
Depths of malignity unknown
Till blind faith makes them real.

Class struggle in the New Testament
Friday, 14 June 2024 19:08

Class struggle in the New Testament

Published in Religion

Robert Myles shows how historical materialism explains the origins of Christianity

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” wrote nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle. Great Men might be out of fashion, but you wouldn’t know it from reading some recent popular studies on the history of Christianity. Jesus and Paul are regularly framed as prime historical movers and innovators of individual and charismatic genius.

It is equally uncontroversial today, however, to claim that so-called Great Men are but the products of their society, and that their individual ideas and actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before and during their lifetimes. The intersecting historical and economic forces in Jesus’ day of the first century sparked a range of different beliefs and responses, many of which are captured within the rich and conflicting accounts of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

The New Testament is not a mirror reflection of specific class interests or political tendencies. Written by various authors with conflicting agendas, these texts were composed in locations that all fell under the purview of the Roman Empire. The Roman world was an agrarian and pre-capitalist one. This meant that land and not capital was the basis of wealth and power.

The Emperor of Rome ruled autocratically along with the help of local rulers in the provinces (like the Herods in Palestine). Most of the land was concentrated among a small, urban-based group of administrators, military leaders, and political and religious officials. In simple Marxist terms, this elite class controlled the means of production.

At the other end of the spectrum was a broad range of peasants, artisans, and slaves who worked the land, produced goods, and performed menial tasks, but did not control the means of production. Peasants comprised most of the population and generated the material wealth which was, in turn, rendered through taxes and rents to sustain the parasitical lifestyle of the elite.

There was nothing equivalent to a “middle-class” in the first century. Nor were there aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to make a profit. As trade in commodities made up only a small part of economic activity, there were few opportunities for peasants to accumulate wealth. In fact, most workers were born, lived, and died in what would today be considered very modest economic circumstances.

In the Gospels, Jesus bands together with rural fishermen, marginal women, displaced villagers, and crowds from the Judean countryside, to announce the inauguration of a new world order, with God as its ultimate ruler.

Jesus delivers parables that not only draw on earthy, agricultural concepts, and relations between landlords and tenants and masters and slaves, but which equally imagine lavish banquets that few of his compatriots would have been able to experience, given their lower-class roots. He is reported to perform miracles demonstrating that the cosmic forces were on his side, and he performs healings and issues epithets that ruffle the feathers of the religious and political establishment. Jesus ends up brutally tortured and crucified by the Romans for his troubles.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are, however, the literary products of an urban-based, semi-elite scribal class, who, although writing about the lives of ordinary rural peasants, artisans, and fishermen, do so through the eyes of their own bureaucratic and political interests.

These texts do not posit a revolution in the Marxist sense of overthrowing an entire mode of production—i.e. by replacing the agrarian social formation with a new and more equitable economic system. Rather, in the promised new world order, existing economic arrangements remain but are under the control of a different Lord of lords, namely, God and his co-regent Jesus. The New Testament writings frequently mimic the language of Roman imperialism in order to negate it, but curiously end up laying the groundwork for their own brand of imperial rule.

Despite adherence to Christianity declining in the West, popular and academic interest in the origins of Christianity and the New Testament remains steady. Even among a certain sub-culture of internet atheists, a small number of books and articles claiming the non-historical existence of Jesus appears to be gaining traction (although such arguments are universally refuted by professional scholars of the Bible).

Given that most people in antiquity left no sign at all of their existence, and the poor are virtually invisible within the historical record, to deny the existence of non-elite figures such as Jesus on the basis of sparse evidence, could be considered, however unintentionally, as a class bias against the poor in history.

But there are also broader considerations to be taken into account at this point. What about those non-elite women and men of whom we know even less, who were instrumental in the formation of the Jesus movement? An historical account fixated on the biographies of Great Men can only take us so far. Investigating the intersection of their emergence with the material conditions involved in historical change helps us piece together a more robust picture of early Christianity, but it also gives us insight into the world-historical forces which now happen to condition us.

Marxism, Buddhism and socialism
Friday, 14 June 2024 19:08

Marxism, Buddhism and socialism

Published in Religion

Richard King teases out the links between Marxism, Buddhism and socialism.

The Dalai Lama and Marxism

Dhammic Socialism according to Buddhist principles holds that Nature created beings which must live in groups. Both plants and animals live together in groups or communities. This system we will call ‘socialism’ … in short, it is living for the benefit of society, not for the individual benefit of the person. (Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, 1906-93)

In June 2011 during a visit to Minneapolis the 14th Dalai Lama shocked his American audience by declaring himself a Marxist. This was not an isolated or superficial statement on his part but in fact represented many years of reflection on the social philosophy of Marx and its compatibility with Buddhist teachings. Following in the tradition of Buddhist scholars like Trevor Ling, who argued in Buddha, Marx and God that Marx’s critique was aimed at oppressive and transcendentalist ideologies rather than religion in general, the Dalai Lama reads Marx’s famous reference to the opiate of the masses not as a critique of all religion as such, but as a rejection of obfuscating belief systems that justify social inequality.

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes – that is the majority – as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair … The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason, I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist. (Dalai Lama, 1996, Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses)

The Dalai Lama is far from an isolated Buddhist example in this regard. Just as Christianity has influenced left-wing and radical political movements in the West (see James Crossley, Why Christianity Matters to Socialism), in Asia Buddhist teachings have similarly inspired progressive movements and philosophies such as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s dhammic socialism in Thailand, the Socialist Party of U Nu in Burma (Prime Minister in 1948-56, 1957-58 and 1960-62) and the Dalit-oriented socially engaged Buddhism of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar in India.

Let us consider the case of Ambedkar. In 1956 a new socio-political movement was launched in India with the aim of challenging the iniquities of the Indian caste system and improving the lives of Dalit or untouchable” communities within India. The central claim of its founder, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar – one of the key architects of the modern Indian constitution and himself from a Dalit family – was that the only way to free oneself from the social iniquities of the Indian caste system is to renounce Hinduism and convert to Buddhism. Thus, on the 14th October 1956 in Nagpur, Maharashtra, Ambedkar, along with 400,000 fellow Dalits, underwent a mass conversion to Buddhism.

RK Bhimrao Ambedkar

In this way, a new movement was born in India that described itself as Navayāna - “the new vehicle” – a modern representation of the Buddha’s message emphasizing its socially transformative and socialist dimensions. According to Ambedkar, the Buddhist and Marxist worldviews were compatible in their goals, but differed in their means. Whereas the Buddha focused on the non-violent transformation of members of society, Marxist communism, at least in its twentieth-century Russian form, constituted a perpetual dictatorship of the proletariat maintained through coercion and control. According to Ambedkar:

Society has been aiming to lay a new foundation as summarised by the French Revolution in three words, Fraternity, Liberty and Equality. The French Revolution was welcomed because of this slogan. It failed to produce equality. We welcome the Russian Revolution because it aims to produce equality. But it cannot be too much emphasised that in producing equality society cannot afford to sacrifice fraternity or liberty. Equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. It seems that the three can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one but not all. (Buddha or Karl Marx? Ambedkar)

What grounds did Ambedkar have for making the claim that the Buddha’s teaching is socialist in nature? One way to answer this question is to consider the early Buddhist attitude to the caste system. The Buddha himself is said to have come from a princely background and therefore a member of the Kshatriya or warrior caste, though it seems likely that he came from a region of Gandhāra in North-Eastern India where the Brahmanical system of four caste groups (priests, warriors, merchants and servants) was less dominant and so he may have referred to himself as a Kshatriya for ease of reference when engaging with Brahmins for whom the four groupings constituted a natural, universal and divinely ordained form of social stratification.

Judging by the evidence of the Pali canonical texts, the Buddha does not appear to have rejected the idea of classifying people in terms of their personal abilities and in terms of varied functions and roles within society. Differences between people exemplified for him the diversity of beings and is grounded in the natural law of karma and rebirth. It was simply a matter of fact that different people had different qualities, skills and interests - reflecting their diverse levels of spiritual attainment, personality traits and life experiences.

However, what we do find in the early teachings of Buddhism is a refusal to place someone within a certain class-group on the basis of the social conditions or the family into which they were born. Again and again, the Buddha is seen to address people according to their moral behaviour and character rather than their class background, which he rejected as a basis for determining social status. Thus, one of the Buddha’s first disciples, Upāli, was a barber and of low caste status and yet was considered a senior figure in the early Buddhist tradition. This was precisely because the Buddha ranked his followers based upon their mastery of his teachings and seniority of experience rather than their wider social standing.

The communism of the sangha

The Buddha founded a monastic and renunciant community - the sangha, which was based on the principle of common ownership of property, communal decision making, and the promotion of an ethic of non-violence and compassion as a moral prerequisite of membership. The sangha was to be a classless society of renunciates following the Buddha’s teachings and offering teaching, advice and an example to the wider lay society. Within the sangha the Buddha did not countenance any continuation of the caste divisions of wider society. Instead male and female renunciates would practice a communal lifestyle of sharing and ‘consciousness raising’ – acting as an ethical beacon for an alternative way of organising society and a source of inspiration and teaching for the wider lay community to which it remained materially dependent for food and other resources.

After formal ordination, a Buddhist monk or nun in India is said to lose their class or caste affiliation: "entry into the Sangha abolishes all caste identity just as all rivers lose their identity as soon as they enter the sea." (Anguttara Nikāya 8.19). Becoming ordained as a bhikkhu/ni (literally ‘one who shares’) required a renunciation of one's previous social position along with other aspects of everyday worldly life. This might lead us to expect early Buddhism to be a movement attracting those looking for an escape route from the difficulties of low social status in India, but it would be a mistake to think that early Buddhism represented some sort of proletarian movement for the underprivileged in ancient Indian society. If we look at the background of the Buddha's followers as mentioned in the Pali canon, we find that the majority seem to have been comparatively well-educated members of the Brahmin (priestly) and Kshatriya (warrior) classes.

Nevertheless, like Marx, the Buddha frequently criticized the prevailing dogmatic authority of his day – the Vedic tradition of Brahmins who performed and justified rituals such as the fire sacrifice to the gods and saw themselves not only as the main intercessors between the divine and human realms but also as the authoritative voice-box of society. Early Buddhism did not deny the existence of gods – indeed they occur throughout the stories of the Pali canon – but the Buddha displaced them from the centre-ground of practice, arguing that gods remained as bound to the cyclical patterns of karma and rebirth (samsara) as all other sentient beings. All divine beings – even the highest Vedic god Brahmā – the divine archetype for the Brahmin caste, were mortal and subordinate in their authority to anyone who has achieved awakening (bodhi) and liberation (nirvana).

The Buddha, therefore, is presented as focusing not on the placation or veneration of the gods, but on the practical necessities of overcoming suffering (duhkha) and coming to terms with the impermanent (anitya) and compounded nature of existence. In his speech to the Kalamas - a teaching that particularly inspired socialist and one-time Burmese Prime Minister U Nu, the Buddha outlined a pragmatic and empirically-grounded criterion for deciding the validity of any claim to higher knowledge – test it for yourself:

Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness" — then you should enter & remain in them.

The Buddha placed ethics at the centre of his message and emphasized the importance of the intention (cetanā) behind an action in assigning moral responsibility. We find a similar move five centuries later when Jesus remarks in Matthew 5:27-8:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

On many occasions the Buddha is found transforming ritual practices into ethical ones linked to the cultivation of loving-kindness and a deep solidarity for the suffering of others. In the Teaching on the Three Knowledges (Tevijja Sutta), for instance, a group of young Brahmins asks the Buddha for advice on the way to achieve union with their god Brahmā saying that their teachers, experts in Vedic lore, quarrel over the correct path. ‘Do your teachers have direct experience of “dwelling with Brahmā?” the Buddha asks. When the enquirers admit that they do not, the Buddha declares that this means that the teachers have no empirical basis or authority to speak on such matters.

At this point one might expect the Buddha to declare the falsity of the Vedic Brahmin path and to encourage the students to join his followers. However, the Buddha then declares that he knows Brahmā and the world of Brahmā and is therefore in a position to speak authoritatively about the way to achieve their goal. The Buddha then proceeds to outline a set of ethical meditations based upon the systematic cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity. Manifest these virtues in your life and interactions with others and you shall achieve Brahmā status.

Similarly, in the Sigalovada Sutta the Buddha is asked to explain how one might properly conduct the Brahmanical devotional practice of venerating the gods in all directions. The Buddha again steps away from ritual and devotionalism and outlines instead six key social relationships: parents, teachers, family, friends, holy teachers and employees/servants, suggesting that the practitioner cultivates loving-kindness and respect for all. Instances such as this, where the Buddha takes prevailing Vedic practices related to the veneration of gods and translates them into the cultivation of ethically-informed human relationships, have led many to see the Buddha as more of an ethical teacher than a founder of a religious movement. Nevertheless, for those seeking to find grounds for a socialist interpretation of Buddhism, these teachings, despite their potential for ameliorating social relations, seem very much aimed at the level of the individual practitioner rather than society as a whole.

Changing the world through self-transformation

It is important however to appreciate the context of the Buddha’s time. There was no assumption in the ancient Indian circles in which Buddhism arose that social change is likely to occur through some transformative revolutionary moment but generally an emphasis on changing the world through self-transformation. In traditional Asian as well as prevailing western interpretations of the Buddha’s message suffering and transformation are usually pitched at the personal level. This however does not mean that Buddhism was an ancient form of individualism as shown by the fact that the Buddha’s most significant contribution to the global history of ideas is his comprehensive rejection of the idea of a persisting personal self.

In Buddhism, there are no individuals, only dividuals and what we call a ‘person’ is in fact more like a fast-flowing stream or river or a flickering flame of sensations, cognitions and desires. We are a complex bundle of changing material and mental processes with no centralized unitary self or soul hidden within these changing processes. Everything is impermanent (anitya), the Buddha declared, and this has often been taken as a justification for why social revolution has rarely been considered a viable option for long-term social change. Everything decays and ceases to be – including eventually the Buddhist tradition itself. However, there is another side to this. The reason that much of the Buddhist message appears to focus so firmly on the person is because it is precisely the false attachment to the idea of a persisting individual ego at the core of our being which the Buddha identifies as the source of our suffering and of social divisions in the world. Uprooting this strongly held belief is therefore an indispensable part of the path to full awakening.

Today we find Buddhist ideas and practices – such as Buddhist mindfulness meditation, being widely adopted and appropriated as stress-relief in the neoliberal age of growing precarity. Slavoj Zizek, for instance, has suggested that modern western Buddhism, with its emphasis on peaceful meditation and an almost quietistic acceptance of the status quo (the ethics of ‘no judgement’), provides the perfect spirituality and safety valve for advanced capitalist societies. Yet at the same time we have seen the rise of Engaged Buddhism – a late twentieth-century trend which seeks to challenge global capitalism and consumerism through a socially and politically engaged reading of the Buddha’s teachings.

It is important to note that the Buddhist rejection of the individual as a primary, unitary reality means that the ideology underpinning the contemporary neoliberal conception of the human as ‘self-actualizing entrepreneur’ is always in danger of being displaced by the Buddhist emphasis on kindness, compassion (literally “co-suffering”) and interdependence. This of course has not prevented Buddhist teachings and practices from being co-opted by the “self-help” spiritualities that have proliferated in late twentieth and early twenty-first-century capitalist society. It does however cause them to sit uneasily with a deeper engagement with basic Buddhist teachings.

What we might call social problems of violence, social injustice and selfish individualism are traditionally represented in classical Buddhists texts as rooted in what Buddhists call the three poisons – greed (alobha), hatred (dvesha) and confusion (moha), but it is not difficult to see how these individual traits could be mapped structurally onto institutions and ideologies in the contemporary world that promote rampant consumerism, militarism and propaganda (“fake news” and infotainment) over knowledge. Contemporary socially-engaged Buddhists have been making these exact connections in their critique of modern capitalism. As Theravada Buddhist and Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa suggests,

When an individual places self-interest above all and negates the relation view of ‘self,’ the result is greed and selfishness. Neoliberalist rhetoric deludes people and international organizations into believing that profits from multinational corporations will be fairly distributed in society and that any improvement in material conditions is an absolute gain for society. The ideology of consumption deludes people into believing that constant acquisition of goods and power will lead to happiness. (Sivaraksa, “Alternatives to Consumerism” in A. Badiner, Mindfulness in the Marketplace, Parallax Press, 2002: 136)

RK Buddhadasa bhikkhu

According to the Theravāda monk Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, sharing is a natural feature of biological life that has become distorted by human alienation and the rise of private ownership:

According to science, before humans evolved there were lower animals and plants, and, before that, single-celled forms of life. In all of these various levels of living things, none ever consumed more than it needed. … They have no granaries or storehouses in which to hoard or stockpile supplies; so they cannot accumulate more than they need. A bird eats only what its stomach will hold. According to our Buddhist scriptures, our problems began when someone got the idea of stockpiling grains and other food, causing shortages for others. Once people began to hoard supplies, problems of unequal distribution and access arose.

The Buddhist scriptural source that Buddhadāsa is particularly alluding to here is called the Discourse on Origins (sometimes misleading described as the ‘Buddhist Book of Genesis’) or Agganna Sutta and it is contained within the Long Discourses (Dīgha Nikāya) of the Pali canon –a source of many of the Buddha’s teachings that have a more direct socio-political emphasis. What is striking about the Discourse on Origins is the account that it offers of the formation of human societies. The text begins with the Buddha ridiculing the Brahmins for their belief that they are born from the ‘mouth of the God Brahmā’ and therefore cosmically established as the highest and most important social class.

The origins of class-based divisions in society

The Buddha is here referring to an ancient Vedic myth where the different class groups in society are declared to be created by the dismemberment of a cosmic Person (Purusha). The head of the cosmic Person becomes the priests, his arms become the warrior class, his legs become the artisan and merchant class and his feet become the servants. This creation myth, recorded in Rig Veda X.90, dates from around 800 BCE and is the earliest known reference to what we now call the caste system. The Buddha ridicules the myth – ‘do the Brahmins not know that they are born from their mother’s vaginas?’ he asks and in doing so calls into question not only the divinely-ordained nature of the caste system but also the divine right of kings – or brahmins, to rule over others. The text then proceeds to offer a counter origin-story for the rise of class divisions. Again, the primary problem is rooted in the greed and avaricious tendencies of humans.

Initially, the Buddha declares, there is no private property, everything is shared communally. However, some take more food than they need and begin to hoard it. In this way, the idea of private ownership establishes itself. This however causes social conflict as disputes over resources proliferate and divisions between rich and poor emerge. As a result, the warrior class emerges to keep the peace and emergent human communities appoint a morally upstanding and unbiased member of their group to act as the final arbiter and enforcer of law in such cases. This the text suggests is the origin of monarchy as a form of government. The monarch is given the title Mahā-sammatā - ‘Great Elected One,’ reflecting the fact that the authority of a ruler resides in the mandate of the community of peers, not some divinely-inspired right to rule.

Elsewhere, the Buddha warns that in societies where greed and lawlessness are allowed to prevail there is a proliferation of weapons and violence. Failure to distribute resources fairly and equitably and to care for the poor, the Buddha argues, causes stealing to increase and further violence and discord within society. For Buddhist socialists like Buddhadāsa, the Buddha’s message is clear – it is natural for human beings, like other animals, to share resources and it is only through the spread of greed and narrow self-regard that the idea of private property – the lynchpin of the capitalist system, is able to emerge, but at the catastrophic expense of human solidarity.

Later developments within Buddhism, such as the Mahāyāna traditions, place even greater emphasis on the importance of compassion and universal solidarity with the suffering of others. Indeed, the characteristic feature of Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism is the establishment of the notion of the bodhisattva (“one who seeks full-awakening”) as a universal ideal motivated by deep compassion for and solidarity with others. Moreover, traditional transcendentalist ideas of liberation (nirvāna) as some kind of spiritual escape from the world become replaced by an emphasis on unending engagement with the needs of others. Nirvāna in the Mahāyāna traditions of Buddhism is no longer seen as a personal aspiration or private escape from the world but rather as the collective liberation of all sentient beings from the weal of suffering. This is why when the Dalai Lama is asked what is the prime purpose of life, his simple answer is ‘helping others’ and why he sees himself simultaneously as both a Buddhist and a Marxist.

See also here for an article on Karl Marx and Buddhism

Jesus and Marx
Friday, 14 June 2024 19:08

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, http://www.basisgemeinde.de), 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.

Metanoia

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.