From the October 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
We begin a three-part series on the link between revolutionary social changes and the ideology of those who carried them out.
A series of discussions with friends of both leftist and liberal persuasions recently uncovered two classic objections to the Marxist perspective. They are essentially derived from the same misunderstanding of the nature of a socialist revolution.
The first objection was in the idealist tradition and centred on the connection between the Enlightenment and the Soviet gulags. It is more common to hear the terror of the French revolution being associated with Enlightenment ideals but not - via Karl Marx - with the Bolshevik concentration camps. The other accusation was that it was naive to expect a socialist revolution to be any different than those that preceded it historically.
To deal with these closely associated criticisms we have to unravel the relationship between the ideologies proclaimed by those involved and the historical context of their actions. As Marx would say – we have to cut away the ideological overgrowth to get to the political reality. Socialists have long believed that to view history as primarily a progression of ideas (idealism) is misleading and politically dangerous. However, it is of significance why certain ideals were used during periods of political upheaval rather than others; not just in terms of propaganda but also culturally and linguistically. Why was the memory and traditions associated with an obscure Jewish prophet of some 2,000 years ago invoked by the Puritans of the English revolution; why did the emperor Napoleon defend his dictatorship with reference to the Enlightenment and why did the Bolsheviks believe they could claim Marxist credentials? These three revolutions were successful partly because of the motivation that these ideologies provided for those who did the fighting and dying; or rather, the specific interpretation of those ideologies at the time. It might be informative to analyse these ideologies in terms of their origins, their cultural and linguistic reinterpretation and their use as propaganda. All of this can be done in the context of the similarities and differences they represent with the proposed model of a socialist revolution. We begin with the English Revolution of 1642.
Europe had witnessed the persecution of Jan Huss and John Wycliffe for their opposition to the widespread corruption within the Catholic Church but it was not until the time of their Protestant progeny Martin Luther that the Reformation became politically important. Many European potentates were tired of the political interference and high taxes that emanated from Rome. One of these, German Prince Frederick III, saw in Luther’s protest a way to weaken the political power of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus Luther’s protection by the powerful, in contrast with Huss and Wycliffe, made it possible to promote the Reformation which in turn eventually enabled a political formulation of the nation state that was independent of Rome. All of this was accelerated by the new technology of the printing press which made possible the first dissemination of mass political/religious propaganda in the vernacular.
One of the consequences of the importation of the Reformation in England was the dissolution of the monasteries. As a result great swathes of land were acquired by the nouveau riche of the merchant class who had become wealthy courtesy of international trade in wool, slaves and coal. They sought to achieve the same levels of profit from their new land by becoming capitalist farmers. This contrasted with the great aristocratic landowners’ approach which was still in the feudal tradition; consequently they became increasingly concerned about the wealth of their new neighbours and pressed the king to try to curtail their profits, or at the very least give them a share. To achieve this the King claimed monopoly rights on production which he then proceeded to give to aristocratic cronies at his court together with the infamous ‘ship tax’ which gave him a share of trading profits. The new ‘landed gentry’ (capitalist farmers) together with other progressive elements in society were outraged by this and campaigned through parliament for a ‘free market’. They saw the feudal lands as being unproductive and the aristocracy as a political barrier to their further enrichment. The scene was set for this class struggle to erupt into the English revolution. This is the Marxist or ‘materialist’ version of the events of the 1640s. Now let us turn to the ideological explanation.
When Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion of Rome he attempted to make the diverse legends (gospels) into a coherent ideology that would serve his political needs. Although there continues to be some controversy the gospels we have now in the ‘New Testament’ date from that time. The religion has obvious attractions to an autocrat in that it represents the ultimate authoritarian social structure with God at the top and his representatives (the Pope, Emperor, Kings and the priesthood) in a descending coalition of oppression.
It also has revolutionary elements in terms of its defiance of Roman hegemony and Jesus being a messiah or deliverer from tyranny. This is the element taken up by the Puritans who were profoundly dissatisfied with the English Reformation and perceived the Anglican church to be still Papist and politically reactionary. This together with the Protestant emphasis on hard work, obedience, thrift and the idea that worldly wealth and success meant belonging to God’s ‘elect’ made them obvious allies for the emerging bourgeoisie. For hundreds of years the priest in the pulpit had been the major political propagandist for the ruling class so it is not surprising that the political debate in the 17th century centred on Christian doctrine and the perceived importance of controlling the church.
The pulpit now had a propaganda rival in the printing press and within this revolutionary environment a variety of dissension was expressed. There were some who saw the revolution as a culmination of class antagonisms but the majority understood it in terms of Catholic oppression of their natural political rights with Charles I's claim to Divine Right being an obvious expression of this. Once the revolutionary war started both sides believed that victory on the battlefield was the sign of divine approval.
We can be certain that Jesus of Nazareth (if he existed as an historical individual) would be more than a little surprised by the killing that has been done in his name. It is difficult to find any justification for war in the gospels (with the exception of the book of revelation which seems to be a diatribe of revenge). What Christianity does offer ruling elites, and would-be ruling elites, is an authoritarian universe with everything and everyone in his place. Many, if not most, religions offer this reactionary supernatural scenario and it wouldn’t take much imagination to replace it with any other similar religion and, given the same political and historical context of England in 1642, the result would be the same – revolution.
In other words, the ideology that expressed the fears and ambitions of those who made the revolution were relatively unimportant compared with the economic and political forces that compelled them into violent opposition. It may be said that this represents an unprovable hypothesis because you can never impose retrospective ideological alternatives onto history; what we can do, however, is compare this revolution with others that have also transformed their society from monarchical absolutism to bourgeois rule without the aid of Christian ideology.
In the second part of this article we attempt to do that with an analysis of the French revolution where not only was Christianity absent within the ideology of the victors, it was replaced by a philosophical approach we call ‘the Enlightenment’ which possessed an atheist trajectory.
(Next month: the French Revolution)