Early Christianity was the communism of its time and communism remains the early Christianity of ours
The othering and scapegoating of minorities — refugees, Muslims, migrants et al. — is the moral and ethical blight of our time. It stands as evidence of the internalisation of nationalist and nativist tropes when the economic chips are down, revealing that Western exceptionalism, dressed in the clothes of civilisation and enlightenment, is the shit-covered toilet of our collective soul.
None other than James Baldwin, that imperious voice of civil rights era black America, once pointed out with customary brilliance, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” What is the anti-other hostility that has permeated the consciousness of a working class battered and bruised by the ideological club of austerity in our time if not that; if not a mechanism by which to deal with the pain of poverty, zero hours contracts, low pay, and lack of hope of life getting better in this age of brute austerity?
Minorities in times of economic extremis are the scapegoat tout court, the ‘other’ from outwith the realm of ‘us’ and ‘we’ whose presence threatens the imagined community of identity and cultural values by which we exist in the bubble of unreality that allows us to acquiesce in the belief in something referred to as a national interest, binding us to a ruling class that is the real other in relation to us and we. It is a stark reminder that the price we pay for false consciousness in good times is austerity in bad. And false consciousness, which Gramsci referred to as common sense (as opposed to good sense), is the natural consequence of the cultural and social conditioning responsible for passivity in the midst of such unremitting conscious cruelty being levelled against so many.
“Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich,” Napoleon Bonaparte opined, providing a succinct analysis of the role of religion in societies in which the inordinate wealth of the rich is built and maintained on the backs of the poor. That said, the Corsican general did not go far enough in his cynical assessment, not when patriotism, national identity, and cultural conditioning serve the same purpose.
Erich Fromm’s work on early (revolutionary) Christianity as the ideology of the exploited poor and the oppressed, victims of a Roman Empire whose tentacles had spread further than any before, remains revelatory and relevant. Fromm points out that the people who supported early Christianity “were the masses of the uneducated poor, the proletariat of Jerusalem, and the peasants in the country who, because of the increasing political and economic oppression…increasingly felt the urge to change [their] existing conditions.” Fromm continues: “From this stratum of the poor…Christianity arose as a significant historical messianic-revolutionary movement.”
Fromm is correct. Indeed the revolutionary impulse of early Christianity is implicit in the Gospels. Consider Luke:
Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Here is not being proselytised the message of peace and love with which Christianity is universally identified, but instead class anger of the kind enshrined in Marx’s Communist Manifesto, demystifying poverty as a natural phenomenon or divinely ordained condition and placing it squarely on the terrain of the exploitation of one class by another in the name not of freedom but of profit and capital accumulation.
The emergence of fascism in the 1920s and 30s was symptomatic of a ruling class in crisis in conditions of economic extremis and dislocation the like of which we are experiencing now. The Great Depression in America had a deleterious impact on the global economy in the late 1920s and 1930s, precisely as the 2008 financial crash has had in our time, plunging the entire capitalist system into crisis along with the ideas required to sustain it in the hearts and minds of a working class in whose material interests and needs it can only ever prove antithetical. Communist ideas grew in popularity and influence in the Depression-era America and Europe as a result of the immiseration and oppression endured by a working class forged into a class for itself in response. And in what stands as a striking historical parallel with early Christianity, the index of its potency was its success in transcending national and cultural particularism to make it, per Christianity, a world-historical movement of earth-shaking dimension.
Fascism, then, was embraced by a ruling class terrified at the prospect of its wealth, privileges and power being conquered from below. It’s narrow, rigid ideology of racial, national and cultural supremacy, rooted in magical thinking and obscurantism, was harnessed to push back against this rising tide of communism, an ideology predicated on the real relationship of man to the material conditions of his existence.
In his magnum opus, Philosophical Arabesques, Nikolai Bukharin pronounces thus: “The explosion of rabid nationalism is not an immanent property of race, but the ideological and political expression of imperialism in its last phase, of imperialism on the threshold of collapse, which is linked to the dramatic sharpening of capitalist contradictions and to the general crisis of capitalism.”
The “rabid nationalism” Bukharin describes has made a comeback in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis and resulting attempt by the ruling classes to maintain the rate of profit through the imposition of austerity, an economic-ideological bludgeon wielded by the political establishment with the objective of effecting the transference of wealth and resources from the working class and the poor to the capitalist class and the rich.
The stark consequence of the recrudescence of ‘rabid nationalism’ has been its success in cultivating confusion when it comes to directing the justifiable wrath of the victims of this process of expropriation the right direction — i.e. against the very ruling class, via a political class that serves its interests, which has been engaged in expropriating it. Instead, under the rubric of an emerging nationalist populist current, working class anger has been directed against Muslims, refugees, migrant workers, etc. — in other words against groups which dare carry an identity other than that which is rooted in their relationship to the means of production.
With impeccable pertinence, Slavoj Zizek writes, “From Greece to France, a new trend is arising in what remains of the radical Left: the rediscovery of nationalism. All of a sudden, universalism is out, dismissed as a lifeless political and cultural counterpart of the ‘rootless’ global capital and its technocratic financial experts…the ideology of Habermasian social democrats who advocate capitalism with a human face.”
Zizek goes on: “The reason for this rediscovery of nationalism [on the left] is obvious: the rise of the Rightist nationalist populism in Western Europe is now the strongest political force advocating the protection of working class interests, and simultaneously the strongest political force able to give rise to proper political passions.” Penetrating deeper, Zizek identifies the liberating character of this political passion after years of stultifying identity politics associated with an out of touch left. “Anti-immigrant populism brings [this] passion back into politics, it speaks in terms of antagonisms, of Us Against Them.”
Zizek provides an invaluable service in moving us towards the core challenge facing the left, viz., the fact that internationalism has come to be associated with the internationalisation of capitalism rather than working class unity and solidarity across national borders, while opposition to global capital has become associated with the ideology of the right at the expense of the left. The result is political and ideological schizophrenia within a left that has found its influence on events evermore marginal in the face of what has become a straight up struggle between a resurgent nationalist/populist right and a liberal centrist status quo for the right to shape the future.
The grim fruits of this liberal centrist status quo we have experienced in the shape of neoliberal nostrums which hold that the marketisation of every aspect of human existence is coterminous with progress. The diametric opposite of progress has been the reality — unless, of course, progress in the second decade of the 21st century can be measured as a utopia for the few and a dystopia for the many. On offer from the resurgent nationalist right, meanwhile, is hatred on the instalment plan — the othering of entire religious, national and cultural groups, posing thereby an existential threat to the unity and consciousness of a multicultural working class without which, in the last analysis, the hegemony of this liberal centrist status quo is guaranteed to endure.
Separating nationalism and communism, just so we don’t lapse into cognitive dissonance at a time when both are being depicted as ideologies rooted in collectivist ideas, is that nationalism is predicated not on the social interactions of a given class but on the individual characteristics of a chosen section within all classes, regardless of social being. It is implicitly an ideology that divorces people from their social being, cultivating in the process and as mentioned the false consciousness responsible for binding an evermore immiserated working class to the ruling class responsible for that immiseration. In a time of such mass confusion a left which rides the coattails of nationalism as a bulwark against liberalism is headed for perdition. There it is destined to be joined by a left which likewise rides the coattails of liberalism in resistance to nationalism.
All transformative historical change begins with a revolutionary idea. Whereas in ancient times Christianity was this idea, one that spawned a revolutionary movement capable of uniting the poor and the oppressed in ancient times, communism was the idea of our time, its fertile ground a capitalist and imperialist world hurtling at warp speed towards its own destruction.
Communism has already been tried and failed, you say? No, you’re wrong. It has been tried and succeeded. How else to explain the fear it still strikes, decades after its supposed death, in the hearts of a conscious ruling class whose primary purpose is to keep its working class in a state of profound and pristine unconsciousness?
As revolutionary Christianity was in ancient times, before being co-opted by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the third century and turned from a spur towards human emancipation into a brake preventing it, communism was and remains the most potent weapon in the arsenal of the vast army of the doomed and the damned in ours.
Thus, no matter how much ‘they’ allow themselves to believe they have buried it, the idea of communism will live as long as the oppression that sustains it lives. The wall of false consciousness that lies between the idea and its manifestation has been breached before. Breaching it again is the challenge of our time.