Monthly Archives: April 2014

Looking at the Relationship between Marx’s Conception of ‘Being’ and ‘Consciousness’ in ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859) and the third of the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1845).

Looking at the Relationship between Marx’s Conception of ‘Being’ and ‘Consciousness’ in  A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and the third of the Theses on Feuerbach (1845).

[Pre-note : I have placed what I think is the central quote under consideration in bold with original German following in square brackets. Note in the German, Marx uses the noun ‘Sein’ and not ‘Dasein’ or ‘Existenz’. The translation is given as ‘existence’. Also ‘sondern umgekehrt’ should have been translated ‘but,on the contrary’. In my opinion (and Iam not a German scholar but I am familiar with written and spoken German) a better translation would have been ‘It is not the consciousness of men which determines their being but, on the contrary, it is their social being which determines their consciousness’. At the beginning of the quote, Progress have translated ‘Leben’ as ‘existence’ rather than ‘life’. So both ‘Sein’ and ‘Leben’ are rendered into the generic ‘existence’ without the distinctions which, in my opinion, Marx intended. ‘Activity’ would have been better than ‘existence’. They did a similar ‘job’ on Capital when they translated it. And the Penguin edition is just as bad. Where one translates correctly the other mistranslates and vice versa so you end up with the scenario where you have to constantly cross-check between the two editions to get the correct translation.]

In 1859, Marx writes in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy :

‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. [Es ist nicht das Bewußtsein der Menschen, das ihr Sein, sondern umgekehrt ihr gesellschaftliches Sein, das ihr Bewußtsein bestimmt.] At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation’

[Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas.]

And in 1845, we have Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach:

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderungcan be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.  [Marx. 3rd Thesis on Feuerbach]

The relationship between the earlier and later conception appears to raise the problem of how the later conception can be accommodated to the earlier work in the Theses on Feuerbach, especially the 3rd thesis. It appears to contradict the work on Feuerbach. Critically, this is important in the understanding of Marx’s method and approach in his work.

Marx here uses the category of ‘being’ (or social being) or ‘existence’ (or social existence) rather than ‘matter’, ‘objective conditions’, ‘objective reality’, ‘social conditions’ ‘circumstances’, etc. Why? Initially, it seems to be a strange choice because ‘being’ and ‘existence’ appear to be the most abstract of categories. Hegel, as we all know, starts with this category in his Logic. Then Engels, with his usual acumen, notes that Hegel is confronted with the much-debated problematic of making the transition to ‘Nothing’. Some have asserted that a close reading of the first paragraphs of the Logic suggests that Hegel actually ‘imports’ – from his own ‘Verstandlich’, ‘ausserlich’ realm of ‘externality’ –  the second category in the exposition rather than actually deriving it from the first category of ‘Being’. The determinations of the category of ‘Consciousness’ only come later as a ‘more concrete and developed’ characterisation of the intial category. In the Encyclopaedia, ‘Being’ is the very first category (in the Logic) and ‘Consciousness’ is only posited later and elaborated in and from ‘subjective spirit’ in the third part of the Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Mind.  Consciousness, in Hegel, therefore appears as a more concrete category than Being.

Hegel’s difficulty in the first paragraph of the Logic arises because within the realm of ‘the Idea’, by starting with ‘Being’ as the most abstract of categories, he is unable to derive ‘Nothing’ because no mediation can arise from the content of the first category. The first category of ‘Being’ is absolutely identical with ‘Nothing’, the second category. Both categories are absolutely identical with each other without a differentiated content emerging within the category of ‘Being’ itself to engender the mediation which is necessary to posit the third category of ‘Becoming’ (Werden). Hence the accusation that Hegel ‘imports’ ‘Nothing’ (without mediation) in order to posit ‘Becoming’ and then happily ‘progresses’ with the whole exposition in the Logic as if nothing has happened like stepping over the body of a dead man on your front doorstep as you walk out to take your morning constitutional in the fresh air of the park. The rather astounding implication of this is that Hegel’s whole subsequent exposition in the Logic is, formally, founded upon ‘non-derivation’ in the first category i.e. is a compromise (or shortcut) in the dialectical method ab initio. That is, it is founded upon a formalism : an importation of an underived (and underivable) category. I leave others to investigate this assertion that Hegel ‘cheated’ in the first pages of the Logic. Let’s move on from where we are, endeavouring to take aspects of it with us, if you’ll pardon the philosophical sarcasm.

Accordingly, in Hegel, ‘Being’ is the most abstract of categories because his exposition takes place within the realm of the ‘Idea’. In the Logic, he “progresses” from this category so that each superseding category contains the wealth of the totality of the antecedent categories incorporated within it. And hence, his exposition becomes increasingly more concrete as it unfolds. Consciousness, accordingly, in Hegel, is posited as a more concrete category than Being or Existence. Marx, in Capital, starts with the commodity and his exposition, like Hegel’s in the Logic, becomes increasingly more concrete, incorporating an increasingly richer determination as it progresses. This is why Volume 3 of Capital gives a deeper understanding of the nature of capital vis-a-vis Volume 1, the findings of which become incorporated in the later volume. [1] Production – [2] Circulation – [3] Production as a whole.

Marx does not start with the ‘Idea’. He starts with consciously active humanity in its relationship with Nature with ‘consciousness’ being intrinsic to the dialectics of this relationship. This gives us a clue to the way in which Marx uses the terms ‘being’ and ‘social being’ in his famous passage quoted above and in its relationship to the earlier third thesis on Feuerbach.

Marx, I think, uses the term ‘social being’ here (inversely to Hegel) in the most concrete sense of the term, to embrace the totality of social being in its infinite variety and diversity, of changing conditions and social relations inclusive of consciousness and consciousness-mediated human activity itself which is intrinsic to this ‘Being’. Marx’s ‘Being’ (in contradistinction to Hegel’s) is the sublation, concentration and expression of all the endlessly complex determination and negation which has preceded it, including consciousness-mediated human activity. It is the richness of social existence to the fullest extent in all its inexhaustible complexity.

Marx, in doing this, locates his dialectical conception of consciousness within an adequate epistemological and ontological relationship to ‘Being’. Then consciousness – as an inseparable product and mediating aspect of man’s activity in Nature, its historical origination and development as an intrinsic part of this immense, unfolding and enduring historical process – can be grasped in its relation to this process of ‘Being’. Taken in the broadest epistemological sense, ‘Being’ is a presupposition for ‘Consciousness’ so that ‘Consciousness’ is rooted in ‘Being’. ‘Consciousness’ is not a presupposition for ‘Being’. After all, ‘Being’ can only ‘determine consciousness’ when and where consciousness has actually ‘come into being’.

In his Afterword to the 2nd German Edition of Volume 1 of Capital, Marx writes…

‘My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea”, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea”. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought’ (p.29, Volume 1 Capital, Lawrence&Wishart, 1954)

It is interesting to note that Marx here uses the term ‘material world’.

And this process of coming into being of consciousness was itself a long drawn out process in the evolution of ‘Being’. But once consciousness has arisen as an inseparable part of the process of the origination of human culture itself, then consciousness becomes a mediating aspect of ‘Being’ as is the case with all determinate forms which come into being. This, of course, does not deny the primacy of ‘Being’ over ‘Consciousness’ but merely locates the latter within its adequate and intrinsic relationship to this totality which is the ‘Being’, in my opinion, to which Marx is referring. Furthermore, it does not deny the inalienable role of consciousness in man’s activity and therefore its ‘determining’ and orienting role in that selfsame activity. The consciousness-mediated activity of humanity is an organic part of this ‘Being’, this totality of conditions.

The categories of ‘Being’ and ‘Consciousness’ are, in my opinion, incommensurable within the relationship within which Marx posits them (in the Critique) if ‘Consciousness’ is grasped as something ‘external’ (ausserlich) to ‘Being’. In my opinion, they cannot be ‘understood’ in this ‘external’ way.

I think we can only grasped them (Being and Consciousness) in their forever unfolding and changing relations, in the specific negations of the relation and the simultaneous return (negated negation, ‘absolute negativity’) of this relation at a higher stage of their identity and difference. ‘Being’ envelops ‘Consciousness’ within itself whilst the latter is distinct from the former in this identity. Consciousness is expressed in historically determinate, always altering, forms of ‘being’. [Some people on the list may already be starting to think that Iam falling into Ideenmystik.] However, it seems to me (and I reserve the right to be wrong) that it is only if we include ‘Consciousness’ as intrinsically contained within ‘Being’ that the two categories then become commensurable and that Marx’s conception can be admitted and grasped. Only then does ‘the social being of men determine their consciousness and not their consciousness determine their being’ Furthermore, only by this inclusion is Marx’s conception consonant with and is able to be accommodated by and integrated with his earlier Theses on Feuerbach, and especially the third thesis.

If we include ‘Consciousness’ within ‘Being’ then it is what I refer to as ‘the totality of conditions’ (Marx’s ‘social being’ in the above quote) which determines consciousness and not the other way around. The primacy is found in this totality of conditions determining consciousness so that what is ‘determined’ is already an intrinsic part of the ‘determining’ conditions. Within the dynamics of the internal reciprocity of this paradox, this ‘totality of conditions’ is then equivalent to Marx’s ‘social being’ so that within the unfolding of the historical process, the development of consciousness becomes mediated by this totality of conditions and this totality of conditions itself mediated (although not with the same degree of primacy) by the evolution of consciousness itself.

Great social movements come into being – with their inseparable forms of consciousness – within the totality of the ‘determining’ historical conditions integral to which are all manner of different forms and aspects of consciousness embodied and manifest in different classes, movements, groupings, etc; within the ‘complex of complexes’. The subject and object of history are intrinsic to this totality, bound into one in their distinction and relationship to each other. These movements do not emerge ‘ready-made’ but only out of the movement of, on the ground of, and in the process of the relationship to, this totality. They are ‘derived’ – unlike Hegel’s category of ‘Nothing’ in his ‘Idea’ – out of the totality of these historically-posited conditions, out of this historically-posited ‘Being’.

‘Consciousness’ is an intrinsic part of the totality of the conditions which constitute ‘Being’ and is therefore an intrinsic part of the conditions which, paradoxically, ‘determine consciousness’ itself. Consciousness comes into being historically and thenceforth, in its ‘being’, mediates ‘Being’ through humanity’s active relationship with the totality of ‘Being’. Taken as a whole, Consciousness is derived from Being but Marx does not imply here that Consciousness is not intrinsic in the mediation of this Being in the actual historical unfolding of man’s conscious activity.

This, in my opinion, is how we relate and accommodate this later conception (1859) to Marx’s work in the 1840s. This, accordingly, transcends the theoretical inconsistency of a metaphysical conception that ‘consciousness’ cannot be a determining aspect of this totality of conditions. Depending on the specificity of this totality of historical conditions, consciousness itself can play an absolutely central and pivotal role in the unfolding of events and even, to a certain extent, can assert a degree of primacy within the unfolding of specific events. The activity of humanity is mediated by consciousness, regardless of its form i.e. human activity is consciousness-mediated and therefore, as such, an intrinsic part of this ‘determining’ and orienting activity and of ‘social being’ as a whole.

If I may, just to give a couple of references from military history. Caesar’s victory at Alesia in 52 BC and Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar in 1650 did not depend on ‘objective conditions’ alone. If we study these battles, we can see that ‘consciousness’ played a vital and pivotal role in both victories against all the odds of ‘objective conditions’ which were decidedly against both Caesar at Alesia and Cromwell at Dunbar at the time. It was the conscious (subjective!) evaluation of changing conditions made by Cromwell and his generals, and the decisions which they subsequently took and acted upon, that made possible the defeat of Leslie and his Scottish Covenanters at Dunbar. The ‘conditions’, of course, had to ‘change’ but victory would not have been possible without the ‘subjective evaluation’ of them. The possibility of making other decisions was there which could so easily have led to defeat for Cromwell’s army. As things turned out, Cromwell (great tactician as he was) assembled his army before dawn and attacked the enemy (who had manoeuvered themselves into a wedge-shaped cul-de-sac the previous day) at first light whilst many were still asleep in their beds. It was a complete rout. Against all the previous ‘objective’ odds.

Shaun May

October 2013

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Homage to the Anti-Psychiatry Movement : Psychotic Thoughts on the Medical Model of ‘Mental Ilness’

Homage to the Anti-Psychiatry Movement :

Psychotic Thoughts on the Medical Model of ‘Mental Illness’

Thinking is the brain’s neurochemical product. The medical conception of mind which prevails in modern Psychiatry is overwhelmingly dominated by this assertion i.e. the centrally located paradigm of this model asserts that states of mind originate in states of the neurochemistry of the brain. The human mind is ‘understood’ as a complex biochemical system, malfunctions in which lead to ‘disorder’, ‘disease’ or ‘illness’.

Who would doubt that in relation to conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s Disease, medicine has identified underlying biochemical causes in the brain of these disorders? And yet here social and psychological influences have even been indicated in these disorders. But these are specifically neurological disorders of a different type to those categorised as ‘mental illness’. To date, no specific causal relations – as in the mentioned neurological diseases – have been discovered and irrefutably confimed which might even imply that so-called ‘mental illnesses’ have a real, neurochemical basis in the brain itself. Quite the contrary, everything points to any neurochemical changes in these ‘illnesses’ having their primary origins in mental states. In other words these mental states have psychosocial rather than neurochemical origins and that these originated states may alter neurochemical states to the point of biochemical detection. Even the much vaunted ‘genetic susceptibilities’ have not been conclusively demonstrated beyond any rational doubt but rather retain the quality of a scientific myth which at best is propped up by dubious statistical endeavours and debatable epidemiology. The area of ‘mental illness’ remains scientifically problematic for modern medicine.

Of course, this ‘anti-psychiatry’ conception that thinking is not merely a neurological product of the brain (as scientistic thought maintains) is found and developed in the work of Laing, Szasz and others (e.g. The Divided Self, Knots, The Politics of Experience, etc). The origins and causes of mental states are, according to Psychiatry, to be found in the variabilities in the chemistry of the brain from the ‘norm’. Hence the ‘treatment’ of so-called ‘disordered mental states’ with drugs and other physical methods. The medicalisation of mental states – as forms of illness or not – are based on the categorisation of these states of mind as either falling within or outside prevailing normative social paradigms. In other words, these social paradigms are being deployed to ascertain whether or not a person is suffering from a so-called mental disorder which is thought to be essentially neurochemical in origin.

A major criterion used under the English ‘Mental Health Acts’ is strictured on the question as to whether somebody is a danger to themselves or others.  Such paradigms are used to determine whether or not an individual is ‘mentally ill’ or ‘not’. But such a paradigm is broad in the extreme and one can think of all manner of situations and scenarios in which people are a danger to themselves or to others, some ‘legal’ and others ‘illegal’. It is legal for an American soldier in a helicopter to target unarmed people on the ground and simply open fire and massacre them. Was he a danger to others? Did he have ‘insight’ into his own thinking when he opened fire? Today such mass killing can be done from a control room of computers thousands of miles away from the ‘target’ linked via telecommunication and satellite devices to ‘drone’ aircraft. A man sits at his computer in a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned office of a military establishment in an American city, identifies a target at 11.45 am, executes the operation, blows to pieces a large group of villagers with a ‘smart’ bomb – men, women and children – in Afghanistan or Pakistan. He then puts his jacket on and goes and sits to eat his lunch amongst the greenery of the nearby park where mothers and fathers play with their children. After lunch, he repeats the same operation for another group of human beings in another part of Afghanistan or Pakistan. At 5 pm he goes home to his wife and children in the leafy suburbs of detached houses: “Have you had a nice day at the office, honey?” And, of course, TV News reports it just as matter-of-factly and usually wrongly. Innocent villagers become “Taliban terrorists” because NATO has said so.

If it is your designated social role and function to kill others, then when you kill them it is considered that you have fulfilled that role and function. You have not contravened any of the paradigms which govern the rules of a society which breeds war. In fact when you come home you are treated like a hero, despite the fact that a few days or even hours earlier you have just perpetrated a massacre. But if, driven by a ‘psychotic’ state of mind, you run into the street and gun down a group of bystanders who you have never seen before, then, of course, you are ‘mentally ill’. The killer computer operator can even get away without being labelled and stigmatised with a ‘personality disorder’ which the psychiatrists insist is not a form of ‘mental illness’. He is ‘sane’. Just doing his job. Like the guards in the Nazi camps, like all genocidalists. In fact, he’s paid a fat salary for doing it with prospects for promotion. In my opinion, to do such ‘work’ one must have completely and utterly lost any semblance of, or touch with, one’s own humanity and sense of it.

It is not technology per se which has engineered such a scenario but rather the social system which has co-opted it to serve its barbaric requirements. Exactly the same technology could be deployed to drop food and medicines from a ‘drone’ to the same villagers which it has just exterminated. But if our killer computer operator were to become a radical oxfamista and to devise such an operation from his chair – and were he to be found out – his ‘sanity’ might be questioned and his ‘position’ brought into question by his ‘superiors’.

The basis of ‘mental illness’, say the psychiatrists, the base out of which it originates, is the malfunctioning neurochemistry of the brain. The brain – not the specific character of a given society – is its place of origin, says Psychiatry. But in order to assess the existence or non-existence of ‘psychiatric illness’ in any individual, psychiatrists must employ the criteria and paradigms of social normativity operative in the prevailing, established socio-economic, political order. Bubonic Plague remains Bubonic Plague in medieval England as it does in the slums of East Africa today. But the same cannot be said for certain mental states. The Visionaries, Shamans and Mystics of dead societies had a completely different status within these societies to anyone exhibiting similar mental states in capitalist society at the start of the 21st century. Hallucinogenic experience – drug-induced or not – was not seen as a form of illness but rather as a form of intercommunication with the spirit world. Today such an experience – especialy if it is not drug-induced – would tend to warrant a voluntary or forced visit to the local psychiatric unit.

The diagnoses of physical illnesses and diseases contain their own intrinsic physical paradigms based on the capacity of the human body to physiologically function in a manner which is biologically standard.These are paradigms of which both Hippocrates and Galen were aware. For example, a man who cannot stop coughing would be considered to have a respiratory problem which is rooted in a real physical malfunction, obstruction, etc, because it is physiologically normative for a man to cough sometimes but not continuously all the time. Hippocrates and Galen would have thought more or less the same in ancient times.

The real problem of credibility which psychiatry faces as a branch of medicine is that the mind is not simply a product of the brain but is its social creation. Neurology, Oncology, Cardiology, Dermatology, etc, are branches of medicine which cannot, of course, neglect social factors and influences but their actual subject matters are fundamentally the creations of human physiological and biochemical processes mediated by the interaction and relations of the processes of genetic and phenotypical factors. The stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, etc, in a person’s life can contribute to cardio-vascular disease but the heart and cardio-vascular system are formed under the control of biological processes and mechanisms. Not so for the human mind. Here we are dealing fundamentally with a social creation. The Scotsman, R.D. Laing knew this as did the American, Thomas Szasz. I think today Laing – if he were still alive and had not inconveniently dropped dead of heart failure after a game of Tennis – would probably have considered Evolutionary Psychology and Psychiatry to be the perfect couple.

The diagnostic approach in Psychiatry towards mental states in general is consistent with the approach in medicine generally. However, in attempting to explain mental states exclusively within the framework of a medical biological conception, Psychiatry always had a tendency to overlook the nature of social relations and conditions (and especially the conflicts and dilemmas within the family which Esterson and Laing outlined in their work) under the direct influence of which the human mind is formed and develops. If anything, the ‘social dimension’ is usually considered to have a peripheral influence, a minor factorial in the genesis of the ‘illness’ but never the central consideration. Esterson and Laing showed that so-called Schizophrenia is more comprehensible when the specific prolematics of the given individual’s family life is investigated than when putting an undiscerned neurological cause on it. This really amounts to the diagnostics of despair because Psychiatry cannot ‘cure’ society.

Accordingly, the major approach is that biological diagnoses are made for mental states which are primarily social in their origin. The ‘scientific rigour’ of medicine demands ‘consistency’.  However, in the application of this biologistic ‘consistency’ and ‘rigour’, the medicalised conception of the human mind that guides and results can only serve to hinder a real, comprehensive scientific understanding of the origins and development of those mental states which are diagnosed as forms of ‘illness’.

A scientifically demonstrable and consistent neurochemical conception of the causes of such mental states has not been developed which enables Psychiatry to successfully treat or eliminate the causes of these ‘illnesses’ in the same way that a conception of physical disease has been instrumental in the eradication of many forms of physical illness. The drug-induced neurological states, which are referred to as ‘treatments’, if anything merely serve to counter the neurochemical effects of specific states of mind. They are not addressing the ontological ground of these mental states but rather their neurochemical effects. And then such drugs may even have their own neurochemical side-effects which can really induce neurological illness.

For example, the prolonged use of Chlorpromazine (Largactil) has been associated with the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. When the capitalist state in Britain incarcerated the UCATT trade unionist Des Warren in the 1970s for his trade union activities, they gave him Chlorpromazine (aka ‘the liquid cosh’) to keep him ‘quiet’. He later went on to develop Parkinson’s. Des gives an account of his experiences at the hands of the jailers of the state power of capital in his book The Key to my Cell which is an indispensable read to anyone who thinks Britain does not have political prisoners and to anyone who thinks the spineless cowards who govern the trade union movement in Britain are anything but a rogues gallery of career-mongers, place-hunters and proxies of capital and its state power.

To understand the contemporary origins of these so-called ‘mental illnesses’, it is necessary to study the exploitative and alienating nature of the prevailing capitalist social relations and conditions; the abysmal, debilitating and crushing structure of the nuclear family being central to these relations. These relations form the ontological basis on which the interpersonal, psychosocial relationships of people are constituted. They are the same relations out of which these mental states – which Psychiatry refers to as forms of illness – originate and develop.

We do not, of course, preclude the possibility that mental states can mediate and modulate the physiology and neurochemistry of the functioning of the brain and nervous system as a whole. In this way, human physiology itself as a whole is influenced by mental processes. This, in itself, denotes a connection between the mental and the neurological. The recently developing branch of medicine known as  psychoneuroimmunology testifies to that. Thinking can actually create states of feeling which affect the physiological processes of the whole body. Prolonged states of anxiety can reduce the capacity of the immune system to resist infection. But this is common knowledge and we need go no further.

But it must also be articulated that in this relation between thinking and neurochemistry, the conceptual content of specific forms of thinking can engender neurochemical effects which, in their turn, can cause the manner in which thought is consciously formulated and ordered to be rearranged and its meaning subjectively re-evaluated and re-interpreted. This ‘derangement’ of thought therefore originates in the nature of the thought-content itself which affects the chemistry of the brain to affect thought itself, altering the ordering and subjective psychological meaning of its content (and thereby ‘mood’) for the thinking individual.

This reflexive process will undoubtedly confound those who have a formal conception of causality in which cause is cause and effect is effect and never the twain shall meet. Different changes in neurophysiology and neurochemistry can arise out of different forms of thinking with their differing conceptual content and, in their turn, affect thought process itself. Without an admission of this relationship, there could be no basis for an explanation of how thinking can modulate emotional and feeling states and how these can affect general physiology. And, moreover, there would be no theoretical scientific grounds for understanding why psychotropic drugs have specific affects on the mind.

Different mental states exist in relation to and with the complexities and progression of different thought-content.  Is not the ‘material’ of so-called ‘mental disorder’ to be found in the psychosocial nature of this content which is not a direct, material product of the human brain (e.g. in the same way the stomach produces acid or the liver produces bile) but which is formed within, and is therefore a reflection of, the complexity of the network and fabric of social relations and conditions?

When I was an undergraduate Biochemist, many years ago, during laboratory studies, I had a rather heated conversation with a supervising post-graduate on the nature of thought. The latter insisted that the thinking process was entirely a “biochemical system” in the same way that glucose or fatty acid metabolism is at a cellular level but just on a larger, more complex scale. “There’s nothing social about it”, he remarked with unbounding conviction, “you’re studying Biochemistry here, not Sociology. Thinking is pure and simple a chemical process”. For the Biochemist perhaps but not in itself as a process. This sums up the scientistic approach to mind. Thinking is the brain’s chemistry taking place within the skull and society is something out there which doesn’t intrude and is best left to speculating sociologists. Today the same subject of discussion with a computer specialist might result in the conviction that the brain is the ‘hardware’ and that the thinking process itself is the ‘software’.

It is the basic thesis of these brief notes that the real source of any given form of ‘mental illness’ – which is a definite state of the mind taking particular form in a given individual under definite social conditions and relations – is not the human brain per se but the social relations and conditions on the basis of which and through which individuals constitute their interpersonal relationships.  The individual experience of these conditions and relations, and the manner in which these experiences are assimilated psychologically, determines, to a large extent, the nature of those mental states which are termed ‘illnesses’ i.e. a state of mind which is a product of the history of an individual’s social experience. This implies that under definite social relations and conditions so-called ‘mental illness’ (we use their term) is implicit in the human mind i.e. its possibility is always there given the very nature of these conditions and relations. In such societies, therefore, ‘mental illness’ is latent in the life of every human individual.  Changes, alterations, transformations in personal conditions, circumstances, relationships can actualise what is latent; transform what is possible into a reality. But then again, there is a multitude of mental states which are also possible. All these states of mind are products of, and reactions to, the realities of the conditions of social life and how these realities have determined the personal historical development of the individual. They are, taken collectively, psychological manifestations of the real nature of social relations, of their intrinsic contradictions and structures. They are not simply the brain’s chemistry going through its motions.

The subjective experience of the individual, no matter how bizarre its beliefs and notions, has real ontological grounds in the whole society in which they live. And this in so far as this ‘subjectivity’, in its different aspects and sides, is the outcome of the individual’s engagement and interaction with this historically-posited society in the course of their life-history within it.

I was informed by a friend recently that the former TV presenter David Icke, who, in his heyday, was quite well-known as a BBC sports presenter and later published a book entitled The Truth Vibrations, actually believes the British royal family to be reptiles disguised in human form, reptiles incarnate. I cannot vouch that he still believes this.

However, if David Icke still believes the Queen to be a reptile incarnate, (to be more specific I think it is giant lizard) in human form, then everytime he sees the Queen either on the TV or in the flesh, for him he is seeing, accordingly, a disguised reptile despite the fact that all actuality and our collective experience of it contradicts this bizarre belief. But the psychological processing by David Icke of his own life-history, its experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc, in this society, has formed the personal ontological grounds to feed his psyche with enough content of a specific nature for him to arrive at this somewhat incredible belief from someone who was once a well-known TV personality. Nevertheless, we are reminded to be cautious and listen to Hegel in his Philosophy of Mind when he states that..

Error and folly only becomes madness when the individual believes his merely subjective ideas to be objectively present to him and clings to it in the face of the actual objectivity which contradicts it….. To the madman, his purely subjective world is quite as real as the objective world

(Hegel. Philosophy of Mind. (Clarendon, Oxford, 1971) Zusatze p.128)

Let us not be glib about such matters. For bizarre notions, in a legion of forms, like this are the way millions of people experience the reality of the present mind-warping social system the world over. That the Prince Consort is the Reptile-in-Chief is perhaps no less bizarre than the notion that we live in a classless society as promulgated by some British Tory MPs. And some of them actually believe it and insist on its reality.

The ‘world of society’ gives rise to the ‘particular internal psychological world of the individual’ and the latter gives rise to mental states which contain the possibility of the identification of merely subjective ideas as actually existing forms of reality independent of the thinking subject. With the example given, the thought that a really existent, specific person is actually a member of a totally different order of animal species in human form.

We can develop our ideas a little, or rather move them on, by using Vygotsky’s concept of the internal dialogue.

The process of monitoring our own thinking is seen as a self-conscious process, an internal dialogue taking place in each and every one of us as we reflect on the progression or train of our own thoughts and feelings. Perhaps these internal dialogues play a role in the psychogenesis of the so-called disordered mental states and in their psychodynamics.  What if, in these mental states, internal dialogues are subjectively identified by the individual as a conversation between the ‘self’ and an external ‘other’?  The ‘ownership’ of one half of the internal dialogue is transferred to the fictitious ‘other’ which the individual identifies as being objectively real i.e. actually existing outside of the head of the individual.

The internal relationship of the dialogue then becomes identified as a relationship between the ‘self’ and an external ‘other’.  This ‘other’ may then take a personalised – often religious – form.  The internal dialogue (of self-conscious awareness) becomes replaced in the subject by a kind of fictitious dialogue between the ‘self’ (devoid of the self-monitoring and self-integrating capacity of conscious reflection) and some external ‘other’. An ‘externalised’ fictitious dialogue replaces that of the self-consciously aware internal dialogue so that the individual  loses awareness that this subjectively identified ‘externalised’ dialogue is really a self-contained internal dialogue of consciousness and that this ‘external other’ is really just the individual talking to himself in his own mind.

Why might a psychological dissociation take place in which the two sides of the inner dialogue become separated into an internal ‘self’ and a subjectively identified external ‘other’? It may be interesting to note here that Vygotsky says that the internal dialogue – as a definite psychological structural form – is a psychological internalisation of the real social dialogues that take place between an individual and other people in the course of socialisation during childhood and after. Perhaps the fictitious dialogues of ‘mental illness’ are delusionary projections of these real dialogues; the often bizarre content of which may arise out of the particular thoughts and beliefs – conscious or subconscious – which are charged with a powerful emotional content. Of course, such fictitious dialogues are characteristics of specific types of ‘mental illness’ (what psychiatry calls “schizophrenic”). People report hearing voices speaking to them as if from an external source which they sometimes identify as ‘God’ and they refer to having conversations with fictitious figures as if they are really existent, for example, in the same room as them. The founders of religious movements report having visitations from God, angels, spirits, ancestral ghosts, etc, and then ascribe themselves a unique relationship with these identified externalised ‘othernesses’. This relationship beween the significant ‘self’ and the externalised ‘other’ in the dissociation of the internal dialogue becomes dualistically replicated on the wider level of the religion where the devotees and the deity or divinity constitute a relation of the collective ‘selves’ in the worship of the ‘other’.

If we accept that a rapid change of mental state takes place between the integrated self-conscious, monitoring dialogue and the dissociated fictitious form in which a part of the whole self is externalised as the other which speaks to self, then why should such a rapid change take place? Individuals are subjected to a range of psychosocial ‘pressures’, stress, dilemmas, anxiety, personal crises and social demands, etc, which they may increasingly find emotionally difficult or even painful to address through the psychological mechanism of the internal dialogue. The rupturing of this dialogue may be a mechanism of escape from addressing the direct nature of such problems in the life of the individual. Eventually a critical point is reached where the mind can no longer hold and contain the tensions and conflicts which have accumulated within itself and the disintegration of the whole mechanism of the internal dialogue takes place. Something ‘snaps’ or even ‘flips’- so to speak – and the internal dialogue becomes transformed into the form in which the other is identified as external to the self. The mental stress and pain may induce neurochemical alterations which then, in their turn, may trigger the ‘flip’ from one to the other fictitious form. In other words, the disruption of the operation of the internal dialogue arises out of the need to avoid the emotional suffering associated with problems in the social life of the individual.

The different sides of the dialogue become psychologically dissociated so that one side is subjectively identified as the internal ‘self’ and the other side is psychologically identified as an external ‘other’. The self-conscious so-called ‘insightful’ ‘sane’ form of the internal dialogue becomes transformed into the ‘psychotic’ ‘insane’ form of ‘inner self’ and ‘external other’.

Is this schism of the internal dialogue into an ‘internal self’ and ‘external other’ a psychological manifestation of the ‘psychotically’-thinking individual’s attempt to transcend the emotional dynamics of his internal dialogue? The transformation of these dialogues into an ‘internal self’ and an ‘external other’ serves to displace them into a different psychological scenario. The ‘psychotic’ individual ceases to be aware that an internal dialogue is actually taking place and conceives that the dialogue is between the ‘self’ and an external ‘other’. This may account for the so-called ‘thought-insertion’ (auditory hallucinations) which psychiatry commonly associates with those ‘schizophrenic’ mental states in which the external other is conceived to speak directly to the individual as if from an external source outside the ‘self’.  The individual has lost the ‘insight’ (a Psychiatrist’s term) because of the psychological disjunction of the different sides of the internal dialogue. They have ceased to be aware (self-awareness) that what is actually taking place is a continuation of an internal dialogue of consciousness.

Perhaps the so-called ‘anti-psychotic’ drugs help to modify the neurochemical manifestations of the process and thereby help the individual to return to some kind of ‘insight’, i.e. bring the individual back to the normalised, self-consciously aware, operation of the internal dialogue. But these drugs do not fundamentally address the social ontological grounds of these mental states.

Therefore so-called ‘mental illness’ could be viewed as the psychological outcome of the individual’s inability to ‘cope’ with the ‘pressures’ of social life. I tend to think that there is neither a genetic cause nor a genetic pre-disposition towards so-called ‘mental illness’. Rather, every individual can become ‘mentally ill’ as a result of the inabilities to ‘cope’, so to speak.

Associated changes in neurochemistry which serve to induce the move from one state (‘sanity’) to the other and tend to maintain it (‘insanity’) are simply changes which can occur in anyone by virtue of the neurochemical effects of changed psychological states as a result of this inability to ‘cope’. And pivotal to which, I think, is the emotional problems and suffering in the social life of the individual. If this is so, this raises an important ontological question: In what kind of society are human relationships possible without these emotional problems? Indeed, are human relations without these attributes necessary and/or desirable?

Will human beings always suffer from so-called ‘mental illnesses’? Will social conditions and relations always provide the ontological ground for the psychogenesis of such mental states? Oppressive, coercive and exploitative social relations cripple human beings both physically and mentally. However, they also motivate people to overthrow such relations and replace them with relationships more fitting and deserving of people’s humanity.

Anything that feeds our hatred of the rule of capital and its state power must also contain a positive side to it as well as a negative. That which oppresses simultaneously serves to move us in our struggle to end that oppression regardless of its form.

An understanding of the nature of society must be the starting point for the understanding of so-called ‘mental illness’. The neurochemistry of the brain in and by itself cannot form the basis for such an understanding. The forms of human behaviour, which are both a product and manifestation of these mental states, must therefore be explained from the nature of the individual’s personal psychosocial experience of the social conditions and relations of which he or she is a intrinsic active part and which form the determining, ontological basis for the development of the human personality as a whole.

Because a global socialist human life will be without the conflicts of interest and schisms of social class and eventually without the same in the nuclear family, because it will be without wars between human beings and the debilitating competition which characterises capitalist commodity society, because it will eventually eliminate the exploitation, coercion and oppression of man by man and end the disturbing destruction of Nature by man, because the whole system of social and interpersonal relations will be completely revolutionised by the transcendence of the crippling and alienating division of labour, because the human individual will have all the opportunities to freely develop his or her skills, talents and abilities and more in their communal association with their fellow human beings, because of all this and more, I think that socialist human life will be a far ‘saner’ society than the present one. It is one of the reasons why I am a convinced student of Marx. It is just another reason amongst many, speaking for myself, why such a life is the only one really worth fighting for.

Shaun May



October 2013


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From A Notebook on Dialectics

From A Notebook on Dialectics

1. Contradiction

Hegel, in his Logic, analyses formal logical thinking as a necessary but limited form of thinking for specific purposes whilst revealing these limitations as constituting a form of thinking which makes ‘abstract identity its principle’ (Logic, Part 1, Encyclopaedia, p 58, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1975).

The method of reasoning of formal logic operates with fixed categories which, in the process of cognition, are demarcated off and isolated from each other in their ‘abstract identity’ and ‘externality’ to each other. Implicit in this conception of the cosmos is the denial its immanent and eternal contradictoriness. Opposed categories are conceptualised as being isolated and walled off from each other so that in their difference from each other (distinction) their relation and unity is denied or in their unity their distinction is denied. Contradiction is conceptualised as an aberrant foible or defect of thinking rather than being immanent itself in all forms of being and thinking.

Hegel shows how formal logic considers all things through its law of ‘abstract understanding’ (Verstand) so that the ever-changing cosmos becomes conceptually fossilised into fixed abstract notions which deny the vitality and movement of this cosmos as a living, developing manifestation of contradiction within it. For formal logic, ‘A’ must always be absolutely identical with itself (A=A). ‘A’ cannot simultaneously be equal to itself (A=A) and not equal to itself (A ≠ A), for this would undeniably imply movement and contradiction.

Thus, formal logic mechanistically denies contradiction in the external world of nature and society. It fails to grasp opposites and distinctions in their integral relation and unity with each other; to recognise the necessary and inseparable connection between the parts of the whole; to see the transitional character of all forms; to understand the dialectical nature of all determinations through their inseparable relation to their negative; and to understand the movement of the world as a totality and its diverse and ever-changing forms as being animated by inner opposition, contradiction and the organic relationship and conflicts of opposing forces, tendencies, etc.

Formal thinking conceptualises opposites as being mutually exclusive, standing in isolation from each other and never posited simultaneously in their mutual relation and connection. Such ‘metaphysical’ thinking conceptualises the world “as a complex of ready made things” in opposition to dialectics which understands it as a “complex of processes” (Engels). Thus metaphysics adopts ‘one-sided forms of thought, rigidly fixed …and making these the basis of our theoretical as well as our practical work’ (Hegel, Logic, Part 1, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, p 144). The essential principle of metaphysical thought is the “law of abstract identity”.

Each moment of change, each instance of movement, is an identity of emerging and vanishing determinations. These determinations are only distinct from each other and move in opposition to each other because they exist in a relationship of identity or unity with each other. Conflict arises out of the identity or unity of opposites. Any conflict in a given formation constitutes a source of development of the whole formation.

Taken in its movement, any object is a unity of arising and vanishing moments: a movement that identifies a passage from existence to non-existence with a passage from non-existence to existence. Thus ‘in-itself every point of time is the relation of past and future’ (Hegel)

Every something, in its movement, is a synthesis of that which is coming into being and that which is passing away. The appearance of new determinations in the life of the ‘something’ is inextricably connected to the disappearance of other determinations. In their relation with each other, these determinations exist in conflict with each other. It is this conflict which animates the movement of the ‘something’ as a whole.

The movement from existence to non-existence is a passing away. The movement from non-existence to existence is an arising. Any moment of change is a unity of these opposed movements i.e. each moment of change in anything unites within itself these opposed movements. That which is coming into being is identified with that which is passing away and vice versa. However, at the same time, these movements are mutually distinct from, and opposed to, each other.

This relation is exhibited in the course of any transition. Transition itself mediates its own disappearance, containing and expressing its own negation. Therefore, in any transition, the identification of what is appearing (arising) and what is disappearing (vanishing) asserts itself in determinate form. Internal division and conflict gives the form its vitality whilst, at the same time, sending it towards its death.

This identity of arising and vanishing moments in which each is and simultaneously is not the other presents itself phenomenologically as a movement in which what is passing away is what is coming into being but coming to be in a different form so that every advance is a return to the old but at a higher level of existence. This arising of the other is simultaneously a return into what is being negated .i.e. the so-called negation of negation. All process is therefore a transition in which the point of departure is not only negated but also re-affirmed but in its rejuvenation so that the whole of development presents itself as an advance which is simultaneously a return to a rejuvenated old.

In this relation of the one and its other is posited the contradiction which is the moving principle of the whole, is the ‘engine’ of the development. But also it is this very principle which gives rise to the contradictory relation between the one and the other so that contradiction is the source of its own positing in its ever changing forms. Contradiction is the source of all development and simultaneously itself arises out of development just as development therefore is the source of contradiction and therefore ‘self-kindling’. Development is contradiction manifest and contradiction is development manifest.

What is arising is different from what is passing away; and yet each, in its movement, is the other. And it is in this contradictory relation that development itself consists and manifests just as all development is the living manifestation of real contradiction in Nature and Society.

The ‘metaphysical’ outlook is characteristic of empiricism and mechanical materialism – schools which have traditionally dominated Natural Science in England since Bacon in its heuristic* approach – where matter is understood to possess mechanical properties and where changes in the attributes of the forms of matter (qualitative changes) are merely reduced to quantitative changes without recourse to an understanding of the reciprocity of quantitative and qualitative changes.

*[Heuristics is the branch of logic concerned with those functions of method which enable the latter to be utilised in the process of making new scientific discoveries. For example, the heuristic functions of dialectical thinking in research in particle physics, quantum mechanics, bioevolutionary theory, etc. In this heuristic function, dialectics serves as an epistemological and methodological basis for pioneering new pathways and directions of investigation in scientific research. If we recognise dialectics as having a heuristic function then this is an implicit acknowledgement of the dialectical character of Nature. If we are using dialectics as a means of – or rather guide to – investigation and discovery then it would be absurd to use it if the world itself were not dialectical in its actual relations.]

The history of natural science has furnished (and continues to present) ample ‘evidence’ that the mechanistic conception of nature is one-sided and wooden. The world is conceived as a ‘machine’ wherein everything operates according to necessity and chance is merely the outcome of the interaction of opposed necessities. This is a necessitarian doctrine which is probably best illustrated by Spinoza in his Ethics.

2. Law

When we consider a general and necessary relation (connection) in Nature or socio-historical development, we immediately posit the conception of law. Law expresses the movement of causally and structurally related elements within a particular sphere. It is a general and necessary relation which arises from, and mediates, the relationship between the elements in a given sphere. The relations which determine the essential character of phenomena are expressed in law.

The essential behaviour of a given system is governed by the sum totality of its laws. Law (as ‘the form of universality in nature’ – Engels) is not a relation which operates independently and in abstraction from the actuality of a particular individual system. On the contrary, it expresses what a particular individual system has in common with other ‘individuals’ and reveals the universal material connection of the different individual systems.

All mathematical equations are formalised statements of dialectical relations.

Consider, for example, Newton’s Law, F = ma

This equation expresses an identity between distinct variables or a distinction between variables in their identity as represented by the ‘=’ sign. Force is identified as the product of mass and acceleration. But mass and/or acceleration are not force. It is only in their relation that they constitute force. The fact that different variables (representing real entities) appear on opposite sides of the equal sign itself implies identification of distinct variables. The very existence of the equation itself denotes the distinctions within the identity and articulates dialectics in a formalised mathematical expression. If there were no distinction and opposition in the identity, there would be no need for the equation itself. Force is the product of mass and acceleration and yet it is more than simply this product. To assert that Force is absolutely identical with mass times acceleration is akin to asserting that the whole is absolutely identical to the sum and product of its component parts without the distinction in which the whole is also greater than the summation and product of its parts. The ‘formal logician’ sees all identity and no distinction or all distinction and no identity. He always misses the distinction within the identity and vice versa. In other words, the positivist, empiricist, pragmatist, etc, would deny this latter principle (call it “illogical” or “contradictory of logic”, etc) but the dialectician would acknowledge its existence in thought as an intrinsic part and expression of all forms of development and would recognise it expressed in the workings and equations of mathematics. Christopher Zeeman’s and Rene Thom’s work on Catastrophe Theory, for example, is a demonstration of dialectics in higher mathematics as Darwin’s work was in Biology.

All mathematicals equations present – in different forms – an identification of different variables in a specific relationship with each other which reflects the real, objective character of the relationship of real entities in Nature. Accordingly, even in the mathematical formulae of Physics, etc, the humble dialectic rears its ubiquitous head and haunts the the enunciations of formal logic, regardless of its current forms or lineage. They cannot escape its universality. Hence, formal logic as a limiting case of dialectical logic. Repeat : every mathematical equation is a formalised statement of dialectics, however well disguised those relations may be within the formula itself.

A given law operates, and is expressed, within a given ‘individual’ according to the particular conditions and contingencies of the ‘individual’ embracing within itself the infinite wealth and complexity of chance (accidental) occurrences. Law does not operate in a fixed, deterministic mode, regardless of chance, contingency and the particular conditions of an individual system but only in and through the movement of the whole system as a totality which necessarily embraces the accidental.

Law, therefore, is always expressed in the infinite diversity of momentary and vanishing alterations and modifications of evolving forms of Nature, in its contingency and accidentality. Development is, therefore, not simply law-governed without chance but rather law is expressed in and through the accidentality of phenomena. Chance is the negation of law and vice versa but each, in their intrinsic unity with each other, reveals law to be the more essential relation governing the life and development of phenomena but not, of course, without the essential contingencies of chance which constitute a necessary and essential mode of expression of law.

Law – as essential and necessary relation – expresses itself in chance. Chance is not merely passive expression but is an active, necessary and essential mode of expression of law. In the course of the unfolding of conditions, chance determinations can become transformed into necessary relations and vice versa.

Dialectical thinking grasps necessary relations and their accidental mode of expression in their reciprocality and interrelationship. In this relationship, chance becomes ‘the concrete form in which this necessity manifests itself in phenomena – in the tendency toward a given behaviour as expressed in fluctuations about the law’ (Horz, H. et al., Philosophical Problems in Physical Science, p. 28.). Chance itself, in its relation to law, has an objective character and is not – as in necessitarian doctrines – merely an irrational foible of the thinking subject. In Spinoza, however, chance occurs at the ‘intersection of the chains of necessity’ so it also bears this objective character.

The operation of a given law always presupposes the existence of definite conditions which are subject to development. Accordingly, specific laws themselves arise and develop with and under specific conditions and are subject to negation with the passing away of those conditions which engender, determine and define them.

3. Marx’s Indebtedness to Philosophical Idealism

Nature is always more complex than our conceptions of it. If Nature is ‘infinitely complex’ and ‘inexhaustible in content’ then this confers an inevitable limitedness in our conception of it but a limit which must always expand and deepen asymptotically. The conception is ‘limited in its actuality but unlimited in its disposition’ (Engels).

These characteristics of Nature also mean that it is not reducible to one fundamental substance or law (reductionism). Human knowledge of Nature is potentially neverending because that is precisely what Nature itself dictates. Herein lies the epistemological primacy of Nature over consciousness; the primacy of the object of scientific investigation over the theory of the object i.e. that the object is infinitely richer and more complex than our conceptions of it which are always approximate, relative and historically conditioned.

Engels writes that…

‘the world clearly constitutes a single system i.e. a coherent whole, but the knowledge of this system presupposes a knowledge of all nature and history, which man will never attain. Hence, he who makes systems must fill in the countless gaps with figments of his own imagination i.e. engage in irrational fancies, ideologies’ (Anti-Duhring, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 386).

This epistemological primacy of Nature over consciousness is a materialist approach. But Marx was not simply the latest product in the evolution of philosophical materialism. He was also indebted to the great achievements of classical German idealism, some of which now appear to be ‘lost’ in the burial ground of this pre-Marx outlook.

Idealism, of course, denies the primacy of Nature. It denies that Nature existed prior to Man and ‘God’. Idealism, sooner or later, must always retreat into Theology implying that God preceded Nature and all subsequent development (as with Hegel) is divinely appointed and the ‘Absolute Idea’ manifest in evolving forms. Idealism naturally denies that thought itself is merely the highest active product and expression of the origination and development of Man in Nature. Accordingly, in its denial of the primacy of Nature, the idealist conception as a whole inevitably tends towards the supernatural, the religious or mystical explanations. But this idealist epistemology contains a revolutionary element in the emergence and development of German idealism.

We all know how Hegel influenced Marx. But do we know how Fichte, for example, influenced Hegel in his conception of the triad : thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The triad is the recurring structure in the exposition of the categories in Hegel’s Logic. What was the immediate origin of this for Hegel? It is to be found in Fichte’s Science of Knowledge published in 1794. The same year in which Robespierre was deposed by the reaction of Thermidor to be replaced by the Directory.

A study of Trotsky’s writings on philosophy (Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-35. Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, Columbia Univ Press, 1986, pp.99-101) will also reveal an interesting echo of Fichte’s work in Trotsky’s thoughts on the evolution of “concepts”.

4. Fichte’s ‘Lost’ Contribution to the Development of Dialectical Thinking

When I was a member of Healy’s misnamed Workers Revolutionary Party, Fichte was disrespectfully labelled and summarily dismissed as a “subjective idealist”. Don’t waste your time studying him, was the unequivocal message. This attitude was part and parcel of the philistine approach that prevailed in that dreadful sectarian outfit which paid no respect or regard whatsoever to the historical lineage of dialectics. But Fichte’s work was important for the development of Hegel’s thinking. Fichte himself was born into a very poor family and yet became one of the leading thinkers of the day. I dare say that most “Marxists” have never acquainted themselves with his work which is their loss.

I will focus on Fichte’s conception of the triadic structure of thinking which is echoed by Trotsky in his notebooks.

Fichte starts with the ‘I’ in his conception. The ego is both the subject and the object in the differentiation of the positing ‘I’ and the posited ‘I’. Self as both a positing activity (tathandlung) and the posited product of its own activity. The first basic principle of his three principles (Die Drei Gründsatze) is that self posits its own existence. I am. (Descartes : I think therefore Iam). I am identical to I. (A=A)

This thesis is the activity of the self which reaches outwards in experience in which the ‘Not I’ – as antithesis – now becomes posited against the ‘I’. (second basic principle). (A≠A).

This arising of the antithesis implies negation of the thesis and positing of contradiction. We now have a differentiation of the ego into the ‘I’ and its opposite, ‘Not-I’. Each only exists in its relation to the other and is and can only be reconciled (synthesis) within the original ‘I’ itself, within the ego.

The ‘Not-I’ is a negation of the ‘I’ and the reconciliation is a return to a higher, more enriched form of the ‘I’ (ego) in the synthesis of the original ‘I’ and its negation. For Fichte, the opposition between the ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’ only exists idealistically within the ego itself and hence the ego is the ground within which the opposition is transcended resulting in a new higher synthesis of the self or ego.

The ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’ mutually determine, limit and intermediate each other resulting in the higher synthesis.

This triadic conception in Fichte’s thought served to influence Hegel in the elaboration of his conception of ‘self-consciousness’ in the Phenomenology of Mind and in the exposition of the categories in the Logic. But what is crucial here for later developments is that it was German idealism itself – in contradistinction to ‘all hitherto existing materialism’ – which was the philosophical and theoretical source of the ‘active’ side of materialist dialectics. In his first thesis on Feuerbach, Marx writes that in relation to ‘all hitherto existing materialism’ which was ‘contemplative’…..

the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism – but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such

The active side was rooted in and developed by philosophical idealism without which Marx’s materialism would not have been ‘dialectical’. And the roots of this ‘active side’ predate Hegel. For idealism, this activity (tathandlung) can only be within the realm of thought and knows nothing of ‘sensuous practice’.

5. Determination > Negation > Mediation > Reflection Determination > Synthesis > Sublation

The affirmation of the characteristic of a thing, phenomenon, relation, etc, simultaneously involves reference to its implicit negation and to itself as the negation of something posited. For dialectical thinking, all negation is simultaneously the positing of a newness in the negation and thus the affirmation of a distinct, positive content in, and as the outcome of, the negation itself.

Negation both destroys and creates at the same time. It is the identity of moments of creation and destruction. Both are contained inseparably in the negation whilst, at the same time, the distinction between what is destroyed and what is created is revealed in their mutual relation and identity. What is created in the process of destruction is the positive outcome of negation. This newly posited content reveals itself in the arising of new determinations (characteristics, features, qualities, properties, relations, attributes, etc) in their distinction from the old vanishing determinations. The dialectical conception of determination therefore involves its opposite (negation) and vice versa. The negation of some characteristic simultaneously and necessarily involves the positing of some other characteristic wherein each characteristic reveals its distinction only in its relation to the other.

“The portentous power of the negative” (Hegel) is therefore the very power which engenders what is determinate as revealed in its posited characteristics. In dialectics, to ‘determine’ something means to progressively deepen our understanding of it (i.e. for it to become increasingly more concrete for us) by grasping how it has originated, what is its essential nature and what are its inherent tendencies of development from a study of its characteristics, attributes, relations, contradictions, etc.

Hegel, in his Logic, examines the relationship between what is posited and its negative which issues out of it in its development (negation). He embodies this relationship in the concept of mediation. The concept of mediation therefore refers to the nature of transition in which, in the course of the movement from the positedto its negative, they relate to each other and mutually determine and condition each other’s activity in the development of the whole relation.

When a ‘something’ gives rise to its negative (or opposite) out of itself, it constitutes, in this process of origination, a relationship with this negative which is its negative just as much as this negative is also a positive and the posited ‘something’ its negative. This relationship is, as described, one of mediation. Opposites therefore determine each other and, in this mediative relationship, each is simultaneously self-determining through its reflexive relationship to the other. In affecting each other, each is simultaneously self-affecting so that its relation-to other is simultaneously relation-to-self and vice versa.

Hegel writes that ‘the sensible as somewhat becomes other: the reflection in itself of this somewhat, the thing, has many properties….The muchness of the sense-singular thus becomes a breadth – a variety of relations, reflectional attributes and universalities’ (Philosophy of Mind, § 419).

Each unity is a oneness of inner distinctions, variety and conflicts (opposition).This infinite and inexhaustible manifoldness of unfolding properties and inner relations within the changing ‘somewhat’ constitutes the totality of its mediative character. In reading Hegel, this is why Lenin remarks that ‘everything is mediated, bound into One, connected by transitions’ which implies the ‘law-governed connection of the whole (process) of the world’ (Philosophical Notebooks, Volume 38, Collected Works, p 103).

The categories of relation are found in the Doctrine of Essence – the second part of Hegel’s Science of Logic and of the smaller Logic of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences. Reflection-Determination is the term which describes the reciprocality of the relationship between the different categories of opposites found in the Doctrine of Essence. The fundamental principles in the Doctrine of Essence are that of the interdependence, mutual interaction and unity of opposites.

For example, in Hegel’s concept of causality, cause and effect are only determined as such through their relationship to each other. The identification of one necessarily and simultaneously implies the other. Each, in determining the other, is simultaneously self-determining and, in being so, simultaneously determining the other. Each mediates the activity of the other in their inseparable relation and, in so doing, is self-mediating. Each determination only exists in and through relation to the other which determines and defines it. It is only in their nexus, reciprocal connection and relationship to other things and determinations that objects are determinate objects per se and therein their nature is expressed.

In the course of the exposition of the Doctrine of Essence, Hegel develops the relationship between cause and effect, substance and accident, ground and grounded, the thing and its properties, etc. The common conceptual thread running through these polarities is that of reflection. The word reflection comes from the Latin meaning to bend back or bending back. Hence the term is employed by Hegel in order to describe these categories which involve the reciprocity and mutual interpenetration and determination of opposed sides of a polarity – the intrinsic unity of the sides in opposition and intrinsic opposition in their unity. Each determination is reflected into its other and, at the same time, back into itself. This is why each side is simultaneously determining-of-other and self-determining. Hence the term reflection determination. Metaphysical thinking endeavours to understand (Hegel calls this type of understanding Verstand) each determination in its forced abstraction from its opposite. This gives formal logical thinking its limited and one-sided character.

The influence of Fichte can be seen in Hegel’s Logic where the conflict between two opposing categories is overcome in the synthesis of the third category. The thesis (the posited) gives rise to its antithetical opposite out of itself (the negation of the posited). The thesis contains its antithesis implicit within itself and, in its development, actualises this negative (the antithesis) thereby standing in unity and opposition to it. Their opposition moves the relation forward to a point at which the opposition is resolved into a higher state of unity; synthesis (negation of negation).
The higher unity of the synthesis therefore contains the opposition of the thesis and antithesis transcended within itself. This higher unity then becomes the thesis of a new triad. Hegel also used the thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure in his analysis of Kantianism.

Every negation is always a positing of new relations and qualities which involves, simultaneously, the abolition of the contradictions of a lower stage of development and the preservation of certain aspects of the relations of the lower stage in the higher. The higher stage of development stands as a resolution (synthesis) of the contradictions of the lower whilst absorbing these contradictions into itself in transcended form under new conditions and relations. The formal logical concept of negation is one in which that which is negated is reduced to nothing i.e. is absolutely annihilated without leaving any trace of its former existence.

But all change simultaneously involves the preservation – in the new – of aspects of that which is abolished. Elements of what is negated enter – in subsumed form – into the formation and relationships of the newly posited which results from the negation: ‘what is sublated is at the same time preserved, it has lost its immediacy only but it is not on that account annihilated’ (Hegel).

Hegel uses the term Aufhebung (verb : aufheben) to refer to the dialectical character of negation in which all change simultaneously involves both abolition and preservation of aspects of the old in the emergence of the new. It corresponds to the English term sublation or sometimes translated as supersedence. Negation of the old necessarily involves the positing of the new which contains aspects of the old subsumed within itself. The German word Aufheben has a two-fold meaning. It corresponds to the English phrase ‘to put aside’ which may mean to store away for future use (preserve) or to have done with, to finish with (abolish).

The positive outcome of any sublation is always a transcendence of contradiction in which aspects of the latter survive as subsumed moments in the posited. They are abolished yet preserved in subsumed form under new conditions in the resulting higher totality.

In the exposition in Hegel’s Logic, all the lower categories and determinations become sublated into the higher ones so that at any given stage in the exposition each category is the totality which contains all the previously elaborated categories sublated within itself. For example, in social development, feudalism becomes sublated into capitalism. The social relations of feudalism are, in all essentials, abolished and yet vestiges (remnants, leftovers) remain e.g. in legal relations, etc. In particle physics, the disintegration of the neutron involves the production of a proton, electron and neutrino. The neutron is in the category of particles referred to as nucleons. It has no net electric charge. The disintegration of the neutron simultaneously involves the reproduction of a nucleon (the proton) and the resulting system of decay products is still without a net electric charge. Thus, in its abolition, aspects of the neutron’s nature are simultaneously preserved.

A contradiction is superseded into a higher unity so that the latter contains the former absorbed and subsumed into itself. The contradiction is not simply and absolutely abolished (annihilated) nor is the contradiction merely perpetuated in identical form in the higher unity. The contradiction is, as such, absorbed but not absolutely annihilated. All development, therefore, is a continuous movement towards a higher, richer, more complex unity which necessarily involves transcendence but not absolute loss in the formal sense.

Each stage of development – as a finite, determinate stage – gathers up into itself the infinitude of all those stages which preceded it and transmits this superseded infinitude, as it evolves, into a higher stage of development. Therefore, the higher forms of development contain the lower superseded within them and thus a progression to a richer, more complex stage is always continuously unfolding.

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Engels on the Origins of Feudalism in Romano-Frankish Gaul

Pre-note by Shaun May – In this article, ‘The Frankish Period’, Engels discusses the origins of Feudalism in the Romano-Frankish Gaul of late empire and its Frankish conquest. As Marx saw England as the classical homeland of the capitalist mode of production so he saw France as the classical homeland of the feudal mode. The mode of production which eventually eclipsed the colonate of late antiquity first originated as an assimilation, synthesis and development of decaying Roman patrocinial social relations by the Frankish tribal relations and constitution and became established as a distinctly new, determinate mode of production and social formation.




The mark system [3]remained the basis of almost the entire life of the German nation till the end of the Middle Ages. Eventually, after an existence of one and a half millennia, it gradually disintegrated for purely economic reasons. It succumbed to economic advances with which it was unable to keep pace. We shall later examine its decline and ultimate destruction and we shall see that remnants of the mark system continue to exist even today.

It was only at the expense of its political importance that it was able to survive for so long. For centuries it had been the form embodying the freedom of the Germanic tribes. Then it became the basis of the people’s bondage for a thousand years. How was this possible?

The earliest community, as we have seen, comprised the whole people. Originally the people owned all the appropriated land. Later the whole body of inhabitants of a district [Gau], who were closely interrelated, became the owners of the territory settled by them, and the people as such retained only the right to dispose of the tracts which had not yet been claimed. The populace of the district in their turn handed over their field and forest marks to individual village communities, which likewise consisted of closely kindred people, and in this case too the land that was left over was retained by the district. The same procedure was followed when the original villages set up new village colonies–they were provided with land from the old mark by the parent village.

With the growth of the population and the further development of the people the blood-ties, on which here as everywhere the entire national structure was based, increasingly fell into oblivion.

This was first the case with regard to the people as a whole. The common descent was less and less seen as real consanguinity, the memory of it became fainter and fainter and what remained was merely the common history and the dialect. On the other hand, the inhabitants of a district naturally retained an awareness of their consanguinity for a longer time. The people thus came to mean merely a more or less stable confederation of districts. This seems to have been the state of affairs among the Germans at the time of the great migrations. Ammianus Marcellinus reports this definitely about the Alamanni, [4] and in the local law [5] it is still everywhere apparent. The Saxons were still at this stage of development during Charlemagne’s time and the Frisians until they lost their independence.

But the migration on to Roman soil broke the blood-ties, as it was bound to. Although the intention was to settle by tribes and kindreds, it was impossible to carry this through. The long marches had mixed together not only tribes and kindreds but also entire peoples. Only with difficulty could the blood-ties of the individual village communities still be held together, and these became thus the real political units of which the people consisted. The new districts on Roman territory were from the start, or soon became, judicial divisions set up more or less arbitrarily–or occasioned by conditions found already in existence.

The people thus disintegrated into an association of small village communities, between which there existed no or virtually no economic connection, for every mark was self-sufficient, producing enough to satisfy its own needs, and moreover the products of the various neighbouring marks being almost exactly the same. Hardly any exchange could therefore take place between them. And since the people consisted entirely of small communities, which had identical economic interests, but for that very reason no common ones, the continued existence of the nation depended on a state power which did not derive from these communities but confronted them as something alien and exploited them to an ever increasing extent.

The form of this state power depends in its turn on the form of the communities at the time in question. Where, as among the Aryan peoples of Asia and the Russians, it arises at a time when the fields are still cultivated by the community for the common account, or when at any rate the fields are only temporarily allotted by it to individual families, i. e. when there is as yet no private property in land, the state power appears as despotism. On the other hand, in the Roman lands conquered by the Germans, the individual shares in arable land and meadows already take, as we have seen, the form of the allodium, the owners’ free property subject only to the ordinary mark obligations. We must now examine how on the basis of this allodium a social and political structure arose, which–with the usual irony of history–in the end dissolved the state and completely abolished the allodium in its classical form.

The allodium made the transformation of the original equality of landed property into its opposite not only possible but inevitable. From the moment it was established on formerly Roman soil, the German allodium became what the Roman landed property adjacent to it had long been–a commodity. It is an inexorable law of all societies based on commodity production and commodity exchange that the distribution of property within them becomes increasingly unequal, the opposition of wealth and poverty constantly grows and property is more and more concentrated in a few hands. It is true that this law reaches its full development in modern capitalist production, but it is by no means only in it that this law operates. From the moment therefore that allodium, freely disposable landed property, landed property as commodity, arose, from that moment the emergence of large-scale landed property was merely a matter of time.

But in the period we are concerned with, farming and stock-breeding were the principal branches of production. Landed property and its products constituted the by far largest part of wealth at that time. Other types of movable wealth that existed then followed landed property as a matter of course, and gradually accumulated in the same hands as landed property. Industry and trade had already deteriorated during the decline of the Roman empire; the German invasion ruined them almost completely. The little that was left was for the most part carried on by unfree men and aliens and remained a despised occupation. The ruling class which, with the emerging inequality in property, gradually arose could only be a class of big landowners, its form of political rule that of an aristocracy. Though, as we shall see, political levers, violence and deceit contribute frequently, and as it seems even predominantly, to the formation and development of this class, we must not forget that these political levers only advance and accelerate an inevitable economic process. We shall indeed see just as often that these political levers impede economic development; this happens quite frequently, and invariably when the different parties concerned apply them in opposite or intersecting directions.

How did this class of big landowners come into being?

First of all we know that even after the Frankish conquest a large number of big Roman landowners remained in Gaul, whose estates were for the most part cultivated by free or bound copyholders against payment of rent (canon).

Furthermore we have seen that as a result of the wars of conquest the monarchy had become a permanent institution and real power among all Germans who had moved out, and that it had turned the land which had formerly belonged to the people into royal domains and had likewise appropriated the Roman state lands. These crown lands were constantly augmented by the wholesale seizure of the estates of so-called rebels during the many civil wars resulting from the partitions of the empire. But rapidly as these lands increased, they were just as rapidly squandered in donations to the Church and to private individuals, Franks and Romans, retainers (antrustions [6]) and other favourites of the king. Once the rudiments of a ruling class comprising the big and the powerful, landlords, officials and generals had formed, during and because of the civil wars, local rulers tried to purchase their support by grants of land. Roth has conclusively proved that in most cases these were real grants, transfers of land which became free, inheritable and alienable property, until this was changed by Charles Martel. [7]

When Charles took over the helm of state, the power of the kings was completely broken but, as yet, by no means replaced by that of the major-domos. [8] The class of grandees, created under the Merovingians at the expense of the Crown, furthered the ruin of royal power in every way, but certainly not in order to submit to the major-domos, their compeers. On the contrary, the whole of Gaul was, as Einhard says, in the hands of these

“tyrants, who were arrogating power to themselves everywhere” (tyrannos per totam Galliam dominatum sibi vindicantes).[9]

This was done not only by secular grandees but also by bishops, who appropriated adjacent counties and duchies in many areas, and were protected by their immunity and the strong organisation of the Church. The internal disintegration of the empire was followed by incursions of external enemies. The Saxons invaded Rhenish Franconia, the Avars Bavaria, and the Arabs moved across the Pyrenees into Aquitania.[10] In such a situation, mere subjection of the internal enemies and expulsion of the external ones could provide no long-term solution. A method had to be found of binding the humbled grandees, or their successors appointed by Charles, more firmly to the Crown. And since their power was up to then based on large-scale landed property, the first prerequisite for this was a total transformation of the relations of landownership. This transformation was the principal achievement of the Carolingian dynasty. [11] The distinctive feature of this transformation is that the means chosen to unite the empire, to tie the grandees permanently to the Crown and thus to make the latter more powerful, in the end led to the complete impotence of the Crown, the independence of the grandees and the dissolution of the empire.

To understand how Charles came to choose this means, we must first examine the property relations of the Church at the time, which anyway cannot be passed over here, being an essential element of contemporary agrarian relations.

Even during the Roman era, the Church in Gaul owned considerable landed property, the revenue from which was further increased by its great privileges with regard to taxes and other obligations. But it was only after the conversion of the Franks to Christianity [12] that the golden age began for the Gallic Church. The kings vied with one another in making donations of land, money, jewels, church utensils, etc., to the Church. Already Chilperic used to say (according to Gregory of Tours):

“See how poor our treasury has become, see, all our wealth has been transferred to the Church.” [13]

Under Guntram, the darling and lackey of the priests, the donations exceeded all bounds. Thus the confiscated lands of free Franks accused of rebellion mostly became the property of the Church.

The people followed the lead of the kings. Small man and big could not give enough to the Church.

“A miraculous cure of a real or imagined ailment, the fulfilment of an ardent wish, e. g. the birth of a son or deliverance from danger, brought the Church whose saint had proved helpful a gift. It was deemed the more necessary to be always open-handed as both among high and low the view was widespread that gifts to the Church led to the remission of sins” (Roth, p. 250).

Added to this was the immunity protecting the property of the Church from violation at a time of incessant civil wars, looting and confiscation. Many a small man thought it wise to cede his property to the Church provided he retained its usufruct at a moderate rent.

Yet all this was not sufficient for the pious priests. With threats of eternal punishment in hell they virtually extorted more and more donations, so that as late as 811 Charlemagne reproaches them with this in the Aachen Capitulary,[14] adding that they induce people

“to commit perjury and bear false witness, so as to increase your” (the bishops’ and abbots’) “wealth”. [15]

Unlawful donations were obtained by hook or by crook in the hope that, apart from its privileged judicial status, the Church had sufficient means to cock a snook at the judiciary. There was hardly any Gallic Church Council in the sixth and seventh centuries that did not threaten to excommunicate anyone trying to contest donations to the Church. In this way even formally invalid donations were to be made valid, and the private debts of individual clerics protected against collection.

“We see that truly contemptible means were employed to arouse, again and again, the desire for making donations. When descriptions of heavenly bliss and infernal torment were no longer effective, relics were brought from distant parts, translations were arranged and new churches built; this was a veritable business in the ninth century” (Roth, p. 254). “When the emissaries of the St. Medard monastery in Soissons by much assiduous begging obtained the body of Saint Sebastian in Rome and in addition stole that of Gregory, and both bodies were deposited in the monastery, so many people flocked to see the new saints that the whole area seemed to be swarming with locusts, and those seeking relief were cured not individually but in whole herds. The result was that the monks measured the money by the bushel, counting as many as 85, and their stock of gold amounted to 900 pounds” (p. 255).

Deceit, legerdemain, the appearance of the dead, especially of saints, and finally also, and even predominantly, the forging of documents, were used to obtain riches for the Church. The forging of documents was — to let Roth speak again —

“practised by many clerics on a vast scale … this business began very early…. The extent of this practice can be seen from the large number of forged documents contained in our collections. Of Bréquigny’s 360 Merovingian certificates [16] nearly 130 are definitely forgeries…. The forged testament of Remigius was used by Hincmar of Reims [17] to procure his church a number of properties, which were not mentioned in the genuine testament, although the latter had never been lost and Hincmar knew very well that the former was spurious.” [18]

Even Pope John VIII tried to obtain the possessions of the St. Denis monastery near Paris by means of a document which he knew to be a forgery. (Roth, pp. 256 ff.)

No wonder then that the landed property the Church amassed through donations, extortion, guile, fraud, forgery and other criminal activities assumed enormous proportions within a few centuries. The monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, now within the perimeter of Paris, at the beginning of the ninth century owned landed property of 8,000 mansi or hides, [19] an area which Guérard estimates at 429,987 hectares with an annual yield of one million francs which equals;800,000 marks.[20] If we use the same average, i. e. an area of 54 hectares with a yield of 125 francs, this equals 100 marks per hide of land, then the monasteries St. Denis, Luxeuil, St. Martin de Tours, each owning 15,000 mansi at that time, held landed property of 810,000 hectares with an income of 1½ million marks. And this was the position after the confiscation of Church property by Pepin the Short! [21] Roth estimates (p. 249) that the entire property of the Church in Gaul at the end of the seventh century was probably above, rather than below, one-third of the total area.

These enormous estates were cultivated partly by unfree and in part also by free copyholders of the Church. Of the unfree, the slaves (servi) were originally subject to unmeasured service to their lords, since they were not persons in law. But it seems that for the resident slaves too a customary amount of duties and services was soon established. On the other hand, the services of the other two unfree classes, the colons and lites [22] (we have no information about the difference in their legal position at that time) were fixed and consisted in certain personal services and corvée as well as a definite part of the produce of their plot. These were long established relations of dependence. But for the Germans it was something quite new that free men were cultivating not their own or common land. It is true that the Germans met quite frequently free Roman tenants in Gaul and in general in territories where Roman law prevailed; however during the settlement of the country care was taken to ensure that they themselves did not have to become tenants but could settle on their own land. Hence before free Franks could become somebody’s copyholders they must have in some way or other lost the allodium they received when the country was being occupied, a distinct class of landless free Franks must have come into existence.

[note by spm : In my opinion, ‘free’ is an ambiguous term here which requires clarification. As soon as they became ‘landless’ without allodium, they became, by necessity, dependent as tenants (free or unfree) of church or secular lord. Whilst the allodium was still held as freehold, the peasant could work his own land as part of the mark system. Only in this real, as opposed to the nominal formal, sense was he free since by selling or ceding his land he cut the material basis of his own existence from underneath himself and would soon – unless he became a dependent tenant –  have become a vagabond or starved, etc, unless fortune favoured him in some sort of peddling or tinkering, etc, which was unlikely under the historical circumstances of the time. As soon as the Frank peasant lost ownership of his allodium, he became funnelled into dependency on church or lord. The ‘freedom’ of cultivating one’s own plot was replaced by the ‘bondage’ of cultivating someone else’s land. ‘Free’ could only mean under these historical conditions that the tenant was neither slave, nor colonus or lites and so not subject to the laws and regulations which governed their existence. But, in spite of all, he remained a dependent tenant regardless of the more favourable conditions of his existence vis-a-vis those enslaved lower in the emerging feudal order and even if he had slaves and coloni, etc, working his land. If he exercised any freedom to quit his tenancy, where was he to go? Where would he have ended up? Today under capitalism the tenant farmer or the wage labourer is ‘free’ but this freedom is rendered nominal by the actual, determining historical conditions and parameters of their lives. What happens if the farmer quits his tenancy or the wage worker his job? Dependency of one class on another, subservience to it, makes it, by definition, unfree, enslaved. The three forms of slavery, which Engels referred to, were slave, bond and wage labour. ] 

This class arose as a result of the beginning concentration of landed property, owing to the same causes as led to this concentration, i.e., on the one hand civil wars and confiscations and on the other the transfer of land to the Church mainly due to the pressure of circumstances and the desire for security. The Church soon discovered a specific means to encourage such transfers, it allowed the donor not only to enjoy the usufruct of his land for a rent, but also to rent a piece of Church land as well. For such donations were made in two forms. Either the donor retained the usufruct of his farm during his lifetime, so that it became the property of the Church only after his death (donatio post obitum). In this case it was usual, and was later expressly laid down in the kings’ Capitularies, that the donor should be able to rent twice as much land from the Church as he had donated. Or the donation took effect immediately (cessio a die praesente) and in this case the donor could rent three times as much Church land as well as his own farm, by means of a document known as precaria, issued by the Church — which transferred the land to him, usually for the duration of his life, but sometimes for a longer or shorter period. Once a class of landless free men had come into being, some of them likewise entered into such a relationship. The precaria they were granted seem at first to have been mostly issued for five years, but in their case too they were soon made out for life.

There is scarcely any doubt that even under the Merovingians relations very similar to those obtaining on Church estates developed also on the estates of the secular magnates, and that here too free and unfree rent-paying tenants were living side by side. They must have been very numerous as early as Charles Martel’s rule for otherwise at least one aspect of the transformation of landownership relations initiated by him and completed by his son and grandson [23] would be inexplicable.

[note by spm – Throughout the whole roman period, about 90% + of the entire population lived on the land as cultivators, herdsmen, etc. This percentage seems to have been maintained, or even increased, during the colonate period of the late empire and subsequent to this in Frankish Gaul. These societies were overwhelmingly agrarian. So much so that a horse ride at the time from, for example, Londinium to Verulamium or from Paris to Orleans would have presented a picture of the countryside worked by many people on route living in their huts, hovels, roundhouses and settlements. The absence of people in the countryside as we see today was, of course, a creation of capitalist agriculture. The ‘appearance’ of the societies of antiquity as being urban is largely the creation of 20th century cinema.]

This transformation depended basically on two new institutions. First, in order to keep the barons of the empire tied to the Crown, the Crown lands they received were now as a rule no longer a gift, but only a “beneficium”, granted for life, and moreover on certain conditions nonfulfilment of which entailed the forfeiture of the land. Thus they became themselves tenants of the Crown. And secondly, in order to ensure that the free tenants of the barons turned up for military service, the latter were granted some of the district count’s official powers over the free men living on their estates and appointed their “seniores”. For the present we need only consider the first of these two changes.

When subduing the rebellious small “tyrants” Charles (Martel? – spm) probably — we have no information regarding this — confiscated their landed property according to old custom, but in so far as he reinstated them in their offices and dignities he will have granted it to them entirely or in part as a benefice. He did not yet dare to treat the Church land of recalcitrant bishops in the same way. He deposed them and gave their positions to people devoted to him, though the only clerical trait of many of them was their tonsure (sola tonsura clericus). These new bishops and abbots then began at his bidding to transfer large tracts of Church land to laymen as precaria. Such instances had occurred earlier too, but it was now done on a mass scale. His son Pepin (the short? – spm) went considerably further. The Church was in decay, the clergy despised, the Pope, [24] hard pressed by the Langobardi, depended exclusively on Pepin’s support. He helped the Pope, favoured the extension of his ecclesiastical rule and held the Pope’s stirrup. [25] But as a remuneration he incorporated the by far largest part of the Church land into the Crown estates and left the bishops and monasteries an amount just sufficient for their maintenance. The Church acquiesced passively in this first large-scale secularisation, the synod of Lestines [26] confirmed it, albeit with a restrictive clause, which was, however, never observed. This huge mass of land placed the exhausted Crown estate once more on a secure footing and was to a large extent used for further grants, which in fact soon assumed the form of ordinary benefices.

Let us add here that the Church was soon able to recover from this blow. Directly after the conflict with Pepin the worthy men of God resumed their old practices. Donations came once more thick and fast from all directions, the small free peasants were still in the same sorry plight between hammer and anvil as they had been for the past 200 years. Under Charlemagne and his successors they fared far worse still and many entrusted themselves and all their possessions to the protection of the crosier. The kings returned some of their booty to favoured monasteries, and donated vast stretches of Crown land to others, especially in Germany. The blessed times of Guntram seemed to have returned for the Church during the reign of Louis the Pious. The monastery archives contain especially numerous records of donations made in the ninth century.

The benefice, this new institution, which we must now examine closer, was not yet the future fief, but certainly its embryo. It was from the outset granted for the common span of life of both the conferrer and the recipient. If one or the other died, it reverted to the owner or his heirs. To renew the former relationship, a new transfer of property to the recipient or his heirs had to be made. Hence the benefice was subject to both “throne-fall” and “home-fall”, to use a later terminology. Throne-fall soon fell into desuetude; the great beneficiaries became more powerful than the king. Home-fall, even at an early stage, not infrequently entailed the re-transfer of the estate to the heir of the former beneficiary. Patriciacum (Percy), an estate near Autun, which Charles Martel granted as a benefice to Hildebrannus, remained in the family passing from father to son for four generations, until in 839 the king presented it to the brother of the fourth beneficiary as full property. Similar cases occur quite frequently since the mid-eighth century.

The benefice could be withdrawn by the conferrer in all cases in which confiscation of property was applicable. And there was no shortage of such cases under the Carolingians. The risings in Alamannia under Pepin the Short, the conspiracy of the Thuringians and the repeated risings of the Saxons [27] invariably led to new confiscations, either of free peasant land or of magnates’ estates and benefices. This occurred also, despite all treaty stipulations to the contrary, during the internal wars under Louis the Pious and his sons. [28] Certain non-political crimes were also punished by confiscation.

The Crown could moreover withdraw benefices if the beneficiary neglected his general obligations as a subject, e. g., did not hand over a robber who had sought asylum, did not turn up armed for a campaign, did not pay heed to royal letters, etc.

Furthermore benefices were conferred on special terms, the infringement of which entailed their withdrawal, which of course did not extend to the rest of the property of the beneficiary. This was the case, for example, when former Church estates were granted and the beneficiary failed to pay the Church the dues that went with them (nonae et decimae [29]). Or if he let the estate deteriorate, in which case a year’s notice was usually first given as a warning so that the beneficiary could improve matters to avert confiscation which would otherwise follow, etc. The transfer of an estate could also be tied to definite services and this was indeed done more and more frequently as the benefice gradually developed into the fief proper. But initially this was by no means necessary, especially with regard to military service, for many benefices were conferred on lower clerics, monks, and women both spiritual and lay.

Finally it is by no means impossible that in the beginning the Crown also conferred land subject to recall or for a definite period, i. e. as precaria. Some of the information and the procedure of the Church make this probable. But at any rate this ceased soon for the granting of land as a benefice became prevalent in the ninth century.

For the Church — and we must assume that this applied to the big landowners and beneficiaries as well — the Church, which previously granted estates to its free tenants mostly only as precaria for a definite period of time, had to follow the stimulus given by the Crown. The Church not only began to grant benefices as well, but this kind of grant became so predominant that already existing precaria were turned into lifelong ones and imperceptibly became benefices, until the former merged almost completely into the latter in the ninth century. Beneficiaries of the Church and also of secular magnates must have played an important part in the state as early as the second half of the ninth century, some of them must have been men of substantial property, the founders of the future lower nobility. Otherwise Charles the Bald would not have so vigorously helped those who had been without reason deprived of their benefices by Hincmar of Laon.

The benefice, as we see, has many aspects which recur in the developed fief. Throne-fall and home-fall are common to both. The benefice, like the fief, can only be revoked under certain conditions. The social hierarchy created by the benefices, which descends from the Crown through the big beneficiaries — the predecessors of the imperial princes — to the medium beneficiaries — the future nobility — and from them to the free and unfree peasants, the bulk of whom lived in mark communities, formed the foundation for the future compact feudal hierarchy. Whereas the subsequent fief is, in all circumstances, held in return for services and entails military service for the feudal lord, the benefice does not yet require military service and other services are by no means inevitable. But the tendency of the benefice to become an estate held in return for services is already obvious, and spreads steadily during the ninth century; and in the same measure as it unfolds, the benefice develops into the fief.

Another factor contributed to this development, i. e., the changes which took place in the district and army structure first under the influence of big landed property and later under that of the big benefices, into which big landed property was increasingly transformed as a result of the incessant internal wars and the confiscations and retransfers associated with them.

It is evident that only the pure, classical form of the benefice has been examined in this chapter, which was certainly only a transitory form and did not even appear everywhere simultaneously. But such historical manifestations of economic relations can only be understood if they are considered in their pure state, and it is one of the chief merits of Roth that he has laid bare this classical form of the benefice, stripping it of all its confusing appendages.


The transformation in the position of landed property just described was bound to influence the old structure. It caused just as significant changes in the latter, and these in their turn had repercussions on the relations of landed property. For the present we shall leave aside the remodelling of the political structure as a whole and confine ourselves to an examination of the influence the new economic position exerted on the still existing remnants of the old popular structure in the districts and the army.

As early as the Merovingian period we frequently encounter counts and dukes as administrators of Crown estates. But it was not until the ninth century that certain Crown estates were definitely linked to the countship in such a way that the count of the day received their revenue. The formerly honorary office had been transformed into a paid one. In addition to this we find the counts holding royal benefices granted to them personally, which is something self-evident under the conditions of that time. The count thus became a powerful landowner within his county.

First of all it is obvious that the authority of the count was bound to suffer when big landed proprietors arose under him and side by side with him. People who had often enough scorned the commands of the kings under the Merovingians and early Carolingians could be expected to show even less respect for the orders of the count. Their free tenants, confident of the protection of powerful landlords, just as frequently disregarded the count’s summons to appear in court or turn up for his levy to the army. This was one of the reasons that led to grants being made in the form of benefices instead of allodial grants and later to the gradual transformation of most of the formerly free big estates into benefices.

[note by spm – My understanding here is that ‘free tenants’ means not legally bound to the soil like a slave, colonus or lites. In the historical actuality of the conditions of the time, this ‘free’ did not mean much more than that. In reality, they were bound to the soil like the others but could ‘move around’ or ‘move on’ for what good it did them. Even if the ‘free tenant’ himself used coloni he remained localised and so was only ‘free’ within the conditions of the time. Engels’ use of the term ‘free’ needs to be qualified and rendered more concrete according to the conditions of the time. By free I think we can understand not a colonus, slave or lites and not, as yet, subinfeudated. See my note above]

This alone was not enough to ensure that the free men living on the estates of the magnates did in fact perform their services to the State. A further change had to be introduced. The king saw himself compelled to make the big landlords responsible for the appearance of their free tenants at court and for their performance of military and other traditional services to the State in the same way as hitherto the count was held accountable for all free inhabitants of his county. And this could only be accomplished if the king gave the magnates some of the count’s official powers over their tenants. It was the landlord or beneficiary who had to make sure that his people appeared before the court, they therefore had to be summoned through him. He had to bring them to the army, therefore the levy had to be effected by him, and so that he might always be held accountable for them he had to lead them and have the right to impose military discipline on them. But it was and continued to be the king’s service that the tenants performed, and the recalcitrant was punished not by the landlord but by the royal count, and the fine went to the royal fisc.

This innovation too goes back to Charles Martel. At any rate only since his time do we find the custom of high ecclesiastical dignitaries taking the field themselves, a custom which, according to Roth, was due to the fact that Charles made his bishops join the army at the head of their tenants in order to ensure that the latter turned up. [30] Undoubtedly this also applied to the secular magnates and their tenants. Under Charlemagne the new arrangement is already firmly established and universally enforced.

But this caused a substantial change also in the political position of the free tenants. They who had formerly been on an equal footing with their landlord before the law, however much they depended on him economically, now became his subordinates also in the legal sphere. Their economic subjection was politically sanctioned. The landlord becomes Senior, Seigneur, the tenants become his homines, the “lord” becomes the master of his “man”. The legal equality of the free men has disappeared; the man on the lowest rung of the ladder, his full freedom already greatly impaired by the loss of his ancestral land (allodium – spm), moves down another step nearer the unfree. The new “lord” rises that much higher above the level of the old communal freedom. The basis of the new aristocracy, already established economically, is recognised by the State and becomes one of the fully operative driving wheels of the State machinery.

But alongside these homines made up of free tenants there existed yet another kind. These were impoverished free men who had voluntarily entered into the service or become retainers of a magnate. The retinue of the Merovingians were the antrustions, the magnates of that time will likewise have had their retainers. The retainers of the king were, under the Carolingians, called vassi, vasalli or gasindi, terms which had been used for unfree men in the oldest codes of common law, but had now come to mean usually free retainers. The same expressions were applied to the grandee’s retainers, who now occur quite commonly and become an increasingly numerous and important element of society and State.

Old treaty formulas show how the grandees came to have such retainers. One of them (Formulae Sirmondicae 44) for instance says:

“Since it is known to one and all that I have not the wherewithal to feed and clothe myself, I ask of your” (the lord’s) “piety that I may betake and commend myself into your protection” (mundoburdum–guardianship, as it were) “so that … you will be obliged to aid me with food and clothing, according as I shall serve you and merit the same; in return, may I be obliged to render you service and obedience in the manner of a freeman (ingenuili ordine); nor shall it be in my power to withdraw from your authority and patronage during my lifetime but I shall spend my days under your authority and protection.” [31]

This formula provides full information about the origin and nature of the ordinary relations of allegiance stripped of all alien admixtures, and it is especially revealing because it presents the extreme case of a poor devil who has been reduced to absolute penury. The entry into the seigneur’s retinue was effected by the two parties reaching a free agreement–free in the sense of Roman and modern law–often rather similar to the entry of a present-day worker into the service of a manufacturer. The “man” commended himself to the lord, and the latter accepted his commendation. It was confirmed by a handshake and an oath of allegiance. The agreement was lifelong and was only dissolved by the death of one of the two contractors. The liege man was obliged to carry out all services consistent with the position of a free man which his lord might impose on him. In return the lord provided for his keep and rewarded him as he thought fit. A grant of land was by no means necessarily involved and in fact it certainly did not take place in all cases.

Under the Carolingians, especially since Charlemagne, this relationship was not only tolerated but directly encouraged and eventually, it seems, made compulsory for all ordinary free men–by a Capitulary of 847–and regulated by the State. For example, the liege man could unilaterally annul the relationship with his lord only if the latter attempted to kill him, hit him with a stick, dishonour his wife or daughter or deprive him of his hereditary property (Capitulary of 813). The liege man moreover was bound to his lord as soon as he had received a value equivalent to one solidus from him. This again clearly shows how little at that time the vassal relationship was linked with the granting of land. The same stipulations are repeated in a Capitulary of 816, with the addition that the liege man was released from his obligations if his lord wrongfully attempted to reduce him to the status of an unfree man or failed to afford him the promised protection although he was able to do so. [32]

With regard to his retainers the liege lord now had the same rights and duties towards the State as the landlord or beneficiary had with regard to his tenants. As before they were liable to serve the king, but here too the liege lord was interposed between the king and his counts. The liege lord brought the vassals to court, he called them up, led them in war and maintained discipline among them, he was responsible for them and their regulation equipment. This gave him a certain degree of penal authority over his subordinates, and was the starting point of the feudal lord’s jurisdiction over his vassals, which developed later.

In these two additional institutions, the formation of the retainer system and the transfer of the official powers of the counts, that is the State, to the landlord, the holder of a Crown benefice, and the liege lord over his subordinates–both tenants and landless retainers, who were soon all to be called vassi, vasalli or homines–in this political confirmation and strengthening of the actual power of the lord over his vassals we see an important further development of the germ of the fief system contained in the benefices. The hierarchy of social estates, from the king downwards through the big beneficiaries to their free tenants and finally to the unfree men, has in its official capacity become a recognised element of the political organisation. The State recognises that it cannot exist without its help. We shall see later how in actual fact this help was given.

The differentiation between retainers and tenants is only important in the beginning, in order to show that the dependence of free men came about in two ways. The two types of vassals very soon merged inseparably, in name as well as in fact. It became more and more customary for the big beneficiaries to commend themselves to the king, so that they were not only his beneficiaries but also his vassals. It was in the interest of the kings to make the magnates, bishops, abbots, counts and vassals swear the oath of allegiance to them personally (Annales Bertiniani 837 [33] and other documents of the ninth century); consequently the distinction between the general oath of the subject and the specific oath of the vassal was bound to disappear soon. Thus all the great men gradually became vassals of the king. The slow transformation of the big landowners into a special estate, an aristocracy, was herewith recognised by the State, incorporated into the State structure and became one of its officially functioning elements.

Similarly the retainers of the individual big landowners gradually became tenants. Apart from providing board at the manorhouse, which after all could only be done for a small number of people, there was but one way of assuring oneself of retainers, that is by settling them on the ground, by granting them land as a benefice. A numerous military retinue, the main prerequisite for the existence of the magnates in those times of perpetual fighting, could therefore only be obtained by granting land to the vassals. Consequently landless retainers gradually disappear from the manor while the mass of those settled on the lord’s land grows.

But the more this new element penetrated the old structure, the more it was bound to weaken the latter. The old direct exercise of State power by the king and the counts was more and more replaced by an indirect method; the seignior, to whom the common free men were increasingly tied by personal allegiance, now stood between them and the State. The count, the mainspring of the mechanism of State, was bound to recede into the background more and more, and so he did. In this situation Charlemagne acted as he generally used to do. First he encouraged the spread of the vassal relationship, as we have seen, until the independent small free men had almost disappeared, and when the weakening of his power to which this led became obvious, he tried to help it on its feet again by State intervention. Under such an energetic and formidable ruler this could be successful in some cases, but the force of circumstances created with his help asserted itself inexorably under his weak successors.

Charlemagne’s favourite method was to send out royal emissaries (missi dominici) with plenipotentiary powers. Where the ordinary royal official, the count, was unable to stem the spread of disorder, a special envoy was expected to do so. (This has to be historically substantiated and amplified.)

There was, however, another method, and this was to put the count in such a position that he had at his disposal material means to enforce his authority which were at least equal to those of the magnates in his county. This was only possible if the count too became a big landowner, which again could be brought about in two ways. Certain estates could be attached to the office of the count in the various districts as a sort of endowment, so that the count of the day administered them ex officio and received the revenue they yielded. Many examples of this kind can be found, especially in documents, from as early as the end of the eighth century, and this arrangement is quite usual from the ninth century onwards. It is self-evident that such endowments come for the most part from the king’s fiscal estates, and as early as the time of the Merovingians we often find counts and dukes administering the king’s fiscal estates situated in their territory.

Strangely enough there are also a good many examples (and even a formula for this purpose) of bishops using Church property to endow the office of the count, of course in the form of some sort of benefice since Church property was inalienable. The munificence of the Church is too well known to allow of any other reason for this but dire need. Under the growing pressure of neighbouring secular magnates no other resort was left to the Church but to ally itself with the remnants of the state authority.

These appurtenances associated with the count’s post (res comitatus, pertinentiae comitatus) were originally quite distinct from the benefices which were granted personally to the count of the day. These too were usually distributed generously, so that, endowment and benefices taken together, countships, originally honorary positions, had by then become very lucrative posts, and since Louis the Pious they were, like other royal favours, bestowed on people whom the king wanted to win over to his side or of whom he wanted to be sure. Thus it is said of Louis the Stammerer that he “quos potuit conciliavit [sibi], dans eis comitatus et abbatias ac villas” (Annales Bertiniani 877). [34] The term honor, formely used to designate the office with reference to the honorary rights connected with it, acquired the same meaning as benefice in the course of the ninth century. And this necessarily caused a substantial change in the character of the count’s office, as Roth rightly emphasises (p. 408). Originally the seigniory, in so far as it was of a public character, was modelled upon the office of the count and invested with some of the count’s powers. Then, in the second half of the ninth century, the seigniory had become so widespread that it threatened to outweigh the count’s office and the latter could only maintain its authority by more and more assuming the characteristics of seigniory. The counts increasingly sought, and not without success, to usurp the position of a seignior vis-à-vis the inhabitants of their districts (pagenses) with regard to both their private and their public relations. Just as the other “lords” sought to subordinate the small people in their neighbourhood, so the counts tried, in an amicable way or by force, to induce the less well-off free inhabitants of their district to become their vassals. They succeeded the more easily as the mere fact that the counts could thus abuse their official power was the best proof that the remaining common free men could expect very little protection from the royal authority and its organs. Exposed to oppression from all quarters, the smaller free men had to be glad to find a patron, even at the cost of relinquishing their allodium and receiving it back as a mere benefice. Already in the Capitulary of 811 Charlemagne complained that bishops, abbots, counts, judges and centenarii [ 35]by continuous legal chicanery and repeated summonses to the army reduced the small people to such a state that they agreed to transfer or sell their allodium to them, and that the poor bitterly lamented that they were being robbed of their property, etc. The greater part of free property in Gaul had in this way already passed into the hands of the Church, the counts and other magnates by the end of the ninth century (Hincmar, Annales Remenses 869). And somewhat later no free landed property belonging to small free men existed any longer in some provinces (Maurer, Einleitung, p. 212). [36] When the increasing power of the beneficiaries and the declining power of the Crown had gradually caused benefices to become hereditary, the count’s office as a rule became hereditary too. If we saw the beginnings of the subsequent nobility in the large number of royal beneficiaries, here we see the seed of the territorial sovereignty of the future princes that evolved from the district counts.

While thus the social and political system changed completely, the old constitution of the army, based on the military service of all free men–a service which was both their right and their duty–remained outwardly unchanged, except that where the new relations of dependence existed, the seignior interposed himself between his vassals and the count. However, year by year the common free men were less able to carry the burden of military service. This consisted not only of personal service; the conscript had also to equip himself and to live at his own expense during the first six months. This continued until Charlemagne’s incessant wars knocked the bottom out of the barrel. The burden became so unbearable that in order to rid themselves of it the small free men began en masse to transfer not only their remaining property but also their own person and their descendants to the magnates, and especially to the Church. Charlemagne had reduced the free warlike Franks to such a state that they preferred to become bondsmen or serfs to avoid going to war. That was the consequence of Charlemagne’s insistence on maintaining, and even carrying to the extreme, a military system based on universal and equal landownership by all free men, at a time when the bulk of the free men had lost all or most of their landed property.

The facts, however, were stronger than Charlemagne’s obstinacy and ambition. The old army system was no longer tenable. To equip and provision the army at the expense of the State was even less feasible in that age of a subsistence economy run practically without money or commerce. Charlemagne was therefore obliged to restrict the liability to service in such a way that equipment and food could still remain the responsibility of the men themselves. This was done in the Aachen Capitulary of 807, at a time when the wars were reduced to mere border fights, and the continued existence of the empire seemed, on the whole, ensured. Firstly all the king’s beneficiaries without exception had to turn up, then those owning twelve hides (mansi) of land were to appear clad in armour, and therefore presumably also on horseback (the word caballarius–knight is used in the same Capitulary). Owners of three to five hides of land were also obliged to serve. Two owners having two hides of land each, three owners having one hide of land each, or six owners each possessing half a hide of land, had to send one man equipped by the others. As to free men who had no land at all but personal property worth five solidi, every sixth of them was to take the field and receive one solidus as pecuniary aid from each of the other five men. Moreover the obligation of the various parts of the country to take part in the fighting, an obligation which applied fully when the war was waged in the neighbourhood, was in the case of more distant wars reduced to between one-half and one-sixth of the total manpower, depending on the distance from the theatre of war. [37]

Charlemagne evidently attempted to adapt the old system to the changed economic position of the men liable to military service, to rescue what he could still rescue. But even these concessions were of no avail, and he was soon compelled to grant further exemptions in the Capitulare de exercitu promovendo. [38] The whole contents of this Capitulary, which is usually regarded as antecedent to that of Aachen, shows that it was undoubtedly drawn up several years later. According to it, one man has to do military service from every four hides of land, instead of three as previously. The owners of half a hide of land and those without land appear to be exempt from military service, and as regards beneficiaries their obligation is also restricted to the provision of one man for every four hides of land. Under Charlemagne’s successors the minimum number of hides of land obliged to provide one man seems even to have been raised to five. [39]

It is strange that the mobilisation of the armoured owners of twelve hides of land seems to have encountered the greatest difficulties. At any rate, the order that they must turn up clad in armour is repeated innumerable times in the Capitularies.

Thus the common free men disappeared to an increasing extent. Just as the gradual separation from the land had driven part of them to become vassals of the new big landlords, so the fear of being completely ruined by military service actually drove the other part into serfdom. How rapidly this submission to servitude proceeded can be seen from the polyptychon (land register) of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés monastery, which then still lay outside Paris. It was compiled by abbot Irminon early in the ninth century, and among the tenants of the monastery it lists 2,080 families of colons, 35 of lites, 220 of slaves (servi), but only eight free families. [40] In the Gaul of those days, however, the word colonus definitely denoted a serf. The marriage of a free woman to a colonus or slave subjected her to the lord as defiled (deturpatam) (Capitulary of 817). Louis the Pious commanded that “colonus vel servus” (of a monastery at Poitiers) “ad naturale servitium velit nolit redeat”. [41] They received blows (Capitularies of 853, 861, 864 and 873) and were sometimes set free (see Guérard,Irmino). [42] And these enthralled (enserfed) peasants were by no means of Romance stock, but according to the testimony of Jacob Grimm (Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, I, p. [537]), who examined their names, “almost exclusively Frankish, far outweighing the small number of Romance ones”.

This huge rise in the unfree population in its turn changed the class relations of the Frankish society. Alongside the big landlords, who at that time rapidly emerged as a social estate in its own right, and alongside their free vassals there appeared now a class of unfree men which gradually absorbed the remnants of the common free men. But these unfree men had either themselves been free or were children of free men; those who had lived for three or more generations in hereditary bondage formed a small minority. Moreover, for the most part they were not Saxon, Wendish, or other prisoners of war brought in from outside, but natives of Frankish or Romance origin. Such people, especially when they began to constitute the bulk of the population, were not as easy to deal with as inherited or foreign serfs. They were not yet used to servitude, the blows which even the colonus received (Capitularies of 853, 861, 873) were still seen as a humiliation and not as something natural. Hence the many plots and risings of unfree men and even peasant vassals. Charlemagne himself brutally crushed an uprising of the tenants of the bishopric of Reims. In a Capitulary of 821 Louis the Pious mentions slaves (servorum) plotting in Flanders and Menapiscus (on the upper Lys). Risings of the liege men (homines) of the Mainz bishopric had to be put down in 848 and 866. [43] Orders to stamp out such plots are reiterated in capitularies from 779 onwards. The rising of the Stellinga in Saxony [44] must likewise be included here. The fact that from the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth gradually a definite limit was fixed for the obligations of the unfree men, and even of the settled slaves, and that this limit, which was not to be exceeded, was laid down by Charlemagne in his Capitularies, was obviously a consequence of the threatening attitude of the enthralled masses.

The price therefore which Charlemagne had to pay for his new Roman Empire [45] was the annihilation of the social estate of common free men, who had constituted the entire Frankish people at the time of the conquest of Gaul, and the division of the people into big landlords, vassals and serfs. But with the common free men the old military system collapsed, and with these two the monarchy went down. Charlemagne had destroyed the foundation of his own power. It could still sustain him, but under his successors it became evident what the work of his hands had been in reality.


1. Engels’ manuscript The Frankish Period was not published during his lifetime.
The manuscript has two parts; the first part includes two chapters: “The Radical Transformation of the Relations of Landownership under the Merovingians and Carolingians” and “The District and Army Structure”.

The Frankish Period was first published in full in: Marx and Engels, Works, First Russian Edition, Vol. XVI, Part 1, Moscow, 1937, and in the language of the original in: Friedrich Engels, Zur Geschichte und Sprache der deutschen Frühzeit. Ein Sammelband. Berlin, 1952, S. 97-152.

The Frankish Period was published in English for the first time in: Marx, Engels, Pre-Capitalist Socio-Economic Formations. A Collection, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1979.

2. The Merovingians–the first royal dynasty in the Frankish state (457-751), which got its name from its legendary founder Merovaeus. The policy pursued by the Merovingians promoted the rise of feudal relations among the Franks.
For the Carolingians, see Note 8.

3. The terms the “Mark system” and “Mark” are explained in G. L. von Maurer,Einleitung zur Geschichte der Mark-, Hof-, Dorf- und Stadt-Verfassung der öffentlichen Gewalt, Munich, 1854, pp. 5 and 40.
For more details about the “Mark”, see present edition, Vol. 24, pp. 439-56.

4. Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum gestarum, XVIII, 2, 1; XX, 4, 1; XXX, 3, 1.–Ed.

5. See Note 64 below, The Paderborn Records.

6. Antrustions–warriors under the early Merovingians (see Note 2); evidently descendants of the gentile nobility.

7. P. Roth, Geschichte des Beneficialwesens, Erlangen, 1850. One of the best books of the pre-Maurer period. I have borrowed a good deal from it in this chapter.

8. Major-domo (Lat. major domus)–the highest official in the Frankish state under the Merovingians (see Note 2). Originally the major-domo was appointed by the king and was in charge of the palace. As feudalism advanced and royal power was weakened the functions of major-domos were extended; they became the biggest landowners and concentrated state power in their hands. Most powerful of all were the major-domos from the Pepinide clan–Pepin of Heristal (687-712), Charles Martel (715-741) and Pepin the Short (741-751) who became the first king (751-768) of the Carolingian dynasty.

9. Einhardus, Vita Caroli Magni, 2. Quoted in P. Roth, Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, Erlangen, 1850, p. 352.–Ed.

10. The Saxons defeated the Frankish army at Mount Süntel on the right bank of the Weser (782).
For more than two centuries, from around 560, the Avars made innumerable raids on the territory of the Frankish state. In 796 the joint forces of the Franks and the southern Slavs destroyed the Avars’ central fortification in Pusta-Ebene.
The Arabs, who conquered Spain at the beginning of the 8th century, invaded Southern Gaul in 720. In the Battle of Poitiers (732) Charles Martel defeated the Arabs and put an end to their incursions into Europe.

11. See Note 8.

12. The Franks were converted to Christianity in 496 during the reign of Clovis I (481-511). The adoption of Christianity and alliance with the Catholic episcopate secured Clovis the support of the clergy and goodwill towards the Franks on the part of the Catholic Gauls and Romans.

13. Gregorius Turonensis, Historia Francorum, VI, 46. Quoted in P. Roth, op. cit., pp. 248-49, Note 6.–Ed.

14. Capitularies — royal legislative acts and ordinances of the early Middle Ages (the Carolingian dynasty — 8th-10th cent.). The Aachen Capitulary (Capitulare duplex Aquisgranense a. 811), which noted the wholesale seizure of peasant lands by ecclesiastical and secular feudal lords, is a major source on the history of the Frankish state. The full Latin text of the Aachen Capitulary is quoted by Paul Roth in Geschichte des Beneficialwesens von den ältesten Zeiten bis ins zehnte Jahrhundert, Erlangen, 1850, p. 253, Note 31.

15. Quoted in P. Roth, Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, p. 253. — Ed.

16. L. G. O. F. de Bréquigny, F. J. G. La Porte du Theil, Diplomata, chartae, epistolae, et alia documenta…In P. Roth, Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, p. XVII. — Ed.

17. Hincmar Remensis, Vita Remigii. Quoted in P. Roth, op. cit., pp. XIX, 258. — Ed.

18. Quoted in P. Roth, op. cit., pp. 256-58. — Ed.

19. Hide — a variable unit of area of land, enough for a household. — Ed.

20. The information quoted by Engels is taken from the 9th-century polyptych (record of landed property, population and incomes) of Saint-Germain-des-Prés Monastery. For the first time this record was published with commentaries by the French historian Guérard, under the title Polyptique de l’abbé Irminon, vols I-II, Paris, 1844. Engels is quoting from Paul Roth’s book Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, Erlangen, 1850, p. 251. Details on the landed property of the monasteries of St. Denis, Luxeuil and St. Martin de Tours are also taken from Roth’s book.

21. See this volume, p. 66. — Ed.

22. Colons were bondsmen of the Carolingian feudal lord on whose land they lived; colons had no right to abandon their plots which were in their hereditary use. [related to the Roman Colonus – note by spm]
Lites–a semi-free stratum among the Franks and Saxons. They occupied an intermediate position between free-holders and slaves.

23. Pepin III (the Short) and Charlemagne. — Ed.

24. Stephen II. — Ed.

25. In response to an appeal by Pope Stephen II, Pepin the Short undertook two campaigns to Italy (in 754 and 756) against the Langobardian King Aistulf. Part of the lands he conquered Pepin ceded to the Pope and this laid the foundation of the Papal States (756).

26. This refers to the second synod in Lestines (743) which endorsed the secularisation of Church lands in favour of the state as effected under Charles Martel.

27. The risings of the Alamanni were suppressed by Pepin the Short (in 744) and Carloman (in 746), and after this their duchy was destroyed. The Thuringians won independence in 640.
Charlemagne’s wars against Saxony, which was conquered and annexed to the Frankish state, lasted for more than 30 years (from 772 to 804). During this period the Saxons twice (in 782 and 792) rose in revolt against their conquerors.

28. The growing discord in the family forced Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son and successor, to divide the empire among his heirs on three occasions (in 817, 829 and 837); this led to the internal wars that continued till his death and ended in the political disintegration of the empire. In 843, following Louis’ death, his sons concluded in Werden a treaty on a new division of the empire. The Werden treaty virtually laid the foundation of France, Germany and Italy — three modern states of Western and Central Europe.

29. Ninth and tenth part of the harvest or other revenues. See P. Roth, op. cit., pp. 363-64. — Ed.

30. See P. Roth, op. cit., p. 356. — Ed.

31. Formulas were models for drawing up legal deeds and transactions relating to property and other matters in the Frankish state between the end of the 6th and the end of the 9th centuries. Several collections of such formulas have survived to this day. That quoted by Engels is included in the collection Formulae Turonenses vulgo Sirmondicae dictae. Engels may have taken it from Roth’s book Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, p. 379, Note 51.

32. In his description of Charlemagne’s Capitularies (Capitulare a. 847, Capitulare a. 813, Capitulare a. 816) Engels makes use of the material in Paul Roth’s Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, pp. 380-81, notes 58 and 61.

33. The reference is to the Annales Bertiniani, an important source on the history of the Carolingian empire. The Annales, which owe their name to St. Bertin Monastery in France, are a chronicle covering the period from 741 to 882 and consisting of three parts written by different authors. The Annales advocate the interests of the French Carolingians and support their claim to the territory of the East Frankish kingdom. The Annales Bertiniani were published in the well-known series Monumenta Germaniae historica.
Engels’ description of the Annales Bertiniani is based on Roth’s Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, p. 385, Note 81.

34. “Tried to win the support of all he could by giving them countships, abbacies and estates.” See P. Roth, Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, p. 420, Note 10.–Ed.

35. Subordinate judges, responsible to the court.–Ed.

36. Hincmar Remensis, Annales Remenses: Annales ad annum 869 in G. L. Maurer,Einleitung zur Geschichte der Mark-, Hof-, Dorf- und Stadt- Verfassung und der öffentlichen Gewalt, Munich, 1854, pp. 210-12 and notes 61 and 71.–Ed.

37. P. Roth, Geschichte des Beneficialwesens…, pp. 398-401.–Ed.

38. Capitulary on the levy for military service.–Ed.

39. See P. Roth, op. cit., pp. 399-400.–Ed.

40. B. E. Ch. Guérard, Polyptyque de l’abbé Irminon in P. Roth, op. cit., p. 378.–Ed.

41. “A colon or slave has to return to his natural servitude whether he is willing or not.”–Ed.

42. Quoted according to P. Roth, op. cit., pp. 376-77.–Ed.

43. See P. Roth, op. cit., p. 378, Note 47.–Ed.

44. This refers to the rising of free and semi-free Saxon peasants-freelings and lites or the Stellinga (from Stellinger–Sons of the Old Law), which took place in 841-843 and was directed against the feudal order in Saxony.

45. Charlemagne was crowned Roman Emperor in 800.

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Engels on the History of Early Christianity

On the History of Early Christianity

Frederick Engels

[First Published: In Die Neue Zeit, 1894-95; Transcribed by for the Marxists Internet Archive ]


The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery; Christianity places this salvation in a life beyond, after death, in heaven; socialism places it in this world, in a transformation of society. Both are persecuted and baited, their adherents are despised and made the objects of exclusive laws, the former as enemies of the human race, the latter as enemies of the state, enemies of religion, the family, social order. And in spite of all persecution, nay, even spurred on by it, they forge victoriously, irresistibly ahead. Three hundred years after its appearance Christianity was the recognized state religion in the Roman World Empire, and in barely sixty years socialism has won itself a position which makes its victory absolutely certain.

If, therefore, Prof. Anton Menger wonders in his Right to the Full Product of Labour why, with the enormous concentration of landownership under the Roman emperors and the boundless sufferings of the working class of the time, which was composed almost exclusively of slaves, “socialism did not follow the overthrow of the Roman Empire in the West,” it is because he cannot see that this “socialism” did in fact, as far as it was possible at the time, exist and even became dominant — in Christianity. Only this Christianity, as was bound to be the case in the historic conditions, did not want to accomplish the social transformation in this world, but beyond it, in heaven, in eternal life after death, in the impending “millennium.”

The parallel between the two historic phenomena forces itself upon our attention as early as the Middle Ages in the first risings of the oppressed peasants and particularly of the town plebeians. These risings*, like all mass movements of the Middle Ages, were bound to wear the mask of religion and appeared as the restoration of early Christianity from spreading degeneration.

*[Note by Engels.  A peculiar antithesis to this was the religious risings in the Mohammedan world, particularly in Africa. Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, i.e., on one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the “law.” The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required, a new Mahdi arises and the game starts again from the beginning.

That is what happened from the conquest campaigns of the African Almoravids and Almohads in Spain to the last Mahdi of Khartoum who so successfully thwarted the English. It happened in the same way or similarly with the risings in Persia and other Mohammedan countries. All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; and yet, even when they are victorious, they allow the old economic conditions to persist untouched. So the old situation remains unchanged and the collision recurs periodically. In the popular risings of the Christian West, on the contrary, the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated. This is finally overthrown, a new one arises and the world progresses.]

But behind the religious exaltation there was every time a very tangible worldly interest. This appeared most splendidly in the organization of the Bohemian Taborites under Jan Zizka, of glorious memory; but this trait pervades the whole of the Middle Ages until it gradually fades away after the German Peasant War to revive again with the workingmen Communists after 1830. The French revolutionary Communists, as also in particular Weitling and his supporters, referred to early Christianity long before Renan’s words: “If I wanted to give you an idea of the early Christian communities I would tell you to look at a local section of the International Working Men’s association.”

This French man of letters, who by mutilating German criticism of the Bible in a manner unprecedented even in modern journalism composed the novel on church history Origines du Christianisme, did not know himself how much truth there was in the words just quoted. I should like to see the old “International” who can read, for example, the so-called Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians without old-wounds re-opening, at least in one respect. The whole epistle, from chapter eight onwards, echoes the eternal, and oh! so well-known complaint: les cotisations ne rentrent pas — contributions are not coming in! How many of the most zealous propagandists of the sixties would sympathizingly squeeze the hand of the author of that epistle, whoever he may be, and whisper: “So it was like that with you too!” We too — Corinthians were legion in our Association — can sing a song about contributions not coming in but tantalizing us as they floated elusively before our eyes. They were the famous “millions of the International”! One of our best sources on the first Christians is Lucian of Samosata, the Voltaire of classic antiquity, who was equally sceptic towards every kind of religious superstition and therefore had neither pagan-religious nor political grounds to treat the Christians otherwise than as some other kind of religious community. On the contrary, he mocked them all for their superstition, those who prayed to Jupiter no less than those who prayed to Christ; from his shallow rationalistic point of view one sort of superstition was as stupid as the other.

This in any case impartial witness relates among other things the life-story of a certain adventurous Peregrinus, Proteus by name, from Parium in Hellespontus.

When a youth, this Peregrinus made his début in Armenia by committing fornication. He was caught in the act and lynched according to the custom of the country. He was fortunate enough to escape and after strangling his father in Parium he had to flee.

“And so it happened” — I quote from Schott’s translation — “that he also came to hear of the astonishing learning of the Christians, with whose priests and scribes he had cultivated intercourse in Palestine. He made such progress in a short time that his teachers were like children compared with him. He became a prophet, an elder, a master of the synagogue, in a word, all in everything. He interpreted their writings and himself wrote a great number of works, so that finally people saw in him a superior being, let him lay down laws for them and made him their overseer (bishop) …. On that ground (i.e., because he was a Christian) Proteus was at length arrested by the authorities and thrown into prison…. As he thus lay in chains, the Christians, who saw in his capture a great misfortune, made all possible attempts to free him. But they did not succeed. Then they administered to him in all possible ways with the greatest solicitude. As early as daybreak one could see aged mothers, widows and young orphans crowding at the door of his prison; the most prominent among the Christians even bribed the warders and spent whole nights with him; they took their meals with them and read their holy books in his presence; briefly, the beloved Peregrinus” (he still went by that name) “was no less to them than a new Socrates. Envoys of Christian communities came to him even from towns in Asia Minor to lend him a helping hand, to console him and to testify in his favour in court. It is unbelievable how quick these people are to act whenever it is a question of their community; they immediately spare neither exertion nor expense. And thus from all sides money then poured in to Peregrinus so that his imprisonment became for him a source of great income. For the poor people persuaded themselves that they were immortal in body and in soul and that they would live for all eternity; that was why, they scorned death and many of them even voluntarily [written by his?] sacrificed their lives. Then their most prominent lawgiver convinced them that they would all be brothers one to another once they were converted, i.e., renounced the Greek gods, professed faith in the crucified sophist and lived according to his prescriptions. That is why they despise all material goods without distinction and own them in common — doctrines which they have accepted in good faith, without demonstration or proof. And when a skilful imposter who knows how to make clever use of circumstances comes to them he can manage to get rich in a short time and laugh up his sleeve over these simpletons. For the rest, Peregrinus was set free by him who was then prefect of Syria.”

Then, after a few more adventures, “Our worthy set forth a second time” (from Parium) “on his peregrinations, the Christians’ good disposition standing him in lieu of money for his journey: they administered to his needs everywhere and never let him suffer want. He was fed for a time in this way. But then, when he violated the laws of the Christians too — I think he was caught eating of some forbidden food — they excommunicated him from their community.”

What memories of youth come to my mind as I read this passage from Lucian! First of all the “prophet Albrecht” who from about 1840 literally plundered the Weitling communist communities in Switzerland for several years — a tall powerful man with a long beard who wandered on foot through Switzerland and gathered audiences for his mysterious new Gospel of world emancipation, but who, after all, seems to have been a tolerably harmless hoaxer and soon died. Then his not so harmless successor, “the doctor” Georg Kuhlmann from Holstein, who put to profit the time when Weitling was in prison to convert the communities of French Switzerland to his own Gospel, and for a time with such success that he even caught August Becker, by far the cleverest but also the biggest ne’er-do-well among them. This Kuhlmann used to deliver lectures to them which were published in Geneva in 1845 under the title The New World, or the Kingdom of the Spirit on Earth. Proclamation. In the introduction, supporters (probably August Becker) we read:

“What was needed was a man on whose lips all our sufferings and all our longings and hopes, in a word, all that affects our time most profoundly should find expression …. This man, whom our time was waiting for, has come. He is the doctor Georg Kuhlmann from Holstein He has come forward with the doctrine of the new world or the kingdom of the spirit in reality.”

I hardly need to add that this doctrine of the new world is nothing more than the most vulgar sentimental nonsense rendered in half-biblical expressions a la Lamennais and declaimed with prophet-like arrogance. But this did not prevent the good Weitlingers from carrying the swindler shoulder-high as the Asian Christians once did Peregrinus. They who were otherwise arch-democrats and extreme equalitarians to the extent of fostering ineradicable suspicion against any schoolmaster, journalist, and any man generally who was not a manual worker as being an “erudite” who was out to exploit them, let themselves be persuaded by the melodramatically arrayed Kuhlman that in the “New World” it would be the wisest of all, i.e. Kuhlmann, who would regulate the distribution of pleasures and that therefore, even then, in the Old World, the disciples ought to bring pleasures by the bushel to that same wisest of all while they themselves should be content with crumbs. So Peregrinus Kuhlmann lived a splendid life of pleasure at the expense of the community — as long as it lasted.

It did not last very long, of course; the growing murmurs of doubters and unbelievers and the menace of persecution by the Vaudois Government put an end to the “Kingdom of the Spirit” in Lausanne — Kuhlmann disappeared. Everybody who has known by experience the European working-class movement in its beginnings will remember dozens of similar examples. Today such extreme cases, at least in the large centres, have become impossible; but in remote districts where the movement has won new ground a small Peregrinus of this kind can still count on a temporary limited success. And just as all those who have nothing to look forward to from the official world or have come to the end of their tether with it — opponents of inoculation, supporters of abstemiousness, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, nature-healers, free-community preachers whose communities have fallen to pieces, authors of new theories on the origin of the universe, unsuccessful or unfortunate inventors, victims of real or imaginary injustice who are termed “good-for-nothing pettifoggers” by all bureaucracy, honest fools and dishonest swindlers — all throng to the working-class parties in all countries — so it was with the first Christians. All the elements which had been set free, i.e., at a loose end, by the dissolution of the old world came one after the other into the orbit Christianity as the only element that resisted that process of dissolution — for the very reason that it was the necessary product of that process — and that therefore persisted and grew while the other elements were but ephemeral flies. There was no fanaticism, no foolishness, no scheming that did not flock to the young Christian communities and did not at least for a time and in isolated places find attentive ears and willing believers. And like our first communist workers’ associations the early Christians too took with such unprecedented gullibility to anything which suited their purpose that we are not even sure that some fragment or other of the “great number of works” that Peregrinus wrote for Christianity did not find its way into our New Testament.


German criticism of the Bible, so far the only scientific basis of our knowledge of the history of early Christianity, followed a double tendency. The first tendency was that of the Tübingen school, in which, in the broad sense, D. F. Strauss must also be included. In critical inquiry it goes as far as a theological school can go. It admits that the four Gospels are not eyewitness accounts but only later adaptations of writings that have been lost; that no more than four of the Epistles attributed to the apostle Paul are authentic, etc. It strikes out of the historical narrations all miracles andcontradictions, considering them as unacceptable; but from the rest it tries “to save what can be saved” and then its nature, that of a theological school, is very evident. Thus it enabled Renan, who bases himself mostly on it, to “save” still more by applying the same method and, moreover, to try to impose upon us as historically authenticated many New Testament accounts that are more than doubtful and, besides, a multitude of other legends about martyrs. In any case, all that the Tübingen school rejects as unhistorical or apocryphal can be considered as finally eliminated for science.

The other tendency has but one representative — Bruno Bauer. His greatest service consists not merely in having given a pitiless criticism of the Gospels and the Epistles of the apostles, but in having for the first time seriously undertaken an inquiry into not only the Jewish and Greco-Alexandrian elements but the purely Greek and Greco-Roman elements that first opened for Christianity the career of a universal religion. The legend that Christianity arose ready and complete out of Judaism and, starting from Palestine, conquered the world with its dogma already defined in the main and its morals, has been untenable since Bruno Bauer; it can continue to vegetate only in the theological faculties and with people who wish “to keep religion alive for the people” even at the expense of science. The enormous influence which the Philonic school of Alexandria and Greco-Roman vulgar philosophy — Platonic and mainly Stoic — had on Christianity, which became the state religion under Constantine, is far from having been defined in detail, but its existence has been proved and that is primarily the achievement of Bruno Bauer: he laid the foundation of the proof that Christianity was not imported from outside — from Judea — into the Romano-Greek world and imposed on it, but that, at least in its world-religion form, it is that world’s own product. Bauer, of course, like all those who are fighting against deep-rooted prejudices, overreached his aim in this work.

In order to define through literary sources, too, Philo’s and particularly Seneca’s influence on emerging Christianity and to show up the authors of the New Testament formally as downright plagiarists of those philosophers he had to place the appearance of the new religion about half a century later, to reject the opposing accounts of Roman historians and take extensive liberties with historiography in general. According to him Christianity as such appears only under the Flavians, the literature of the New Testament only under Hadrian, Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius. As a result the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his disciples are deprived for Bauer of any historical background: they are diluted in legends in which the phases of interior development and the moral struggles of the ‘ first communities are transferred to more or less fictitious persons. Not Galilee and Jerusalem, but Alexandria and Rome, according to Bauer, are the birthplaces of the new religion.

If, therefore, the Tübingen school presents to us in the remains of the New Testament stories and literature that it left untouched the extreme maximum of what science today can still accept as disputable, Bruno Bauer presents to us maximum of what can be contested. The factual truth lies between these two limits. Whether that truth can be defined with the means at our disposal today is very doubtful. New discoveries, particularly in Rome, in the Orient, and above all in Egypt, will contribute more to this than any criticism.

But we have in the New Testament a single book the time of the writing of which can be defined within a few months, which must have been written between June 67 and January or April 68; [Engels’ article on The Book of Revelation states between June 68 to January 69 which tallies with the Roman history – SPM]  a book, consequently, which belongs to the very beginning of the Christian era and reflects with the most naive fidelity and in the corresponding idiomatic language of the ideas of the beginning of that era.

This book, therefore, in my opinion, is a far more important source from which to define what early Christianity really was than all the rest of the New Testament, which, in its present form, is of a far later date. This book is the so-called Revelation of John. And as this, apparently the most obscure book in the whole Bible, is moreover today, thanks to German criticism, the most comprehensible and the clearest, I shall give my readers an account of it.

One needs but to look into this book in order to be convinced of the state of great exaltation not only of the author, but also of the “surrounding medium” in which he moved. Our “Revelation” is not the only one of its kind and time. From the year 164 before our era, when the first which has reached us, the so-called Book of Daniel, was written, up to about 250 of our era, the approximate date of Commodian’s Carmen, Renan counted no fewer than fifteen extant classical “Apocalypses,” not counting subsequent imitations. (I quote Renan because his book is also the best known by non-specialists and the most accessible.) That was a time when even in Rome and Greece and still more in Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt an absolutely uncritical mixture of the crassest superstitions of the most varying peoples was indiscriminately accepted and complemented by pious deception and downright charlatanism; a time in which miracles, ecstasies, visions, apparitions, divining, gold-making, cabbala and other secret magic played a primary role. It was in that atmosphere, and, moreover, among a class of people who were more inclined than any other to listen to these supernatural fantasies, that Christianity arose. For did not the Christian gnostics in Egypt during the second century of our era engage extensively in alchemy and introduce alchemistic notions into their teachings, as the Leyden papyrus documents, among others, prove. And the Chaldean and Judean mathematici, who, according to Tacitus, were twice expelled from Rome for magic, once under Claudius and again under Vitellius, practised no other kind of geometry than the kind we shall find at the basis of John’s Revelation.

To this we must add another thing. All the apocalypses attribute to themselves the right to deceive their readers. Not only were they written as a rule by quite different people than their alleged authors, and mostly by people who lived much later, for example the Book of Daniel, the Book of Henoch, the Apocalypses of Ezra, Baruch, Juda, etc., and the Sibylline books, but, as far as their main content is concerned, they prophesy only things that had already happened long before and were quite well known to the real author. Thus in the year 164, shortly before the death of Antiochus Epiphanes, the author of the Book of Daniel makes Daniel, who is supposed to have lived in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, prophesy the rise and fall of the Persian and Macedonian empires and the beginning of the Roman Empire, in order by this proof of his gift of prophecy to prepare the reader to accept the final prophecy that the people of Israel will overcome all hardships and finally be victorious. If therefore John’s Revelation were really the work of its alleged author it would be the only exception among all apocalyptic literature.

The John who claims to be the author was, in any case, a man of great distinction among the Christians of Asia Minor. This is borne out by the tone of the message to the seven churches. Possibly he was the apostle John, whose historical existence, however, is not completely authenticated but is very probable. If this apostle was really the author, so much the better for our point of view. That would be the best confirmation that the Christianity of this book is real genuine early Christianity. Let it be noted in passing that, apparently, the Revelation was not written by the same author as the Gospel or the three Epistles which are also attributed to John. The Revelation consists of a series of visions. In the first Christ appears in the garb of a high priest, goes in the midst of seven candlesticks representing the seven churches of Asia and dictates to “John” messages to the seven “angels” of those churches. Here at the very beginning we see plainly the difference between this Christianity and Constantine’s universal religion formulated by the Council of Nicaea. The Trinity is not only unknown, it is even impossible. Instead of the one Holy Ghost of later we here have the “seven spirits of God” construed by the Rabbis from Isaiah XI, 2. Christ is the son of God, the first and the last, the alpha and the omega, by no means God himself or equal to God, but on the contrary, “the beginning of the creation of God,” hence an emanation of God, existing from all eternity but subordinate to God, like the above-mentioned seven spirits. In Chapter XV, 3 the martyrs in heaven sing “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” glorifying God.

Hence Christ here appears not only as subordinate to God but even, in a certain respect, on an equal footing with Moses. Christ is crucified in Jerusalem (XI, 8) but rises again (I, 5, 18); he is “the Lamb” that has been sacrificed for the sins of the world and with whose blood the faithful of all tongues and nations have been redeemed to God. Here we find the basic idea which enabled early Christianity to develop into a universal religion. All Semitic and European religions of that time shared the view that the gods offended by the actions of man could be propitiated by sacrifice; the first revolutionary basic idea (borrowed from the Philonic school) in Christianity was that by the one great voluntary sacrifice of a mediator the sins of all times and all men were atoned for once for all — in respect of the faithful. Thus the necessity of any further sacrifices was removed and with it the basis for a multitude of religious rites: but freedom from rites that made difficult or forbade intercourse with people of other confessions was the first condition of a universal religion. In spite of this the habit of sacrifice was so deeply rooted in the customs of peoples that Catholicism — which borrowed so much from paganism — found it appropriate to accommodate itself to this fact by the introduction of at least the symbolical sacrifice of the mass. On the other hand there is no trace whatever of the dogma of original sin in our book.

But the most characteristic in these messages, as in the whole book, is that it never and nowhere occurs to the author to refer to himself and his co-believers by any other name than that of Jews. He reproaches the members of the sects in Smyrna and Philadelphia against whom he fulminates with the fact that they “say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan”; of those in Pergamos he says: they hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. Here it is therefore not a case of conscious Christians but of people who say they are Jews. Granted, their Judaism is a new stage of development of the earlier but for that very reason it is the only true one. Hence, when the saints appeared before the throne of God there came first 144,000 Jews, 12,000 from each tribe, and only after them the countless masses of heathens converted to this renovated Judaism. That was how little our author was aware in the year 69 of the Christian era that he represented quite a new phase in the development of a religion which was to become one of the most revolutionary elements in the history of the human mind.

We therefore see that the Christianity of that time, which was still unaware of itself, was as different as heaven from earth from the later dogmatically fixed universal religion of the Nicene Council; one cannot be recognized in the other. Here we have neither the dogma nor the morals of later Christianity but instead a feeling that one is struggling against the whole world and that the struggle will be a victorious one; an eagerness for the struggle and a certainty of victory which are totally lacking in Christians of today and which are to be found in our time only at the other pole of society, among the Socialists. In fact, the struggle against a world that at the beginning was superior in force, and at the same time against the innovators themselves, is common to the early Christians and the Socialists. Neither of these two great movements were 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.

Was the International held together by a uniform dogma? On the contrary. There were Communists of the French pre-1848 tradition, among whom again were various shades: Communists of Weitling’s school and others of the regenerated Communist League, Proudhonists dominating in France and Belgium, Blanquists, the German Workers’ Party, and finally the Bakuninist anarchists, who for a while had the upper hand in Spain and Italy, to mention only the principal groups. It took a whole quarter of a century from the foundation of the International before the separation from the anarchists was final and complete everywhere and unity could be established at least in respect of most general economic viewpoints. And that with our means of communication — railways, telegraph, giant industrial cities, the press, organized people’s assemblies.

There was among the early Christians the same division into countless sects, which was the very means by which discussion and thereby later unity was achieved. We already find it in this book, which is beyond doubt the oldest Christian document, and our author fights it with the same irreconcilable ardour as the great sinful world outside. There were first of all the Nicolaitans, in Ephesus and Pergamos; those that said they were Jews but were the synagogue of Satan, in Smyrna and Philadelphia; the supporters of Balaam, who is called a false prophet, in Pergamos; those who said they were apostles and were not, in Ephesus; and finally, in Thyatira, the supporters of the false prophetess who is described as a Jezebel. We are given no more details about these sects, it being only said about the followers of Balaam and Jezebel that they ate things sacrificed to idols and committed fornication. Attempts have been made to conceive these five sects as Pauline Christians and all the messages as directed against Paul, the false apostle, the alleged Balaam and “Nicolaos.” Arguments to this effect, hardly tenable, are to be found collected in Renan’s Saint Paul (Paris 1869, pp. 303-05 and 367-70). They all tend to explain the messages by the Acts of the Apostles and the so-called Epistles of Paul, writings which, at least in their present form, are no less than 60 years younger than the Revelation and the relevant factual data of which, therefore, are not only extremely doubtful but also totally contradictory. But the decisive thing is that it could not occur to the author to give five different names to one and the same sect and even two for Ephesus alone (false apostles and Nicolaitans) and two also for Pergamos (Balaamites and Nicolaitans), and to refer to them every time expressly as two different sects. At the same time one cannot deny the probability that there were also elements among these sects that would be termed Pauline today.

In both cases in which more details are given the accusation bears on eating meats offered to idols and on fornication, two points on which the Jews — the old ones as well as the Christian ones — were in continual dispute with converted heathens. The meat from heathen sacrifices was not only served at festal meals where refusal of the food offered would have seemed improper and could even have been dangerous; it was also sold on the public markets, where it was not always possible to ascertain whether it was pure in the eyes of the law. By fornication the Jews understood not only extra-nuptial sexual relations but also marriage within the degrees of relationship prohibited by the Jewish law or between a Jew and a gentile, and it is in this sense that the word is generally understood in the Acts of the Apostles XV, 20 and 29. But our John has his own views on the sexual relations allowed to orthodox Jews. He says, XIV, 4, of the 144,000 heavenly Jews: “These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins.” And in fact, in our John’s heaven there is not a single woman. He therefore belongs to the trend, which also often appears in other early Christian writings, that considers sexual relations generally as sinful.

And when we moreover take into consideration the fact that he calls Rome the Great Whore with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication and have become drunk with the wine of fornication and the merchants of the earth have waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies, it becomes impossible for us to take the word in the messages in the narrow sense that theological apologists would like to attribute to it in order thus to catch at some confirmation of other passages in the New Testament. On the contrary. These passages in the messages are an obvious indication of a phenomenon common to all times of great agitation, that the traditional bonds of sexual relations, like all other fetters, are shaken off. In the first centuries of Christianity, too, there appeared often enough, side by side with ascetics which mortified the flesh, the tendency to extend Christian freedom to a more or less unrestrained intercourse between man and woman. The same thing was observed in the modern socialist movement. What unspeakable horror was felt in the then Copious nursery” of Germany at Saint-Simon’s a réhabilitation de la chair in the thirties, which was rendered in German as “Wiedereinsetzung des Fleisches” (reinstatement of the flesh)! And the most horrified of all were the then ruling distinguished estates (there were as yet no classes in our country) who could not live in Berlin any more than on their country estates without repeated reinstatement of their flesh! If only those good people had been able to know Fourier, who contemplated quite different pranks for the’ flesh! With the overcoming of utopianism these extravagances yielded to a more rational and in reality far more radical conception, and since Germany has grown out of Heine’s pious nursery and developed into the centre of the Socialist movement the hypocritical indignation of the distinguished pious world is laughed at.

That is all the dogmatic content of the messages. The rest consists in exhorting the faithful to be zealous in propaganda, to courageous and proud confession of their faith in face of the foe, to unrelenting struggle against the enemy both within and without — and as far as this goes they could just as well have been written by one of the prophetically minded enthusiasts of the International.


The messages are but the introduction to the theme properly so-called of John’s communication to the seven churches of Asia Minor and through them to the remaining reformed Judaism of the year 69, out of which Christianity later developed. And herewith we enter the innermost holy of holies of early Christianity.

What kind of people were the first Christians recruited from? Mainly from the “labouring and burdened,” the members of the lowest strata of the people, as becomes a revolutionary element. And what did they consist of? In the towns of impoverished free men, all sorts of people, like the “mean whites” of the southern slave states and the European beachcombers and adventurers in colonial and Chinese seaports, then of emancipated slaves and, above all, actual slaves; on the large estates in Italy, Sicily, and Africa of slaves, and in the rural districts of the provinces of small peasants who had fallen more and more into bondage through debt. There was absolutely no common road to emancipation for all these elements. For all of them paradise lay lost behind them; for the ruined free men it was the former polis, the town and the state at the same time, of which their forefathers had been free citizens; for the war-captive slaves the time of freedom before their subjugation and captivity; for the small peasants the abolished gentile social system and communal landownership. All that had been smitten down by the levelling iron fist, of conquering Rome. The largest social group that antiquity had attained was the tribe and the union of kindred tribes; among the barbarians grouping was based on alliances of families and among the townfounding Greeks and Italians of the polis, which consisted of one or more kindred tribes. Philip and Alexander gave the Hellenic peninsula political unity but that did not lead to the formation of a Greek nation.

Nations became possible only through the downfall of Roman world domination. This domination had put an end once for all to the smaller unions; military might, Roman jurisdiction and the tax-collecting machinery completely dissolved the traditional inner organization. To the loss of independence and distinctive organization was added the forcible plunder by military and civil authorities who took the treasures of the subjugated away from them and then lent them back at usurious rates in order to extort still more out of them. The pressure of taxation and the need for money which it caused in regions dominated only or mainly by natural economy plunged the peasants into ever deeper bondage to the usurers, gave rise to great differences in fortune, making the rich richer and the poor completely destitute. Any resistance of isolated small tribes or towns to the gigantic Roman world power was hopeless. Where was the way out, salvation, for the enslaved, oppressed and impoverished, a way out common to all these groups of people whose interests were mutually alien or even opposed? And yet it had to be found if a great revolutionary movement was to embrace them all.

This way out was found. But not in this world. In the state in which things were it could only be a religious way out. Then a new world was disclosed. The continued life of the soul after the death of the body had gradually become a recognized article of faith throughout the Roman world. A kind of recompense or punishment of the deceased souls for their actions while on earth also received more and more general recognition. As far as recompense was concerned, admittedly, the prospects were not so good: antiquity was too spontaneously materialistic not to attribute infinitely greater value to life on earth than to life in the kingdom of shadows; to live on after death was considered by the Greeks rather as a misfortune. Then came Christianity, which took recompense and punishment in the world beyond seriously and created heaven and hell, and a way out was found which would lead the labouring and burdened from this vale of woe to eternal paradise. And in fact only with the prospect of a reward in the world beyond could the stoico-philonic renunciation of the world and ascetics be exalted to the basic moral principle of a new universal religion which would inspire the oppressed masses with enthusiasm.

But this heavenly paradise does not open to the faithful by the mere fact of their death. We shall see that the kingdom of God, the capital of which is the New Jerusalem, can only be conquered and opened after arduous struggles with the powers of hell. But in the imagination of the early Christians these struggles were immediately ahead. John describes his book at the very beginning as the revelation of “things which must shortly come to pass” ; and immediately afterwards, I, 3, he declares “Blessed is he that readeth and they that hear the words of this prophecy … for the time is at hand.” To the church in Philadelphia Christ sends the message: “Behold, I come quickly.” And in the last chapter the angel says he has shown John “things which must shortly be done” and gives him the order: “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.” And Christ himself says twice (XXII, 12, 20) “I come quickly.”

The sequel will show us how soon this coming was expected. The visions of the Apocalypse, which the author now shows us, are copied throughout, and mostly literally, from earlier models, partly from the classical prophets of the Old Testament, particularly Ezekiel, partly from later Jewish apocalypses written after the fashion of the Book of Daniel and in particular from the Book of Henoch which had already been written at least in part. Criticism has shown to the smallest details where our John got every picture, every menacing sign, every plague sent to unbelieving humanity, in a word, the whole of the material for his book; so that he not only shows great poverty of mind but even himself proves that he never experienced, even in imagination the alleged ecstasies and visions which he describes.

The order of these visions is briefly as follows: First John sees God sitting on his throne holding in his hand a book with seven seals and before him the Lamb that has been slain and has risen from the dead (Christ) and is found worthy to open the seals of the book. The opening of the seals is followed by all sorts of miraculous menacing signs. When the fifth seal is opened John sees under the altar of God the souls of the martyrs of Christ that were slain for the word of God and who cry with a loud voice saving: “How long, 0 Lord, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” And then white robes are given to them and they are told that they must rest for a little while yet, for more martyrs must be slain.

So here it is not yet a question of a “religion of love,” of “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,” etc. Here undiluted revenge is preached, sound, honest revenge on the persecutors of the Christians. So it is in the whole of the book. The nearer the crisis comes, the heavier the plagues and punishments rain from the heavens and with all the more satisfaction John announces that the mass of humanity will not atone for their sins, that new scourges of God must lash them, that Christ must rule them with a rod of iron and tread the wine-press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God, but that the impious still remain obdurate in their hearts. It is the natural feeling, free of all hypocrisy, that a fight is going on and that — ? la guerre comme ? la guerre.

When the seventh seal is opened there come seven angels with seven trumpets and each time one of them sounds his trumpet new horrors occur. After the seventh blast seven more angels come on to the scene with the seven vials of the wrath of God which they pour out upon the earth; still more plagues and punishments, mainly boring repetitions of what has already happened several times. Then comes the woman, Babylon the Great Whore, sitting arrayed in scarlet over the waters, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus, the great city of the seven hills that rules over all the kings of the earth. She is sitting on a beast with seven heads and ten horns. The seven heads represent the seven hills, and also seven “kings.” Of those kings five are fallen, one is, and the other is not yet come, and after him comes again one of the first five; he was wounded to death but was healed. He will reign over the world for 42 months or three and a half years (half of seven years) and will persecute the faithful to death and bring the rule of godlessness. But then follows the great final fight, the saints and the martyrs are avenged by the destruction of the Great Whore Babylon and all her followers, i.e., the main mass of mankind; the devil is cast into the bottomless pit and shut up there for a thousand years during which Christ reigns with the martyrs risen from the dead. But after a thousand years the devil is freed again and there is another great battle of the spirits in which he is finally defeated. Then follows the second resurrection, when the other dead also arise and appear before the throne of judgment of God (not of Christ, be it noted) and the faithful will enter a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem for life eternal.

As this whole monument is made up of exclusively pre-Christian Jewish material it presents almost exclusively Jewish ideas. Since things started to go badly in this world for the people of Israel, from the time of the tribute to the Assyrians and Babylonians, from the destruction of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah to the bondage under Seleucis, that is from Isaiah to Daniel, in every dark period there were prophecies of a saviour. In Daniel, XII, 1-3, there is even a prophecy about Michael, the guardian angel of the Jews, coming down on earth to save them from great trouble; many dead will come to life again, there will be a kind of last judgment and the teachers who have taught the people justice will shine like stars for all eternity. The only Christian point is the great stress laid on the imminent reign of Christ and the glory of the faithful, particularly the martyrs who have risen from the dead.

For the interpretation of these prophecies, as far as they refer to events of that time, we are indebted to German criticism, particularly Ewald, Lücke and Ferdinand Benary. It has been made accessible to non-theologians by Renan. We have already seen that Babylon, the Great Whore, stands for Rome, the city of seven hills. We are told in Chapter XVII, 9-11, about the beast on which she sits that:

“The seven heads” of the beast ” are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.

“And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh he must continue a short space. And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.”

According to this the beast is Roman world domination, represented by seven caesars in succession, one of them having been mortally wounded and no longer reigning, but he will be healed and will return. It will be given unto him as the eighth to establish the kingdom of blasphemy and defiance of God. It will be given unto him “to make war with the saints and to overcome them…. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb…. And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” (XII, 7-18.)

We merely note that boycott is mentioned here as one of the measures to be applied against the Christians by the Roman Empire — and is therefore patently an invention of the devil — and pass on to the question who this Roman emperor is who has reigned once before, was wounded to death and removed but will return as the eighth in the series in the role of Antichrist. Taking Augustus as the first we have: 2. Tiberius, 3. Caligula, 4. Claudius, 5.Nero, 6. Galba. “Five are fallen, and one is.” Hence, Nero is already fallen and Galba is. Galba ruled from June 9, 68 to January 15, 69. But immediately after he ascended the throne the legions of the Rhine revolted under Vitellius while other generals prepared military risings in other provinces. In Rome itself the praetorians rose, killed Galba and proclaimed Otho emperor.

From this we see that our Revelation was written under Galba. Probably towards the end of his rule. Or, at the latest, during the three months (up to April 15, 69) of the rule of Otho, “the seventh.” But who is the eighth, who was and is not? That we learn from the number 666. Among the Semites — Chaldeans and Jews — there was at the time a kind of magic based on the double meaning of letters. As about 300 years before our era Hebrew letters were also used as symbols for numbers: a=l, b=2, g=3, d=4, etc. The cabbala diviners added up the value of each letter of a name and sought from the sum to prophesy the future of the one who bore the name, e.g., by forming words or combinations of words of equal value. Secret words and the like were also expressed in this language of numbers. This art was given the Greek name gematriah, geometry; the Chaldeans, who pursued this as a business and were called mathematici by Tacitus, were later expelled from Rome under Claudius and again under Vitellius, presumably for “serious disorders.”

It was by means of this mathematics that our number 666 appeared. It is a disguise for the name of one of the first five caesars. But besides the number 666, Irenaeus, at the end of the second century, knew another reading — 616, which, at all events, appeared at a time when the number puzzle was still widely known. The proof of the solution will be if it holds good for both numbers. This solution was given by Ferdinand Benary of Berlin. The name is Nero. The number is based on xxx xxxx Neron Kesar, the Hebrew spelling of the Greek Nerôn Kaisar, Emperor Nero, authenticated by means of the Talmud and Palmyrian inscriptions. This inscription was found on coins of Nero’s time minted in the eastern half of the empire. And so — n (nun)=50; r (resh)=200; v (vau) for o=6;

n (nun)=50; k (kaph)=100; s (samech)=60; r (resh)=200. Total 666.

If we take as a basis the Latin spelling Nero Caesar the second nun=50 disappears

and we get

666 – 50 = 616, which is Irenaeus’s reading.

In fact the whole Roman Empire suddenly broke into confusion in Galba’s time. Galba himself marched on Rome at the head of the Spanish and Gallic legions to overthrow Nero, who fled and ordered an emancipated slave to kill him. But not only the praetorians in Rome plotted against Galba, the supreme commanders in the provinces did too; new pretendants to the throne appeared everywhere and prepared to march on Rome with their legions. The empire seemed doomed to civil war, its dissolution appeared imminent. Over and above all this the rumour spread, especially in the East, that Nero had not been killed but only wounded, that he had fled to the Parthians and was about to advance with an army over the Euphrates to begin another and more bloody rule of terror. Achaia and Asia in particular were terrified by such reports. And at the very time at which the Revelation must have been written there appeared a false Nero who settled with a fairly considerable number of supporters not far from Patmos and Asia Minor on the island of Kytnos in the Aegean Sea (now called Thermia), until he was killed while Otho still reigned. What was there to be astonished at in the fact that among the Christians, against whom Nero had begun the first great persecution, the view spread that he would return as the Antichrist and that his return and the intensified attempt at a bloody suppression of the new sect that it would involve would be the sign and prelude of the return of Christ, of the great victorious struggle against the powers of hell, of the thousand year kingdom “shortly” to be established, the confident expectation of which inspired the martyrs to go joyfully to death?

Christian and Christian-influenced literature in the first two centuries gives sufficient indication that the secret of the number 666 was then known to many. Irenaeus no longer knew it, [This seems to contradict a sentence in a previous paragraph. Perhaps this is a slip of the pen and he meant to write someone else. e.g. Origen – spm] but on the other hand he and many others up to the end of the third century also knew that the returning Nero was meant by the beast of the Apocalypse. This trace is then lost and the work which interests us is fantastically interpreted by religious-minded future-tellers; I myself as a child knew old people who, following the example of old Johann Albrecht Bengel, expected the end of the world and the last judgment in the year 1836. The prophecy was fulfilled, and to the very year. The victim of the last judgment, however, was not the sinful world, but the pious interpreters of the Revelation themselves. For in 1836 F. Benary provided the key to the number 666 and thus put a torturous end to all the prophetical calculations, that new gematriah.

Our John can only give a superficial description of the kingdom of heaven that is reserved for the faithful. The new Jerusalem is laid out on a fairly large scale, at least according to the conceptions of the time; it is 12,000 furlongs or, 2,227 square kilometres, so that its area is about five million square kilometres, more than half the size of the United States of America. And it is built of gold and all manner of precious stones. There God lives with his people, lightening them instead of the sun, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, neither shall there be any more pain. And a pure river of water of life flows through the city, and on either side of the river are trees of life, bearing twelve manner of fruits and yielding fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree “serve for the hearing of the nations.” (A kind of medicinal beverage, Renan thinks — L’Antechrist, p. 542.) Here the saints shall live for ever.

Such, as far as we know, was Christianity in Asia Minor, its main seat, about the year 68. No trace of any Trinity but, on the contrary, the old one and indivisible Jehovah of later Judaism which had exalted him from the national god of the Jews to the one and supreme God of heaven and earth, where he claims to rule over all nations, promising mercy to those who are converted and mercilessly smiting down the obdurate in accordance with the ancient parcere subjectis uc debellare superbos. [“Pardon the humble and make war on the proud.”] Hence, this God, in person, not Christ as in the later accounts of the Gospels and the Epistles, will judge at the last judgment. According to the Persian doctrine of emanation which was current in later Judaism, Christ the Lamb proceeds eternally from him as do also, but on a lower footing, the “seven spirits of God” who owe their existence to a misunderstanding of a poetical passage (Isaiah, XI, 2). All of them are subordinate to God, not God themselves or equal to him. The Lamb sacrifices itself to atone for the sins of the world and for that it is considerably promoted in heathen, for its voluntary death is credited as an extraordinary feat throughout the book, not as something which proceeds necessarily from its intrinsic nature. Naturally the whole heavenly court of elders, cherubim, angels and saints is there. In order to become a religion monotheism has ever had to make concessions to polytheism — since the time of the Zend-Avesta. With the Jews the decline to the sensuous gods of the heathens continued chronically until, after the exile, the heavenly court according to the Persian model adapted religion somewhat better to the people’s fantasy, and Christianity itself, even after it had replaced the eternally self-equal immutable god of the Jews by the mysterious self-differentiating god of the Trinity, could find nothing to supplant the worship of the old gods but that of the saints; thus, according to Fallmerayer, the worship of Jupiter in Peloponnesus, Maina and Arcadia died out only about the ninth century. (Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea, I, p. 227.)

Only the modern bourgeois period and its Protestantism did away with the saints again and at last took differentiated monotheism seriously. In the book there is just as little mention of original sin and justification by faith. The faith of these early militant communities is quite different from that of the later victorious church: side by side with the sacrifice of the Lamb, the imminent return of Christ and the thousand-year kingdom which is shortly to dawn form its essential content; this faith survives only through active propaganda, unrelenting struggle against the internal and external enemy, the proud profession of the revolutionary standpoint before the heathen judges and martyrdom, confident in victory.

We have seen that the author is not yet aware that he is something else than a Jew. Accordingly there is no mention of baptism in the whole book, just as many more facts indicate that baptism was instituted in the second period of Christianity. The 144,000 believing Jews are “sealed,” not baptized. It is said of the saints in heaven and the faithful upon earth that they had washed themselves of their sins and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb; there is no mention of the water of baptism.. The two prophets who precede the coming of the Antichrist in Chapter XI do not baptize; and according to XIX, 10, the testimony of Jesus is not baptism but the spirit of prophecy. Baptism should naturally have been mentioned in all these cases if it had already been in vigour; we may therefore conclude with almost absolute certainty that the author did not know of it, that it first appeared when the Christians finally separated from the Jews. Neither does our author know any more about the second sacrament, the Eucharist. If in the Lutheran text Christ promises all the Thyatirans that remain firm in the faith to come [das Abendmahl halten – who observe the ritual of the last supper] with them, this creates a false impression. The Greek text has deipn?sô — I shall eat supper (with him), and the English bible translates this correctly: I shall sup with him. There is no question here of the Eucharist even as a mere commemoration meal.

There can be no doubt that this book, with its date so originally authenticated as the year 68 or 69, is the oldest of all Christian literature. No other is written in such barbaric language, so full of Hebraisms, impossible constructions and mistakes in grammar. Chapter I, verse 4, for example, says literally: “Grace be unto you … from he that is being and that was and that is coming.” Only professional theologians and other historians who have a stake in it now deny that the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are but later adaptations of writings which are now lost and whose feeble historical core is now unrecognizable in the maze of legend, that even the few Epistles supposed by Bruno Bauer to be “authentic” are either writings of a later date or at best adaptations of old works of unknown authors altered by additions and insertions.

It is all the more important since we are here in possession of a book whose date of writing has been determined to the nearest month, a book that displays to us Christianity in its undeveloped form. This form stands in the same relation to the fourth century state religion with its fully evolved dogma and mythology as Tacitus’s still unstable mythology of the Germans to the developed teaching of the gods of Edda as influenced by Christian and antique elements. The core of the universal religion is there, but it includes without any discrimination the thousand possibilities of development which became realities in the countless subsequent sects. And the reason why this oldest writing of the time when Christianity was coming into being is especially valuable for us is that it shows without any dilution what Judaism, strongly influenced by Alexandria, contributed to Christianity. All that comes later is western, Greco-Roman addition.

It was only by the intermediary of the monotheistic Jewish religion that the cultured monotheism of later Greek vulgar philosophy could clothe itself in the religious form in which alone it could grip the masses. But once this intermediary found, it could become a universal religion only in the Greco-Roman world, and that by further development in and merging with the thought material that world had achieved.

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Engels on the Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation

By Frederick Engels

[Source: Marx and Engels On Religion, Progress Publishers, 1957; Transcribed by Andy Blunden for the Marxists Internet Archive]

A science almost unknown in this country, except to a few liberalizing theologians who contrive to keep it as secret as they can, is the historical and linguistic criticism of the Bible, the inquiry into the age, origin, and historical value of the various writings comprising the Old and New Testament.

This science is almost exclusively German. And, moreover, what little of it has penetrated beyond the limits of Germany is not exactly the best part of it: it is that latitudinarian criticism which prides itself upon being unprejudiced and thoroughgoing, and, at the same time, Christian. The books are not exactly revealed by the holy ghost, but they are revelations of divinity through the sacred spirit of humanity, etc. Thus, the Tübingen school (Bauer, Gfrörer, etc.) are the great favourites in Holland and Switzerland, as well as in England, and, if people will go a little further, they follow Strauss. The same mild, but utterly unhistorical, spirit dominates the renowned Ernest Renan, who is but a poor plagiarist of the German critics. Of all his works nothing belongs to him but the aesthetic sentimentalism of the pervading thought, and the milk-and-water language which wraps it up.

One good thing, however, Ernest Renan has said: “When you want to get a distinct idea of what the first Christian communities were, do not compare them to the parish congregations of our day; they were rather like local sections of the International Working Men’s Association.” And this is correct. Christianity got hold of the masses, exactly as modern socialism does, under the shape of a variety of sects, and still more of conflicting individual views clearer, some more confused, these latter the great majority — but all opposed to the ruling system, to “the powers that be.” Take, for instance, our Book of Revelation, of which we shall see that, instead of being the darkest and most mysterious, it is the simplest and clearest book of the whole New Testament. For the present we must ask the reader to believe what we are going to prove by-and-by. That it was written in the year of our era 68 or January, 69, and that it is therefore not only the only book of the New Testament, the date of which is really fixed, but also the oldest book. How Christianity looked in 68 we can here see as in a mirror.

First of all, sects over and over again. In the messages to the seven churches of Asia there are at least three sects mentioned, of which, otherwise, we know nothing at all: the Nicolaitans, the Balaamites, and the followers of a woman typified here by the name of Jezebel. Of all the three it is said that they permitted their adherents to eat of things sacrificed to idols, and that they were fond of fornication. It is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary movement the question of “free love” comes in to the foreground. With one set of people as a revolutionary progress, as a shaking off of old traditional fetters, no longer necessary; with others as a welcome doctrine, comfortably covering all sorts of free and easy practices between man and woman. The latter, the philistine sort, appear here soon to have got the upper hand; for the “fornication” is always associated with the eating of “things sacrificed to idols,” which Jews and Christians were strictly forbidden to do, but which it might be dangerous, or at least unpleasant, at times to refuse. This shows evidently that the free lovers mentioned here were generally inclined to be everybody’s friend, and anything but stuff for martyrs.

Christianity, like every great revolutionary movement, was made by the masses. It arose in Palestine, in a manner utterly unknown to us, at a time when new sects, new religions, new prophets arose by the hundred. It is, in fact, a mere average, formed spontaneously out of the mutual friction of the more progressive of such sects, and afterwards formed into a doctrine by the addition of theorems of the Alexiandrian Jew, Philo, and later on of strong stoic infiltrations. In fact, if we may call Philo the doctrinal father of Christianity, Seneca was her uncle. Whole passages in the New Testament seem almost literally copied from his works; and you will find, on the other hand, passages in Persius’ satires which seem copied from the then unwritten New Testament. Of all these doctrinal elements there is not a trace to be found in our Book of Revelation. Here we have Christianity in the crudest form in which it has been preserved to us. There is only one dominant dogmatic point: that the faithful have been saved by the sacrifice of Christ. But how, and why is completely indefinable. There is nothing but the old Jewish and heathen notion, that God, or the gods, must be propitiated by sacrifices, transformed into the specific Christian notion (which, indeed, made Christianity the universal religion) that the death of Christ is the great sacrifice which suffices once for all.

Of original sin, not a trace. Nothing of the trinity. Jesus is “the lamb,” but subordinate to God. In fact, in one passage (XV, 3) he is placed upon an equal footing with Moses. Instead of one holy ghost there are “the seven spirits of god” (III, 1, and IV, 5). The murdered saints (the martyrs) cry to God for revenge: “How long, O Lord, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (VI, 10) — a sentiment which has, later on, been carefully struck out from the theoretical code of morals of Christianity, but carried out practically with a vengeance as soon as the Christians got the upper hand over the heathens.

As a matter of course, Christianity presents itself as a mere sect of Judaism. Thus, in the messages to the seven churches: “I know the blasphemy of them which say that they are Jews (not Christians), and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (II, 9); and again, III, 9: “Them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, but are not.” Thus, our author, in the 69th year of our era, had not the remotest idea that he represented a new phase of religious development, destined to become one of the greatest elements of revolution. Thus also, when the saints appear before the throne of God, there are at first 144,000 Jews, 12,000 of each of the twelve tribes, and only after them are admitted the heathens who have joined this new phase of Judaism.

Such was Christianity in the year 68, as depicted in the oldest, and the only, book of the New Testament, the authenticity of which cannot be disputed. Who the author was we do not know. He calls himself John. He does not even pretend to be the “apostle” John, for in the foundations of the “new Jerusalem” are “the names  of the twelve apostles of the lamb” (XXI, 14). They therefore must have been dead when he wrote. That he was a Jew is clear from the Hebraisms abounding in his Greek, which exceeds in bad grammar, by far, even the other books of the New Testament. That the so-called Gospel of John, the epistles of John, and this book have at least three different authors, their language clearly proves, if the doctrines they contain, completely clashing one with another, did not prove it.

The apocalyptic visions which make up almost the whole of the Revelation, are taken in most cases literally, from the classic prophets of the Old Testament and their later imitators, beginning with the Book of Daniel (about 190 before our era, and prophesying things which had occurred centuries before) and ending with the “Book of Henoch,” an apocryphal concoction in Greek written not long before the beginning of our era. The original invention, even the grouping of the purloined visions, is extremely poor. Professor Ferdinand Benary, to whose course of lectures in Berlin University, in 1841, I am indebted for what follows, has proved, chapter and verse, whence our author borrowed every one of his pretended visions. It is therefore no use to follow our “John” through all his vagaries. We had better come at once to the point which discovers the mystery of this at all events curious book.

In complete opposition with all his orthodox commentators, who all expect that his prophecies are still to come off, after more than 1,800 years, “John” never ceases to say, “The time is at hand, all this will happen shortly.” And this is especially the case with the crisis which he predicts, and which he evidently expects to see.

This crisis is the great final fight between God and the “antichrist,” as others have named him. The decisive chapters are XIII and XVII. To leave out all unnecessary ornamentations, “John” sees a beast arising from the sea which has seven heads and ten horns (the horns do not concern us at all) “and I saw one of his heads, as it were, wounded as to death; and his deadly wound was healed.”

This beast was to have power over the earth, against God and the lamb for forty-two months (one half of the sacred seven years), and all men were compelled during that time to have the mark of the beast or the number of his name in their right hand, or in their forehead. “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred three-score and six.”

Irenaeus, in the second century, knew still that by the head which was wounded and healed, the Emperor Nero was meant. He had been the first great persecutor of the Christians. At his death a rumour spread, especially through Achaia and Asia, that he was not dead, but only wounded, and that he would one day reappear and spread terror throughout the world (Tacitus, Ann. VI, 22). At the same time Irenaeus knew another very old reading, which made the number of the name 616, instead of 666.

In chapter XII, the beast with the seven heads appears again, this time mounted by the well-known scarlet lady, the elegant description of whom the reader may look out in the book itself. Here an angel explains to John: “The beast that thou sawest was, and is not…. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth; and there are seven kings; five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come, and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven…. And the woman which thou sawest is the great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.”

Here, then, we have two clear statements: (1) The scarlet lady is Rome, the great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth; (2) at the time the book is written the sixth Roman emperor reigns; after him another will come to reign for a short time; and then comes the return of one who :”is of the seven,” who was wounded but healed, and whose name is contained in that mysterious number, and whom Irenaeus still knew to be Nero. Counting from Augustus, we have Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero the fifth. The sixth, who is, is Galba, whose ascension to the throne was the signal for an insurrection of the legions, especially in Gaul, led by Otho, Galba’s successor. Thus our book must have been written under Galba, who reigned from June 9th, 68, to January 15th, 69. And it predicts the return of Nero as imminent.

But now for the final proof — the number. This also has been discovered by Ferdinand Benary, and since then it has never been disputed in the scientific world. About 300 years before our era the Jews began to use their letters as symbols for numbers. The speculative Rabbis saw in this a new method for mystic interpretation or cabbala. Secret words were expressed by the figure produced by the addition of the numerical values of the letters contained in them. This new science they called gematriah, geometry. Now this science is applied here by our “John.” We have to prove (1) that the number contains the name of a man, and that man is Nero; and (2) that the solution given holds good for the reading 666 as well as for the equally old reading 616. We take Hebrew letters and their values —

(nun) n = 50        (kof) k = 100

(resh) r = 200    (samech) s= 60

(vav) o = 6          (resh) r = 200

(nun) n = 50

[If we add all these numbers up we get 666, the “mark of the beast” i.e. sum of the numerical values of the letters, in Kabbalic numerology, of the name of the Roman Emperor Nero. 666 minus nun (50) = 616. – spm]

Neron Kesar, the Emperor Neron, Greek Nêron Kaisar. Now, if instead of the Greek spelling, we transfer the Latin Nero Caesar into Hebrew characters, the nun at the end of Neron disappears, and with it the value of fifty. That brings us to the other old reading of 616, and thus the proof is as perfect as can be desired. [The above spelling of the name, both with and without the second nun, is the one which occurs in the Talmud, and is therefore authentic.]

The mysterious book, then, is now perfectly clear. “John” predicts the return of Nero for about the year 70, and a reign of terror under him which is to last forty-two months, or 1,260 days. After that term God arises, vanquishes Nero, the antichrist, destroys the great city by fire, and binds the devil for a thousand years. The millennium begins, and so forth. All this now has lost all interest, except for ignorant persons who may still try to calculate the day of the last judgment. But as an authentic picture of almost primitive Christianity, drawn by one of themselves, the book is worth more than all the rest of the New Testament put together.

(written by Frederick Engels in 1883)

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Capitalist Media, Ethics and Revolution

Capitalist Media, Ethics and Revolution

[ I ]

Trotsky, in Their Morals and Ours, observes that in the class struggle…

morality is one of the ideological functions in this struggle.  The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it to considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral.  That is the chief function of official morality.  It pursues the idea of the “greatest possible happiness” not for the majority but for a small and ever diminishing minority.  Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone.  It needs the cement of morality. [1]

He adds that…

morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character. [2]

To listen to the broadcasting media of the capitalist class, the BBC, ITN, CNN, FoxNews, etc, or to read its print media, tabloid or broadsheet, is to recognise the living truth of Trotsky’s conception here. Their output constitutes the articulation of this ‘official morality’ produced and reproduced daily for the consumption of millions.

Morality in pre-class societies reflected the need of a community, at this early stage, to institute precepts and imperatives which it considered would safeguard its integrity as a community of people in its struggle with nature and in its struggle with other communities. In the age of capital, morality grows out the character of its rule and the need to maintain it against all forms of opposition. This is the bottom line of the role of the capitalist media in its different forms. Ultimately, it means the moral justification of oppression, exploitation and the death and destruction with which the continuation of capital’s rule must always be intrinsically associated. The capitalist media is the central ideological support for this moral justification of the continuing rule of capital. Even as it descends into the most disturbing forms of barbarism.

It is in the interests of the capitalist class and its state power to purvey the conception that its morality is the absolute morality, the eternal ‘natural’ morality, the morality of some eternal, nebulous ‘human nature’ and that anyone who contradicts it is either immoral or even worthy of hospitalisation. It is the morality of subjection to capital and its state power. Always on hand are its willing and well-paid ideologues, chatterers and news controllers in the media and elsewhere to reinforce all those hideous, ahistorical precepts which serve to ‘cement’ the capitallist order together. To keep it in one big ugly piece.

[ I I ]

Television News has a pivotal ideological role to play in maintaining the rule of capital and defending the established social conditions of that rule. Its broadcasts reach into the homes of millions, day and evening. This was very clearly demonstrated in the reporting of the ‘rioting’ which broke out in the English cities in the summer of 2011. I focus on this episode because I am familiar with the events and the reporting of them by the British broadcast media.

In large areas of the English cities – on the housing estates and in the inner city streets – we see a growing and increasingly disenfranchised and marginalised proletarian youth who face a hopeless future of structural unemployment. It is the structural crisis of capital itself which is breeding this structural unemployment. Many are turning to petty crime to survive. In many families, unemployment is transgenerational. Grandparents, parents and children have never had a full-time job. It is what the capitalist media in Britain like to refer to as the ‘Benefits Culture’ in contrast to the ‘respectable culture of hardworking families’. The term ‘hardworking families’ has become a media catchword for bourgeois respectability. ‘Benefits culture’ or ‘claimant’ quite the opposite. The whole social security framework in Britain is operated as a system of meagre handouts conditional on punitive and dehumanising measures implimented by the state power of capital if ‘claimants’ do not follow and remain within very strict conditions laid down by the government department of this state power.

The ‘demonisation’ of the most downtrodden sections of the British proletariat by the capitalist press – echoed in the broadcasting media – has become more or less systematic. The systematic dichotomisation of the employed (‘hard working families’) and unemployed (‘benefits culture’) and putting them against each other like boxers in a ring serves the interests of capital both economically and politically. Even some sections of the migrant worker population have been infected with the notion peddled by the media that whole sections of the proletariat in Britain are ‘lazy’ and ‘unwilling to work’.

However, it is clear that the revolt of the proletarian youth in the summer of 2011 was mediated by, and is truly symptomatic of, the deepening of capital’s structural crisis. This layer of youth have nothing whatsoever to look forward to. They are, like their fathers before them, condemned to a life on the dole (which is being cut, year in year out), without any prospects. The recent events are a manifestation of real despair and a dead-end, cul-de-sac existence which the crisis of the capital order has driven them into. Hence the absolute fearlessness and ‘nothing to lose’ approach and mentality of the youth. If you’ve got nothing then you’ve got nothing to lose, somebody once remarked. One of them – being interviewed by a BBC journalist – said that he’d been in and out of prison ‘a few times’ and that at least there he gets three square meals a day, a warm cell, his drugs and human company. On the outside he has to hussle and thieve to get these things.

This is what Tony Blair’s ‘beyond the pale’ really means. It means beyond the requirements of the capital system in crisis so we leave you to rot, to degrade and then castigate you for rebelling against that order. The proletarian youth are showing that they are prepared to come out fighting. And that they are not prepared to rot on the sacrificial altar of the capitalist order.  With each day that passes, they are realising that they cornered in a cul-de-sac of history and they are having their humanity squeezed out of them. What do you do? You can either submit to it, sink deeper and rot or you come out fighting against the state power that defends this wretched, rancid order. With all the contradictions that characterise such eruptions, we must stand full square behind the proletarian youth and against the state power of capital and against its print and broadcasting media which are only too ready to spring to the defence of this state power when required to do so.

The next phase of ‘rioting’ will probably see the use of water cannon, immediate deployment of Ulster-type vehicles and equipment, tear gas and plastic bullets by the police. Even the possible use of live rounds have been suggested by British Tory politicians and police chiefs.  And with these deployments, we can be absolutely certain that the same news controllers and editors at the BBC, ITN and elsewhere will put the appropriate gloss on their use in order to justify them to millions of viewers. Even if so-called ‘rioters’ are killed by police action, there will be such justifications either explicit or implicit.

What is clearly emerging as the crisis of the whole capital system unfolds is the loyalty and reflex responses of a media that stands as the mouthpiece of a repressive order. Such a media – and especially the broadcasting news media which reaches millions every day – is a vital, integral and indispensable component of such an order. Some journalists and cameramen were actually attacked by the ‘rioters’ because they were seen as being in the ‘camp of the enemy’. Under higher conditions of struggle when the proletariat is struggling to appropriate power, such a media would undoubtedly constitute a legitimate target. They are serving as a central ideological prop for the whole capital order. That prop would have to be kicked away. And thrown into the furnace of history.

The broadcasting media were absolutely rabid in their reporting of these ‘riot’ events in the summer of 2011. They most ably articulated themselves in their appointed role as the collective broadcasting mouthpiece of the state power of capital. The journalists on the BBC News Channel actually were cheerleaders for water cannon and plastic bullets:

“Shouldn’t we be bringing in water cannon?”

“Isn’t it time to bring the troops onto the street?”

“Wouldn’t plastic bullets be more selective and discriminatory and pick off the troublemakers?”

One of the interviewing BBC journalists actually implied ‘on air’ that the black writer and socialist Darcus Howe was involved in the events when he was merely trying to describe the conditions which had given rise to them. Indeed it was because he was endeavouring to explain events that he was cut short and virtually accused of complicity on air. Even the cool, cultivated veneer of so-called impartiality was starting to slip and expose the essential naked truth of the role of the BBC. Since their unqualified support for the Iraq invasion, (’embedded journalism’) the motto of the BBC that “nations shall speak peace unto nations” has been revealed as a complete and utter farce. Independent journalist John Pilger has said that the BBC and ITN is ‘journalism for power and not journalism for people’. And in the unfolding, intensifying class struggle, the same ‘degree of impartiality’ will increasingly reveal itself. In reality, this so-called ‘impartiality’ is a construct of class partisanship. It is an intrinsic part of the ideological agenda of the capitalist class and its state power and remains an indispensable part of its rule.

It is ideologically and politically vital for the broadcasting media to present its content and the expression of it as ‘impartial’ and ‘non-partisan’ in order to conceal its real character as a prop of the capitalist order.

When the Birmingham Six (a group of innocent Irish men and women) were wrongly convicted of bombing pubs in the 1970s, the BBC reported the case as if it were a matter of fact that they had actually carried out the deed which resulted in the deaths of many people in two Birmingham pubs. The accused spent many years in prison. Some died in prison. The rabid ‘impartial’ reporting of the case contributed to anti-Irish sentiment in the country in which people were assaulted, their houses firebombed, verbally abused, etc.

Today, these same media agencies of capital fan the flames against the proletarian youth in revolt against the capitalist order. Later, the Provisional IRA admitted in a communique that one of its ‘cells’ had carried out the bombings in Birmingham.

Needless to say, when the Birmingham Six were acquitted, BBC news did not refer to the fact that it had broadcasted to the nation in the 1970s that they were murderers. The BBC has only been consistent in working to a capitalist state power status quo agenda which is pro-state power, pro-business, pro-monarchy, anti-strike and pro-capital. This has been clearly exposed by eminent independent journalists like John Pilger. This political agenda functions to legitimise a system which has already revealed its complete and utter illegitimacy and bankruptcy under the impact of the unfolding structural crisis of the capital order. Here are a few more examples to consider.

The agenda of the BBC and ITN is revealed in their simultaneous consistency and inconsistency of their coverage of events in Burma, of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and the street revolt of the youth in England in the summer of 2011. In all these events, the news agenda is consistently bourgeois democratic as long as it does not threaten that bourgeois democracy itself.. From support for the national liberal Ang Sang Suu Kyi in Burma, for those supposedly fighting for ‘democracy’ in the Arab world, (including reporting by ’embedded BBC journalists’ amongst those in revolt in Syria) and the class-hatred reportage of BBC news against the marginalised and disenfranchised proletarian youth in England. We never witness ’embedded BBC journalists’ amongst the ‘rioting’ youth in England’s cities. We never actually see the perspective of the youth as uniformed police thugs charge towards them and meat out their treatment. This, of course, unless it is unavoidable as in the recent case of the street murder by police of a middle-aged newspaper seller in London, captured by an onlooker on the camera of a mobile phone. The paper seller was walking home after a day’s work selling newspapers in London. The police targetted him as an ‘anti-capitalist demonstrator’ (an anti-capitalist protest was taking place on the same day). He died on the street minutes after being charged to the floor by a burly uniformed police thug using a baton.

We witnessed  ’embedding’ in Syria and Egypt where BBC journalists were ’embedded’ with the ‘democracy demanding’ masses. Their inconsistency lies in their treatment of revolt against oppression. Because they perceive the Arab masses and their Burmese liberal heroine as pursuing a bourgeois democratic agenda, the reporting of their struggles is articulated favourably. However, when they witness the proletarian youth in revolt in England, they are castigated as “criminals”, “looters” and “rioters”. The Syrian and Egyptian masses are not described with such pejorativity in their struggle for democratic rights. This, of course, would not neatly slot into the political agenda of broadcasting news and ‘current affairs’ of the BBC and ITN. Aren’t the youth in England expressing, perhaps unconsciously, their historical needs for real changes? Or perhaps they are starting to question in their protest the ‘capitalist democratic’ system itself?

Also of note is the BBC and ITN reporting of the revolts in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia which were suitably tempered because the area is of strategic importance for the transnational oil companies and arms companies and their very close relations with the state power of capital in Britain and with those in the Arabian Gulf. The oil corporations wanted direct access to Libyan oil, with Gaddafi out of the way, but they already control the oil resources in the Gulf.  Hence there is no need to pursue the sham, fake, phoney ‘democracy’ agenda there. Likewise, the BBC’s Burmese heroine is against Marxist and other leftist parties having the right to organise and stand in elections as part of her wonderful Burmese liberal democracy. She has also kept conspicuously quiet about the state and local persecution of the Rohinga people in south-western Burma. Speaking up about all this would antagonise her future cozy relationship with the military. But the BBC and ITN don’t let their viewers know this. After all, this is BBC journalism.

Another example of this utterly nauseating duplicity is the BBC’s reporting of the Indonesian regime. In one report a BBC journalist referred to the extremely brutal Indonesian regime as a “flourishing democracy”. It is not “flourishing”, of course, if you are a female trade unionist trying to organise workers in the factories of transnational corporations and the police arrest you for doing so and then use torture, beatings and rape on you and your brothers and sisters as a means to breaking your will to form trade unions. That is what this BBC ‘foreign correspondent’  referred to as a “flourishing democracy”. Of course, it is a “flourishing democracy” because it’s pro-western, pro-transnational, anti-trade unionist, anti-socialist, pro-US, etc. It would be amusing if it were not so serious and upsetting. A total disregard for what is actually happening in Indonesian society by BBC journalism. In fact, a complete “flourishing democratic” whitewash.

The whole system of news and so-called ‘current affairs’ coverage at the BBC and ITN is geared towards servicing the needs of capital. A day doesn’t pass when we don’t hear the simpering, fretting and troubled voices of BBC and ITN journalists reporting the inability of the capitalist order to ‘grow’ (i.e. to capitalise the uncompensated labour of millions, to transform surplus value into capital, capital accumulation) as its global crisis deepens. And although there are umpteen programmes given over to ‘business’ in all its sad, alienating, gaudy and gory detail, not a single one is given over to ‘trade unionism’ or opposition movements of any kind. Such is the much vaunted ‘balance’ of the BBC and the rest.

We can expect the same degree of ‘impartial reporting’ from the BBC and ITN as the class struggle intensifies in Britain and elsewhere with the deepening of the global crisis of the capitalist order. When Pinochet in Chile in September 1973 (supported by Thatcher and wined and dined by the British royal family) launched his genocidal regime against trade unionists, socialists and others (over 60,000 were tortured and butchered), the media in Chile was the cheerleader for his coup. The same  happened in Turkey in the course of successive military putsches where the broadcasting media actually put out images and names of people which the military butchers wanted to arrest, rape and torture. Could we expect BBC news editors and management not to be complicit with all the ‘D-notices’* and the rest, and therefore complicit in all the crimes that would follow, if such events unfolded here in Britain?

[in the UK, a D-notice is state-imposed blackout on the reporting of certain types of news]*

If the police use plastic bullets, gas, water cannon and even live rounds in any further disturbances, where will BBC news controllers, editors and management stand? Will they adopt the same critical approach to the British police as they have rightly done in news reporting of the Syrian, Yemeni and Egyptian police? Or will they pander to the state power of capital and report as they usually do? In other words, support killer police in their news coverage and justify their actions?

What is amusing is the PR attempt to convey the image of so-called ‘impartiality’ when it is quite clear to anyone  –  who thinks beyond the saccharinated and projected fakery –  that the broadcasting news media are simply the broadcasting mouthpieces of the state power. This has been clearly demonstrated by coverage of events by the BBC since it was founded in the 1920s. An indelible landmark in such ‘impartial’ coverage was the rabid, pro-police, pro-Thatcher position during the historic Miners’ strike in Britain in 1984-85 where state/police terror and violence against the miners, their communities and supporters was reported as self-defence against violence rather than as it really was : a fullscale mobilisation and assault by the state power on the miners and their communities. Only a brainless ‘sponge’ would absorb such reporting as ‘impartial’. Perhaps the BBC news controllers think we are all ‘sponges’?

Whenever there is a strike, the implicit message sent out to millions of viewers is:

“Just look at all these wrecking greedy trade unionists spoiling your day and stopping you getting to work this morning!!”

“How dare they inconvenience us like this ??!!”.

Look at the tone of the news coverage of the trade union days of action in the UK on June 30 and November 30, 2011 to observe this ‘impartially observing journalism’. Even the expressions on the faces of the overpaid, overpampered, (all out of the compulsory licence fee [£150 per annum] paid by the whole population ) regularly dermally-filled and botoxed broadcasting mouthpieces were ones of total disapproval. Perhaps they are trained to alter their expressions in order to denote approval or disapproval: a fawning smile for her majesty the Queen and a scowl for these ‘wrecking’ trade unionists. This is especially observable with strikes in the public sector or public transport where their effects on people’s lives are distorted, whipped up and bent by the capitalist media for the purposes of opposing ‘disruption’ to the capitalist order.

Likewise, the news media’s position on the British Monarchy also typifies their position in relation to the state power. They don’t appear to be aware that millions of people in Britain are simply NOT loyal  flagwaving monarchists. And if they do, then they completely ignore it. The percentage of Scots who are monarchists is absolutely fractional, minimal. Regardless of the fact that they have to suffer the presence of the Royal Family at Balmoral every year. And yet the coverage is consistently pro-monarchy, totally uncritical and slavishly, almost feudally, servile to the point of gut-wrenching nausea.

In Britain, we are graced with some of the most nauseatingly fawning journalists in the world when it comes to their adulation of the Crown. How close must the flattering tongue of the ultra-fawning Nicholas Witchell have to get to the royal anus in order to prove to BBC news controllers and management that he is one of her majesty’s most loyal subjects? Nicholas (or his line manager) must be fishing for a knighthood because every time he presents any coverage of the royals, it is so excruciatingly, even painfully and cringingly, servile that it is enough to make anyone viewing make a beeline for the medicine cabinet.

Such ‘impartial’ positions of the BBC, ITN et al in their news coverage are legion. In fact, too numerous to mention. Take, for example, when a person is killed by the police either on the street or in police custody. The victim is always reported by BBC news to “have died” or to have “been found dead” in police custody but never under any circumstances to have been “murdered” by the police, not even “killed” by the police. The tendency is to adjust the facial expression, mood, tense and grammar in the reportage in order to convey the impression that it just could not be possible that a British policeman has actually “killed” or “murdered” somebody. Whereas when a policeman or policewoman is killed they are invariably “murdered” (grammatical active) without any conclusive, definitive evidence having been put forward. Over 300 people have “died” in police custody in Britain, not to mention those outside custody, and not a single police officer has ever been prosecuted for murder. Even use of the term “died” is made to sound as if they have peacefully gone to sleep in their police cell.

Ex-paratrooper Christopher Alder – who was a black neighbour of mine on the Beverley Road in Hull where I lived at the time – was left to die on the floor of a police station in Hull while police officers stood around joking and laughing. Video evidence of him being carried into the station shows what appears to be his head being used as a battering ram to open swing doors. Chris, earlier in the same evening, had been in a fight with a man at a nightclub and any trauma from that would have been made worse when his head was used as a battering ram to open the swing doors of the police station.

But as soon as a police officer is killed on the street or shot or stabbed to death, the broadcasting media are falling over themselves with slobbering sympathy and calling for the blood of the “murderer”. This was a regular news practice during the struggle of the republican movement in Ulster. The police and army always “shot dead” civilians or PIRA men but the PIRA always “murdered” soldiers, RUC policemen and politicians. Don’t forget, the British people are paying for all this ‘impartial coverage’ out of a compulsory licence fee levied annually.

The broadcasters choose the degree of emotiveness of the broadcasted language in order to reflect their political and moral agenda which is entirely pro-capitalist. The BBC and ITN ideologically supported the British army and the RUC in their dirty little imperialist war against the republican movement in Ulster and against the community that supported it. Hence their language reflected that position.

Many people subconsciously absorb the cleverly-crafted language of the news and current affairs media (like sessile sponges absorbing soluble poisons from the surrounding sea water) when they sit and listen to it. The capitalist broadcasting news media are deploying very specifically chosen language in order to convey the appropriate political message and maintain the news agenda which is essentially that of the state power under which we all exist. But what did somebody once say? You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time?

BBC and ITN news and current affairs will remain the broadcasting mouthpieces of the state power of capital in Britain until the end of their days. They are, taken collectively, what the independent journalist John Pilger aptly refers to as ‘journalism for power and not journalism for people’. And we all know to which ‘power’ he is referring.

[ I I I ]

‘Human nature’, like the precepts of the bourgeois ideologues that seek to absolutise it, is subject to change and transformation. Social consciousness is continually altering in the course of its reciprocal dynamic with changing social conditions so that even ethical ideas become reformed and adapted to  new conditions and relations. Opposed moralities become transformed into each other so that what was understood as ‘moral’ or ‘human’ in one period appears as ‘inhuman’ or ‘immoral’ in the succeeding one and vice versa. Social development is continuously shifting the ground from underneath prevailing forms and established systems of morality. In this historical flux, categorical imperatives and absolutes in the realm of ethics are revealed to be relative forms which begin to become transformed or even vanish completely as new social relations eclipse the old, necessitating the emergence of new forms of morality which serve to justify and perpetuate the establishment of the new social relations in opposition to the old.

Ascribed forms of ‘human nature’ – which are really socio-historically created, ethically-mediated forms of human behaviour – are no more eternal than the social relations and conditions that engender them. There is no eternal, unchangeable ‘human nature’ in this respect. The human personality is an organic part of the unfolding historical process and this is reflected in the changing conceptual content, emotional states and structural configurations of its inner relations and tendencies.

We are not suggesting, of course, that such human activities as eating, drinking, urination, sex, labour, etc, are historically relative. But even the modes of behaviour through which such activities are expressed are themselves historically relative regardless of the continuation of the absolute within the relative, the universal within the particular down the ages. Hunger and thirst drive us to eat and drink but the manner and forms within which the satisfaction of these needs takes place is historically relative. Eating French cuisine with a knife and fork at table in a restaurant is a totally different activity, experience and affair to clawing at and eating the raw flesh of the carcase of an animal that has just been brought down in a shower of hunting spears. However, undeniably, it remains ‘eating’.

The truth of the matter is, therefore, that morality is constantly subject to alteration and changes its forms as human society evolves. In class societies, the precepts and imperatives of morality are socio-historically determined according to the needs and interests of classes. The antagonisms within and between moral positions are sharpened and heightened as the class struggle intensifies. Morality becomes another weapon in the opposed armouries of contending classes; in the ruling class as a means to impose and maintain its rule and in the class struggling for hegemony as a means for overthrowing that rule and establishing the new society.

Morality may take on religious or secular form according to the historical conditions and circumstances within which it has emerged and developed in order to represent the interests of particular groups (tribe, caste, class, etc) in society. Religion and moral positions derived from it have often been pivotal in the history of the class struggle. We only have to look back through English history to see this. For example, the predestinarian morality of Cromwell’s army was thought by its soldiers to be the guide to doing God’s work on Earth. To the Royalist army it was heresy and contravened the divine right of kings, etc. Each saw the other as heretical.

Of course, for the socialist, capitalism is an inherently unethical system of social relations founded, as it is, on exploitation and inequality. It is supremely ethical to put an end to its existence by whatever means are necessary. For if these means be actually necessary to end the age of capital, and these means necessarily realise ends which are historically ethical in themselves, then the means through which these ends are realised are also ethical, indeed the means share the same degree of ethicality as the realised ends themselves. The bourgeois moralist and ideologists of capital and its state power will whinge and whine about this assertion. They will seek to qualify it and convolute it into forms which are designed to confuse, bamboozle and present problematics of one kind or another. Unfortunately, we can do nothing about that. But leave them to their moralistic perambulations. The supremely ethical precept – above all others – is an end to the global epoch of capital and the creation of a communist life for humanity; regardless of what that is going to involve in the course of an unfolding global struggle.

Any form of morality which props up the capitalist order is, accordingly, supremely immoral. We do not agonise about the abstract, metaphysical, transcendental morality aired by the ideologists of the bourgeoisie. We recognise that what we are doing is supremely ethical because it is putting an end to a barbarous social system and putting one in its place which will create human relationships far more human, infinitely better than the present one. It will create a totally different type of human being and human personality to the current one; one in which the oppression and exploitation of man by man has come to a final, irreversible end.

The social relations of the capitalist epoch are based on a social division of labour which corresponds to the prevailing stage of development of its technical productive forces.  The ‘enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour’ [3] creates psychosocial conditions under capitalism within which humans are prevented (circumscribed) from developing an all-round, multifaceted, multi-skilled personality which enables the individual to participate in all spheres of human activity and life. Marx observes that…

If circumstances in which the individual lives allow him only the one-sided development of one quality at the expense of all the rest, if they give him the material and time to develop only that one quality, then this individual achieves only a one-sided crippled development. No moral preaching avails here. And the manner in which this one pre-eminently favoured quality develops depends again, on the one hand, on the material available for its development and, on the other hand, on the degree and manner in which the other qualities are suppressed.

Precisely because thought, for example, is the thought of a particular definite individual, it remains his definite thought, determined by his individuality and the conditions in which he lives…..In the case of an individual, for example, whose life embraces a wide circle of varied activities and practical relations to the world, and who, therefore, lives a many-sided life, thought has the same character of universality as every other manifestation in his life…..From the outset it is always a factor in the total life of the individual, one which disappears and is reproduced as required. [4] (Marx emphasis underlined)

The development of a many-sided human personality – which is not ‘one-sided’ and ‘crippled’ – is dependent on the actual existence of social conditions and relations which provide the social and material ground for such a development. An all-rounded, many-sided, multifaceted development of the capacities of human individuals is therefore only possible in a society which furnishes such conditions. Capitalism is not such a society. Quite the contary. It ‘cripples’ the human being and the human personality.

Indeed, the all-round development and cultivation of the individual becomes a necessity in socialist society. This ‘cultivation’ does not, of course, take the form of a social compulsion or oppressively coercive imposition on the individual where the individual is socially compelled to become ‘cultivated’.  Rather, it springs from the actual nature of human relationships in the life of the commune itself where all forms of oppressive coercion have been transcended and the psychosocial development of the individual is not subject to the social compulsion which characterises human relations in bourgeois society. In his foreword to the Grundrisse, Martin Nicolaus informs us that Marx in….

the Grundrisse speaks of two very broadly and generally defined types of human individuality. The first is the ‘private individual’, meaning the individual as private proprietor, both as owner of the means of production and as ‘owner’ of the commodity, labour power; the individual within the exchange-value relation. The abolition of the relations of private property is the abolition of the conditions which produce and reproduce this kind of individual. The place of this type is taken by the social individual, the individual of classless society, a personality type which is not less, but rather more developed as an individual because of its direct social nature. As opposed to the empty, impoverished, restricted individuality of capitalist society, the new human being displays an all-sided, fully rich development of needs and capacities, and is universal in character and development. [5] (Nicolaus emphasis underlined)

The determinations of the human personality and interpersonal relationships in the age of capitalism derive from the character of its social relations. Thus, for example, psychologically, even….

Dissatisfaction with oneself is either dissatisfaction with oneself within the framework of a definite condition which determines the whole personality e.g. dissatisfaction with oneself as a worker, or it is moral dissatisfaction. In the first case, therefore, it is simultaneously and mainly dissatisfaction with the existing relations; in the second case – an ideological expression of these relations themselves, which does not all go beyond them, but belongs wholly to them. [6]

The commune will educate the individual in all areas of human culture – in technique, science, literature, art, etc – and provide access to all its different spheres. This, in itself, will create the cultural preconditions for the flourishing of the human personality and intellect in the commune where the identification, refinement and realisation of the needs of each and every individual will be the governing principle of social relationships. Hence ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’.

The development of the crisis of global capitalist economy itself engenders the necessary conditions for this transition to a higher mode of human life: classless, unalienated, free. But this same crisis also creates out of itself the conditions for the further descent into barbarism…

Civilisation can be saved only by the socialist revolution. To accomplish the overturn, the proletariat needs all its strength, all its resolution, all its audacity, passion and ruthlessness. […….] The welfare of the revolution – that is the supreme law! [7]

We all want a peaceful transition to the new society. Nobody wants death and destruction which is what we actually have now with the global rule of capital in crisis. But if we are presented – by the violence of the state power of capital – with the unavoidable condition of having to go through decades of war, death, destruction of cities, the ravaging of the land and all the horror and torment which would inevitably ensue from all that, then so be it. The responsibility for all that will lie at the door of capital, its state power and its various sundry agencies.

It will be necessary and desirable if it means that only by these means can we put an end to this wretched, rancid, system of exploitation and violence. If only by these means we are able cast the epoch of capital into the abyss of history, forever. Gone. Never to return. And to create a higher form of life for humanity, free and full of beauty.

Shaun May


[1] Trotsky.  Their Morals and Ours. (Pathfinder, New York, 1979) p.20

[2] Ibid. p.21

[3] Marx. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Marx-Engels Selected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973) p.320

[4] Marx.  The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 5.  p.263

[5] Nicolaus, M. Foreword to Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993) p.51

[6] Marx. The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 5. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1976)  p.378

[7] Trotsky. Their Morals and Ours. (New York, Pathfinder, 1979) p.65

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