What Marx REALLY said about Christianity

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jan 2 09:51:57 MST 2001

>CB: Herbert Aptheker has a book _The Urgency of Marxist-Christian
Dialogue_ ( circa 1965) which discusses the differences and commonalities.
>Engels and Marx called Christianity the perfect religion for capitalism.
On the other hand,  Engels did historical research on the early Christian
church as a revolutionary movement against the Roman Empire. Actually, it
eventually succeeded in overtaking Rome, but was corrupted into ruling
class ideology thereby. Then it became the main ruling ideology of the
European Middle Ages.

(I would remind comrades that the folks at the Marxists Internet Archive
have done a yeoman job in making Karl Kautsky's "Origins of Christianity"
online at: www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/works/1900s/christ/. Here is a
brief excerpt from book four, "The Primitive Christian Community")

The Proletarian Character of the Community

WE HAVE SEEN that the purely national democratic movement of the Zealots
did not satisfy many proletarian elements of Jerusalem. However, escape
from the city to the country, as the Essenes did, was not to everyone's
taste either. At that time, as today, escape from the country was very
easy, escape from the city very difficult. The proletarian, accustomed to
urban life, was not at home in the country. The rich man might well see his
country villa as an agreeable change from the turmoil of the city; for the
proletarian, return to the land meant hard work in the fields, work that he
did not understand and was not fitted for.

The mass of proletarians must therefore have preferred to stay in the
cities, in Jerusalem as elsewhere. Essenianism did not give them what they
needed, least of all those who were mere lumpenproletarians and had got
into the habit of living as parasites on society.

A third proletarian tendency therefore necessarily arose, along with the
Zealots and Essenes, and in fact combining the two. This found expression
in the Messianic community.

It is generally recognized that the Christian community originally
contained proletarian elements exclusively, and was a proletarian
organization. This remained true long after the first beginnings.

Paul stresses, in his first letter to the Corinthians, that neither
education nor wealth are represented in the community:

"For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the
flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the
foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the
weak things of the world to confound the mighty; And base things of the
world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen." (chap. 1, verses 26

Friedländer gives a good description of the proletarian nature of the
primitive Christian community in his Sittengeschichte Roms:

"No matter how many factors contributed to the dissemination of the Gospel,
it obviously had found only isolated supporters among the upper classes up
to the middle or the end of the second century. Their philosophical
tendencies, and the rest of their education, so intimately intertwined with
polytheism, was strongly opposed to Christianity; then, acceptance of
Christianity led to the most perilous conflicts with the established social
order; and finally, giving up all worldly interests was most difficult for
those who had honor, power and wealth. The poor and lowly, says Lactantius,
are more ready to have faith than the rich; among the latter there must
often undoubtedly have been a hostile attitude toward the socialistic
tendencies in Christianity. In the lower classes, however, the spread of
Christianity, which was extraordinarily favored by the dispersion of the
Jews, must have been very rapid, especially in Rome proper; in the year 64
the number of Christians there was already considerable."

Nevertheless, this spread for a long time was confined to single places.

"The data we have, which have been preserved by mere chance, show that up
to the year 98 there are some 42 places in which it can be shown that there
were Christian communities; by the year 180, the figure is 74, and by 325,
more than 550.

"The Christians however were not merely a small minority in the Roman
Empire up to the third century, but this minority, at least at the outset,
was made up exclusively of the lowest groups in society. The heathen
scoffed that the Christians were only able to convert simpletons and
slaves, women and children, that they were uneducated, crude and
peasant-like men, and that their communities consisted chiefly of little
people, artisans and old women. Nor did the Christians deny this. It was
not from the Lyceum and the Academy that the community of Christ was
assembled, says Jerome, but from the lowest (de vili plebecula) in society.
Christian writers expressly state that the new faith had only isolated
adherents among the upper classes until the middle of the third century.
Eusebius says that the peace the church enjoyed under Commodus (180 to 192)
had helped a great deal to extend it,'so that even many men in Rome
prominent in wealth and birth turned to salvation with their whole
household and dan.' Under Alexander Severus (222 to 235) Origen said that
now the rich too, and even haughty and nobly-born ladies accepted the
Christian message of the Word: successes therefore that Christianity could
not claim previously...From the time of Commodus on therefore the spread of
Christianity in the upper orders is confirmed just as expressly and often
as such testimony is lacking for the earlier period. ... The only people of
high rank in the period before Commodus whose conversion to Christianity is
conceded as being very probable are Flavius Clemens, consul, executed in
95, and Flavia Domitilla, his wife or sister, banished to Pontia." [1]

This proletarian character is one of the principal reasons for our being so
ill-informed about the beginnings of Christianity. Its first champions may
have been eloquent orators, but they were not expert in reading and
writing. Those were arts that were even further removed from the masses of
the people than they are today. For generations the Christian doctrine and
the history of its communities were confined to oral traditions, traditions
handed down by people who were feverishly excited and incredibly credulous,
traditions dealing with events in which only a small group were involved,
in so far as they took place at all; and hence traditions that could not be
tested by the mass of the people, and especially by its critical, impartial
elements. The putting down of these traditions in writing began only as
better educated elements, of higher social standing began to turn toward
Christianity, and then this recording had a polemical not a historical
purpose; it aimed at supporting definite views and demands.

Louis Proyect
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