Marx and Engels on Islam

Marx and Engels

This article was published by Alliance (Marxist-Leninist) as part of the publication Alliance, issue #51, “Pan-Arabic or Pan-Islamic ‘Socialism.’”

Both Marx and Engels wrote only in passing on Islam. However they provide some insights. Their view can be summarised briefly, in three main points:

(i) That the relationship between Jews and the Arabs (Bedouin) was historically, extremely close, and that the Jews had become separated away from the Arabs over time:

“The supposed genealogy of Noah, Abraham, etc., to be found in Genesis is a fairly accurate enumeration of the Bedouin tribes of the time, according to the degree of their dialectal relationships, etc. As we all know, Bedouin tribes continue to this day to call themselves Beni Saled, Beni Yusuf, etc., i.e. sons of so and so. This nomenclature, which owes its origins to the early patriarchal mode of existence, ultimately leads up to this type of genealogy. The enumeration in Genesis is plus ou moins confirmed by ancient geographers, while more recent travellers have shown that most of the old names still exist, though in dialectally altered form. But from this it emerges that the Jews themselves were no more than a small Bedouin tribe like the others, which was brought into conflict with the other Bedouins by local conditions, agriculture, etc. “

Engels Letter Volume 39: written 1853 (see below for full text).

“It is now quite clear to me that the Jews’ so-called Holy Writ is nothing more than a record of ancient Arab religious and tribal traditions, modified by the Jews’ early separation from their tribally related but nomadic neighbours. The circumstance of Palestine’s being surrounded on the Arabian side by nothing but desert, i.e. the land of the Bedouins, explains its separate development. But the ancient Arabian inscriptions and traditions and the Koran, as well as the ease with which all genealogies, etc., can now be unravelled, show that the main content was Arab, or rather, generally Semitic, as in our case the Edda and the German heroic saga.”

Engels To Marx In London Source: Collected Works Volume 39, p. 325. (see below for full text).

(ii) That Judaism was an early form of Christianity, and it was as an “intermediary,” “covering”  Greek world views –  that allowed it to become a world religion:

“It was only by the intermediary of the monotheistic Jewish religion that – the cultured monotheism of later Greek vulgar philosophy could clothe itself in the religious form in which alone it could grip the masses. But once this intermediary found, it could become a universal religion only in the Greco-Roman world, and that by further development in and merging with the thought material that world had achieved.”

On the History of Early Christianity”; written 1894; Find at:

(iii) That when looked at superficially, the history of “the East” did appear as one of “religions.”

“So far as religion is concerned, the question may be reduced to a general and hence easily answerable one: Why does the history of the East appear as a history of religions?”

Marx to Engels, Volume 39: 1853. (see below for full text).

These texts also cover the ground of Oriental Despotism.


Engels To Marx In London Source: Collected Works; Moscow 1983; Volume 39, p. 325-328.

Written Manchester, before 28 May 1853

Dear Marx,

So the bomb is at long last about to go off, as you will see from the enclosed scrappy proof and Weydemeyer’s letter. Willich’s manner of extricating himself is strange, at any rate; you will undoubtedly be much amused by these lame circumlocutions and the awkward and embarrassed style. The fellow’s been hard hit. But papa Schramm [i.e. Conrad Schramm-original notes by publisher] would seem to have gravely insulted him in Cincinnati; all grist to the mill. One thing we may be sure of is that the only effect of this statement will be to compromise the chivalrous one even more.

So just because the New-Yorker-Criminal Zeitung!!!!! has published attacks upon him, the gallant Willich feels compelled to break his heroic silence.

‘Putting the case at its highest!,’ In Willich’s case bodies do not fall downwards but upwards! Good-bye to gravity! The fellow’s quite mad. The same old tale of  assassination too! We shall now see the aforesaid Schramm leap promptly into the lists, statement in hand [Willich slanderously represented his duel with Schramm in Spetember 1850, as an attempt by Marx and Engels to get rid of him by having him killed].

To put your mind at rest, I can inform you that the Neu-England-Ztg. today advised me of the dispatch of 420 copies of Revelations [Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne by Marx] to my address, so they may be here tomorrow or, if the parcel didn’t go off by the last steamer, in a week at the most.

The fellows have the effrontery to send me a letter signed semi-anonymously ‘Office of the N.-E.-Z.’ inviting me to contribute. That’s the last straw!

At all events, it’s a good thing that we now possess in the Reform [Die reform was the organ of the American Workers Association consisting mostly of German emigrant workers. Though officially its editor was the petty-bourgeois democrat Kellner, the newspaper’s tendency was determined to a great extent by Wedemeyer, who became the actual editor in the summer of 1853. Under his influence the paper retained its commitment of the working class for some time. It often reprinted Marx’s and Engel’s articles form the New York Daily Tribune. Marx persuaded his associated (Eccarious, Piper and Dronke) to cooperate with Die Reform, which regularly published articles and reports by Cluss and Wedermeyer, some based on materials from Marx’s letters. Towards the end of  its existence, the petty-bourgeois influence of its editor-in-chief, Kellner, became dominant]. an organ in which, if the worst comes to the worst, we can still make ourselves heard in the polemic against Willich and Co. As a result of the rumpus, Kellner is becoming more and more embroiled.

Weydemeyer’s misprint shouldn’t surprise you. After all, you must know that when Weydemeyer does something, it is always ‘similar’ rather than ‘glorious’.

The little fellow is coming here next Sunday. I am curious to see how he is shaping as a clerk in Bradford. At all events the good Buckup seems to be working him very hard.

Yesterday I read the book on Arabian inscriptions which I told you about. The thing is not without interest, repulsive though it is to find the parson and biblical apologist  forever peeping through. His greatest triumph is to show that Gibbon made some mistakes in the field of ancient geography, from which he also concludes that Gibbon’s theology was deplorable. The thing is called The Historical Geography of Arabia, by the Reverend Charles Forster. The best things to emerge from it are:

1. The supposed genealogy of Noah, Abraham, etc., to be found in Genesis is a fairly accurate enumeration of the Bedouin tribes of the time, according to the degree of their dialectal relationships, etc. As we all know, Bedouin tribes continue to this day to call themselves Beni Saled, Beni Yusuf, etc., i.e. sons of so and so. This nomenclature, which owes its origins to the early patriarchal mode of existence, ultimately leads up to this type of genealogy. The enumeration in Genesis is plus ou moins [more or less] confirmed by ancient geographers, while more recent travellers have shown that most of the old names still exist, though in dialectally altered form. But from this it emerges that the Jews themselves were no more than a small Bedouin tribe like the others, which was brought into conflict with the other Bedouins by local conditions, agriculture, etc.

2. As for the great Arab invasion, you will remember our discussion when we concluded that, like the Mongols, the Bedouins carried out periodic invasions and that the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were founded by Bedouin tribes on the very same spot as, later, the Caliphate of Baghdad. The founders of the Babylonian Empire, the Chaldeans, still exist under the same name, Beni Chaled, and in the same locality. The rapid construction of large cities, such as Nineveh and Babylon, happened in just the same way as the creation in India only 300 years ago of similar giant cities, Agra, Delhi, Lahore, Muttan, by the Afghan and/or Tartar invasions. In this way the Mohammedan invasion loses much of its distinctive character.

3. In the South-West, where the Arabs settled, they appear to have been a civilised people like the Egyptians, Assyrians, etc., as is evident from their buildings. This also explains many things about the Mohammedan invasion. So far as the religious fraud is concerned, the ancient inscriptions in the South, in which the ancient Arab national tradition of monotheism (as with the American Indians) still predominates, a tradition of which the Hebrew is only a small part would seem to indicate that Mohammed’s religious revolution, like every religious movement, was formally a reaction, a would-be return to what was old and simple.

It is now quite clear to me that the Jews’ so-called Holy Writ is nothing more than a record of ancient Arab religious and tribal traditions, modified by the Jews’ early separation from their tribally related but nomadic neighbours. The circumstance of Palestine’s being surrounded on the Arabian side by nothing but desert, i.e. the land of the Bedouins, explains its separate development. But the ancient Arabian inscriptions and traditions and the Koran, as well as the ease with which all genealogies, etc., can now be unravelled, show that the main content was Arab, or rather, generally Semitic, as in our case the Edda [A collection of Scandinavian mythological and heroic saga and lay: two versions dating back to the 13th Cnetury are still extant] and the German heroic saga.

F. E.


Marx To Engels. 2 June 1853; Collected Works; Moscow 1983; Volume 39, p. 330-334.

Written 28 Dean Street, Soho.

Dear Frederic,

The first half of the £20 note has turned up. I am writing this before going to the Museum, i.e. at a very early hour.

I would have sent you long ago the enclosed great Willich’s statement to the      Neu-England-Zeitung had I not assumed that you’d had the thing from Weydemeyer. In conception this second statement is pure, genuine Willich. Others write ‘essays’, he writes ‘facts,’ and only if one has been on a ‘personal footing’ with him does the calumny lose its sting. It is the manoeuvre of your petty partisan. He does not answer for his own Hirsch. Rather, he explains to the public Marx’s ‘motives’ for not refuting his Hirsch. And now he has discovered a terrain where he can operate with a measure of virtuosity. And it is with ‘reluctance’ that the noble man reveals the facts to the ‘public.’ Needless to say, he has preferred to whisper them to the philistines in the privacy of the beer-parlour and, for the past three years, to peddle them ‘contraband-wise’ throughout two hemispheres, juvante Kinkelio. Then his manoeuvring to keep the public on tenterhooks. They forget the facts among which he twists and turns and eagerly await the  facts which are to demolish the ‘critical authors.’ And the noble man is ‘distinguished’ withal, as befits a ‘public figure.’ When he does reply, it will not be to Marx’s uncouth ‘agents’ but to the ‘ingenious’ quill-pushers themselves. Finally, he gives the public to understand that what makes his opponents so cocksure is their belief in his ‘decision’ to retire and, with a roll of drums, this important personage proceeds to announce that he has ‘changed’ his mind.

Tout ça nest pas trop mal pour un vieux sous-lieutenant. [Not too bad for an old second lieutenant] But as for the style of statement No. 2 — bad as it is, it is nevertheless apocryphal. Other hands have been at work on it, probably those of Madame Anneke. At all events, the necessary supplement to Tellering’s pamphlet will now be published by Mr Willich and, the dirty business having been once placed before the public, il faut aller jusqu’au bout [It must be taken to its conclusion]. If Weydemeyer, Cluss and Co. operate with skill, they should now be able to put a spoke in Willich’s wheel and ruin the impact and novelty of the surprises he is holding in store for the public. Nous verrons [we shall see].

The praise you accord to my ‘budding’ English, I find most encouraging. What I chiefly lack is first, assurance as to grammar and secondly, skill in using various secondary idioms which alone enable one to write with any pungency. Mr Tribune has given special prominence to a note about my 2nd article on Gladstone’s Budget, drawing the attention of readers to my ‘masterly exposition’ and going on to say that nowhere have they seen ‘a more able criticism,’ and do ‘not expect to see one.’ Well, that is all right. But in the following article it proceeds to make an ass of me by printing under my name a heading of mine which is quite trifling and intentionally so, whereas it appropriates your ‘Swiss’ thing. I shall write and tell Dana that, ‘flattering’ though it may be if they occasionally use my things for a leader, they would oblige me by not putting my name to trifles. I have now sent the jackasses, amongst other things, 2 articles on ‘China’ with reference to England. If you have the time and happen to feel like writing about something — Switzerland, the East, France, England or cotton, or Denmark, say  — you should do so on occasion, for I am now slogging away with an eye to the fellow’s money-bags in order to make good the 3 weeks I have lost. If you send me something from time to time — de omnibus rebus [anything under the sun]— I shall always be able to place it, for as you know, I am the fellows’ ‘maid of all work’, and it’s always easy to relate one thing to another and to every day. All in all.

As regards the Hebrews and Arabs, I found your letter most interesting. It can, by the by, be shown that 1. in the case of all eastern tribes there has been, since the dawn of history, a general relationship between the settlement of one section and the continued nomadism of the others. 2. In Mohammed’s time the trade route from Europe to Asia underwent considerable modification, and the cities of Arabia, which had had a large share of the trade with India, etc., suffered a commercial decline — a fact which at all events contributed to the process. 3. So far as religion is concerned, the question may be reduced to a general and hence easily answerable one: Why does the history of the East appear as a history of religions?

On the subject of the growth of eastern cities one could hardly find anything more brilliant, comprehensive or striking than Voyages contenant la description des états du Grand Mogol, etc. by old Franoçois Bernier (for 9 years Aurangzeb’s physician). He provides in addition a very nice account of military organisation and the manner in which these large armies fed themselves, etc. Concerning both these, he remarks inter alia [Original is in French- translated by publishers]:

“The main body consists of cavalry, the infantry not being so numerous as is commonly supposed unless all those serving-people and bazaar or market folk who follow the army are taken for true warriors; for, if such were the case, there would, I think, be good reason to put at 2 to 300,000 men the strength of that army alone that is with the king, and sometimes even more, as, for example, when it is known that he will be long absent from the capital city; which would not, indeed, seem so very surprising to anyone familiar with all the strange impedimenta of tents, kitchen, clothing, furniture, and even women quite often, and, consequently, elephants, camels, oxen, horses, porters, foragers, sutlers, merchants of all kinds and servants who follow in the wake of these armies, nor to anyone familiar with the conditions and government peculiar to the country, namely that the king is the sole and unique proprietor of all the lands in the kingdom, whence it necessarily follows that every capital city, such as Delhi or Agra, fixes almost wholly on the militia and is therefore obliged to follow the king whenever he goes campaigning for a time, these cities neither being, nor indeed able to be, in any respect a Paris, but being really nothing but an army encampment rather better and more commodiously situated than if it were in the open country.” [in French, with Marx’s italics]

In reference to the Grand Mogul’s march on Kashmir, with an army 400,000 strong, he writes:

“How and upon what so great an army can subsist in the field, or so large a concourse of men and animals, is difficult to conceive. To that end one can only surmise, and such is indeed the case, that the Indians are very sober and very simple in what they eat and that, of this great number of horsemen, not one tenth, nay, not even one twentieth, eats meat during the march; provided they have their khichri, or mess of rice and other vegetables, whereon they pour brown butter when cooked, they are content. It should also be known that camels are extremely resistant to work, hunger and thirst, live on very little and eat anything and that, as soon as the army reaches camp, the camel-drivers lead them out to graze in the countryside, where they eat everything that comes their way; further, that the same merchants that keep the bazaars in Delhi are obliged to keep them in the field also, likewise the lesser merchants, etc. … finally, concerning forage, all these poor people go roving in every direction to the villages to buy the same and to earn something there, and that their chief and habitual recourse is to scratch up whole stretches of country with a kind of trowel, pounding and washing the little herbs thus scratched up, and taking them to the army for sale…”

Bernier rightly sees all the manifestations of the East — he mentions Turkey, Persia and Hindustan — as having a common basis, namely the absence of private landed property. This is the real clef, even to the eastern heaven.

It would seem to be no go with Borchardt; nevertheless I think the fellow might be prepared to try and obtain recommendations for Lupus from Steinthal, etc., to London merchants. So much, at least, you could compel him to do, and it would mean a great deal to Lupus.

What do you think about the failure of the hudibrastic Rodolpho [An allusion to Ralpho – a charactar in Samuel Butler’s satirical peom Hudibras] Gladstone’s ‘Financial Scheme for reducing the national Debt’?

The day before yesterday the Journal des Débats revealed the true secret of Russia’s impudence. The Continent, it says, must either expose its independence to danger from Russia, or it must expose itself to war, and that is ‘la revolution sociale’. What the wretched Débats forgets, however, is that Russia is no less afraid of revolution than Mr Bertin, and that the whole question now is who can most convincingly simulate ‘non-fear’. But England and France — the official ones — are so abject that Nicholas, if he sticks to his guns, will be able to do what he likes.

Vale faveque [Good-bye & farewell].

C. M.

Have written to Lassalle, who will probably be ready to take receipt of a few 100 copies of the pamphlet and distribute them in Germany. The question now is how are we to get them across? When I was in Manchester Charles suggested it might be done by including them in a consignment of merchandise. You might ask him about this again.

P.S. There’s been a delay over the posting of this letter and so I can include an acknowledgment of the parcel of books and the other half of the note.


Engels to Marx. Collected Works; Moscow 1983; Volume 39, p. 335-342.

Written 6 June 1853; Manchester.

Dear Marx,

I had intended to write to you by the first post today, but was detained at the office until 8 o’clock. You will have received both Weydemeyer’s and Cluss’ anti-Willich statements in the Criminal Zeitung, i.e. direct from America. If not, write to me at once. As usual, papa Weydemeyer is too long-winded, very seldom makes a point, then promptly blunts it with his style, and unfolds his well-known lack of verve with rare composure. Nevertheless, the man has done his best, the story about Hentze, the ‘comrade-in-arms’, and the influence of others on Hirsch’s pen is nicely fashioned; his incredible style and his composure, regarded over there as impassibility, will appeal to the philistines, and his performance can, on the whole, be regarded as satisfactory. Cluss’ statement, on the other hand, pleases me enormously. In every line we hear the chuckle of l’homme suprieur who, through ‘personal contact’ with Willich, has, as it were, become physically conscious of his superiority. For lightness of style, this surpasses everything that Cluss has ever written. Never a clumsy turn of phrase, not a trace of gêne [constraint] or embarrassment. How well it becomes him thus to ape the worthy citizen of benevolent mien who nevertheless betrays the cloven hoof at every turn. How splendid, the sentence about ‘revolutionary agencies’ being ‘a swindle’ off which, according to Willich, he lives. The chivalrous one will have been surprised to find among the uncouth agents, a fellow who is so dashing, so adroit, so aggressive by nature and yet so unassumingly noble in his bearing, and who returns thrust for thrust a tempo. So subtly — far more subtly and deftly than himself. If only Willich had the discernment to discover this! But irritation and due reflection will, I trust, give him a little more insight.

It is obvious that we shall have to see this dirty business through to the bitter end. The more resolutely we tackle it the better. You’ll find, by the way, that it won’t be so bad after all. The chivalrous one has promised vastly more than he can fulfill. We shall hear of assassination attempts, etc., the Schramm affair will be glamorously tricked out, and such chimeras will be evoked as will cause us to stare at one another in amazement, not having the faintest idea what the man is actually talking about; at worst he will tell the story about Marx and Engels arriving drunk one evening at Great Windmill Street (vide Kinkel in Cincinnati, coram Huzelio) [In Huzels presence]. If he goes as far as that, I shall tell the scandal-loving American public what the Besançon Company used to talk about when Willich and the formosus [comely] pastor Corydon Rauf [Office Rau is compared to shepherd Corydon, a character in pastoral poems who suffers from unrequited love] were not present. Au bout du compte, [come, to that] what can a brute of this kind find to tax us with? Mark my word, it will be just as pauvre [poor] as Tellering’s smear.

I shall be seeing Borchardt within the next few days. If any recommendations are to be had, you can trust me to get them. But I hardly imagine that Steinthal, etc., have connections of the sort in London. It’s almost wholly outside their line of business. Besides, if only for fear of making a fool of himself, the fellow will attempt to put off doing anything about it up here. If it were not for Lupus, I’d consign the chap, etc. I can’t abide him, with his smooth, self-important, vainglorious, deceitful charlatan’s physiognomy.

If Lassalle has given you a good, neutral address in Dsseldorf, you can send me 100 copies. We shall arrange for them to be packed in bales of twist by firms up here; but they should not be addressed to Lassalle himself, since the packages will go to Gladbach, Elberfeld and so on, where they will have to be stamped and sent by post to Dsseldorf. However, we cannot entrust a package for Lassalle or the Hatzfeldt woman to any local firm, because, 1. they all employ at least one Rhinelander who knows all the gossip, or 2. if that goes off all right, the recipients of the bales will get to know about it, or 3. at the very best the postal authorities will take a look at the things before delivering them. We have a good address in Cologne, but are not, alas, very well acquainted with the people who are the principal buyers here for the firm in Cologne, and hence cannot expect them to do any smuggling. Indeed, what we shall tell the people here is that the packages contain presents for the fair sex.

From all this you will gather that I am once again on passable terms with Charles. The affair was settled with great dispatch at the first suitable opportunity. Nevertheless you will realise that the fool derives a certain pleasure from having been given preference over myself in one rotten respect at least, because of Mr Gottfried Ermen’s envy of my old man. Habeat sibi [Let him have it]. He at any rate realises that, if I so choose, I can become matre de la situation [master of the situation] within 48 hours, and that’s sufficient.

The absence of landed property is indeed the key to the whole of the East. Therein lies its political and religious history. But how to explain the fact that orientals never reached the stage of landed property, not even the feudal kind? This is, I think, largely due to the climate, combined with the nature of the land, more especially the great stretches of desert extending from the Sahara right across Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary [Turkestan] to the highest of the Asiatic uplands. Here artificial irrigation is the first prerequisite for agriculture, and this is the responsibility either of the communes, the provinces or the central government. In the East, the government has always consisted of 3 departments only: Finance (pillage at home), War (pillage at home and abroad), and travaux publics [public works], provision for reproduction. The British government in India has put a somewhat narrower interpretation on nos. 1 and 2 while completely neglecting no. 3, so that Indian agriculture is going to wrack and ruin. Free competition is proving an absolute fiasco there. The fact that the land was made fertile by artificial means and immediately ceased to be so when the conduits fell into disrepair, explains the otherwise curious circumstance that vast expanses are now and wastes which once were magnificently cultivated (Palmyra, Petra, the ruins in the Yemen, any number of localities in Egypt, Persia, Hindustan); it explains the fact that one single war of devastation could depopulate and entirely strip a country of its civilisation for centuries to come. This, I believe, also accounts for the destruction of southern Arabian trade before Mohammed’s time, a circumstance very rightly regarded by you as one of the mainsprings of the Mohammedan revolution. I am not sufficiently well acquainted with the history of trade during the first six centuries A.D. to be able to judge to what extent general material conditions in the world made the trade route via Persia to the Black Sea and to Syria and Asia Minor via the Persian Gulf preferable to the Red Sea route. But one significant factor, at any rate, must have been the relative safety of the caravans in the well-ordered Persian Empire under the Sassanids, whereas between 200 and 600 A.D. the Yemen was almost continuously being subjugated, overrun and pillaged by the Abyssinians. By the seventh century the cities of southern Arabia, still flourishing in Roman times, had become a veritable wilderness of ruins; in the course of 500 years what were purely mythical, legendary traditions regarding their origin had been appropriated by the neighbouring Bedouins, (cf. the Koran and the Arab historian Novari), and the alphabet in which the local inscriptions had been written was almost wholly unknown although there was no other, so that de facto writing had fallen into oblivion. Things of this kind presuppose, not only a superseding, probably due to general trading conditions, but outright violent destruction such as could only be explained by the Ethiopian invasion. The expulsion of the Abyssinians did not take place until about 40 years before Mohammed, and was plainly the first act of the Arabs’ awakening national consciousness, which was further aroused by Persian invasions from the North penetrating almost as far as Mecca. I shall not be tackling the history of Mohammed himself for a few days yet; so far it seems to me to have the character of a Bedouin reaction against the settled, albeit decadent urban fellaheen whose religion by then was also much debased, combining as it did a degenerate form of nature worship with a degenerate form of Judaism and Christianity.

Old Bernier’s stuff is really very fine. It’s a real pleasure to get back to something written by a sensible, lucid old Frenchman who constantly hits the nail on the head sans avoir l’air de s’en apercevoir [without appearing to be aware of it].

Since I am in any case tied up with the eastern mummery for some weeks, I have made use of the opportunity to learn Persian. I am put off Arabic, partly by my inborn hatred of Semitic languages, partly by the impossibility of getting anywhere, without considerable expenditure of time, in so extensive a language — one which has 4,000 roots and goes back over 2,000-3,000 years. By comparison, Persian is absolute child’s play. Were it not for that damned Arabic alphabet in which every half dozen letters looks like every other half dozen and the vowels are not written, I would undertake to learn the entire grammar within 48 hours. This for the better encouragement of Pieper should he feel the urge to imitate me in this poor joke. I have set myself a maximum of three weeks for Persian, so if he stakes two months on it he’ll best me anyway. What a pity Weitling can’t speak Persian; he would then have his langue universelle toute trouvie [universal language ready-made] since it is, to my knowledge, the only language where ‘me’ and ‘to me’ are never at odds, the dative and accusative always being the same.

It is, by the way, rather pleasing to read dissolute old Hafiz in the original language, which sounds quite passable and, in his grammar, old Sir William Jones likes to cite as examples dubious Persian jokes, subsequently translated into Greek verse in his Commentariis poeseos asiaticae, because even in Latin they seem to him too obscene. These commentaries, Jones’ Works, Vol. II, De Poesi erotica, will amuse you. Persian prose, on the other hand, is deadly dull. E.g. the Rauzt-us-saf by the noble Mirkhond, who recounts the Persian epic in very flowery but vacuous language. Of Alexander the Great, he says that the name Iskander, in the Ionian language, is Akshid Rus (like Iskander, a corrupt version of Alexandros); it means much the same as filusuf, which derives from fila, love, and sufa, wisdom, ‘Iskander’ thus being synonymous with ‘friend of wisdom.’

Of a retired king he says: ‘He beat the drum of abdication with the drumsticks of retirement’, as will pre Willich, should he involve himself any more deeply in the literary fray. Willich will also suffer the same fate as King Afrasiab of Turan when deserted by his troops and of whom Mirkhond says: ‘He gnawed the nails of horror with the teeth of desperation until the blood of vanquished consciousness welled forth from the finger-tips of shame.’

More tomorrow.


Engels F: “Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity”; Collected Works Volume 24; Moscow; 1989; p.427-435.

Written May 4-11, 1882.

In Berlin, on April 13, a man died who once played a role as a philosopher and a theologian, but was hardly heard of for years, only attracting the attention of the public from time to time as a “literary eccentric”. Official theologians, including Renan, wrote him off and, therefore, maintained a silence of death about him. And yet he was worth more than them all and did more than all of them in a question which interests us Socialists, too: the question of the historical origin of Christianity.

On the occasion of his death, let us give a brief account of the present position on this question, and Bauer’s contribution to its solution.

The view that dominated from the free-thinkers of the Middle Ages to the Enlighteners of the 18th century, the latter included, that all religions, and therefore Christianity too, were the work of deceivers was no longer sufficient after Hegel had set philosophy the task of showing a rational evolution in world history.

It is clear that if spontaneously arising religions — like the fetish worship of the Negroes or the common primitive religion of the Aryans — come to being without deception playing any part, deception by the priests soon becomes inevitable in their further development. But, in spite of all sincere fanaticism, artificial religions cannot even, at their foundation, do without deception and falsification of history. Christianity, too, has pretty achievements to boast of in this respect from the very beginning, as Bauer shows in his criticism of the New Testament. But that only confirms a general phenomenon and does not explain the particular case in question.

A religion that brought the Roman world empire into subjection, and dominated by far the larger part of civilized humanity for 1,800 years, cannot be disposed of merely by declaring it to be nonsense gleaned together by frauds. One cannot dispose of it before one succeeds in explaining its origin and its development from the historical conditions under which it arose and reached its dominating position. This applies to Christianity. The question to be solved, then, is how it came about that the popular masses in the Roman Empire so far preferred this nonsense — which was preached, into the bargain, by slaves and oppressed — to all other religions, that the ambitious Constantine finally saw in the adoption of this religion of nonsense the best means of exalting himself to the position of autocrat of the Roman world. [Under the Christian tradition, the name of the Roman Emperor Flavius Valerius Constaninus Magnus, who in 330 transferred the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople, is associated with the radical turn form persecution of Christianity to the protection of the new religion, although this process had begun under his predecessors.]


Bruno Bauer has contributed far more to the solution of this question than anybody else. No matter how much the half-believing theologians of the period of reaction have struggled against him since 1849, he irrefutably proved the chronological order of the Gospels and their mutual interdependence, shown by Wilke from the purely linguistic standpoint, by the very contents of the Gospels themselves. He exposed the utter lack of scientific spirit of Strauss’ vague myth theory according to which anybody can hold for historical as much as he likes in the Gospel narrations. And, if almost nothing from the whole content of the Gospels turns out to be historically provable — so that even the historical existence of a Jesus Christ can be questioned — Bauer has, thereby, only cleared the ground for the solution of the question: what is the origin of the ideas and thoughts that have been woven together into a sort of system in Christianity, and how came they to dominate the world?

Bauer studied this question until his death. His research reached its culminating point in the conclusion that the Alexandrian Jew Philo, who was still living about A.D. 40 but was already very old, was the real father of Christianity, and that the Roman stoic Seneca was, so to speak, its uncle. The numerous writings attributed to Philo which have reached us originate indeed in a fusion of allegorically and rationalistically conceived Jewish traditions with Greek, particularly stoic, philosophy. This conciliation of western and eastern outlooks already contains all the essentially Christian ideas: the inborn sinfulness of man, the Logos, the Word, which is with God and is God and which becomes the mediator between God and man: atonement, not by sacrifices of animals, but by bringing one’s own heart of God, and finally the essential feature that the new religious philosophy reverses the previous world order, seeks its disciples among the poor, the miserable, the slaves, and the rejected, and despises the rich, the powerful, and the privileged, whence the precept to despise all worldly pleasure and to mortify the flesh.

One the other hand, Augustus himself saw to it that not only the God-man, but also the so-called immaculate conception became formulae imposed by the state. He not only had Caesar and himself worshipped as gods, he also spread the notion that he, Augustus Caesar Divus, the Divine, was not the son of a human father but that his mother had conceived him of the god Apollo. But was not that Apollo perhaps a relation of the one sung by Heinrich Heine? [Engels is referring to a charactar in Heine’s satirical poem ‘Der Apollgott’ (from Romanzero), a young blade, a cantor at the Amsterdam synagogue, who imitated Apollo.]

As we see, we need only the keystone and we have the whole of Christianity in its basic features: the incarnation of the Word become man in a definite person and his sacrifice on the cross for the redemption of sinful mankind.

Truly reliable sources leave us uncertain as to when this keystone was introduced into the stoic-philonic doctrines. But this much is sure: it was not introduced by philosophers, either Philo’s disciples or stoics. Religions are founded by people who feel a need for religion themselves and have a feeling for the religious needs of the masses. As a rule, this is not the case with the classical philosophers. On the other hand, we find that in times of general decay, now, for instance, philosophy and religious dogmatism are generally current in a vulgarized and shallow form. While classic Greek philosophy in its last forms — particularly in the Epicurean school [the Epicurean school of materialist philosophy was founded by Epicurius in the late 4th Century BC and existed until the mid-4th Century AD. In thier philosophical struggle against the Stoics, its members refused to recognise the gods’ interference into mundane matters and proceeded from the assumption that matter, which has an inner source of motion, is eternal] — led to atheistic materialism, Greek vulgar philosophy led to the doctrine of a one and only God and of the immortality of the human soul. Likewise, rationally vulgarized Judaism in mixture and intercourse with aliens and half-Jews ended by neglecting the ritual and transforming the formerly exclusively Jewish national god, Jahveh, [Note by Engels: As Ewald has already proved, the Jews used dotting script (containing vowels and reading signs) to write under the consonants in the name of Javeh, which it was forbidden to pronounce, the vowels of the word Adonai, which they read it its place. This was subsequently read as Jehovah. The word is therefore not the name of a god but only a vugar mistake in grammar: in Hebrew it is simply impossible] into the one true God, the creator of heaven and earth, and by adopting the idea of the immortality of the soul which was alien to early Judaism. Thus, monotheistic vulgar philosophy came into contact with vulgar religion, which presented it with the ready-made one and only God. Thus, the ground was prepared on which the elaboration among the Jews of the likewise vulgarized philonic notions and not Philo’s own works that Christianity proceeded from is proved by the New Testament’s almost complete disregard of most of these works, particularly the allegorical and philosophical interpretation of the narrations of the Old Testament. This is an aspect to which Bauer did not devote enough attention.

One can get an idea of what Christianity looked like in its early form by reading the so-called Book of Revelation of John. Wild, confused fanaticism, only the beginnings of dogmas, only the mortification of the flesh of the so-called Christian morals, but on the other hand a multitude of visions and prophesies. The development of the dogmas and moral doctrine belongs to a later period, in which the Gospels and the so-called Epistles of the Apostles were written. In this — at least as regards morals — the philosophy of the stoics, of Seneca in particular, was unceremoniously made us of. Bauer proved that the Epistles often copy the latter word-for-word; in fact, even the faithful noticed this, but they maintained that Seneca had copied from the New Testament, though it had not yet been written in his time. Dogma developed, on the one hand in connection with the legend of Jesus which was then taking shape, and, on the other hand, in the struggle between Christians of Jewish and of pagan origin.

Bauer also gives very valuable data on the causes which helped Christianity to triumph and attain world domination. But here the German philosopher is prevented by his idealism from seeing clearly and formulating precisely. Phrases often replace substance in decisive points. Instead, therefore, of going into details of Bauer’s views, we shall give our own conception of this point, based on Bauer’s works, and also on our personal study.

The Roman conquest dissolved in all subjugated countries, first, directly, the former political conditions, and then, indirectly, also the social conditions of life.

Firstly by substituting for the former organization according to estates (slavery apart) the simple distinction between Roman citizens and peregrines or subjects.

Secondly, and mainly, by exacting tribute in the name of the Roman state. If, under the empire, a limit was set as far as possible in the interest of the state to the governors’ thirst for wealth, that thirst was replaced by ever more effective and oppressive taxation for the benefit of the state treasury, the effect of which was terribly destructive.

Thirdly, Roman law was finally administered everywhere by Roman judges, while the native social system was declared invalid insofar as it was incompatible with the provisions of Roman law.

These three levers necessarily developed a tremendous levelling power, particularly when they were applied for several hundred years to populations — the most vigorous sections of which had been either suppressed or taken away into slavery in the battles preceding, accompanying, and often following, the conquest. Social relations in the provinces came nearer and nearer to those obtaining in the capital and in Italy. The population became more and more sharply divided into three classes, thrown together out of the most varying elements and nationalities: rich people, including not a few emancipated slaves (cf. Petronius), [Engels is referring to Petronius’ Satyricon, where he describes a feast in the house of an emancipated slave, Trimalchionis, who became rich] big landowners or usurers or both at once, like Seneca, the uncle of Christianity; propertyless free people, who in Rome were fed and amused by the state — in the provinces they got on as they could by themselves — and finally the great mass, the slaves. In the face of the state, i.e., the emperor, the first two classes had as few rights as the slaves in the face of their masters. From the time of Tiberius to that of Nero, in particular, it was a practice to sentence rich Roman citizens to death in order to confiscate their property. The support of the government was — materially, the army, which was more like an army of hired foreign soldiers than the old Roman peasant army, and morally, the general view that there was no way out of that condition; that not, indeed, this or that Caesar, but the empire based on military domination was an immutable necessity. This is not the place to examine what very material facts this view was based on.

The general rightlessness and despair of the possibility of a better condition gave rise to a corresponding general slackening and demoralization. The few surviving old Romans of the patrician type and views either were removed or died out; Tacitus was the last of them. The others were glad when they were able to keep away from public life; all they existed for was to collect and enjoy riches, and to indulge in private gossip and private intrigue. The propertyless free citizens were state pensioners in Rome, but in the provinces their condition was an unhappy one. They had to work, and to compete with slave-labor into the bargain. But they were confined to the towns. Besides them, there was also in the provinces peasants, free landowners (here and there probably still common ownership) or, as in Gaul, bondsmen for debts to the big landowners. This class was the least affected by the social upheaval; it was also the one to resist longest the religious upheaval. [Engels note: According to Fallmereyer, the peasants in Main, Peloponnesus, still offered sacrifices to Zeus in the 9th century.] Finally, there were the slaves, deprived of rights and of their own will and the possibility to free themselves, as the defeat of Spartacus [Engels refers to the slave uprising of 73-71 BC in Rome led by Spartacus] had already proved; most of them, however, were former free citizens, or sons of free-born citizens. It must, therefore, have been among them that hatred of their conditions of life was still generally vigorous, though externally powerless.

We shall find that the type of ideologists at the time corresponded to this state of affairs. The philosophers were either mere money-earning schoolmasters or buffoons in the pay of wealthy revellers. Some were even slaves. An example of what became of them under good conditions is supplied by Seneca. This stoic and preacher of virtue and abstinence was Nero’s first court intriguer, which he could not have been without servility; he secured from him presents in money, properties, gardens, and palaces — and while he preached the poor man Lazarus of the Gospel, he was, in reality, the rich man of the same parable. Not until Nero wanted to get at him did he request the emperor to take back all his presents, his philosophy being enough for him. Only completely isolated philosophers, like Persius, had the courage to brandish the lash of satire over their degenerated contemporaries. But, as for the second type of ideologists, the jurists, they were enthusiastic over the new conditions because the abolition of all differences between Estates allowed them broad scope in the elaboration of their favorite private right, in return for which they prepared for the emperor the vilest state system of right that ever existed.

With the political and social peculiarities of the various peoples, the Roman Empire also doomed to ruin their particular religions. All religions of antiquity were spontaneous tribal, and later national, religions, which arose from and merged with the social and political conditions of the respective peoples. Once these, their bases, were disrupted, and their traditional forms of society, their inherited political institutions and their national independence shattered, the religion corresponding to these also naturally collapsed. The national gods could suffer other gods beside them, as was the general rule of antiquity, but not above them. The transplanting of Oriental divinities to Rome was harmful only to the Roman religion, it could not check the decay of the Oriental religions. As soon as the national gods were unable to protect the independence of their nation, they met their own destruction. This was the case everywhere (except with peasants, especially in the mountains). What vulgar philosophical enlightenment — I almost said Voltairianism — did in Rome and Greece, was done in the provinces by Roman oppression and the replacing of men proud of their freedom by desperate subjects and self-seeking ragamuffins.

Such was the material and moral situation. The present was unbearable, the future still more menacing, if possible. There was no way out. Only despair or refuge in the commonest sensuous pleasure, for those who could afford it at least, and they were a tiny minority. Otherwise, nothing but surrender to the inevitable.

But, in all classes there was necessarily a number of people who, despairing of material salvation, sought in its stead a spiritual salvation, a consolation in their consciousness to save them from utter despair. This consolation could not be provided by the stoics any more than by the Epicurean school, for the very reason that these philosophers were not intended for common consciousness and, secondly, because the conduct of disciples of the schools cast discredit on their doctrines. The consolation was to be a substitute, not for the lost philosophy, but for the lost religion; it had to take on a religious form, the same as anything which had to grip the masses both then and as late as the 17th century.

We hardly need to note that the majority of those who were pining for such consolation of their consciousness, for this flight from the external world into the internal, were necessarily among the slaves.

It was in the midst of this general economic, political, intellectual, and moral decadence that Christianity appeared. It entered into a resolute antithesis to all previous religions.

In all previous religions, ritual had been the main thing. Only by taking part in the sacrifices and processions, and in the Orient by observing the most detailed diet and cleanliness precepts, could one show to what religion one belonged. While Rome and Greece were tolerant in the last respect, there was in the Orient a rage for religious prohibitions that contributed no little to the final downfall. People of two different religions (Egyptians, Persians, Jews, Chaldeans) could not eat or drink together, perform any every-day act together, or hardly speak to each other. It was largely due to this segregation of man from man that the Orient collapsed. Christianity knew no distinctive ceremonies, not even the sacrifices and processions of the classic world. By thus rejecting all national religions and their common ceremonies, and addressing itself to all peoples without distinction, it became the first possible world religion. Judaism, too, with its new universal god, had made a start on the way to becoming a universal religion; but the children of Israel always remained an aristocracy among the believers and the circumcised, and Christianity itself had to get rid of the notion of the superiority of the Jewish Christians (still dominant in the so-called Book of Revelation of John) before it could really become a universal religion. Islam, itself, on the other hand, by preserving its specifically Oriental ritual, limited the area of its propagation to the Orient and North Africa, conquered and populated anew by Arab Bedouins; here it could become the dominating religion, but not in the West.

Secondly, Christianity struck a chord that was bound to echo in countless hearts. To all complaints about the wickedness of the times and the general material and moral distress, Christian consciousness of sin answered: It is so and it cannot be otherwise; thou art in blame, ye are all to blame for the corruption of the world, thine and your own internal corruption! And where was the man who could deny it? Mea culpa! The admission of each one’s share in the responsibility for the general unhappiness was irrefutable and was made the precondition for the spiritual salvation which Christianity at the same time announced. And this spiritual salvation was so instituted that it could be easily understood by members of every old religious community. The idea of atonement to placate the offended deity was current in all the old religions; how could the idea of self-sacrifice of the mediator atoning once for all for the sins of humanity not easily find ground there? Christianity, therefore, clearly expressed the universal feeling that men themselves are guilty of the general corruption as the consciousness of sin of each one; at the same time, it provided, in the death-sacrifice of his judge, a form of the universally longed-for internal salvation from the corrupt world, the consolation of consciousness; it thus again proved its capacity to become a world religion and, indeed, a religion which suited the world as it then was.

So it happened that, among the thousands of prophets and preachers in the desert that filled that period of countless religious novations, the founders of Christianity alone met with success. Not only Palestine, but the entire Orient swarmed with such founders of religions, and between them there raged what can be called a Darwinian struggle for ideological existence. Thanks mainly to the elements mentioned above, Christianity won the day. How it gradually developed its character of world religion by natural selection in the struggle of sects against one another and against the pagan world is taught in detail by the history of the Church in the first three centuries.


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