“What would Jesus do?” is one of the questions that anti-capitalists have been asking outside St Paul’s cathedral. It’s one that some Church of England clergy have answered by saying he’d be camping outside. They are probably right.
“The prophet from Galilee was a rebel, a subversive opposed to the Roman domination, who organised a community made up almost exclusively of people from a working class background, driven by a profound hatred for the rich classes and by a primitive Communism which envisioned the sharing of goods.”
That is the argument Karl Kautsky put in his book The Foundations of Christianity which Socialist Resistance republished in 2007 . Kautsky subjected the early years of the development of Christianity to a materialist examination and at the book was very influential in the European workers’ movement in the early twentieth century.
Michael Löwy’s preface draws out some of the book’s main themes and explains that there was a sustained attempt to erase the revolutionary side of the early Christian message.
Jesus Christ According to Karl Kautsky – Michael Löwy
There is a long tradition of interest in early Christianity in Marxist historical writing. Friedrich Engels devoted various work to the theme drawing on works of German biblical criticism from the period (D.F Strauss, Bruno Bauer) – always insisting on the chasm that divided this first plebeian, egalitarian and revolutionary Christianity from the Christianity that dogmatically institutionalized by the Council of Nicaea. Fascinated by the analogies between early Christianity and modern socialism he quotes Renan comparing the first Christian communities with the meetings of the militants of the First International.
Among the various common elements he mentions the following: “Neither of these two great movements was made by leaders or prophets — although there are prophets enough among both of them — they are mass movements. And mass movements are bound to be confused at the beginning; confused because the thinking of the masses at first moves among contradictions, lack of clarity and lack of cohesion, and also because of the role that prophets still play in them at the beginning. This confusion is to be seen in the formation of numerous sects which fight against one another with at least the same zeal as against the common external enemy. So it was with early Christianity, so it was in the beginning of the socialist movement, no matter how much that worried the well-meaning worthies who preached unity where no unity was possible[i].
This is probably the reason he showed so little interest in the founding prophet of Christianity – Jesus- preferring to concentrate his attention on the mass social base of the new religion.
Karl Kautsky is probably the first Marxist to interest himself both in the movement and the enigmatic personality of the crucified prophet. His 1908 book Der Ursprung des Christentums (The Foundations of Christianity) is a rather impressive attempt at a Marxist analysis. According to David Mc Lellan it is “one of the most important Marxist contributions to the history or religion.”[ii] Although Kautsky relies on the work of contemporary authors – in particular A. Kalthoff[iii], a Lutheran pastor strongly influenced by historical materialism, the book is rather original and innovative.
Translated into nine languages The Foundations of Christianity was one of the most popular theoretical works of German Social Democracy. Kautsky wrote it for three essential objectives:
The first was a political objective following in Engels’ footsteps he wanted to interpret early Christianity as a precursor of the contemporary working class socialist movement. His friend, and later his opponent, Rosa Luxemburg, in an article of 1905 called “The Church and Socialism insisted that the first Christian apostles were Communists who denounced injustice and the cult of the Golden Calf. For her this cause was now led by the socialist movement which brings to the poor the gospel of fraternity and equality and calls to the people to establish the kingdom of love for one’s neighbour on earth[iv] Kautsky refers less to the similarities between the two movements but this theme runs through the book.
But he also has a cultural objective. He wants to counterpose a materialist account of the new religion against the Christian mythology. From this point of view the work is part of the battle of historical materialism against all forms of idealism and in particular against religious ideologies.
Finally he has a scientific objective: showing the capacity of the Marxist method to give an account of a complex historical process, interpreting a religious phenomenon in terms of the class struggle.
The book is divided into three major sections:
1) Society at the time of the Roman Empire: the slave economy, the absolutist forms of the state, the different manifestations of cultural and religious crisis.
2) Judaism: the class conflicts of Israelite society and the various political-religious currents (Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots and Essene.
3) The beginnings of Christianity: the early Christian communities, the idea of the messianic Christ and Christian communism.
Curiously there is a fourth section dedicated to the “personality of Jesus”. Kautsky notices that there is almost an absence of contemporary documents about Jesus an the Christian account are scarcely credible. In his opinion the gospels are comparable to Homer’s epics or Balzac’s novels. Although they are of limited value as historical documents they are an excellent source of information about social relationships at the time and in particular the ideas and inspirations of the original Christian communities.
In the last analysis, whether Jesus really existed or whether we are dealing with an ideal image dreamed of by these communities the task of the materialist historian is to uncover the original significance of this figure, who appears in a very airbrushed and altered way in the Gospels.
According to Kautsky some passages of biblical text allow us glimpses of the real character of Jesus: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”[v]. The prophet from Galilee was a rebel, a subversive opposed to the Roman domination, who organised a community made up almost exclusively of people from a working class background, driven by a profound hatred for the rich classes and by a primitive Communism which envisioned the sharing of goods.
Although it was inspired by the works of Engels Kautsky’s analysis differs from it in at least two points and he did not hesitate to criticise his old tutor and friend: Christianity was not just a religion of slaves but also of the free proletariat in the big urban centres and the redemption of the earth’s wretched that it promised in its original form was not in heaven, but on this earth in a very material way.
The arrest of Jesus at the Mount of Olives, in the course of a violent confrontation, was a failed “attempt at a putsch” (Putschversuch) against the Roman authorities that he had planned with his disciples. Jesus was as much an enemy of the Jewish ruling classes as he was of the Romans, but his crucifixion was due to a decision of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who accused him of trying to restore the independent kingdom of Judea – hence the famous inscription on the cross “Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews”. Written in a later period, when the Christian leaders were violently opposed to Judaism and were trying to ingratiate themselves with Rome, the Gospels absolve the Roman authorities of the responsibility and accuse the Jews for the death of the prophet. This obvious distortion of the events, which is responsible for numerous contradictions in the Biblical text, inspired centuries of anti-Jewish persecution by the Church.
Written during a long period of stability of the Roman Empire (between the reigns of Vespasian and Commodus), the Gospels try to obscure the rebellious side of the crucified Jewish Messiah, but some of the the original colours of the real character can be discerned through the layers of paint.
Kautsky’s attempt at an interpretation is quite interesting, although it suffers from the fault of projecting into the past, in an anachronistic way, modern social and political concepts: “proletariat”, “putschism” and “Communism”. The idea of relating Christian messanism to social and political tendencies from that period is interesting, but it frequently leads to a certain sociological “reductionism”, which removes some of the particular specificities of the religious sphere of ideas. In fact his definition of the social base of early Christianity seems rather narrow – without talking about the difficulty of applying the concept of “proletariat” to the urban population of ancient Judea and ignoring the social heterogeneity of these communities (something on which Engels, on the other hand, insisted).
It has to be explained why Jesus did not meet the same fate as all the other messianic characters who were agitating among the Jews during the period that stretches from the revolt of the Maccabees until the destruction of the temple by Titus. How can one explain the durability and the success of the religious movement that bears his name?
Kautsky offers two complementary explanations.
In the first place Jesus was the founder, or rather the spokesperson for an organisation: ” by analogy with other similar organisations, with whose origins we are more familiar, it can be supposed that communist groups in Jerusalem’s proletariat, motivated by messianic expectations, already existed before Jesus and that a daring agitator and rebel with this name originating from Galilee, was already known as an extraordinary hero and martyr.” This organisation survived after Jesus and its role in the spread of the new religion is much more important than the personality of its founder. It was not the faith in the resurrection of the man who was crucified which created the Christian communities, on the contrary, what gave the strength for these communities to survive, was the proletariat’s communist organisation, which kept alive the memory of its pioneer and martyr, thus producing the faith in the survival of the Messiah.
Criticising the images of Christ offered by some writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Kautsky affirms, in his introduction, that “they bear witness not to what Jesus really taught but more to what the authors of these images would have liked him to have taught”. This is true also for his own interpretation of the idea of organisation. He teaches us as much about a type of “organisational fetishism” typical of the leaders of German Social Democracy at the start of the twentieth century as he does about the early years of the Christian communities. By giving the organisation of the movement a higher value than the ethical values, the messianic hopes, the struggles, the dreams and the faith – in the widest sense of the word – Kautsky ends up with an equally narrow vision both of early Christianity and contemporary socialism.
The second hypothesis is more pertinent: according to Kautsky, what distinguishes Jesus’ messianism from the other rebellious Jewish prophets of the era – all of whom had a strictly national character – is its social character, its calling as an international redeemer. “Only the social Messiah, not the national, could transcend the limits of Judaism”, survive the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and, above all, find a hearing among the poor of all nations. By associating the hostility of the oppressed classes to the rich with proletarian solidarity, the messianism of the Christian communities promised the redemption of the poor, and so it could gain followers beyond the Jewish world.
In the last analysis, Jesus, “the crucified proletarian Messiah” m
anaged to defeat Rome and conquer the world, but in the course of this process the Christian movement suffered an “inverse dialectic”:it lost its proletarian and communist character and was transformed into a state religion, under the control of a vast dominating and exploiting apparatus – the Church.
In the last chapter, entitled “Christianity and Social Democracy”, Kautsky insists above all on the differences between the two movements. Does the danger exist that the workers’ movement will see a similar “inverse dialectic” in its history? Can the power of the bureaucracy, necessarily produced by the workers’ movement, full-timers , journalists, parliamentarians, be transformed in the course of its evolution, into a new aristocracy, similar to the clergy with its bishops and cardinals? An aristocracy that will dominate the mass of workers and will negotiate with the state power while at the same time being incorporated into it? In other words, does the possibility exist that the socialist movement has a destiny similar to that of Christianity’s transformation into a state religion?
It’s an interesting question but Kautsky’s answer is rather naive. While the era of Christianity’s rise was a period of spiritual decline, in which the “most ridiculous ignorance and stupid superstition” were growing, the era of socialism’s rise is a period of “brilliant progress in the natural sciences and rapid advances is the education of the popular masses.” The origin of Christianity coincides with the crisis of ancient democracy and with a decline in the productive forces, while the modern workers’ movement appears at a time of “constant democratic progress and a spectacular growth of the productive forces.” Consequently there does not exist the slightest possibility of the socialist movement undergoing a process of bureaucratisation and transformation into a state religion as happened with Christianity…
Kautsky’s argument reflects a rather myopic optimism, inspired by the philosophy of progress which characterised the evolutionary Marxism of the Second International, which was ill-prepared to meet the catastrophes of the twentieth century.
Despite its obvious methodological and historical limitations, Kautsky’s book has the great virtue of being the first attempt to interpret, in the light of the class struggle and historical materialism, the fascinating figure of the “crucified proletarian Messiah”. Its popular success is probably due to the interest of socialist militants to see a vision of the origins of Christianity which permits the modern workers’ movement to appropriate to itself the figure of Jesus as a prophet and martyr for the proletarian cause.
[i] Friedrich Engels: On the History of Early Christianity).
[ii] D. Mc Lellan, Marxism and Religion. A Description and Assessment of the Marxist Critique of Christianity, New York, Harper and Row, 1987, p66
[iii] Author of the book quoted by Kautsky, Das Christusproblem. Grundlinien zu einer Sozialtheologie, Jena 1902
[iv] Rosa Luxemburg: Kirche und Sozialismus, 1905 in Internationalimus und Klassenkampf, Neuwied/Berlin Luchterhand, 1971, pp. 45-47, 67-7