Supernatural and material force

Chris Gray reviews Jack Conrad Fantastic reality: Marxism and the politics of religion JC Publications, 2007, pp528, �15

It is easy to see that politics and religion are closely intertwined these days (as they always have been). What with issues such as sharia law, homosexual and women priests, there is no shortage of topics illustrating this, which is why the appearance of Jack Conrad’s book is very definitely timely.

In the best Marxist manner Conrad is concerned to situate the phenomenon of religion in general in the context of the overall development of human society from primitive communism onwards, which he does in outline in the introduction (pp22-30), followed by a brief overview of the impact of science and enlightenment thought on the christian churches (pp30-34).

This brings us to Marx and Engels, whose views on religion are discussed in chapter one (written by Michael Malkin). Judaism and christianity are explored in chapters two to six. Chapter seven is devoted to an investigation of catholic ‘liberation theology’. Then we have a chapter on the origins of islam, while chapter nine explores the attitude of the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia to religion. Chapter 10 contains some observations on contemporary islam, including remarks on the Muslim Association of Britain.

Chapter 11 outlines tactics and strategy for the left in the current UK religious and political context; Chapters 12 and 13 cover Zionism and the state of Israel, and the book concludes with chapters on free speech, the question of whether the expression of religious hatred should be made illegal, and the general question of secularism.

What is religion?

As Jack Conrad observes at the outset, when faced with the problem of specifying exactly what constitutes religion, Marxism has much to offer: “Being a totalising but open-ended world view, it is able to undertake an ongoing investigation into the specific human origins of the supernatural and in turn use ideas of the supernatural to cast light on humanity itself. Religion, as defined by Marxism, is fantastic reality” (p19).

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the phrase “fantastic reality” derives from Marx’s Introduction to the critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of right’ (see the translation edited by Joseph O’Malley, Cambridge 1970, p131. The notion is also taken up in Christopher Caudwell’s Further studies in a dying culture, in the section entitled ‘The breath of discontent: a study in bourgeois religion’).

Religion is able to reflect elements of objective reality, even if it exhibits a tendency to clothe them in unscientific garb. Humans have to start somewhere, after all, in their attempts to understand the world; hence their visions of physical reality, of the universe, naturally reflect their own social world and the degree of control they are able to exercise over nature. Jack Conrad is right, therefore, to insist that “Religion should not be dismissed as mere false consciousness” (p19), while emphasising also the degree to which religious ideas, when held by large numbers of people, become, as it were, a material force.

In this context, some fairly recent work by the American scholar, Garrett Olmsted, is relevant. Olmsted published a book in 1994 called The gods of the Celts and Indo-Europeans, in which he argued that an original Indo-European pantheon can be constructed from the records of various peoples, in which a pattern of entities and functions can be traced. By way of illustration Olmsted lists, for ancient Greece, Zeus as controller of the upper realm (ie, the sky) by night, Apollo as his day-time counterpart, Poseidon as controller of the middle realm (land and sea) and Hades as ruler of the lower realm (the world of the dead); Gaia is the earth mother goddess, and Hera, Hestia and Demeter are the three daughters of Mother Earth and Father Sky, associated with the upper, middle and lower realms respectively.

The question arises, where do these gods and goddesses come from? The logical answer, of course, is that a god created them - in this case, the Sky Father, who in the Greek context can be identified with either Ouranos or Kronos. Olmsted lists comparable deities for India, Iran, Rome, the Germans and Scandinavians, Gaul, Ireland and Wales (see pp87-102 and 179-80). Except in the Irish case these lists are incomplete, but nonetheless Olmsted’s evidence appears to support his analysis.

Space considerations preclude full consideration here of the book’s survey of Marx and Engels on religion in chapter one. However, I agree with the statement on p49, which declares: “It is an intensely human and passionate rejection of servility, rather than any abstract philosophical/theological consideration, that constitutes the heart of Marx’s rejection of religion, central to which is ‘the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being’.”

This is borne out by the passage, quoted on p64, in which Marx famously characterises religion as “the opium of the people” - the immediately preceding sentence runs: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions.”

Contrary to the thrust of religion, however, Marx strove to put humanity in place as its own central concern, remarking that “Religion is the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve around himself” (quoted on p65). This helps to explain Marx’s contention that “The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man” (ibid).

Clearly here Marx is not contending that humans are all-powerful, but only that they should strive to improve their own living conditions - without holding that no such effort is worth making because events will inevitably be controlled by some all-powerful deity.

Judaism and christianity

Moving to the subject of the historical Jesus, Jack Conrad rightly rejects the idea that the whole story is a fabrication (p102) for the much more plausible conclusion that Jesus was indeed a historical person, but one around whom legends have been woven. The falsifications even extend to the text of Josephus’s  Jewish antiquities, where the 1st century CE Jewish historian is made to assert, in the course of a passage dealing with Jesus, “He was the christ” (Josephus was not a christian, so he could not possibly have written this).

Conveniently, Jack Conrad discusses in some detail the class relations in ancient Greece and Rome and the early history of the Jews, before focusing explicitly on Jesus in chapter five. The chapter on early Jewish history is particularly interesting, with its suggestion that the earliest Jews were in fact Canaanites oscillating between settled agriculture and semi-nomadic pastoralism (p142). The lack of archaeological evidence to back up the rather grandiose image of the kingdom of David and Solomon conveyed in the biblical account is also highlighted. As Canaanites the ancient Jews clearly will have shared Canaanite religious beliefs and practices: in other words, they were polytheists (see pp146-49).

This, it must be said, accords with the earliest biblical Genesis tradition. As readers of the original Hebrew will know, the Bible’s first book begins: Bereshith bara elohim eth hashamaim weth ha-aretz; this is conventionally translated: “In the beginning god created the heaven and the earth” (authorised version), but the plural -im of elohim clearly indicates gods (plural) at work. The conventional theologians’ response to this is to argue that this is an example of the ‘plural of majesty’, but somehow that does not ring true.

More plausible is to hold, with Jack Conrad, that “Like the zoroastrian Persians and later the islamic Arabs, the monotheism of the southern Hebrews was the result not of an evolving philosophical sophistication, but sudden contact with and adoption of a ‘higher urban culture’. Judaism as we now know it developed in exile” (pp153-54).

The Jewish upper strata returned eventually to Palestine, but as leaders of a subject people - a situation that persisted under the Greeks and Romans. This provided the background for the various movements of Jesus’s time - sadducees, pharisees, essenes, etc. Religious controversy was accompanied by political rebellion, as documented by Josephus. When the emperor Augustus finally established his authority over Rome’s eastern provinces, he proceeded to govern Syria through a series of legates, with Judaea, to the south, under the control of a client-king, Herod.

The territory was next entrusted to Archelaus, but his appointment led to an insurrection in 6CE, which was crushed by the incumbent governor of Syria, P Sulpicius Quirinius, who then annexed it for Rome. Quirinius (or “Cyrenius”, as he is called in the Gospel according to St Luke) instituted a census, but the idea of Jesus’s parents having to travel to Bethlehem to register under it is an early christian fiction designed to place Jesus in the town where the prophesied messiah was supposed to be born (p168).

This is only one of many falsifications, and Jack Conrad does a good job by pointing out quite a number of them (pp169-77). My only criticism here is that, in his discussion of Jesus’s supposed miracles, Conrad avoids the obvious conclusion that Jesus was what we would now call a ‘faith healer’: it was surely his miraculous powers in this sphere that gave him the idea that he could work the one great miracle that would deliver the populace from Roman oppression - the inauguration, as messiah, of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.

He miscalculated. To my mind, the author’s conclusion is to the point: “Jesus was a brave revolutionary who wrongly staked all not on the masses, but on a coup and divine intervention” (p177).

Chapter six, on the early christian church, is also excellent. As Jack Conrad observes (p173), Jesus’s followers refused to believe that he really died when he was crucified. Readers familiar with an old Hollywood film about the Mexican revolution of 1910 entitled Viva Zapata! will find this easy to accept. In the film, Zapata (played by Marlon Brando) is lured into an ambush and shot, and his body is dumped in the town square, but the peasants come up, look at the body and then retire saying: “It’s not him. They could never kill him! He is in the mountains” (compare Mark xvi, 7: “But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him …” This is echoed in Matthew xviii, 7).

With such faith holding the disciples together under James’s leadership, the way was opened for a Jew of Tarsus called Saul, initially strongly opposed to the movement, to see its potential as an alternative ‘mystery religion’ in the Roman empire - suitably shorn of any trace of Jewish nationalism. It was this Saul who, having changed his name to the Roman-sounding ‘Paul’, was principally responsible for the emergence of christianity as a distinct religion rather than a Jewish sect.

All in all this chapter is a very useful introduction to the early history of christianity in both its Pauline and Jerusalem (‘nazorean’) versions. The only point I am uncertain about here is whether James and his followers played an activist role in the Jewish revolt of 66 against Rome, as Jack Conrad claims. It seems that he relies on Robert Eisenman’s James the brother of Jesus, which I have not yet read. The question is: who was responsible for searching the Jewish religious texts in order to find passages explaining Jesus’s crucifixion? Was it James? Or Paul? Or both? And who was responsible for the repudiation of violence as a political method (which we find at Matthew xxvi, 52: “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword”)?


The chapter on islam is also important, providing as it does a valuable introduction to the study of this major religion for those who cannot read Arabic. No Arabic scholar myself, I cannot give much further guidance beyond that, except to say that for a really thorough understanding of Muhammed’s teachings it is not enough to read the Qu’ran: it is necessary to study the additional sayings attributed to the prophet, the hadith. Qu’ran and hadith combined form the material for the four canonical law schools of the sunni muslims - Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi’i and Hanbali (shi’ites have their own traditions, but there is a considerable overlap with the sunni).

The current Turkish government is engaged in a ‘modernising’ movement designed to establish a form of islam less at variance with social practice in the ‘west’. If this becomes the established norm in Turkey, we will have yet another illustration of the diversity of the islamic tradition, contrary to the myopic misrepresentations perpetrated by those who cannot distinguish one muslim from another (such as the editors of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten).

Jack Conrad scores again on islam by summarising the results of research by scholars at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, such as John Wansborough, Patricia Crone and Michael Cooke (see pp254-60), plus the work of Christoph Luxenberg (pp260-64). He goes on to review the subsequent expansion of islam and the emergence of the Ummayyad and Abbasid caliphates. These regimes saw a great deal of creative scholarship and scientific endeavour, which deserves to be better known in the so-called christian world than it is (see ‘It’s time to herald the Arabic science that prefigured Darwin and Newton’ The Guardian January 30).

There is much more in Fantastic reality that this review cannot cover, as space will not allow it. One final point, however: the identification of the ancient Greek philosopher, Herakleitos, with secularism is a bit dubious. Admittedly, the material elements - earth, air, fire and water - bulk large in his cosmology, but he shows no desire to dispense with the ancient Greek gods (including Zeus): only a readiness to question the popular interpretation of them, as when he remarks that “Hades is the same as Dionysos” - ie, that death and life are part of one process (fragment 15).

The book contains one or two misprints, which will no doubt be rectified in any future edition. Even so, as president Chávez of Venezuela is reported to have said of another work by a British Marxist, “This is a good book. You must read this book!”