E.Belfort Bax

The Religion of Socialism


Notes on Universal History from a Socialist Standpoint

From The Religion of Socialism, pp.164-177.


THE inability referred to in the text, to envisage the past otherwise than with the atmosphere of the present, is apparent in all popular notions of past ages. Exceedingly funny is the unsuspecting guilelessness with which the ordinary politician talks of the English Parliament as having been instituted by Simon de Montfort, as though Simon’s war-council were an institution essentially the same, after all, as our House of Commons; or of the compact wrung, for their own purposes, by a band of semi-independent barons, or territorial potentates, from their feudal overlord, called Magna Charta, with the, unquestioning belief that he is referring to a great popular “measure” similar in kind to Mr. Gladstone’s latest Franchise Act only “more so”. These belong to a class of historical misconceptions for which language is largely responsible. The same name is used for the most diverse things, simply because there is a thread of historical continuity running through them. This continuity between the things becomes, in popular conception, confounded with likeness, or even identity. The term “parliament” or “Commons Assembly” being used both for the casual assembling of feudal estates, for the purpose of supplying their feudal superior with the means of carrying on a war, and also for the modern “representative” institutions of constitutional government, has led the ordinary mind to conceive the two things as closely connected, if not identical; whereas, of course, there is hardly an appreciable point in common between them. The same class of misconception attaches to the words “money,” “merchant,” “usury,” “trade,” etc. The ordinary newspaper-reading intellect has little notion that these words, in past periods of the world’s history, when economical conditions were totally unlike the present, connote different things to what they do to-day. The popular conceptions of ancient history and quasi-history, especially the Bible, are of course the most flagrant illustrations of what we speak of: these sometimes take a comical form, such as the Anglo-Israel craze. In this case of course there is the additional fact that the story of the rise and fall of the Jewish state is viewed through the distorting lenses of a theology which has passed through a long development, and been fundamentally modified several times, before arriving at that perfect adaptability to the needs of middle-class Philistinism presented in orthodox Protestant Christianity. The special unhistorical twist for which this theology is responsible is, we may mention, often quite as noticeable in those who reject it – should they happen to be persons without much culture, such as the average Secularist lecturer, – as in those who accept it. An instance of this latter is afforded by what until quite recently passed for the “Bible-smashers” special text-book, and which we were all brought up to regard as the abomination of desolation, – albeit, to-day its theology is suggestive of little more, barring its specially eighteenth century characteristics, than the discourse of a mild Unitarian divine with evangelical leanings, – to wit, Paine’s Age of Reason, – and more or less of all writings of which that is the type. The Bible, to the critical student of history, contain the indications of a growth of a few loosely connected Phoenenician or Canaanitish tribes of nomads into a coherent “people,” and thence into a little state; the ancestral and tribal cults gradually succumbing to the civic or national cult which became identified with the worship of Jaho or Yahveh, established at Jerusalem, the “sacred” city; the struggle of this cult to maintain its supremacy over the other indigenous religions as well as over those imported from without; its varying success until curiously enough at became associated with the great introspective ethical movement of the prophets, and merged finally into the later Judaism; the whole, with the exception, perhaps, of the last point named, in which the special race individuality comes into play, forming simply a story a thousand times repeated in all essential features in early ages, wherever a “people” has developed: civilisation of any kind. But by the “uncritical” man, whether his bias be theological or anti-theological, the Bible, in its present form, is regarded pretty much as the work of good or bad individual authors, and the whole narrative portion much as the history of a modern state, the prominent actors in which are to be respectively praised or blamed as though they were Lord Salisburys or Mr. Gladstones. It is little suspected that the nearest analogue to-day to the Hebrews in their legendary period is to be found in the tribes of the Lebanon or the Soudan. Again, what orthodox English Nonconformist has any suspicion that the Founder of Christianity was other than a kind of sublimated Samuel Morley, in appropriate costume. Could the messianic prophet of the first century, lying hidden beneath the mythical “Jesus,” revisit the “glimpses of the moon” in mufti, and give his impressions of “the young man preparing for the ministry “ it would be certainly edifying. Only the pen of Heine could have given us a suggestion of the result.

The inability of man to interpret the past otherwise than in terms of the world in which he lives has been till the present century universal. Albrecht Dürer paints his Virgin and Apostles as the maiden and burghers of a medieval German town. So with all the other painters of the Middle Ages. In Shakespeare’s “historical plays” the characters live and speak in the world of the sixteenth century. Racine, it has been said, introduced the “manners of Versailles to the camp of Aulis.” The suspicion that contemporary manners and customs or at least contemporary sentiment and ethics, did ever not prevail has first seriously dawned upon mankind in the nineteenth century. The part cause and part consequence of this flash of insight has been modern “critical” history and “realistic” art. But it is as yet mainly the property of the literary class. To the lack of the historical sentiment is largely due the objection sometimes expressed respecting Socialism on the score of certain a priori view on “Human Nature.” The man whose sole intellectual stock-in-trade consists in so-called “common sense” (that commodity which is, when highly developed, so very difficult to distinguish from its opposite) finds it even harder to conceive the future save in terms of the present than he does the past. Such a man will sometimes boldly assure you that certain things are opposed to “human nature,” the “human nature” he has in his mind being his own, his son’s, his next door neighbour’s, his wife’s, and marriageable daughter’s nature. Human nature of course to the student of anthropology and history implies something which has been modified, to a virtually indefinite extent, in the past before it attained the sublimity of smug self-satisfaction expressed in British common sense, and will be still further indefinitely modified in the time that is to come, after British common sense shall have gone to its last rest. “As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be” may be a very good motto for the bourgeois Philistine, for whom both past and future are merely a reduplicated present; but it won’t pass muster with any one ungifted with the sound “common sense” and comprehensive ignorance of that individual.


The stage of development of Humanity as a whole must be gauged by the outer edge, so to speak, of progress that is, by the most advanced indications in the most advanced people at the period; it is in them that humanity is for the nonce most fully embodied and realised. They alone give the tone to all the rest. For instance, until about the sixth century the Oriental monarchies represented this “human spirit” (to employ a Germanism), the Aryan races being far behind them. The torch then passed on to South Eastern Europe, which became the head-quarters of advancing human energy. In the Middle Ages the ancestors of the modern races of Western Europe embodied the active principle of human progress, etc. When once the particular stage has been reached and passed by the races in the van of progress – although to attain it they may have required a long and arduous development – it is henceforth achieved for all progressive races. The complete evolution which led up to it having once been passed through in its entirety by the highest group of races at the time being, can be attained by all less advanced races without passing through the same development. Thus the economic condition of Western Europe to-day has implied a development of four hundred years from medieval conditions. Yet this does not mean that backward races, in which the level of production corresponds to that of the Middle Ages with us, will require at this date to wait four hundred years before they reach the present condition of Western Europe. They may easily attain it in ten years. Russia, for instance, affords an illustration of this. Where but yesterday mediaeval methods of individualist production prevailed, to-day we see the great industry in its rankest growth. The same with the intellectual side of things. The most advanced thought of Western Europe subsists there side by aide with the most archaic superstition. Yet with these facts before their eyes, writers, who ought to know better, base arguments respecting the future on the relative backwardness of Russia at the present moment! The most advanced races, those in which the genius humunitatis is embodied at the time, workout a development vicariously, so to say, for the rest, who merely adopt its result. These latter may then easily take the lead in progress (start a new development of their own) while their superiors of yesterday fall into the background. This has been persistently the case throughout history.

Historic evolution, though one movement, is not the movement of one people or society, but a movement which passes through and uses up or exhausts, so to say, whole races one after the other. Indeed, the races touched by the breath of the movement of history, while receiving the seal of everlasting life in one sense, that is, as embodying a moment of historic evolution, receive the seal of death in another, that is, as actually existent races. The African savage untouched by civilisation lives on to-day as he was in Pliny’s time, and as he might be two thousand years hence, so far as internal causes of decay are concerned. But what of the nations of Asia Minor, the Cilicians, the Lydians, the Carians, etc.? What of the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Hittites? Or, for that matter, what of the classical nations of Greece and Italy themselves, who can hardly be said to survive in their modern representatives? Each race that is drawn into the evolution of human society brings with it, besides its own grade of development, its own ethnical character, that is, the character it has had impressed upon it by climatic, topographical, and other considerations. This is one of the cardinal difficulties in an appreciation of history. Another difficulty is in the many-sided nature of human development. Although unquestionably the domestic and economical aspects of human affairs are the fundamental aspects – although industrial development is their foundation – yet social development is not purely industrial, but political, imaginative, religious, ethical, in addition. Were, for example, the historical order, the exact counterpart of the logical and were the development, a purely economical one taking place in one continuous society, we should find something like the logical process presented. But in the real process of history a particular aspect may be accelerated, retarded, or hold in solution at any stage. Archaic, domestic, and economic forms are preserved in religious beliefs and observances, etc.


The best illustration of the “people” stage of social evolution is to be found in the Germanic tribes as they first appear in history, the Catti, the Suevi, the Allemanni, the Rutuli, etc., as described by Tacitus and later writers. The word “thiud,” meaning people, enters into many of the names of Gothic chiefs and kings, e.g., Theodoric, Theobald, etc. The tract of land occupied by the “people” was the mark. Primitive Communism prevailed amongst them in the time of Tacitus, but the constant state of internecine war, and the tendency to rally round and exalt the victorious leader, betokened a ripeness for civilisation, which is further indicated by the tendency to acquire slaves, etc. For another instance of the “people” the reader may be referred to the early history of the Hebrew race. “What there was of permanent official authority,” says Professor Wellhausen (Encyc. Brit., 9th ed” art. Israel), “lay in the hands of the elders and heads of houses; in time of war they commanded each his own household force, in peace they dispensed justice each within his own circle.” And again, “actual and legal existence, in the modern sense, was predicable only of each of the many clans: the unity of the nation was realised in the first instance only through its religion.” Herodotus is a rich mine for indications of the “people” stage. Among modern analogies may be mentioned the Kurdish tribes, the Arab, and other tribes of the Soudan, etc. It is, however, I think, important to remember what has been hinted in the text; that modern instances of primitive, social, and intellectual conditions can only with safety he regarded as a more or less close approach to those conditions of the historical races which obtained in early ages, and not as some writers, insist as necessarily identical with them. Similarly the modern anthropoid ape, though undoubtedly presenting in structure and habits a close analogy with the ape-like ancestor of man, is not regarded by naturalists as reproducing identically such ancestor. Just as species have become fixed it seems likely that races have become fixed. The very fact of the capacity for development or progress in the “culture-races” would seem to imply elements in them which from the earliest stages must have differentiated them from those “nature-races,” where no such capacity exists.


The “city” was a system of families, gentes, and tribes, each with a special organisation of its own united together primarily for objects of production and defence, though descent from a common ancestor was always assumed for religious purposes. Every house had its domestic altar for its family divinities, every division of the city its temple or altar for the special clan or tribe dwelling within it, while the city itself possessed a central fanes, the largest and most, richly appointed of all for the worship of the city divinity. The city then was a system of separate governments as it was a system of separate religions, united together under one central government and religion. But it was not in its earlier stages a state in the full sense of the word. The political had not as yet become completely differentiated from the religious and social. At first the whole society was the state as the whole society was the church. The governing body was not external to the governed as it is to-day. The head of every family was an integral part of the governing power, as he was of the religious worship.

Cité et ville n’étaient pas des mots anonymes chez les anciens. La cité était l’association religieuse et politique des familles et des tribus; la ville était le lieu de reunion, le domicile et surtout le sanctuaire de cette association.” (La Cité Antique, p.155).

Ainsi, la cité n’est pas un assemblage d’individus; c’est une confederation de plusieurs groupes qui étaient constitués avant elle, et qu’elle laisse subsister. On voit dans les orateurs attiques que chaque Athenien fait partie à la fois de quatre societés distinctes; il est membre d’une famille, d’une phratrie, al’une tribu et d’une cité.” (ibid., p.142)

The city, at first a simple burg, or fortified place, gradually developed its architecture, etc. As types of the ancient city may be taken Troy the focus of the great Homeric epic; Jerusalem, the focus of the Hebrew epic embodied in the Old Testament: and Thebes, the focus of one of the most important cycles of Greek legend. Curiously enough, according to the usual supposition, these clusters of stories (or certainly the first two) arose about the same time (the ninth century BC), and received their final form about the same time (the fifth century BC).


Ancient religion did not concern itself with the supernatural in the sense of a spiritual sphere above, and essentially distinct from nature. Its prayers were usually invocations by magical formulae, designed to compel the will of the occult or invisible agent to that of the invocator. That religion in the ancient, world connected itself with the belief in such occult, or in the common acceptation of the word, supernatural agents and powers goes without saying, seeing that the whole of nature was conceived as a system of animated beings. But its concern with this larger system of nature was always more or less indirect. It was primarily occupied with human relations – the relation of the individual with the society into which he entered, of the family with its gens, of the gens with its tribe, of the tribe with the people or city. The gods or supernatural agents when they failed in their protection of the society which practised their cult were commonly insulted, and their images and altars thrown down. Religious sentiment did not centre in them, but in the community whose good or ill was supposed to lay in their power. The functions of the priesthood of course involved the knowledge of nature according to current conceptions – i.e., as a complex of occult agencies, in fact, as the more powerful counterpart of human society. A good picture of the ancient theocratic priest is given by Flaubert in Salaambo, in the person of Schahabarim.

The ancient religious cults might perhaps be classified as follows: first, probably both in order of time and importance, as attaching themselves directly to the society, the ancestral cults; and, secondly, the nature cults proper from amongst the indefinite number of which two stand out in respect both of the wideness, amounting almost to universality, of their diffusion, and of their significance – the Solar and the Phallic cult. The worship of the traditional founder of the clan, the tribe, the people, etc., respectively as divine, is the basis of the ancestral cults; the naive primitive personification of nature is the basis of the nature cults. Two of the most striking of natural phenomena to the early mind, are (1) the sun, the giver of light, heat, fruitfulness, the cause of the seasons, the bringer also of death, corruption, and devastation; and (2) the generative organs, the material symbol of social continuity. In the one early man saw the great principle of external or economic life and progress, upon which society so vitally depended – the fecundating power in nature; in the other the great internal principle of life and progress in society itself. Hence the apparently endless changes the mythologies and religions of antiquity ring upon these two themes; hence the variety of Solar gods and heroes – i.e., of personifications of different aspects of the sun’s influence, noxious and beneficent, and the numberless Phallic divinities and symbols with which ancient religion abounds. Memories of older family and social forms doubtless also lingered on, and were perpetuated in religious, rites and ceremonies, – a fact which no doubt enters largely into the explanation of the “sacred prostitution” of many ancient peoples. The custom or practice dictated by the social necessities of one age becomes the religious rite hallowed by tradition of another age, when its necessity has passed away and its meaning is forgotten, such meaning having become embodied in other customs and practices.


It must be borne in mind that production being carried on mainly by slaves, who formed part of the family of the citizen, there was practically no exploitation of labour under the form of “free-contract” such as is the key-stone of modern capitalism. The “rich man” of antiquity was of the nature of a hoarder of treasure. The notion of increasing this treasure by means of the process of circulation was almost entirely foreign to him. His idea was to preserve it intact, either in the shape of houses, furniture, slaves, etc., or in that of the precious metals which he would probably bury. This wealth did not create wealth, except occasionally in the form of simple and direct usury, for which, in most cases, the borrower had in the last resort to pay with his skin, by becoming the property or chattel-slave of the lender, thus terminating the transaction. The “rich man” added to his hoard of course when he could, but the addition was generally altogether independent of the existent hoard itself. Hence the wealth of the “rich man” was constantly at hand in a concrete shape to be directly appropriated. In the disturbances which occurred in some of the Greek cities, – e.g., Samos, between the rich and the poor, this hoarded wealth often changed hands in the lump, so to speak, two or three times. The poor citizens would rise and drive the rich out, and take possession of their wealth; the rich would subsequently return in force and retake their property.


There is one point in the trite parallel between the circumstances of the execution of Socrates and that of Jesus, which I am not aware has ever been noticed before. Long previous to the preaching of an introspective ethic by Socrates in Europe, the Hebrew prophets had preached an ethic and religion having the same tendency. After the exile a compromise was effected between their doctrine and the older national cultus, which took the form of Judaism, the poliadic or state divinity Yahveh being erected into the supernatural god of the universe, demanding a “religion of the heart,” but his national character being preserved in the “chosen people” theory.

Like all compromises, this illogical position was eventually assailed. The creed of the prophets culminated in Jesus. The orthodox Jew sought to combine the spiritualistic individualism of the prophets with the old civic ideal of life, of the decay of which this individualism was the sign. Hence in the Palestine of the Christian era there were two streams of tendency, one drawing from the tradition of the prophets, and the other from that of the older priesthood. The founder of Christianity by taking his stand on inwardness, personal holiness, purity of heart, etc., and by his open contempt for the surviving symbols of the old political cultus, roused the not unnatural resentment of the citizens of Jerusalem, with whom the old sentiment was naturally strongest, and for whom the ancient city and temple were still “holy,” and the sanctuary of the fathers; many of them, indeed, like the Sadducees, caring little for the later tendencies. The result was as at Athens, a conspiracy to be rid of the blasphemous radical. Thus alike in the crucifixion of Jesus, as in the death of Socrates we may see illustrated the conflict between the ancient communist ideal of devotion to the race, and the new individualist ideal of devotion to the soul, and to its non-natural source. In the “know thyself” of Socrates and “seek ye first his kingdom and his righteousness” of Jesus we have an expression of the same movement, mirrored on the one hand in the logical clearness of the Attic thinker, in the other in the dreamy, introspection of the Syrian mystic.

I may take this opportunity of remarking concerning the “community of goods” supposed to have been practised by some of the early Christian bodies, that this cannot be taken by any but the most superficial observer as implying any socialistic tendency as inherent in early Christianity. Like that of the later monkery it is perfectly obvious that the communistic mode of life was a mere accident. It was simply a means to another end that end being individual salvation. To avoid the distractions incident to ordinary life and affairs they were abandoned; the individual being hereby better able to concentrate his attention on his soul and “heavenly things.” The ascetic motive of course came in as well; the mere self-sacrifice was in itself to certain extent an end.


The exclusiveness of the ancient societies which the Roman Empire and the new ethics combined to break down is almost inconceivable to-day. Each division of the politico-social hierarchy, as already pointed out, was more or less of a closed corporation, a masonic guild, the members of which were bound to each other by the closest of ties, but by ties which had no validity beyond that division. Special religious forms bound a man to his family, others to his clan, others to his tribe, others again to his city, others yet again through them generally of a less intimate and sacred character to the group of cities (the country or kingdom) to which he belonged. There, however, all duty, all sentiment of a common humanity came to an abrupt ending. Beyond the state as federated group of cities, as kingdom or empire, all were Gentiles, outer barbarians, heathen. Such was the inseparability of morality and religion from politics, that a human being outside the political boundary was altogether outside the pale of human relations. The consequence of this negative attitude of the ancient racial morality towards the outer world was rich in consequences – warfare and slavery directly flowed from it. The conquering power had no duties towards the conquered, and hence its one idea was to utilise them in the interest of its own commonwealth, into which they were therefore introduced. The original political exclusiveness thus paved the way to a social exclusiveness, to the existence of a population within the commonwealth towards which its members owed no duties, and which of course had no rights. Exclusiveness, political and social, may be described as the negative element in the system of the ancient world, to the development of which it was indeed necessary, but which, nevertheless, proclaimed its inevitable fall in the very fact of that development – ancient society was strangled by its exclusiveness.


The two streams, the one traceable to the customs and superstitions of the German tribes, and the other to the Church of the decaying Roman Empire, is clearly visible in the social and religious system of the Middle Ages. Feudalism was as entirely the offspring of the former as Monasticism was of the latter. The “hale young knight,” whose “hand was in his country’s right, whose heart was in his lady’s bower,” was as lineally descended from the German of Tacitus, who followed his chief to battle, as the “religious recluse” was from the monks of the Thebaid. Throughout the Middle Ages we can see the true streams of tendency – sometimes uniting, sometimes in conflict. It is quite clear that the acceptance of Christianity by the German peoples could have been little more than nominal. How could the German in the full vigour of tribal life really embrace a religion which placed the highest object of existence in submissive suffering, to purify the individual soul, as against that which the early world with one consent regarded as summing up the whole duty of man, namely, fighting and working for the political body? And in fact lie did not accept it more than nominally. Duty, fealty to the feudal superior, as representing the community, continued for ages to be the mainspring of his life. Even with the monk, as a general rule, it was the welfare of his order which was uppermost in his thoughts rather than his own personal salvation, as Carlyle has remarked in Past and Present, and this, notwithstanding that the genesis of Monasticism itself is traceable to a totally opposite sentiment.


The Protestant notion of “reverence” that is, of a special sanctimonious bearing towards things religious, is a direct offspring of that extreme separation of religion from daily life which Protestant:, and above all Puritan, Christianity represents. It is nearly certain that the early Christians did not know it, and that their love-feasts were not “prayer-meetings.” They were too near to Paganism with its joyous festivals and its conception of a living intercourse between gods and men, to have appreciated the morose priggishness involved in the “reverential attitude of mind” which is de rigeur with Protestantism. A religion which really interpenetrates life does not require the “reverential” pose. Homo sum, et nil humani a me alienum puto. Levity is a side of human nature, and a religion that eschews levity by that very fact signs its own death-warrant as a living power among men. I should observe in spite of what has just been said, that Christianity, without doubt, contained from the first the germ of this sentiment, although it may not have manifested itself immediately; British Sabbatarism is the hideous abortion it has brought forth.


Last updated on 14.1.2006