Gerry Downing, Socialist Fight Group
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.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Gerry Downing looks at the origins of monotheism and assesses the attitude of communists towards believers
Abraham Leon’s book The Jewish question: a Marxist analysis has the following to say about the Jewish religion: “Whereas catholicism expresses the interests of the landed nobility and of the feudal order, while Calvinism (or Puritanism) represents those of the bourgeoisie or capitalism, Judaism mirrors the interests of a pre-capitalist mercantile class.”
Leon quotes Marx approvingly from On the Jewish question: “We must not start with religion in order to explain Jewish history; on the contrary the preservation of the Jewish religion or nationality can be explained only by the ‘real Jew’, that is to say by the Jew in his economic and social role.”
The view that the ‘ancient Hebrews’, which refers in the first place to Abraham’s tribe of nomadic sheep-herders, believed in one abstract, invisible god is incorrect. This is mythology, which projects modern values and ideas onto an ancient society to prove some linear continuity. In fact ideas of a deity and religious beliefs have changed out of all recognition since 1900 BC.
Abraham’s nomadic Hebrews settled in a small part of Canaan about 1900 BC and remained semi-nomadic. Their chief god was El. Yahweh (Jehovah) was the god of the Canaanites. Later historical revisions ignored El and gave Yahweh as the only god of the Israelites. In fact during the time of the two kingdoms Yahweh was the northern god and El the southern god. They had no idea of a single god and such an idea did not exist in the planet at the time. The religion of Abraham was polytheism, not monotheism.
The religion of Moses
The religion of Moses was more advanced and did not advocated constant warfare to destroy the gods of other tribes, as long as they did not interfere with Yahweh’s domain. It was the development of a municipal god to replace and include Abraham’s tribal gods. The Hebrews had left the land of Canaan because of famine and came into closer contact with the more advanced culture of the Nile. There is no historical evidence that they ever settled in Egypt. In fact the historical record for the reign of Ramesses II is well nigh complete and there is no mention of any major exodus of slaves from the kingdom.
They did not assimilate into this culture because their nomadic animal husbandry would not allow it. The Bible tale that Moses was raised as an Egyptian nobleman because he was found floating in a basket in the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter is probably simply a means of saying that the leaders of the Hebrews adopted some of their religious views from the Egyptians.
Where did the religion of the Egyptians come from? There is a quote from Marx that explains: “The necessity for predicting the rise and fall of the Nile created Egyptian astronomy, and with it the domination of the priests as directors of agriculture.”  God made himself known to Moses not from the burning bush or from the posterior of Yahweh, but from the social necessity of the Egyptian peasants to know when the Nile would flood so they could regulate their seasonal activity of sowing and harvesting. And only the priests knew that. The peasants had no idea how they knew this and the priests were not going to tell them because knowledge was indeed power. So the ignorant peasants readily believed that the priests were passing on the knowledge of when this was to happen because only god could know that and the priests must therefore be his representatives. The pharaoh was a god because he was the chief priest who knew everything, although there quickly arose a certain, often ill-defined, separation between religious and secular rule. This was not simply a conscious con trick, but a social necessity.
Whilst the Israelites lived in Egypt, the pharaoh Akhenaton had attempted to impose an early form of monotheism in the form of worship of the sun god, Aton, but the society reverted to their traditional gods on his death, and he himself had insisted on remaining a god. The advance to a multi-people empire and towards monotheism was thwarted for that time and the city built by Akhenaton in honour of the new god fell into ruins after his death. But the time for these ideas had arrived and was bound to circulate in an advanced culture like Egypt.
Moses supposedly created the Arc of the Covenant at Mount Sinai, where the god of Israel dwelt after the exodus. True, he was only visible as a sunburst, but, as he lived in that wooden box, he was remarkable small and not very abstract. Moses developed a primitive form of monotheism, dispensing with the multitude of lesser gods like the golden calf, in his own society and for his people alone. Yahweh was, after all, only the god of Israel. The religion of Moses was inspired by Egyptian culture, but retained the old Hebrew tribal deity. In fact the majority of the ‘Israelites’ who departed in the exodus may have been Egyptians.
Moses elaborated the Ten Commandments as new precepts to form the legal basis of a settled and more peaceful community. It was not a religion of one god overseeing all the peoples of the world onto whom humanity projected their idealised selves. It was a halfway house that had not yet developed the notion of one god for everybody. They just did not consider such a state possible because it was not possible at that stage. It was the later rise of great multi-people empires that posed this question.
Over a hundred years ago, Paul Lafargue, explained the evolution of the belief in one god thus: “The idea of god, planted and germinated in the human brain by the unknown elements of the natural environment and the social environment, is not something invariable: it varies on the contrary according to time and place; it evolves in proportion, as the mode of production develops, transforming the social environment.
“God, for the Greeks, the Romans and other ancient peoples, had his dwelling in a given spot and existed only to be useful to his adorers and hurtful to their enemies; each family had its private gods, the spirit of deified ancestors, and each city had its municipal or state god. The municipal god or goddess dwelt in the temple consecrated to him or her and was incorporated into the image which often was a block of wood or a stone; he or she was interested in the fate of the inhabitants of the city, of these alone. The ancestral gods concerned themselves only with family affairs. The Jehovah of the Bible was a god of this kind; he lodged in a wooden box called the Arc of the Covenant; which was carried along when the tribes changed their location; they put it at the head of the army, that Jehovah might fight for his people; if he chastised them cruelly for their infractions of his law, he also rendered them many services, as the Old testament reports.
The Greeks and Romans, like the Jews and the first christians, had no thought of their god being the only god of creation: the Jews believed in Moloch, Baal and other gods of the nations with which they warred as firmly as in Jehovah “¦ The municipal divinities, which belonged to the warlike cities of antiquity, always at strife with neighbouring peoples, could not answer the religious needs which mercantile production created in the bourgeois democracies of the commercial and industrial cities, obliged on the contrary to maintain pacific relations with the surrounding nations. The necessities of commerce and industry forced the new-born bourgeoisie to de-municipalise the city divinities and create cosmopolitan gods “¦ These new divinities, Isis, Demeter, Dionysos, Mithra, Jesus, etc “¦ still took on a human form, though the need was beginning to be felt for a supreme being which should not be anthropomorphic; but it is not until the capitalist epoch that the idea of an amorphous god has imposed itself, as a consequence of the impersonal form taken on by the property of corporations.”
Lafargue here clearly spells out the reasons for the rise and development of monotheism: commercial necessity to trade peacefully. This had superseded the previous necessity, which was to advance by capturing your neighbour’s territory by war. Notions of god and versions of monotheism continued to be developed from the ancient primitive municipal monotheism of middle antiquity to the sophisticated supreme being of the French Revolution and Hegel’s ‘absolute idea’, as humanity’s productive forces gave rise to new social necessities.
Look at any map of trade routes from antiquity to the modern epoch. Almost all show major routes through or near the ancient land of Palestine. It was the land of the Canaanites, a great trading people. The invading Philistines (who gave their name to Palestine) took on much of the culture of the Canaanites, like the Israelites. They invented an alphabet because they needed to tally and record their trading activities, so the ship’s captain and crew would not rip them off.
The Israelites learned to write from the Philistines (presumably between wars). So it is easy to understand that the record of what happened to the Hebrews from Abraham to Moses is second-hand and written to suit the politics of a later epoch. From 1100 to 539 BC the Phoenicians – the name given to the northern Canaanites by the Greeks – traded and settled the Mediterranean lands, just as the Jews did later and for the same reason: location and opportunity. It is entirely unremarkable that the Jews followed and developed this long tradition.
It is part of the mythology of Judaism, developed by the Zionists, that a nomadic tribe could have been culturally more advanced than the Canaanites because of their monotheism. The archaeological dig at Hazor, northern Israel (1955-58) settled all these arguments against the fundamentalists. Modern dating techniques enabled the archaeologists to outline a precise chronology. In the 13th century BC Joshua led the Israelite hosts which defeated Jabin’s city of Hazor (the biblical account that places the battle later under judge Deborah’s leadership was proved incorrect) and burned it to the ground. “Then, in a very long processes, some of those sites began to be resettled by the still nomadic Israelites, who slowly but surely turned the settlements into proper cities, particularly from the time of the Kings onward.”
Further excavations discovered a foundation deposit, which consisted of a jug containing a figurine of a war deity. This was immediately prior to the rebuilding of the city by Solomon soon after 1000 BC. This is a classic example of a more advanced people being conquered by a primitive but more warlike people, who then assimilated the religious culture and customs of the defeated people over a period. They adopted some of their gods like Baal and Hastoret.
The kingdom of the House of David arose around 1000 BC. Yossi Swartz wrote: “The priests of the kingdom tried, according to the records in the Old testament, but without much success, to enforce the belief in one god, Yahweh. How could these priests enforce the god who resided in Jerusalem, on the people of a village who believed that they must serve their local god who does not have to travel far to punish them?”
Following the return of the Israelites to the land of Canaan the next great learning experience was the defeat of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of the ruling class to Babylon. There they learned the most advanced trading practices from the most advanced civilisation of the age, the Babylonians. Here the most important Talmud was written which laid down the religious, social and political norms to enable a trading and money-based ruling elite to function without continual inner conflicts.
Yossi Swartz explains: “The defeat of Israel by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC led to the assimilation of the Israelite peasants into other nations, and hence the legend of the 10 lost tribes. Two hundred years later the Babylonians destroyed the kingdom of Judah and the Jewish aristocracy was exiled to Babylon. During the Persian empire established by Cyrus, this aristocracy was sent back to Palestine as political agents of the empire.”
Modern Jewish culture
This was the real beginning of modern Jewish culture. During the Babylonians exile the prophet, called Isaiah the Second because of similarities with the first Isaiah, elaborated the modern Jewish god. His monotheism was universal and not held in by national boundaries. The old God of Israel was a sunburst in a wooden box, which the Philistines were able to capture. The new God of Israel had become too widely travelled and too ambitious to be confined in a small land, let alone in a wooden box. He had to be made suitable for a far-flung trading people, most of whom now lived in the diaspora. However, despite this development, elements of the exclusive ideas that went back to Abraham’s Yahweh survive to this day and have re-emerged over the centuries whenever the Jews found themselves embattled.
The ready acceptance of the new monotheism proved that its time had come. Cyrus, the victorious Persian king, defeated and subjugated all the mercantile trading rivals of the Jews (the Philistines and Phoenicians/Canaanites) and they now seized control of the trade routes as his agents and then spread throughout the territory of successive imperial powers as traders and merchants. Martin Gilbert’s Jewish history atlas gives us a picture of what the next period was like. His maps show growth of the diaspora (500 BC to 100 AD).
The Jews, he says, “moved about freely as traders” and “established flourishing communities” under the protection of the Greek and Carthaginian empires all along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, Gilbert writes. The Sinai frontier, near the ancient land of Goshen, the home of Jacob, Joseph and Moses, was repopulated by the pharaoh with 30,000 Jews in 270 BC, the origins of the large Alexandrian Jewish community.
The Jewish risings against Roman rule paint a very different picture than the standard Zionist one. The Jews revolted against Rome in Judea twice, in 66-73 AD under the leadership of the Zealots, and Bar Kochba in 132-35 AD. However, they rose up also in Cyrenaica (the land around modern Benghazi in Libya), in Syne on the Middle Nile, in the entire delta of the Nile, in Cyprus and in Mesopotamia (all between 115 and 117 AD), according to Gilbert’s map.
Contrary to Zionist myths, the brutal suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt by the Roman general, Hadrian, was not the origin of the diaspora. That was the trading lifestyle of the ancient Jews and the far earlier conquests explained above.
The bulk of world Jewry was already far from home. The war between the Romans and the Jews was a clash of cultures, which reflected conflicting economic interests. Basically Rome was subduing the Mediterranean lands to extract tributes to feed the ever growing parasitic nobility and restless plebeian masses at home and they wished to appropriate the money that flowed from the activities of Jewish traders and cash-crop farmers.
Bruno Bauer’s theses are by far the most logical on the history and origins of early christianity. According to Bauer, christianity was first postulated by the Alexandrian Jew, Philo Judea, and developed by the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca.
Its fundamental tenets were: “the inborn sinfulness of man; the logos, the word, which is with god and is god and which becomes the mediator between god and man; atonement not by sacrifice but by bringing one’s own heart to god; and finally the essential feature that the new religious philosophy reverses the previous world order, seeks its disciples amongst the poor, the miserable, the slaves and the rejected and despises the rich, the powerful and the privileged – whence the precept to despise all worldly pleasure and to mortify the fresh “¦ And, as we see, we need only the keystone and we have the whole of christianity in its basic features: the incarnation of the word becomes man in a definite person and his sacrifice on the cross for the redemption of sinful mankind.”
In 313 AD the Roman emperor, Constantine, chose this religion above two others. It had been modified since its development 300 years before from a primitive redistributive consumer communism of the poor Jews of the Roman empire to one that could suit the needs of Rome. Constantine found he could easily adapt christianity to the pressing need to have a unifying ideology to bind together and oppress a far-flung multi-people empire.
This new christian religion excluded all other gods and forbade its followers from believing in them. As part of the dialectic of history christianity also hailed the fall of the world of antiquity as a victory of the spirit over the flesh and the just reward for corruption. It became the ideology for spreading the new empires that emerged out of the dark ages at the end of the first millennium.
A will o’ the wisp
You will note that in the search for the origins of a universal monotheism we are constantly frustrated by the realisation that every form of monotheism we examine is not really monotheism at all. Right up to Constantine’s adoption of christianity all religions acknowledged and believed in other people’s gods, as well as adoring and obeying their own (as interpreted by a privileged priesthood).
Even christianity is not really a universal monotheism. There is the doctrine of the trinity – three gods in one, and one god in three – although believers were bound to acknowledge under pain of the inquisition that each of these ‘persons’ was individually god. And then there was the anthropomorphic belief in Jesus Christ as god, made man, made god again; and all the saints, who are sort of minor gods (leaving aside how we may rationalise or adore the Virgin Mary) the faithful may worship if they choose. In fact there is a logical argument that the only real monotheistic religion is islam and that must surely explain its remarkably progressive nature from the 7th to the 15th century.
Contemporaneously with the religious wars in Europe in the 17th century, deism – a new form of monotheism that was more genuinely and rationally universal – developed. This rejected all religious practices associated with formal religion (which they blamed for Europe’s devastation) and ascribed to the supreme being the role of creator and initiator of motion. This was the divine watchmaker theory. Miracles – the fundamental method used by all religions to get the believer to suspend their critical, logical judgement – were rejected. The English philosopher, Anthony Collins (1676-1729), was the chief theorist of this school. Abraham Lincoln was a deist.
The Irish philosopher, John Toland, was the first to coin the term ‘pantheism’ in 1705 to describe the new logical religion. There was a long line of antecedents who had developed this idea. Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant and Hegel were ideological pantheists, as were several of the romantic poets.
However, having achieved its highest development, monotheism also signalled its logical downfall. Learned opinion speculated that Collins and Toland were covert atheists, as well they might. Because to a materialist philosopher like Collins and a follower of the famous Jewish philosopher, Spinoza (mind and matter are one substance, Spinoza believed), it must have been an obvious step to ask, if the creator created everything and gave it motion, who created the creator? Once miracles were denied, deism logically led to atheism by a small step. The poet, Shelly, made this small step and got expelled from Oxford by the high Tory gentlemen who led that establishment and banished from his father’s house forever for this ‘crime’.
When the perfect and logical monotheism was achieved, atheism was just too tempting as the next step. Back to fideism and the Bible then with its talking donkey and snake. Napoleon had to restore catholicism in France to end the revolution.
Religion within the limits of reason alone is one of the most famous books of the idealist philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The ‘absolute idea’ of Georg Hegel (1770-1831) pushed god to his furthest limits. It was a great feat for Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) to interpret Hegel materialistically. Feuerbach’s problem arose from the fact that, like Hegel, he was unable to identify practice, where humanity changed the world and the changed world changed humanity, as the subject-object of history. It only required Marx to read Feuerbach’s work to successfully turn Hegel on his head (or set him on his feet) to identify the social necessity of the productive forces to develop, driving the class struggle as the motor force of history, and not the intentions of god or man.
After that there was no more seeking the truth about god by honest bourgeois philosophers. The truth was out and its acceptance or rejection now became part of the class struggle itself. Atheism, particularly in the working class, is seen today as a threat to the system because a fundamental element of social control has been overturned.
Modern religions have become the expressions of the material interests of a particular ruling class or a section of that class in a particular historical setting. No Marxist would deny that that the heretical sects of the Middles Ages represented the first failed attempts of early mercantile traders to free themselves from the feudal ignorance and oppression of the church. Lutheranism and Calvinism represented the ideology of a rising bourgeoisie.
Without that understanding conflicts like the 30 years war in Germany (1618-48), when a third of the population (seven million out of 20) perished, are totally meaningless. At the time they explained it as people gone insanely bloodthirsty for their version of the love of christ, but, of course, they fought over their material interests in the final analysis – and we must stress ‘final analysis’, because we are sure that very few of them thought of it in that way at that time.
No religion can be a mixture of conflicting viewpoints reflecting the mixture of classes. All religions are a false illusion, a fundamentally idealised and incorrect view of the world, which can only strengthen oppression by preventing the oppressed from seeing that the causes of their oppression (material and psychological) are in this world. They are based on ignorance of two types: the ignorance of the primitive and uneducated of the reasons for all natural phenomena; and the ignorance of the causes of social and economic phenomena like booms, slumps, wars and revolutions. The intellectual representatives of the bourgeoisie must reject Marxism, the only explanation for and way out of these crises if they are to serve their masters, because to accept it would be to accept the inevitable demise of capitalism.
These ideas are lodged in the social relations of production that the oppressed of every age must enter in order to live. Religion is subservience in a mystical cloak, which can only serve the interests of the ruling class, in the short and long term, no matter what episodic religious conflicts might break out. The ‘mixture’ notion of Judaism is an implicit defence of the rabbi and the Zionist rulers of Israel.
Of course, religious views are more complex than simply representing a straight rationale of one’s life activity. They develop in a much more complex way. In classical Marxist understanding there is the religion of the oppressor and the religion of the oppressed. This is how Marx tackles the question:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.
“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusion. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion.
“The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the saintly form of human self-alienation has been unmasked, is to unmask self-alienation in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”
Marx is here dealing with religion as a whole, not just the religion of the oppressed. But he does not see any side of religion as progressive – no, it is all reactionary and must be overcome in order to achieve liberation. It is the illusion that we must get rid of in order to rid ourselves of the “condition which needs illusions”. Any religious ideology represents a reactionary element of a people’s culture, because it must represent the domination of some ruling caste over the mass of the people. It is a vehicle for internal social control by the rabbi, priest, vicar or ayatollah, all of whom make a very good living disseminating magical nonsense on behalf of the ruling elite.
In Jewish history these elites were kings and rabbis (when a theocracy ruled) and today it is the state of Israel in the main, where elements or theocracy are stronger that anywhere else, apart from in the states of its bitterest enemies like Iran and Syria. In other cultures and states it is the established church or its equivalent which provides this prop.
Religion of the oppressed
Having said all that, it is necessary to stress that Marxists do differentiate between the religion of the oppressor and the religion of the oppressed (as we do with all manifestation of oppressive bourgeois ideology, including racism, sexism, homophobia, etc in the ranks of the working class and oppressed). These prejudices may not sit as firmly in the mind of a worker, particularly when he of she is moving into conflict with their employers or is beginning to see the need to tackle the system as a whole. A space is opened for progressive and revolutionary propaganda.
This is how the early Bolsheviks tackled the religion of the oppressed in the muslim countries of Soviet central Asia. They approached the oppressed women in particular with extreme sensitivity. The revolutionary women of the Zhenotdel in the early 1920s donned the paranja (a garment that totally covered the face without even openings for eyes and mouth) to get the ear of oppressed women.
Dale Ross (DL Reissner), the first editor of the Spartacist League’s Women and Revolution, explained that method and history well in her article ‘Early Bolshevik work among women of the Soviet east’ (No12, summer 1976). She goes into great detail to explain the difference between the Bolshevik method of approaching this work and both the Menshevik and Stalinist method. Her article points to the fact that failure to distinguish between the religion of the oppressor and the religion of the oppressed has disastrous consequence for socialists. There is no need to ask which method the PDPA and the ‘Red Army’ operated in Afghanistan. Or which method the Spartacists’ International Communist League supported so uncritically after 1979.
“The Bolsheviks viewed the extreme oppression of women as an indicator of the primitive level of the whole society, but their approach was based on materialism, not moralism. They understood that the fact that women were veiled and caged, bought and sold, was but the surface of the problem. Kalym (the bride price) was not some sinister plot against womankind, but the institution which was central to the organisation of production, integrally connected to land and water rights. Payment of kalym, often by the whole clan over a long period of time, committed those involved to an elaborate system of debt, duties and loyalties which ultimately led to participation in the private armies of the local beys (landowners and wholesale merchants). All commitments were thus backed up with the threat of feuds and blood vengeance.
“…Lenin warned against prematurely confronting respected native institutions, even when these clearly violated communist principles and Soviet law. Instead he proposed to use the Soviet state power to systematically undermine them while simultaneously demonstrating the superiority of Soviet institutions – a policy which had worked well against the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
“”¦ Then on March 8 1927, in celebration of International Woman’s Day, mass meetings were held at which thousands of frenzied participants, chanting ‘Down with the paranja!’ tore off their veils, which were drenched in paraffin and burned. Poems were recited and plays with names such as ‘Away with the veil’ and ‘Never again kalym‘ were performed. Zhenotdel agitators led marches of unveiled women through the streets, instigating the forced desegregation of public quarters and sanctified religious sites.”
The consequences of these brutal Stalinist methods were the same as they were in Afghanistan 60 years later: “Women suing for divorce became the targets of murderous vigilante squads, and lynchings of party cadres annihilated the ranks of the Zhenotdel. The party was forced to mobilise the militia, then the Komsomol, and finally the general party membership and the Red Army to protect the women, but it refused to alter its suicidal policies. The debacle of International Woman’s Day was repeated in 1928 and 1929 with the same disastrous consequences, exacting an extremely high toll on party cadre.”
Only the method of the early Bolsheviks will work to defeat the rise of fundamentalism today. That requires a comprehensive understanding of religion, its origins and methods of control. This article is dedicated to beginning anew that task.