This paper is not a critique of faith. That is in the hearts and minds of the believer, something for which we have full and unequivocal respect. This paper will seek to put the case for different religions reflecting different material circumstances at any point in history. As it was in Marx’s day for he and Engels believed the Christian religion reinforced the then nineteenth-century bourgeois world order.
Perhaps to maintain the domination of economics and politics by a capitalist economic elite, the idea took root that all morality was “relative” in other words you could not say one set of moral principles was better or more just than any other. However, with the rise of global communication, the world needs to reflect on moral relativism and perhaps having adopted it because of its anti-Marxist and pro “bourgeois” credentials, think about where moral relativism is leading the world today.
From Savagery to Barbarism according to Frederick Engels
Karl Marx and but more specifically Frederick Engels were in the final analysis moral absolutists. However, the Economically liberal Western world, perhaps out of fear that a single unifying moral perspective might deliver Marx’s egalitarian revolution, adopted moral relativism in the nineteenth century and it still holds a commanding position today. The problem with relativism is that it makes it difficult to say any moral principle or value is wrong.
Moral relativism has for over one hundred years silenced our left-leaning liberal elite and has set them on a collision course with the ordinary worker who has a clear idea of right and wrong based on their ordinary western workers’ economic experience. The difference between religious moral absolutism and that of Marx and Engels is that they believed there was a scientific and economic explanation for humanities various “moral iterations”. These iterations placed one period of Humanities evolution above the other as we evolved from the savagery of the stone age through various stages of barbarism and finally into the period of civilization. The modern age. The description of this process can be found in Engels: The origin of the family, private property and the state (1884).
The theory simply put states that as humankind gained increasing levels of control over nature, by applying our unique ability to dominate the natural environment, the social and moral environment changed correspondingly. This ability to dominate nature is called by Marx and Engels “species-essence”.
Engels was clear that this process of economic and therefore moral and social evolution was not a simple process. The environment and levels of science and technology played a part in different groups of humans around the world. Therefore, taken at any point in history, there would be a range of different economic and social models operating at the same time but for those with similar levels of economic sophistication, there would be more similarities than differences.
Even today it’s possible to trace traditions that have been carried over from one period of economic and social evolution into another almost as if a ghost of a long forgotten past when material circumstances were markedly more primitive. The Scots Clans, for example, reflect a period when society was divided into tribal groupings. Even though the need for such groupings has not been present since Scotland emerged into the modern age, there is a certain modern pride in Clan identity.
The Native American had a tribe and clan-based society. When civilisation in the form of the “West” arrived on their shores they experienced a world alien to their simple tribal economic and social arrangements. Whilst they possessed many skills that enhanced their survival they were as a society characterised by two or three significant differences from the civilisations that would eventually conquer them.
These differences would be shared by all groups who were at a similar stage of economic and therefore social and moral development.
One of these characteristics was what Engels called consanguinuity. This is marriage like relationships within the wider family group, loose sexual unions where women would have several possible partners and as a result, lineage had to be taken via the female. The primacy of the female, called “mother right”, was due to certainty over maternity. If a brother and sister both had sons, the sister’s son was more important to the tribe than the brother’s son as maternity was a matter of fact and paternity rather more a matter of opinion. This gave women status in this period. However economic development and the development of wealth and trade would eventually change women’s status for the worse until fighting back for rights in the latter part of the modern age we call ‘now’.
In addition to these simple and loose marriage arrangements which would in time be classed as adulterous, the absence of private property was another characteristic of this period. It was impossible to build up “wealth” or in Marx’s term surplus economic value. Thus, any goods made by Native Indians, for example, had essentially use value only. They fulfilled an obvious purpose, for example, a spear for hunting or headdress for a warrior’s status. When food was sourced it was consumed collectively. It could not be stored. This wasn’t exactly a hand to mouth experience of the earlier period of “savagery” but it wasn’t full mastery over nature, in the modern sense either.
The final characteristic of this period was a strict but non-abusive distinction between male and female roles within the tribe. Men were hunters and warriors and females were child bearers and homemakers. There was a greater equality between the sexes than became the case as humanity evolved. Women were given status arising from their lack of reproductive ambiguity.
It is possible to consider numerous peoples from antiquity for whom lifestyle was similar in character. If food was short wars would be fought to conquer or be conquered. In such inauspicious circumstances economic and therefore social progress was practically impossible. It was a society on a war and starvation footing all the time. Rome, Greece and the land of Israel, as well as the desert lands all of the Middle East, would all have evolved from this model of “barbarism”.
It was the absence of creating wealth or exchangeable surplus economic value that for Engels is the fundamental condition that determines the social character of these “barbaric” societies. Their lives were overall simple but precarious and sometimes violent.
In Europe and the Middle East with no isolation as happened to Native Americans or Australasians, there was the possibility of progress, as different groups began to forge different economic circumstances and trade alliances which gave way to new forms of social and moral behaviour. For women, it proved to be a backward step.
The Mediterranean provided opportunities for nations like Greece and Rome to struggle free from the shackles of nature’s hard to conquer dominion. The consequence, however, was, with growing wealth accumulation and the evolution of wealth backed “status” a creeping dominion by man over man and more tellingly man over woman started to emerge. The tribal past with its relaxed moral values and lack of paternal certainty became an intolerable burden on the ability of men to create and command wealth and exercise power.
This next stage one move on from mere tribalism is the precursor to the development of early civilisation and the growth of the state. Once humanity was able to create surplus value via farming, herding, and manufacture for exchange, as well as store wealth in the form of gold and silver, the desire to gain power through wealth and control the environment both physically and morally increased.
Economics drove the wish for power, just as it does now, and as a result, it ushered in some revolutionary social and moral changes. With surplus value or wealth, there came the power men craved. This power could be concentrated into the hands of families or individuals who by controlling conception and inheritance became more important than the tribes they replaced. The value of mother right was eroded as men of wealth no longer needed to share women and have only ‘opinion’ as to who was the father of a child. It was possible to guarantee paternity via the absolute control of women and it made sense for men to turn their backs on the simple tribalism that saw greater equality between the sexes. The morality of this period is captured in Holy books like the Old Testament and the Koran. The faithful believe that the changes were a direct instruction from God. The reality for Marx and Engels and ourselves is that it came from powerful economic forces. Genesis 17.1-7, 15,16 captures the theology as opposed to the economics of this period quite well.
Thus, wealth enslaved women and it enslaved other men too as communities could be fed and housed avoiding the need to slaughter them and their labour power could be used to gain economic advantage, all based on “ownership”. This is better known as slavery. The slave society was merely a society that had achieved a greater mastery over nature and this mastery was no longer evenly distributed. For those with wealth, it gave mastery over others too.
It was during this period that the three great religions began to reflect in the articles of their faith the economic realities of their day. Arguably Lot’s wife and Sodom and Gomorrah is a reference to the abandonment of mother right (and all the liberty for women that went with it) in favour of father right and the all-powerful monotheistic male God.
The Old Testament, New Testament and Koran reflect social change only because economic reality had changed ahead of it. In the form of these new religions, society catches up and codifies the rules of the new world economic order.
Within Islam, the process of rejecting the old ways takes longer to become established. The tradition of nomadic tribes and prior to the seventh-century little-written record keeping might explain why it was harder for the Arab nations to build up wealth. But none the less by the seventh century the growth and more importantly the wealth of global economics was making it possible for certain groups and individuals within Arab tribes to secure a greater share of the worlds riches and as a result allowed men to violently shunt aside the “gods” that reflected mother right just as the Jews and Christians had done.
Arguably therefore for the Arab tribes of the seventh century, the culture of mother right and the loose ’uneconomic’ morals that went with it was becoming untenable. To men who were, as Mohammed was, able to secure wealth through trade and war there was a mission to put to an end the practices of the past as the benefits of trade and wealth would be lost if the old order wasn’t removed. Therefore, adultery became a grave crime punishable with great cruelty and women were forced to adopt a level of modesty that would render them invisible but for their reproductive functions. However not wishing to miss out altogether on multiple female partners concessions to the old order were given in the form of polygamy……but just for the male.
The new values were all embracing reflecting this masculine economic change and the wealth and power it created over others. Within the Middle East, there had been a period of great trade and enlightenment and the religion of Islam was adopted widely conferring stability on tribal societies in many parts of the world. The word caliphate is little different from Christendom. Each faith believing it reflects the formula for economic success and therefore moral purity. But the driver was and still is in our view economic rather than theological. Had it not made economic sense to adopt new economic principles such as restricting women’s rights no society would have.
Engels didn’t touch on the Middle East in The origin of the family, private property and the state, concentrating on North America, Britain and Europe. It has been possible because of the strength of his writing and his “scientific” method to explore the role of economics in religion, morality and society outside of the areas of his interest.
We can explore what it means to us in the twenty-first century as we try and grasp the emerging cultural conflict with Islam and other faith beliefs across Britain and Western Europe.
The web and Twitter are littered with groups who see Islam as anything from a death cult to the hairspring for Armageddon. The response from some Christian groups is to rage with as much fervour as a Jihadi and even some secular thinkers who promote the idea of a clash of cultures seem to conclude that the answer for the Western world is a restating of “Christian values”. We say this solution to solving the incompatibility of Islam and other faiths with western liberal culture will work. And here is why.
Firstly, Christianity, as we have said earlier like all faiths, reflects material realities and therefore is no different from the Islamic faith or any other comparable faith, in this respect. The abandonment of mother right and the adoption of a fearsome God was all part of an economic change that took place when tribalism gave way to more productive ways of creating wealth and more importantly storing it and owning it. There may be some differences in application but essentially the outcome for women, for example, was the same, a culture of varying degrees of subjugation. Although it does have to be conceded that Islam has cruelty, so in the past did Hinduism with the practice of Sati ensuring economic needs were reflected in enforced moral behaviour.
Economic circumstances having created a male-centric God to reflect male-centric wealth creation and values, the wealth created came into the hands of a few families headed by men and it stayed there. This is a unifying fact across all Middle Eastern and European religions, up to roughly the 16th century.
Christianity, therefore, has no great claim to being peaceful or ‘moral’. Unimaginable horror was inflicted on people in the name of Christianity particularly in the Sixteenth Century when a Christian faith Catholicism was propping up an economic system, the feudal system which was being assailed by a new theology called Calvinism. Calvinism itself, of course, a product of evolving economic forces namely the ‘laws’ of the free market and capitalism. At this time the engine of the economy was controlled by an aristocracy and an ambitious and increasingly wealthy middle class wanted a change. Calvin and Luther provided the theology!
The bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth–centuries in Britain and the nineteenth century in Europe reset the clock for Christianity, giving it a benign ‘bourgeois’ appearance based on contract, choice and consent that ignored its origin and violent use over the years.
Islam in the West today is no different from Christianity in the past. It still reflects values that hark back to the abandonment of mother right and the exercising of control over women arising out of the accumulation of wealth and its inheritance. The difference between Islam and Christianity, however, is Christianity has been forced to go through several convulsions due to the changing economic circumstances in the West and specifically the need for Contract, Choice and Consent to be established so as to ensure the smooth operation of the bourgeois capitalist system.
So, when people with an Islamic background are preaching, or arguing about the Wests immorality and advocating FGM, veiling, stoning or beheading they are essentially speaking from the moral perspective of a culture steeped in seventh-century economic necessity full of obedience, honour, violence and force with little if any choice or rights. The problem is the West doesn’t challenge these outmoded and economically irrelevant views.
Of the West, the devout Muslim would and does highlight our ‘shame’ and the weakness of our Christianity which has been shorn of anything other than supporting personal choice. But that is because our free market requires that characteristic. Everything is about economics, today yesterday and forever. And the Muslim faithful take advantage of this economic reality too. The world is unfair and unequal and it offends people of faith….or it should do.
The question on all sides in the cultural head to head is this. Once you have stripped out the faith belief and stare at the hard realities of these ancient moral principles and values, one Christian the other Islamic or whatever, you can see that the debate is really about which one is fit for purpose in the 21st century and that is down to economics and economics alone.
The Within all faiths there are passionate and devout advocates for purity. The Jihadi who wants to destroy civilisation really wants to bring coherence to his seventh-century social values by creating a seventh-century economic environment with the destruction of “civilisation”. The shrouded woman advocating stoning adulterers or beating wives is a ghost from a bygone era still fighting to destroy rights that women lost over one thousand years ago to male power and dominion, before struggling to regain many of them back in the twenty-first century. But still not fully.
Wearing the Hijab or full veiling of a more extreme kind may be a free choice, it may be a political statement or even simply cultural expectation or it may simply be an example of seventh-century moral behaviour to demonstrate adherence to “faith”.
Similarly, the shrill Christian evangelicals with their Armageddon theology and the earnest men praying in a park are making a statement are all are playing a game……but it is simply a twenty-first-century economic one based on free choice in a free country. We should all see what is going on and understand the “theology” of it. It’s only ancient economics after all.