Christ is a communist and God is a miner: ‘The Sair Road’ by William Hershaw
Friday, 06 December 2019 19:25

Christ is a communist and God is a miner: ‘The Sair Road’ by William Hershaw

Published in Poetry

Jim Aitken reviews The Sair Road, by Willie Hershaw. The header image and all others in this review are by Les McConnell, the illustrator

Far from creating any ‘gude and godlie’ kingdom in Scotland as a result of the Reformation there in 1560, by the time of Robert Burns (1759-96) Presbyterianism was being openly satirised. Religious hypocrisy was one of Burns’ most constant themes in his poetry. This is no more evident than in ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ where Willie believes that he has become one of the elect by the simple fact of seeing himself chosen by God to be one of the elect. And while he chastises others like Gavin Hamilton because ‘he drinks, an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes (cards)’, Willie exonerates himself for lifting ‘a lawless leg’ upon Meg and for having had sex with ‘Leezie’s lass…three times.’ He should be excused for the latter offence on the grounds that he was ‘fou ‘(drunk). Such transgressions Willie sees as utterly without any theological or moral implication for himself but the same man would condemn others fervently for similar transgressions.

The Christian virtue of ‘judge not lest you be judged’ has no reference point in Willie’s religious view. The obsession with the sins of others created the dialectic of the self-righteous and the damned. With so much to be frowned upon it is fair to say that Scottish culture suffered from such a censorious atmosphere. Righteousness, after all, meant always being right.

It is therefore understandable that in James Hogg’s ‘The Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)’ that it would be the Devil that made an appearance. In this incredible novel a fanatically self-righteous Robert Wringhim is encouraged to kill his more rounded and sporty brother, George. The figure of Gil-Martin as Devil incarnate utilises the religious fanaticism of Robert to commit fratricide.

The novel is set in the turbulent times of the 17th century when Scotland was waging religious war both at home and abroad during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Hogg has two narratives in this book, one by an Editor and the other by Robert himself. The Editor is a smug man of the Enlightenment who believes that civilisation and progress are both constant and linear. He looks back on the fanaticism of a previous era with horror, viewing the excesses of such times as primitive and barbaric. What makes this novel so modern is our clear understanding today that such excesses are always with us – when we think of the two World Wars of the 20th century, of the Iraq war, the rise of Daesh, the rise of the far right, national populism and the threat of environmental catastrophe in our short century so far.

Hogg’s masterpiece raises such important notions of duality and without it we would not have had Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ or ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’ by James Robertson.

It was not until 1860 that Christ made his most significant appearance in Scottish culture. It was in a painting by William Dyce (1806-64) of Aberdeen called ‘The Man of Sorrows.’ Dyce was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and played a part in their early popularity. It was in fact Dyce who introduced Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais to John Ruskin and the spirituality in some of Dyce’s painting owes much to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Victorian Britain was a brutal place, with imperialism abroad and servitude at home, and the Pre-Raphaelites sought to go back in time to a more romanticised world, often inspired by the poetry of Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson. While they did create an artistic renewal and expressed a mission of moral reform revealing piety, they also showed the struggle of purity against corruption. Ruskin particularly approved of their detailed treatment of nature. However, their canvases largely featured much earlier historical eras, while the social reality around them was ghastly. In this they were not entirely different to Prince Charles, with his horror of so much of modern architecture, or to John Major and his reverie for an England where you came out from Evensong and headed for a warm beer on the village green, watching cricket.

What made Dyce’s painting so memorable – at least for Scots – was that the figure of Christ was sitting on a Scottish Highland hillside. Dyce, of course, would have been intimate with such locations himself and that is probably why he chose such a setting. However, the implication of such a setting was considerable. There is plenty of space for Christ to contemplate in such a wilderness because a few decades earlier the Highlanders had been cleared from the land to make way for sheep. ‘The Man of Sorrows’ can be seen to be at one with the men and women who were so brutally evicted from their lands. Such an interpretation –possibly unintended by Dyce – would nonetheless be made by many Scots. The sorrows felt by Christ were also the sorrows of those who once lived in this wilderness. Furthermore, the sorrowful Christ of the Highland hillside would clearly have known that the church in Scotland did little to prevent such suffering, by siding instead with the landowners and the gentry.

Though we live in a largely secular era today (though not so secular in the land of Mammon, the USA), the figure of Christ, as expressed in the Gospels, can still inspire. What churches have done – or not done – in his name cannot be attributable to him. He was and remains a radical and a revolutionary figure who sought nothing more than peace, love and sharing based on communal values.

Christ is a communist and God is a miner

Call that rebirth and resurrection if you like. He was on the side of the poor, the victimised, the marginalised and the oppressed. His ministry was itself ‘good news for the poor.’ It is inconceivable in a world where the poor and oppressed are still with us that he cannot be seen as relevant. George Bernard Shaw, in his Preface – a work far more interesting than the play it introduces – to ‘Androcles and the Lion (1916)’ called Christ ‘a communist.’

His story inspired an array of different people and groups as diverse as the Levellers of the 17th century, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Keir Hardie, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, along with untold billions over the last two millennia.

Jesus 1

Love richt and heeze the ferlous gift o grace!

So for Jesus to turn up in the Fife coalfield of the 20th century seems perfectly in keeping with his historical influence at other times. The versatile William Hershaw, who is not just a poet but also a dramatist, folk musician and Scots language activist, tells us in his introduction to ‘The Sair Road (2018)’ that ‘the Thatcher years ‘were ‘the most significant period’ in his life. At the time of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 he ‘was a young teacher in Fife’ working not so much at the chalk face but at the coal face, where many of the students he taught would have been the sons and daughters of miners.

The idea behind ‘The Sair Road’ must have formed in an earlier poem he wrote called ‘God the Miner’. The words of this poem are inscribed on a sculpture by David Annand called ‘The Prop’ and installed in 2007 in Lochgelly. It was in fact part of the Lochgelly Regeneration Project brought about after the death of a once proud industry. The words from the poem seem entirely apt because, as God creates, so too does the miner. They are indistinguishable:

God is a miner,
For aye is his shift,
Heezan his graith he howks in the lift.

Always working (aye is his shift) God lifts (heezan) his tools (graith) and digs (howks) in the sky (lift). In the second verse we read:

God is a miner,
Thrang at his work,
Stars are the aizles he caws in the mirk.

Here we are told that God is constantly busy (thrang) and that the stars are the sparks (aizles) he strikes (caws) in the dark (mirk). These lines not only offer a poetic response to the work of creation but to work generally because labour can – and should – be afforded dignity because it is labour itself that is the source of all that is created.

The Fife coalfield was ravaged during the Thatcher years and neglected during the years of Blair and Brown. With the death of an industry came the death also of the NUM and, saddest of all, the death of that precious experience of community. From ‘God the Miner’ in 2007 Hershaw must have been howking away inside his poetic imagination to have come up with ‘The Sair Road.’

A Christian is a Socialist or nocht

This collection is also written in Scots, which is fitting because the Fife tongue still uses a great many Scots words and miners would certainly have used many of these words. The miners were a special workforce, and no more so than in the Fife coalfield. While the term ‘Red Clydeside’ is well known, ‘Red Fife’ could easily have challenged Clydeside for radical politics. In 1935 it was the Red Clydesider William Gallacher who became Communist MP for West Fife until 1950. And though our media loves to peddle the idea that to be a Communist you had to have attended Cambridge University and become a spy, the reality was that Cowdenbeath had the largest Communist Party Branch of anywhere in the UK, and members there were almost entirely miners. The socialist credentials of Fife are second to none.

‘The Sair Road’ is structured to parallel the Stations of the Cross. Hershaw, however, has adapted them to form what he calls ‘The Lochgelly Stations.’ There is also an introductory poem before the Stations called ‘Apocrypha 1: Airly Doors’ and after the Station sequence there is ‘Apocrypha 2: Efter Hours’ along with three further poems that seek to sum up not only what has gone before but what could come after.

There is, Hershaw tells us again in his Introduction, ‘no theological consistency or orthodoxy in ‘The Sair Road’ and Jesus the Miner ‘has little time for organised religion.’ In the poem ‘The Lord Lous (loves) a Sinner’ the following lines confirm this sense of an independent mind:

The Kirk needs the pious
Tae fill up her pews
But the Lord recruits sinners
For guid men are few.

The action flits through the 1920s, when there was a lockout of miners in 1921, and moves on to the General Strike of 1926, when there was another lockout after that strike. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 is implied in all the action and invoked cleverly after Jesus the Miner is ‘liftit’ for preaching his gospel of love:

The neist day he was bound tae staund in coort
Condemned by the Sanhedrin, Daily Mail,
Thatcher and McGregor, the BBC,
Chairged wi riot, unlawful assembly,
The braggarts feart he micht owercoup their world
And like mad dugs settled tae bring him doun.

As he sat in the Gethsemane Plots thinking on his struggle ahead he was told – ‘You’re liftit Trotsky…Judas turned a scab.’ The archetypal name for a rebel – Trotsky – is applied to suggest how dangerous Jesus’ words have been to the status quo. And Judas – just as before – is the archetypal name for a traitor.

The names of the Apostles have a Scots twist to them. Jesus calls them his ‘feirs’ (friends) and they are named as Jamie, Mattie, Si, Wee Jock, Andrae, Tam and Big Pete. They are also his boozing buddies as they often hang out in the local Goth Bar. In no way could Jesus the Miner be set apart from others in this community. His spirituality and conviction may make him seem ‘other’ but he is very much a part of the mining community in all other respects.

pilate

Support the striking miners? Never, naa,/I winnae lift a haund, I'll see it faa.

The Lochgelly Stations mirror well the original story, and are also well applied to the mining community Jesus the Miner finds himself in. One good example of this is replacing Pilate with Ramsay MacDonald. He washes his hands of the whole sorrowful business at the end of the General Strike, just as Pilate did in the New Testament. Hershaw uses a particularly descriptive Scots word to suggest how the Labour leader feels about it all – ‘MacDonald girnt.’ Girning in Scots means not just moaning but doing so with lathers of self-pity. In his speech MacDonald ‘girns’ about his lot. He tells Jesus the Miner, ‘Socialism, Labour are juist bit words.’ Though progress is slow, he says, it will come ‘through the ballot box, no blackmail.’

These words could so easily have been spoken by Neil Kinnock when he was leader of the Labour Party during the strike of 1984-5. The South Wales miners dubbed him Ramsay McKinnock for not supporting them. Kinnock, of course, went on to become an unelected EU Commissioner, and he now sits in the unelected House of Lords. The same man complained – as the Tory press of his day told him to – that the miners should have had a ballot, which seems rather ridiculous today as the former son of a miner now sits with what Burns called ‘cuifs’ (fools) clad in ermine, in the House of Lords.

There is one key idea in ‘The Sair Road’ and that comes at Jesus’ trial. He is charged with the ‘wittin (knowledge) that he brocht: A Christian is a Socialist or nocht.’

How can it be that the rich and exploiter class are often the ones who attend church on a regular basis and claim to be Christian? How is it that the hapless Mrs May went to church, when as Home Secretary she made vans run around London with the words ‘Go Home’ printed on their side? These vans were directed at people of colour who had lived here for 50 years. How can she profess her Christianity while apparently holding others in such disfavour? How could she have led a political party of the rich for the rich, while overseeing Victorian levels of inequality and maintain she is a Christian?

The answer, of course, is the same as it has always been – easily. Her Prime Ministerial resignation speech showed how delusional she had been politically – so why should delusion not be part of religious faith either?

The Letter of St. James tells us ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ And ‘works’ meant good works like helping the poor and not adding to their number. To be Christian, at least according to its founder, you have to ‘do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you.’ Without active concern for the poor, the victimised and marginalised, your professed faith is rather empty. Burns railed against religious hypocrisy in his day and Hershaw is simply saying the same today. What is different though is that Hershaw’s Jesus himself rails against such rank religious hypocrisy.

When Mrs Thatcher came and addressed the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988 she told them, ‘Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform.’ Jesus the Miner would no doubt reply to this ‘you cannot have one without the other.’ Jesus of the New Testament would similarly agree, especially when we recall his words in Matthew 19:24, ‘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.’ It is the multi-millionaires and billionaires who should be afraid because of what they have done and what they continue to do.

This is where Jesus the Miner and Jesus of the New Testament have such a powerful message. Both preach love for all, including your enemies. All will be forgiven and all it takes to be forgiven is a change of heart. This is the essence of the Christian message. This is the great magnanimity of that message; this is the theological simplicity of it all. As with most theories, however, there is often the problem with praxis. Because the rich are so powerful they want to maintain their position of supremacy over others by keeping their riches – and continually adding to them – by keeping others down.

When Jesus the Miner is ‘flung in their jyle’ (jail) he is also scourged by ‘the Polis’. He is ‘punched and kicked’ as ‘Centurions waved tenners in his face.’ They called him ‘commie scum’ and said, ‘This kicking’s juist the stert o mair tae come.’

That kicking of anyone who stands up to the rich has been taking place for a long time now. The early Christians were persecuted for their belief, yet it was their persistence with that belief that ended slavery in the ancient world. The Hebrew word ‘anawim’ describes the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth and it was these people who became the first followers of this new faith. Once an idea takes hold, Lenin said, it can become a material force. That was certainly true of Christianity, and like socialism it has never been properly practised internationally because the rich and powerful have never allowed either to be properly practised.

It has been suggested that when the Emperor Constantine de-criminalised Christianity in 313 and converted to it on his deathbed, and later in 380 when the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, that the faith became compromised. The rich and powerful could use it for their own purposes. After this, of course, the Church split in two between a Catholic west and an Orthodox east, and then during the Reformation there came into being countless new Protestant churches. Jesus the Miner speaks for no church and only speaks for himself and what he says is remarkably like the original Jesus.

Although the original Christian message may have been compromised there have been many followers in all traditions who have stayed true to that message. It was the former Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in north-eastern Brazil, Dom Helder Camara, who famously said, ‘When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.’

There were many priests and theologians in Latin America who developed what was known as liberation theology. Two of the most famous texts were ‘A Theology of Liberation’ (1971) by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez and ‘Jesus Christ Liberator’ (1972) by Leonardo Boff OFM. Liberation theology was all about bringing ‘good news to the poor’ again, as Jesus had originally intended. Jesus the Miner would surely approve of them.

With the arrival of Pope John Paul II, such theologies and practices were frowned upon. Under the tutelage of Cardinal Ratzinger from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an Instruction went out against the practise of liberation theology called ‘Libertatis Nuntius’ in 1984. This was followed up by a Papal visit to parts of Latin America and a finger-waving Pontiff was shown on the BBC news telling off Boff in Brazil, and the poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal who had joined the first Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The reason this was shown was because this was a Pope fiercely opposed to socialism and maybe this was why the media seemed to warm to him.

After the death of John Paul II the new Pope was Benedict XVI – the former Cardinal Ratzinger. He has since resigned, and it was widely believed that he did so because he could not deal with the corruption inside the Curia, along with all the extensive cover-ups of clerical abuse now being exposed internationally. It has been left to Francis I to deal with this.

Capitalism is the dung of the Devil

Pope Francis would have personally known of liberation priests who were murdered in Argentina by the junta there, for serving the poor. He may well have met Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by El Salvadorean death squads in their fight against leftists in 1980. While Romero was not a liberation theologian, he was on the side of the poor, and he spoke out against their poverty and social injustice. Pope Francis has called capitalism ‘the dung of the Devil.’ He wants bridges rather than walls built between peoples, and wishes migrants fleeing poverty and war to be treated with love and compassion. Jesus the Miner would like the sound of that.

What he may not like the sound of is the new theology that has spread into Latin America from the United States. The gap opened up by Libertatis Nuntius has enabled Protestant Evangelicals proclaiming what is known as ‘prosperity theology’ to make inroads in a continent that was once largely Catholic. Their Christian fundamentalist influence has helped secure the Presidency of Bolsonaro in Brazil.

According to Mary Fitzgerald’s recent article in ‘openDemocracy’ (24 May 2019) over $50 million in ‘dark money’ has come into Europe from American religious conservative groups associated with Trump in the last decade. This money has funded campaigns that are dear to the far right, such as ending LGBTI rights, and ending the reproductive rights of women, as well as securing Europe from ‘Muslim invaders.’

This rhetoric has also railed against EU elites and has led to a fair crop of far-right representation at the recent EU elections. Steve Bannon, in his base at the Certosa di Trissulti monastery – a two hour drive south-east of Rome – has declared that Pope Francis is the enemy because of his mission for the poor and for his support of migrants. Religion has always been disfigured by the rich, powerful and unaccountable, with agendas that use religion for their own self-aggrandising political and economic ends. And any national populist turn in Britain or in Europe as a whole will simply continue that age-old exploitation.

King Coal scourges Jesus 2

He pushed brillo pads doun Grandi's lungs

In Station 5 of Hershaw’s poem, we hear about the terrible things done to miners and their families by King Coal. We are told he was a ‘spine-snapper, baa (testicle) – squeezer…..bairn-beater…..compensation-refuser..…match-fixer..…inquest-wrangler…..sulfur-choker…..telegram-bringer.’ In a grim reminder of what the miner’s life was like, we are told King Coal ‘pushed brillo pads doun Grandi’s lungs.’ All the horrible respiratory diseases are contained in this image. King Coal ‘mashed up our ambitions intae potted hough…he’d hypnotised us no tae believe in futures.’

These are real sentiments that must have been held by many a miner down the years but what did hold them together was their solidarity with one another. To survive down in the bowels of the earth you needed that solidarity with your fellow workers. It got you through your shift, and when you came up to the surface that solidarity was still there. This solidarity was also supported and strengthened by the National Union of Miners.

In 1973 the NUM paid for a bus of Chilean refugees fleeing from the scourges of Pinochet’s regime, a regime supported by the US to try out the new shock therapy of monetarist economics. The bus travelled from London to Cowdenbeath where the refugees would be housed. Thousands of miles from their homeland, the Chileans saw and heard the pipers playing and marching them to their new homes. Their homes had toys for the children, blankets on their beds and warm coal fires burning as they entered their new houses.

Here was room at the inn, true Christian charity of the most generous: here was international working-class solidarity at its finest. And this charity, this solidarity was delivered by a group of workers who, like the ‘anawim’ of the ancient world, were looked down upon and reviled by the rich for challenging their rule.

Today, this inspiring recollection is all the more sad, because last year in Cowdenbeath where King Coal is now absent, a Boyne ‘celebration’ was held by the Orange Order, addressed by Arlene Foster of the DUP. This event was the antithesis of what this area once represented. The CP within the NUM had successfully challenged the blight of sectarianism that seeks to divide workers. While our environmental consciousness today would not condone coal mining, the great loss of working-class solidarity is still something to be lamented.

The solidarity of all who are oppressed

Unlawfully jailed, victimised and blacklisted it is ‘The Wummen o the Soup Kitchen’ (Station 8) who ‘kept saul and body thegither’ for Jesus the Miner. By mentioning these women Hershaw does not merely conjure up the followers in the Gospel accounts who were women – his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute, being among his most faithful followers – he also helps us to recall the incredible contribution miners’ wives made during the 84-85 strike. Their activism and sacrifice was phenomenal. And just as those with power and wealth seek to divide worker from worker so they also try to do the same between men and women. It is the solidarity of all those who are oppressed that they fear most and that is why they must be divided.

womens support

The wummen o the soup kitchen kept saul/And body thegither syne

‘The Wummen o the Soup Kitchen’ were the heroines who had ‘smiles and faith/ And breid (bread) and soup they biggit (built-up) better men.’ Jesus the Miner had sought their help after he was ‘blacklistit fae ilka (every) pit in Fife.’ This was because, after the Great War, he had said in 1921,’This is nae land for heroes comin hame.’ He had told the ‘dochters (daughters) o the coalfield ‘greet nae for me’ (don’t cry for me) but ‘mourn for yersels, and for yer stervan bairns’ (starving children). Here he aligns himself with the poor and this was natural for him because he too is poor and made poor by those in power.

The painful route Christ took walking the Via Doloroso is cleverly paralleled as Jesus the Miner seeks to come to the aid of his fellow miners trapped down in a mine shaft. While he manages to ‘bring thaim tae the surface’ he found there was ‘nae hamewird passage up’ for himself. He writes a last message with a piece of chalk onto a wall of coal, and it is written for ‘wee Jockie.’ He asks him ‘tae tak care o ma Mither’ and ‘to luik out for our dear comrades’ and to ‘screive (write) doun our gospel tale.’

The use of the word ‘comrades’ here is interesting. The word is usually used on the left to suggest not just friendship but a brotherly or sisterly recognition that both parties are engaged in the greatest challenge of all and that is the liberation of mankind. The spiritual struggle and the political one are inexorably linked here as Jesus the Miner writes this word on the wall.

the good thief

You are fogien. This Setturday nicht, I trow/You'll dance wi your Jean upby in the Goth

By way of re-assuring ‘The Guid Thief o the Lindsay Pit’ (Station 11) that, despite his foolishness in lighting up a ‘sleekit (sly) Woodbine’ that ‘blew aa Kelty up’ and killed and maimed many miners, Jesus tells him, ‘You’ll dance wi your Jean upby in the Goth …this Satturday nicht.’ However, this hope seems dashed as the pit props were made of cheap timber and ‘the ruif (roof) came doun on tap o Jesus back.’

And remarkably, echoing the historical crucifixion of Christ, Jesus the Miner trapped underneath timber, pit props and stones ‘lay there greetan (crying) in the daurk/Whiles bluid and watter skailt (spilled) fae out his side.’ And he said seven words – ‘Oh faither, why has thou forsaken me?’

Many miners have died this way, but Jesus the Miner is clearly no ordinary miner. He represents all miners, he represents the NUM and he represents the broader working class itself. The destruction of this industry, prepared well in advance by Ridley and Thatcher, was designed to smash not just an industry and an irritant union, but to put the working class back in their place. This brutal event has given the ruling class the rotten fruits of foodbanks, zero-hours contracts, non-unionised workplaces, Universal Credit, rising homelessness and a hundred other rotten fruits besides. It could be said that the Crucifixion of Jesus the Miner is in fact the Crucifixion of the working class.

laid in the tomb

The Inquiry found 'mistakes had been made'......The Pit was closed in 1910.

As Jesus languishes at the bottom of a shaft this becomes his tomb. Station 13 ‘Laid in a Tomb’ is the only poem throughout the sequence that is written in English. The expressive and effusive use of Scots is banished in favour of the colder and more callous use of English that can hide its deeds behind the words it uses. All the governmental buzzwords are here in this short poem – ‘mistakes had been made’……‘further recommendations’……‘future improvements’……‘no individual was deemed to blame for the accident’……‘due to the financial outlay’……‘geological difficulties’……‘too dangerous to reclaim the body.’

Thousands of miners’ wives have read such letters after fatal accidents concerning their husbands. The language used here from the inquiry is the language of power. It is a language that anaesthetises thought for a while, as the bureaucratic register deliberately obfuscates where culpability really lies. It brings to mind Hillsborough, the Bogside and Grenfell.

Blessit are thaim wi a drouth for richt

In ‘The Ballant o the Miner Christ’ (Station 14) Jesus has now become Christ because he has ‘maistered Daith.’ Hershaw tells us here, ‘This tale’s a baur (joke), a comedy.’ There is no need for tears. Instead, because Jesus mastered death ‘Let fowk (folk) get fou (drunk), let aa rejoice.’

In ‘Apocrypha 2: Efter Hours’ it is fitting that Jesus should turn up in the Goth and meet with Tam. Jesus tells him it is ‘Nae miracle – ye hinnae seen a ghaist.’ Cleverly too Hershaw has Jesus tell Tam that he is not in any hereafter but in ‘the here and nou (now).’ And what needs to be done ‘here and nou’ is what should always have been done before – ‘Let our leid (language) aye be love.’ Again, Hershaw has taken us to the essence of the Christian message in all its utter simplicity.

In ‘Spare me nae Beatitudes’ there are two lines that seem to represent what is at the heart of ‘The Sair Road’ – ‘Blessit are thaim wi a drouth (thirst) for richt: They will get unco fou.’ The demand for ‘richt’ is not really a demand for right and certainly not a demand for righteousness but a demand for justice, for social justice.

As a result of the demise of the mining industry and the subsequent attacks on the working class as a whole, former mining areas – like many other de-industrialised areas – are now full of ‘smack-heids’, ‘junkies,’ ‘drunkarts,’ ‘jaikies,’ ‘hameless,’ and ‘gangrels’ (beggars). They have all fallen through the pit shafts of social and personal disintegration.

But this ‘sair road’ that all the casualties have to follow – and because of our existential condition as social beings, we are all casualties – will find justice and redemption one day. Effectively, the resurrection of Jesus the Miner is the hoped-for resurrection of the working classes. They have been, and still are, walking ‘the sair road’ but there is no reason to say that they will keep walking this road. They may see the light and climb the mountain to their eventual redemption. It should be ‘here and nou’ but it will come nonetheless. Many genuine socialists and true Christians believe this.

Or to put it another way it is similar to Antonio Gramsci’s formulation of ‘The pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.’ Beckett’s work illustrates how we all walk the same ‘sair road,’ the same existential road, aimlessly groping our way in the dark. Unlike George Osborne’s ‘we are all in this together’ when he can protect himself with his wealth from life’s adversities, ‘the sair road’ offers no protection for those with money. Along ‘the sair road’ we truly are in this all together. Or as the old adage has it – you can’t take it with you.

In the final poem ‘Isaiah 2:2-6’ there is the hope and the promise of ‘paice for ivirmair’ (peace for evermore) when our guns will be ‘wrocht (turned) intil ploushares.’ This is a fitting conclusion to ‘The Sair Road.’

Love, death, religion and revolution

The collection raises many issues and implications. It was a brave decision by Hershaw to write it and to write it in Scots. The use of Scots actually makes the poem all the more credible because to write on a subject like this in English would be to draw forth issues concerning the words Jesus the Miner uses. Would he have to talk as he does in the Gospels? How would he sound among Fife miners if he spoke English? What kind of accent would he have? The use of Scots makes Jesus the Miner exactly like everyone else. There is no difference in accent and therefore no class division either. Hershaw chose Scots well in ‘The Sair Road.’

If Hershaw’s choice of Scots was a good one then his decision to show that Jesus the Miner ‘has little time for organised religion’ was an even better one. The most obvious point here is that organised religion – especially in the West (though not the USA) is in decline. There is also a widespread revulsion against the growing number of cases coming to light of clerical sexual abuse. This is particularly true of the Catholic Church. By keeping Jesus the Miner away from any notional sense of church involvement, Hershaw avoids any taint of denominational preference or having to defend such a preference.

‘The Sair Road’, however, raises many issues that have had a past debate and continue to be discussed today. It was Dostoyevsky in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ (1879-80) who has Ivan Karamazov tell the tale of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Christ returned to earth, he says, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in Seville. The local people recognised him and gather round Seville Cathedral to welcome him. Inquisitors eventually arrest him and Christ is told by the Grand Inquisitor that the church has no need of him today. Christ is to be burned at the stake but during the night before this is to take place, the Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell. Christ listens to him without speaking himself. The Grand Inquisitor then decides to allow Christ to leave ‘into the dark alleys of the city.’

Christ had been condemned by the Inquisition for giving us all the freedom to walk ‘the sair road’ with all that implies for us. The Church, maintained the Grand Inquisitor, kept everyone happy by taking away their freedom. Jesus the Miner, like all miners and all workers, chooses ‘the sair road’ which ultimately brings resurrection and redemption. And just as the ordinary people in Seville recognised and loved Christ, so too the ordinary miners and their families have taken Jesus the Miner to their hearts.

There is also a well-known sketch by the Irish comedian, Dave Allen, that similarly deals with this conflict between Christ and the Church that claims to carry his message. As reverential music is being played while the Three Wise Men look down upon the baby Jesus in his crib, a rush of fervent Irish nuns appear and take hold of the child saying, ‘Well now, we will just be making sure that he is brought up the right way.’

In one of Terry Eagleton’s recent books ‘Radical Sacrifice’ (2018) we can find something akin to the idea inherent in ‘The Sair Road’. Eagleton’s work over many decades has been inspired by Marxism in his work on literary criticism and cultural theory, yet his Marxism also shows a debt to his earlier Catholicism. Thomas Docherty in his ‘Literature and Capital’ (2018) talks of Eagleton’s ‘quasi- religious turn’ and it could be that such a ‘turn’ maybe only became apparent after the publication of ‘After Theory’ (2003). This study sought to re-invigorate the left by saying that the age of theory is surely over now. In attacking the postmodernists who claimed that the era of what they called ‘meta-narratives’ was over – ie religious systems, philosophical systems and political ones like communism – Eagleton claimed that they made little mention of the most dangerous ‘meta-narrative’ of all that is capitalism.

He argued that it was time to cast aside the empty relativism of the postmodernists and to re-engage with the big issues all over again. He could well have been saying that ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ For him the big issues meant love, evil, death, morality, metaphysics, religion and revolution. Marx, it should be remembered, said something similar – ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.’ Eagleton would support this comment, but would add a caustic comment of his own saying that the postmodernists have not really interpreted very much.

‘Radical Sacrifice’ looks at the role of the ‘scapegoat’ in both primitive and modern societies. Jesus was a scapegoat in his time as were his followers. Creating scapegoats enables the status quo to remain the status quo. The miners in 84-85 were the scapegoats and today it is Muslims and migrants. Both ‘Radical Sacrifice’ and ‘The Sair Road’ seek to re-engage with issues of love, death, religion and revolution.

Similarly, some of the recent work by Marxists who profess their atheism nonetheless offer penetrating insights into the revolutionary potential of early religion. Alain Badiou in 1997 brought out ‘Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism’. Badiou considers St Paul to have been a profoundly original thinker who still has the revolutionary potential to inspire in the 21st century. It should be remembered that Paul was the one who took the message of Christ across the ancient world and helped set up the first Christian communities. He lived an impoverished life himself. He was Christianity’s first theologian if you like.

One of his deepest insights was to say in Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Here is the principle of Christian egalitarianism which ended slavery in the ancient world. It did so through love, through the unconditional love of others. Such a principle is not a million miles away from ‘The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. Workers of the world unite.’ That unity is required more now than ever before.

Slavoj Žižek has engaged in recent years in dialogues on faith in ‘The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?’ (2009) with John Milbank and in ‘God in Pain’ (2012) with Boris Gunjevic. Both texts discuss faith in the 21st century and dissect its revolutionary potential. This places ‘The Sair Road’ in extremely good company. The ongoing catastrophe that is capitalism should make us think deeper than ever before. To go forward you must always check the past by digging deeper into it than ever before also.

the sodgers played at pitch and toss 2

The sodgers played at pitch and toss,
Hey caw through, though doul the daw,
Wi Jesus nailed attour the Cross.
His love rules aa!

The final word on this remarkable book should go not to Hershaw but to his wonderful illustrator Les McConnell. His drawings do more than illustrate the meanings of the poem, they extend and enhance them, providing a fine accompaniment to the fine ‘The Sair Road.’ His drawings that accompany the text are sensitively rendered and enhance the poem tremendously well. They bring out both the detailed particularity of the scenes depicted, and the more abstract connections being imagined in the poem between Jesus’ revolutionary message and the struggle of the miners and the working class as a whole for economic, political and spiritual liberation – the communist dream of a society where 'love rules aa!'

 

The Sair Road by William Hershaw, illustrated by Les McConnell, is published by Grace Note Publications, price £20.

Capitalism, Communism, Christianity - and Christmas
Friday, 06 December 2019 19:25

Capitalism, Communism, Christianity - and Christmas

Published in Religion

Roland Boer answers questions about religion, capitalism, Christian communism – and Christmas. Culture Matters is also giving away a downloadable PDF of Professor Boer's new ebook on Christian communism, with best wishes to all our readers for the midwinter celebrations. Let's hope we have a culturally and politically progressive 2019........

Q. To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your path to Marxism?

A. My path to Marxism came through religion, particularly the Reformed (Calvinist) part of Protestantism. This may seem like a strange path, since the more common one is through Roman Catholicism – think of Terry Eagleton, Louis Althusser, David McLellan and so on. But it is one I share with far more illustrious people such as Friedrich Engels and Kim Il Sung.

How did this happen? My parents emigrated to Australia in the 1950s from the Netherlands, where the long post-war recession was still being felt. My father became a minister in the Reformed Churches of Australia, and later the Presbyterian Church. So I grew up as a minister’s son, with all of its benefits and drawbacks. It did mean that this type of Christian faith was part and parcel of everyday life – a rare experience these days. It was the fabric of my life, my assumptions and ways of experiencing the world.

Intellectually, this meant that I would inevitably study theology, but only after a degree in European classics (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit). While studying for a Bachelor of Divinity at the University of Sydney, I took a course in the 1980s called ‘Political and Liberation Theologies’. It was a real eye-opener – my first in-depth engagement with the intersections between Marxism and religion, which would shape much of what I did later. A Master’s thesis on Marx and Hegel followed, with a doctorate in Montreal on Marxist literary criticism of the Bible.

Various jobs followed: a minister in the church, a lecturer in a theological college, a university research scholar. But I have always been somewhat ambivalent about such institutions and their demands. There is always one foot outside, searching for another path.

The reality was that I was on some type of quest: to follow the whole Marxist tradition in all its many directions. In a Western European situation, this meant – given my interests – the complex intersections with Christianity. It is a commonplace that Western European cultures and traditions are deeply shaped by the realities of Christian (and Jewish) thought in so many ways. This meant that many Marxists, from Marx and Engels onwards, had to engage with religion. A similar point could be made about Russian Marxism, although this was now the Eastern Orthodox tradition, with its distinct theological developments.

The study of Russian Marxism brought me to a new awareness: as Lenin said on many occasions, winning power through a communist revolution is relatively easy; trying to construct socialism, often in a hostile environment, is infinitely more complex. So I became more interested in what might be called ‘After October’, after the revolution. What communist parties do when in power is an extraordinary area to study, especially since it remains so under-studied. New problems arise that could simply not be foreseen by Marx and Engels, who never experienced what may be called ‘socialism in power’. New solutions must be found and new theoretical positions developed.

All of this took me to China (and more recently North Korea). Here communist parties are in power, and I prefer to take that reality seriously rather than simply dismiss it. What are the practical and theoretical developments? How do the cultural and historical contexts – so different from Western Europe and Russia – influence the developments of Marxism? One obvious point is that the history of engagements with religion is so different that one must start again in order to understand what is going on.

So I am now, along with a number of others, working on a project called ‘Socialism in Power’. My interest is in Chinese Marxist philosophy, which entails knowing the language and engaging with the rich tradition of this philosophy and its relations with traditional Chinese philosophy. What topics interest me? They include the socialist state, a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, Chinese approaches to ‘utopia’ and how these are reinterpreted in light of Marxism, and even what the Chinese mean by a socialist market economy.

Q. You’ve written for Culture Matters on a number of topics. Can you start by saying something about Marx, Engels and Lenin’s comments on religion?

A.‘Opium of the people’ is where we should begin. For a young Marx in his twenties it meant not simply a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. Instead, the metaphor of opium in the nineteenth century was a complex one. On the one hand, opium was seen as a cheap and widely available medicine, readily accessible for the poor. Marx himself used opium whenever he felt ill, which was often. On the other hand, opium became increasingly to be seen as a curse. Medical authorities began to warn of addiction and that perhaps its healing properties were not what many people believed. And the scandal of the British Empire forcing opium on the Chinese in order to empty Chinese coffers became more and more apparent. In short, opium was a very ambivalent metaphor: blessing and curse, medicine and dangerous drug, British wealth and colonial oppression. This ambivalence carries through to religion.

As for this ambivalence, Engels is our best (early) guide. Despite giving up his Reformed faith – with much struggle – for communism, he kept a lifelong interest in religion. He would frequently denounce religion as a reactionary curse, longing for it to be relegated to the museum of antiquities. But he also began to see a revolutionary potential in religion, which came to its first full expression in his 1850 piece on the German Peasant War. This was a study of Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant Revolt of 1525, which was inspired by a radical interpretation of the Bible.

It was the first Marxist study of what later came to be called (by Karl Kautsky) Christian communism, although Engels tended to see the theological language as a ‘cloak’ or ‘husk’ for more central economic and political matters. But Engels was not yet done. Not long before his death in 1895, an article appeared on early Christianity. Here Engels challenged everyone – Marxists and Christians alike – to take seriously the argument that early Christianity was revolutionary. Why? It drew its members from slaves, peasants and unemployed urban poor; it shared many features with the communist movement of his own day; it eventually conquered the Roman Empire. We may want to question the last assertion, as indeed later Marxists like Karl Kautsky did, for Christianity – unexpectedly for some – became a religion of empire rather than conquering it.

Does Lenin have any insights for understanding religion? Generally, he was more trenchantly opposed, not least because the Russian Orthodox Church sided so clearly with the collapsing tsarist autocracy. Yet there are some insights. Apart from Lenin’s continued interest in sectarian Christian groups after the October revolution, let me make two observations.

The first is that Lenin agreed with a position that had been hammered out in the German Social-Democratic Party: religious belief is not a barrier to joining a communist party. Marx and Engels had already indicated as much in terms of the First International. Why? Religion is not the primary problem; instead, the main target is economic and social exploitation. Indeed, this principle has by and large been followed by nearly all communist parties since then (although the Communist Part of China is an interesting exception).

Second, Lenin reinterpreted Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ not as ‘opium for the people’ (as is commonly believed) but as a kind of ‘spiritual booze’. This term has many layers in Russian culture, all the way from Russian Orthodox theology to the complex role of vodka in Russian society. The main point is that ‘spiritual booze’ is not immediately a dismissal, but rather a grudging acknowledgement of the sheer complexity of religion itself.

Q…..and on the topic of religion and capitalism?

A. Let us go to the heart of the matter, with Marx (and leave aside the superficial efforts to see capitalism as a type of ‘religion’). The most thorough analysis of how religion works in capitalism comes through Marx’s reinterpretation of the idea of the fetish.

Over forty years, Marx turned this idea over and over. He was always aware of its religious dimensions, but he also transformed it (the German is Aufhebung) into a very useful way to understand the core functions of capital. To find this insight, we need to go to the third volume of Capital. After pointing out that fetishism attaches to every feature of capitalism, he then points out the key fetish: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Or as his formula puts it: M–M1. Why is this the main fetish? It is both unreal and real, mystical and concrete. On the one hand, it obscures labour and production, pretending that money produces money; on the other hand, it is very real and profoundly oppressive. It is what would now be called the ‘financialisation of the market’. This is what he means by the ‘religion of everyday life’.

Q. The ebook that you’ve written for Culture Matters is on the topic of Christian communism. What are the biblical roots of Christian communism?

A. Let us begin with the socio-economic situation, because Christianity, like most religions, is a response to economic injustice and oppression in this world. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Rome’s imperialism was reshaping peasant agriculture, and the burdens of taxation and debt were growing, deeply affecting local economies, village communities, cultures and health – malaria, for example, was rife.

When the Romans eventually took possession of the Eastern Mediterranean, they found a colonial system that was working rather well – if one thinks in terms of the colonisers. They took over what the Greeks had already established for a few centuries and modified it in the light of their own preferences. This was a system of Greek ‘cities’ (polis), which marked the colonising presence of foreigners. These cities were Greek-speaking, with Greek culture, institutions and town planning.

Above all, they relied on all of the surrounding territory (called the chora) to supply everything the cities needed. Their ‘needs’ were substantial, transforming the economic structures of this chora.

But what was the chora? In a colonial situation, the chora was not the arable land around the city (as in Greece). Instead, it comprised all of the villages, land and peasants who worked the land. They spoke the local language, followed local customs and practices and saw the colonising cities as thoroughly foreign. Given the immense demands from the cities, the lives of the peasants were transformed. They were often forced to move into lower areas rife with malaria, with profound consequences for short lives – life expectancy was around 30.

Roman armies frequently cut swathes through this countryside, as ‘punishment’ for revolt. Mass enslavements took place, further reducing rural labour power. In a recently published book with Christina Petterson (Time of Troubles), we have described this as a ‘colonial regime’. The Romans gradually transformed the system they inherited. Even though the cities remained Greek in culture, they were also required to provide the relatively large city of Rome itself with even larger supplies of grain, and of course slaves.

Q. Given this context of exploitation and oppression, can you give us some examples of parables and stories from the NT which can be interpreted as revolutionary hopes, prescriptions, exhortations etc.?

A. Perhaps it is best to begin with an item that is often a stumbling block to modern readers: the healing stories. To modern eyes, they seem magical, the stuff of ‘faith healing’. But they can be read at two levels. The first is the reality of lives broken by disease. Earlier, I mentioned the pervasiveness of malaria, born by mosquitoes. Malaria does not necessarily kill immediately, but it makes one prone to a multitude of other diseases. The healing stories provide an answer to this reality.

At a symbolic level, these stories also respond to lives broken by poverty, exploitation and the profound disruption to kin networks. At the same time, we need to be wary: the Greeks and Romans liked to characterise peasants as ugly, misshapen and deformed (among other items of class consciousness). The presence of so many people in the Gospels with what would now be called ‘disabilities’ may also be seen as a standard way of depicting peasants. In this light, the healing stories disrupt this type of anti-peasant class consciousness.

More obviously, we find in the Gospels a whole series of sayings and events that challenge Roman perceptions of private property, imperialism and exploitation of colonised areas of the empire. Let me give one example of each:

A challenge to private property, which the Romans had invented as a legal category in the late second century BCE. At one point, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’.

A challenge to imperialism: asked about a coin and whose bust was on it, Jesus replies, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’. In other words, the emperor is due nothing, while God is due everything. ‘What has Rome given us?’ Jesus says. ‘Nothing’, is the reply.

A challenge to imperial exploitation: the best example here is a central item of the church’s liturgy. Each week at evening prayer, I recite the following, which are the words of Mary from the Gospel of Luke: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’. I suspect that the radical sense of these words has been lost through two millennia of repetition.

Also lost to view has been the practical way of life that early Christians led, which was essentially communist. Their solution to the problems of exploitation and oppression was sharing, and common ownership, as described in Acts of the Apostles:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Q. How did this ‘communist’ tradition continue, and how was it suppressed and co-opted by the ruling classes?

A. At this point, we need to backtrack a little. The idea of Christian communism was first proposed by Karl Kautsky, the leading intellectual of the second generation of Marxists. In a massive study – called Forerunners of Modern Socialism – that has been translated only partially into English, Kautsky and his comrades set about identifying a whole tradition of European Christian communism. A careful analysis of this work appears in the first chapter of a book called Red Theology, which will be published in early 2019.

Kautsky identifies the basic impulse for Christian communism in many sayings of the Gospels, but above all in two brief texts from the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. The first is quoted above, the second was: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common’. For Kautsky, this was enough of an inspiration for a Christian form of communism that would resonate through the ages.

For our purposes here, Kautsky notes that this communist impulse was appropriated by the powers that be in terms of ‘charity’ and ‘alms’. As Christianity spread, it adapted to imperial power. The turning point was when Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion. The radical texts remained, but they were softened and spiritualised into admonitions for alms, family life and simple living.

But it could not be completely appropriated and suppressed. At the moment of this appropriation, the monastic movement arose, which rejected the trappings of wealth and power and sought the simplicity of the original Christian life far from the centres of power.

Q. What examples of Christian communism have there been in the West?

A. There have been many, not least the ongoing monastic movement. The Christian communist impulse refused to die. It kept reappearing, challenging the status quo and the tendency for the Church to become a surrogate for imperial values. The examples are many, but they are predicated on a basic dynamic of Christianity. In the name of returning to the original Christian community, one movement after another has tried to reform the Church from within or challenge it from outside.

Christian communism has had a fascinating history of 2,000 years. There have been two currents: a) communal life with all things in common; b) revolutionary uprisings, due to persecution and radical criticism of the status quo. The communal expression is found in the Franciscans, Beguines, the Moravian Brethren, the Levellers and Diggers in England, and the many American Utopian communes, such as Pantisocracy and the communities inspired by Étienne Cabet.

The revolutionary impulse appears first with the Dulcinians, who took up arms in the early fourteenth century. Later, it appears all over Europe, especially with the rise of early capitalism: Taborites in Bohemia, Peasant Revolutions in England and Europe, especially with Thomas Müntzer (1525) and the Anabaptist Revolution in Münster (1534-1535).

Keir Hardie and Tony Benn are two more recent examples of socialists who were shaped by Christian beliefs.

Q. What examples of Christian communism have emerged in other parts of the world?

A. Russia has a long history, with sectarian groups (Old Believers, Doukhobors, Molokans and so on) and an older peasant Christian communism, with its slogan, ‘the land is God’s’. Tolstoy was a champion of this type, based on the village-commune with land in common.

During the Russian Revolution a unique form arose: ‘God-Building’. According to Anatoly Lunacharsky, Soviet People’s Commissar for Education and Culture, the gods of religion represented the ideals to which human beings were striving. Socialism could embody this approach in education, art, culture – and especially through revolution.

In modern times, the Christian churches of the DPRK have come to support the Korean effort to construct socialism. They are actively engaged in domestic social work and internationally work to overcome the deep anti-DPRK prejudice.

The Chinese tradition of Christian communism, which arose in the early twentieth century, is the most interesting of all.

One of its main theologians was Wu Yaozong, who spoke of two conversions: one to Christianity and one to Marxism-Leninism. Wu established the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church, established in 1951 and supported by the government, which is now the largest Protestant organisation in the world, with more than 38 million members – and growing.

Even the Vatican understands the natural links between the Chinese state’s struggle for socialism and practical application of the Gospel. It recently pointed out that the Chinese state’s commitment to the common good has much more affinity with Catholic Social Teaching than the individualism of Western liberal democracies. Let me focus on the recent agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government, which has confounded many observers, including on the socialist left.

Three recent statements are important for understanding the agreement, which seeks to solve a centuries-long problem: who will appoint bishops, the Vatican or the Chinese government. Up to recent times, there have been two Roman Catholic Churches in China, one recognised by the Vatican and the other recognised by the Chinese government. The 2018 agreement finally solves this problem. But from the Vatican’s side, it was framed in terms of some very important observations.

First, in 2016, Pope Francis observed:

It has been said many times and my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians. Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide.

Second, in 2018 Massimo Faggioli (from Villanova University) pointed out that:

…the use of Catholicism as an ideological surrogate for Western ideologies is not new, but is especially at odds with Pope Francis’ vision of Catholicism, and it makes it impossible to understand this important moment in the relations between the Vatican and China.

In other words, the church has its own agenda and is not to be co-opted by a Western liberal ideological agenda.

Third, and most importantly, Bishop Sorondo, who is head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, made the following arresting observation in 2018:

Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese … They seek the common good, subordinating things to the general good … The dignity of the person is defended … Liberal thought has liquidated the concept of the common good, not even wanting to take it into account, asserting that it is an empty idea, without any interest. By contrast, the Chinese focus on work and the common good.

This may seem like an extraordinary development, especially in light of the ramped-up Sinophobia in a small number of Western countries, but it makes quite clear that the Vatican has its own agenda in the light of a long history of Catholic Social Teaching, and that it values the social good. For the Vatican, China embodies in our time a focus on the common good.

Churches in China are full to overflowing, apart from the many, many Muslims in China (Hui and Uyghur minorities that number in tens of millions) and indeed the Buddhists. Obviously, they are doing something right.

Perhaps we can learn something from the Chinese experience, not least in the way different Christian churches are seeking to contribute to the construction of socialism.

Q. So there seems to be quite a lot of evidence, throughout history and across the world, that Christianity and communism can be mutually supportive - although clearly there have also times when they have been deeply opposed! What are the lessons for Western socialist politics, and political parties?

A. Churches, mosques, temples and meditation centres need to remember that religion is not all about a private spiritual life focused on another world. This world too, with its exploitation, injustice and inequality, is also vitally important. As each tradition recognises, faith is collective and unitive, a fundamental part of our social natures.

That means working with others for the core aspirations of socialism. One example is to become part of the movement for cultural democracy, to liberate itself from the legitimation of exploitation and oppression and like other cultural activities become part of the struggle to transform the material world.

Let me make the following initial suggestions: first, Western churches may want to begin rethinking their comfortable alignment with liberalism and the modern Euro-American project. I am not using liberalism here in the American sense, where it has come to mean – for various reasons – what is progressive. Instead, I mean liberalism – and its more recent form as neo-liberalism – as the main ideological framework for modern capitalism. It means the primacy of the private individual at the expense of the social and the dismissal of any notion of the common good. Aligning with this ideology has been deadly for Western Churches, as empty pews on any Sunday can attest. The answer is not more liberalism, which we often find in Pentecostal churches and others on the religious right. The answer is to recover the Christian affirmation of the common good.

It is important to do so from within the dynamic of Christianity: the faith and the creeds and the practices of the churches and of religious belief. My influence is the Christian communist tradition, which arises from within such affirmations. This suggestion may seem slightly strange for those who have never experienced religious faith or find it simply mystifying and nonsensical (as the New Atheist movement tries to do in our time). But this is where the inspiration lies – a kind of ‘spiritual reserve’ to inhibit the usual drift away from radicalism,.

For example, the Chinese Christian communist, Wu Yaozong, made it clear that his position arose from faith, prayer and Christian belief, and not from some opportunist compromise with the communists. Thus, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church – which Wu Yaozong helped to establish – in China today is deeply confessional. Or if you look at the statements concerning the Vatican’s reasons for the agreement with the Chinese government, they make it clear that the ultimate basis is theological and pastoral.

Let me put it this way: the Christian call to conversion is far more than an individual moment. The original Greek is metanoia, which means a change of heart and mind. This change of direction, of a turn in one’s life and setting out on a new road, is very much a collective change.

What does this entail? In terms of communist parties, which seem to be undergoing a revival as I write, it is worth reminding them of the Christian communist tradition. This tradition is so important for the Western developments of communism (it was first identified by Marxists, after all) and it reminds us that Christianity is not simply a reactionary and conservative force.

In the context of the UK, it may mean influencing an actual Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. The traditions of British Labour can play a role here, with inspiring leaders like Keir Hardie and Tony Benn, who have drawn on the Christian tradition. The trap, of course, is that such a government may end up losing its radical agenda once in office, as has happened so often before. For this reason, I wrote ‘influencing’, or working to keep the radical agenda at the forefront and even pushing it further to the Left. This may be called a Western version of working with progressive movements, but not identifying with them completely. Perhaps the best slogan here is ‘within and for socialism, but holding socialism to account’.

Or it may mean becoming part of a wider dynamic like ‘cultural democracy’ that seeks to reclaim culture for the people rather than big business and its overwhelming drive for profits As writers on Culture Matters and elsewhere have argued, we need democratic control and various forms of social ownership over the arts, sport, the media – and the churches, mosques and temples.

We need it because culture is integral to the socialist project, an essential part of an all-round healthy, happy, human existence. Our participation in cultural activities like religion should be part of our individual and collective realisation of the common good, and not be undertaken for commercial profit or to ignore, deny or legitimise profit-seeking economic systems like capitalism.

Q. Finally, do you have any other thoughts for our readers, relevant to this Christmas season?

A. Yes – the nativity story is full of radical potential! Jesus is born to a poor family, perhaps in a stable or even on the street, and placed in a feeding trough after birth. Why? An innkeeping businessman turned them away, and then the family was harassed and hunted by the puppet king Herod. Think of the Magnificat, when Mary says:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

And as for the great tradition of Christmas gifts, and Boxing Day, we should remember that the communist slogan – ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ – comes originally from the Book of Acts: ‘everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as had any need’.

 IR 20 resized

Christian Communism, by Roland Boer, published as a downloadable PDF by Culture Matters, December 2018.

 

 

Marxism and religion
Friday, 06 December 2019 19:25

Marxism and religion

Published in Religion

Richard Clarke outlines how religion, like any other cultural activity, is capable of both promoting political and social liberation, and being manipulated and controlled by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

Most Marxists would say that it is none of their business to judge or comment on any individual’s sincere and deeply-held religious beliefs, provided that these do not encourage prejudice, intolerance or result in harm to others.

Some religious groupings, notably the Quakers, have been prominent in the peace and anti-war movement. Many Jews – not just secular Jews but ultra-orthodox religious Jews as well – oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Catholic ‘liberation theology’ has been a feature of progressive movements in South America.  Many individuals – of all faiths – have managed to combine their religious conviction with a commitment to socialism, even Marxism.

RC Keir Hardie Trafalgar Square 1908

In Britain, the fusion of Marxist theory and Christian beliefs called Christian socialism has a long and honourable tradition. Keir Hardie (1856-1915), the founder of the modern Labour Party declared that “Any system of production or exchange which sanctions the exploitation of the weak by the strong or the unscrupulous is wrong and therefore sinful.” And Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury (1931-1963) was a supporter of the October Revolution, a life-long friend of the Soviet Union, and a chair of the Board of the Daily Worker, the predecessor of today’s only socialist national newspaper, the Morning Star.

Religion in and of itself is no indicator of people’s political orientation or of their personal qualities. At the same time Marxists would challenge the liberal exhortation to ‘celebrate all faiths’. The ‘faiths’ that are purportedly celebrated are not, of course, just matters of individual conviction. They are institutionalised belief systems. Religion is primarily a social and historical phenomenon. As Marx observed, ‘Humanity makes religion, religion does not make humanity.’ Britain’s own Head of State is, after all, also the head of the ‘established’ Church of England.

On a philosophical level, Marxism questions the truth of any religion that assumes the existence of a supernatural being not subject to the laws of nature but who responds to the adulation and entreaties of his/her/its worshippers. In engaging with religious believers, however sympathetically, Marxists do not conceal their materialist belief that everything that exists is part of nature and subject to laws which – in principle at least - can be discovered by human action and used by humanity to shape our own future.

However, notwithstanding the gendered language of his time, Marx’s position on religion is a lot more subtle and sympathetic than is commonly thought:

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state and this society produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Probably the best known observation of Marx on religion is that it is the ‘opium of the people.’ This is sometimes taken to mean that he saw it as a mechanism of control from above, prescribed by those in power to secure compliance and docility. To the extent that this is true it is only part of Marx’s analysis. The full passage from Marx makes his own meaning clear:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

As Roland Boer points out, Marx used opium himself to give some relief from a variety of ailments including toothache, ear aches and carbuncles; the opium metaphor had some meaning to him. Religion, in his view, provided at least some comfort and hope to the oppressed. In an uncertain world it promises a degree of certainty; it provides an apparently alternative authority to corrupted secular institutions, and to those suffering physical or psycho-social distress, it offers comfort. Above all, it offers hope, however illusory. Marxists understand this, which is why they don’t challenge genuine individual faith.

Marxists realise the limitations of individual good works, and question those that are driven primarily by expectations of a better life hereafter. More than a century ago, the communist organiser Joe Hill’s ballad ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ (popularised by Woodie Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen amongst others) challenged the ‘pie in the sky when you die’ of organised religion. ‘It’s a Lie’ goes the final line of each stanza.

As Marx concluded in his ‘opium of the people’ passage: ‘challenging religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.’ John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ tries to do just this ‘imagine there’s nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too; imagine all the people, living life in peace… no possessions… no need for greed or hunger…’ And of course, the Internationale declares ‘No saviour from on high delivers.’

Institutionalised religion can impose its own form of alienation on its adherents. That alienation is expressed wonderfully for one individual in Dire Straits’ song Ticket to Heaven (ironically taken by some to be an endorsement of religious faith rather than a critique of it). The ‘narrator’ of the song gives more than she can afford to ‘save the little children in a far country’ – sending money to ‘the man with the golden ring. – a reference to evangelical Baptist ministers like Billy Graham, spiritual adviser to a number of American presidents including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and a significant influence on Donald Trump). As a consequence she has ‘nothing left for luxuries, nothing left to pay her heating bills’ but ‘the Good Lord will provide’ – she has her ‘Ticket to Heaven’.

Religion can also be a cloak, a justification for greed and avarice. TV evangelists in the US (and elsewhere) promote the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich, inverting Feuerbach’s assertion that ‘only the poor man has a rich God’’ and reimagining the life of an itinerant Jew who believed that you couldn’t serve God and mammon to be ‘a poster boy for the super-rich.’

As Giles Fraser (former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre) has pointed out, Donald Trump is both a product and a perpetuator of the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich: ‘Being “blessed” has become a moral alibi for America’s greed. It is a nauseating smile of faux-gratitude that says: God gave this to me, so it’s not about me having too much.’’

In Britain the Alpha Course, that gospel’s more restrained, English equivalent, promotes a parallel message of personal fulfilment or quiescence, devoid of any notion of collective social progress.

All religions demand a degree of submission in religious observance – attendance at mass, praying five times per day, acceptance of a higher authority than one’s own conscience. And most are accepting of the status quo – on this earth as well as the next. That lovely hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ has for its third verse:

The rich man in his castle,/ The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,/ And ordered their estate.

But religions are not ‘all the same’. Religion presents a world of contrasts and contradictions both between and within faiths. It would be difficult to conceive of an Islamic liberation theology, for instance. The prophet of Christianity – a poor single man who ‘turned the other cheek’ and gave what he had to the poor contrasts with the prophet of Islam – a trader and military leader who accumulated wealth and power through war. Pope Francis’ 2017 encounter with Donald Trump (who arrived at the Vatican in a motorcade; the Pope came in a Ford Focus) spoke volumes. The Pope had previously suggested that Trump’s threat to build a Mexican wall meant he could not be a Christian (Christians build bridges) to which Trump responded by calling the Pope ‘disgraceful’ for doubting his faith.

For some, religious conviction offers comfort, disengagement, a shelter from the world. For others, it offers a justification for greed, bigotry and even violence. And for some it is the route to social action, challenging injustice, exploitation and evil.

Marxists need to take a careful, dialectical view on religious belief. Like any other cultural activity, it is capable of promoting political and social liberation. But it is always subject to manipulation and control by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

'It is communists who think like Christians': free ebooks on Marxism, religion and communism
Friday, 06 December 2019 19:25

'It is communists who think like Christians': free ebooks on Marxism, religion and communism

Published in Our Publications

Culture Matters has published three free ebooks containing essays by the theologian and writer Professor Roland Boer.

Our aim with the topic of religious and spiritual life is the same as our aim across the arts and all other cultural activities - to unearth and mobilise the radical meanings in religious thought, teaching and practice. We believe the intersection of religion and progressive politics is a field which merits serious study, as the intellectual bankruptcy of neoliberalism becomes increasingly obvious to people, reactionary politicians continue to hide behind a socially conservative interpretation of religion, and as recognition of the need for wide-reaching and progressive change in Britain grows.

Organised religion repels a lot of people these days, because of the perception that it is elitist, dogmatic and socially exclusive. But there is a radical strand in the modern Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths, based on helping the poor, promotion of the common good, respecting the dignity of labour, and practising solidarity with the socially excluded. This radical strand includes political campaigning against the structural causes of poverty and inequality in the name of social justice, as well as encouraging individual acts of charity.

To take a few examples, all of the main Christian groups - Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, United Reformed Church, Baptists, Quakers, Church of Scotland - are supporters of Real Living Wage campaigns, which aim to improve the situation of workers in low-paid, precarious employment. Churches of a variety of denominations have come together to help the victims of recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing. And consider also the critical statements made by Pope Francis about capitalism such as, 'We cannot wait any longer to deal with the structural causes of poverty, in order to heal our society from an illness that can only lead to new crises.' The pope has repeatedly cited the pitfalls of capitalism, decrying global income inequality and equating low-wage labor to a form of slavery. He has even said, in that bitterly ironic tone characteristic of Jesus' voice in the Gospels: 'It is the communists who think like Christians'.

Combining a progressive political strand with a radical application of religion could make a useful contribution to the national conversation about the direction of a future Labour Government. It also could empower people to reclaim their spiritual and moral heritage, and help inspire, motivate and underpin local campaigning activity. Just like art, religion can be a tool of oppression, a means of legitimating unfair distributions of power and wealth – but it can also be a powerful tool for the radical liberation of humanity. 

In the first essay, Professor Boer discusses Marx's description of religion as 'the opium of the people'. He says:

Marx’s most well-known observation concerning religion is that it is ‘the opium of the people’. The meaning would seem to be clear: opium is a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. So also with religion. The catch is that Marx’s use of ‘opium’ is not so straightforward, for it actually opens the door to what may be called a political ambivalence at the heart of religion.

Go to Religion: the opium of the people? for the first essay.

In the second essay, Professor Boer analyses the various relationships between religion and capitalism, especially Marx's use of the term 'fetish'. He says:

Marx was then able to distil the idea to locate the central fetishistic function of capitalism: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Only a complex theory of fetishism can explain why ‘capital thus becomes a very mystic being’, especially ‘since all of labour’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labour as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself. In this sense can we say that capital becomes the ‘religion of everyday life’.

Go to Religion and capitalism for the second essay.

In the third essay, Professor Boer discusses the biblical basis for Christian communism; the views of Engels, Kautsky and Lenin; its history in Europe and Russia; modern examples of the mutually supportive ways in which Christianity and communism operate in North Korea and China; and suggests some possible lessons for Western churches and socialist parties. He says:

Churches, mosques, temples and meditation centres need to remember that religion is not all about a private spiritual life focused on another world. This world too, with its exploitation, injustice and inequality, is also vitally important. As each tradition recognises, faith is collective and unitive, a fundamental part of our social natures and of human cultures.

Go to Christianity and Communism for the third essay.

We hope these essays stimulate critical discussion, and would welcome critical and creative responses to the issues they raise. We invite people to share the ebooks via their networks, join us in the debate and contribute ideas about to how advance this agenda.