Every now and then I come across that old saw: the Bible (and thereby the ‘Judaeo-Christian’ tradition, whatever that is) introduced for the first time a notion of linear history, one that moves from creation to eschaton, from a beginning to an end. All those other ‘primitives’ were locked into a cyclical idea of history, prisoners of the cycles of the seasons and agriculture. Thereby, any historian who follows a linear narrative is by default indebted to this biblical heritage. Nice piece of quasi-theological special pleading, that one. Strange thing is that there is plenty of cyclical stuff in the Bible, and I can’t help noticing that ‘primitive’ texts such as Enuma Elish or the Epic of Gilgamesh, let alone the annals of the Assyrian kings seem to be quite linear as well.

When does the pre-modern stop and the modern begin in the Middle West (aka the Middle ‘East’)? For many biblical archaeologists and historians, the turning point is 1949. Before that date, people used ‘primitive’ farming methods, without the ‘benefit’ of modern techniques. The modes of land tenure, usage, and economic structure remained largely unchanged for millennia. After 1949, with the establishment of the state of Israel, modernity finally arrived – freedom, democracy and the US military. Needless to say, these pre-modern Arabs provide an absolute boon for archaeologists, for here may be found first-hand evidence of how people have lived since ancient times. So an increasing number of ethnographic comparisons are under way, using data from, say, the pre-Ottoman, Ottoman or British Mandate periods, in order to highlight economic life in biblical times. Yet, it is a curious argument, for it both distances the biblical materials from the interpreter and it turns the ‘dirty Arabs’ into biblical characters – on par with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Moses et al.

As I mentioned earlier, I have just been at the Renmin University Summer Institute on Theology and the Humanities (in Beijing), where I was a keynote speaker. One of the many discussions I had (especially in response to my paper on Lenin and the Gospels) turned on the relationship between Marxism and Christianity. Three different questions made me think a bit more:

1. Is Marxism a secularised version of Christian (or indeed Jewish) history?

I have had a go at answering this one at the level of Marx’s texts in an article in Mediations. The short answer here is that Marx and Engels set themselves against the dominantly eschatological nature of communism at the time (Moses Hess et al). However, what about the oft-repeated opinion, first proposed by Karl Löwith early last century? At a general level, Marxism partakes of a historical narrative drawn originally from Jewish and Christian thought: this world is a fallen one, the messiah/saviour will come (the proletariat) and bring in the millennium and heaven on earth (communism). Apart from the fact that our dear Karl L. doesn’t actually work with any texts, this seems an obvious position to many.

This position has at least two problems. First, you may make the same point about any political and economic project: liberalism, feminism, anarchism, conservatism … at which point it becomes meaningless. Second, the whole argument assumes that Christian thought is the origin of this narrative and that everyone has borrowed it in various fashions. Crap, since that absolutises Christianity. Instead, the theological or biblical shape of this narrative is but one form it may take.

All the same, there is some connection between a Marxist theory of history and Christianity, but at an unexpected level. You find it in the forgotten pages on Max Stirner in The German Ideology, pages that constitute the engine room of historical materialism. In response to Stirner’s search for a lever of history – the ego, of which Christ is the model, minus the theological trappings – Marx and Engels develop a very different approach. The lever is not the proletariat but contradiction itself. The way modes of production crunch into other ones is through internal contradictions that eventually bring the older one undone. It is certainly a very different lever of history, but the question remains whether Marx and Engels actually develop something completely new. My sense is that they get halfway: contradiction is a novel lever of history, but it remains a lever.

2. How then do Marxism and Christianity relate?

Through the history of revolutions. Engels knew it, Kautsky knew it. Christianity has inspired and provided the mechanisms for one revolution after another before the modern period. Communism carries on the memory and practice of such revolutions, now in another key.

3. When will a Christian communist be found in China?

Apart from pointing out that I was there, however briefly, I referred to the work of a Chinese friend of mine (Chin Kenpa) who has discovered a group of Chinese Christian communists from the 1920s. The key is that they developed Christian communism without reference to work outside China and well before the ruptures of the 60s and 70s elsewhere. Here you have a distinctly Chinese contribution to the relations between Marxism and Christianity. Apart the publication of the Chinese version of their writings, we are also planning an English translation.

Concerning the odd conversation or badly written book:

Each word is like a chamber-pot, and not an empty one at that.

A definition of historiography:

When history plods along at dray-horse pace, the very symbol of it becomes reason and method.

The dialectic with a twist:

Nothing facilitates an understanding of political essence of developments as greatly as their evaluation by one’s adversaries (that is, of course, unless the latter are hopelessly stupid).

Lenin, Collected Works, vols 9 and 10, pp. 156, 60 and 252-3.