On Friday evening at the Historical Materialism conference in London, I had the opportunity to deliver the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Lecture. I must admit, I was somewhat nervous, but Gilbert Ashcar, the chair, put me at ease. He enabled me to redirect my energies to the lecture, at which a good crowd seemed to pay close attention. A photo sent to me after the lecture:
The text of the opening of the lecture, called ‘Marxism, Religion and the Taiping Revolution‘, is as follows:
In early 1837 one Hong Xiuquan sank into a delirium and had a vision in the small southern Chinese village of Guanlubu. The vision was populated by many of the figures one would expect from traditional Chinese mythology and some not. Taken up into heaven he was greeted by children dressed in yellow, a cock, a tiger, a dragon. They led him to a high gate bathed in light, surrounded by musicians. Here some other men in dragon robes and horned hats cut his body open and replaced his organs with clean new ones. The wound was healed as though it had never been. Now he became aware of his mother, who washed him in a blood-coloured stream. He also became aware of an older brother, who would later become crucial. Inside the gates, he was led to his father, a tall erect man with a black dragon robe. His father’s golden beard flowed down to his waist.
Hong and his father spoke of many matters, but especially the demons and devils who had even begun to infiltrate the 33 levels of heaven. Hong urged his father to overcome reluctance and allow Hong to attack the demons. With the gift of a seal and a powerful sword called ‘Snow-in-the-Clouds’, Hong (supported by his elder brother) wreaked havoc among the demons, to the point of having the king of the demons in his grasp. He stayed his hand only at his father’s request. The demon king and his minions were banished to earth. For a time Hong stayed in heaven, with a wife who had born him a son. He studied mysterious texts that took some effort to understand (much to the impatience and annoyance of his elder brother).
Yet Hong’s father would not let him rest in heaven, for the demons still roamed the earth. So Hong was given two mysterious poems, a new name (Xiuquan) and a title, ‘Heavenly King, Lord of the Kingly Way, Quan [Completeness]’. To earth Hong returns, with his heavenly father’s urging not to fear and promise to help.
Meanwhile, what did his family and friends do as they kept watch at his bed in the village of Guanlubu, while he ranted and raved? They thought he had gone mad. At times during his delirium, he would call out, get up and run around the room while making sword thrusts, only to collapse back on his bed. At one point he wrote out his new title in red ink and posted it on the door. That door was kept firmly locked, since the family would have been held to account should he have done harm to anyone else.
Perhaps Hong Xiuquan himself understood the dream? Not so, it seems. Upon waking, he was unable to make sense of it. So he gradually settled back into village life, began teaching children again and studying the Confucian texts in preparation for his next attempt at the civil service examinations.
And to add to the festival, an interview with Gilbert Ashcar was made before the lecture. It should be available shortly.
All in all, I had a wonderful time, having to chance to meet and talk with the friendly people of the Deutscher Prize committee. But I should say that a real highlight also was to meet George Hallam, from Lewisham.