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Book Reviews


    * Much ado about nothing
    * Global rollback
    * Nationalism

Much ado about nothing

The Jesus Myth by G. A. Wells, Open Court, Chicago, 1999.

Christianity is patently untrue. Its basic premise—that an all-powerful god who had created the universe caused a virgin to have a son by him who became a religious preacher and miracle-worker in an obscure border area of the Roman empire, was killed and then rose from the dead and eventually ascended into the sky and disappeared—is not only ridiculous but also biologically and physically impossible. It just never happened.

But was there even ever a historical person called Jesus? Opinion, even amongst anti-Christians, has been divided. So what is the evidence? The only evidence that we have is the Christians' holy book which they call the New Testament. This does have some value as a contemporary document. Part of it—Paul's letters (those he wrote himself)—was written in the middle of the first century, i.e. shortly after Jesus was said to have lived. The other part—the accounts of his life and death known as the "gospels"—was written towards the end of the same century, i.e. about fifty or so years after he was said to have died. However, as Wells emphasises in his new book, there are two problems.

First, Paul, who wrote nearest to the alleged events, says nothing about the life of Jesus; he was only interested in his death or, rather, in his supposed resurrection. This in itself is suspicious. Paul was a Jew, not from the core Jewish area in Palestine but from Tarsus, a town now in southern Turkey, and his main language was Greek not the Aramaic which Jesus and his original followers would have spoken. As a Hellenistic Jew he was influenced by Greek religious ideas, in particular that of a saviour-god; a god who died to save his followers and then later rose from the dead, as for instance Dionysus was believed to do by his followers. In other words, Paul saw Christianity as a saviour-god religion in which a divine figure called Jesus (a name which in Hebrew is linked to the idea of being "saved") died to save those prepared to follow him. Paul did retain some Jewish ideas: that of an Old Testament character called Wisdom (who he believed Jesus to have been before he was born) and the apocalyptic view that the end of the world was nigh.

Second, while the "gospels" do claim to tell us about the life of Jesus, the trouble is that nearly every event in his life is paralleled either in Greek mythology (virgin birth, resurrection) or, particularly, in the lives of Old Testament figures who also walked on water, fed thousands, raised the dead, rode on asses and ascended into heaven on a cloud (Jesus does, however, seem to have been unique in walking through walls). It is clear that the authors invented a life for Jesus which corresponded to Old Testament traditions and predictions. Even the account of his death is not trustworthy. As a saviour-god he had to die a particularly humiliating death, which at the time was crucifixion but, as only the Roman authorities could carry out this punishment, he had to be made to be condemned by them.

When all this crap has been cleared away, what's left? Nothing, say those who claim that Jesus was an invented, mythological character who never had any historical existence. Not much, say the others. Only that there was somebody called Jesus who preached that the Jews should reform their ways as the end of the world was nigh and perhaps healed a few cases of people suffering from psychosomatic illnesses, in Galilee in the first part of the first century.

Wells, who in his earlier books such as Did Jesus Exist? (1975) and The Historical Evidence for Jesus (1982), had embraced the Jesus-is-pure-myth theory (see correspondence in April 1980 Socialist Standard) has now in this and his last previous book, The Jesus Legend (1996), come round to the view that the Jesus story "may derive ultimately from the life of a first century itinerant Galilean preacher; but to separate out such authentic material from the mass of unhistorical narratives is a well-nigh hopeless task".



Global rollback

Dark Victory, The United States and Global Poverty. New edition by Walden Bello with Shea Cunningham and Bill Rau, Foreword by Susan George, Pluto Press, 1999 (paperback 162 pages)

Socialists should be grateful to Food First and the Transnational Institute for bringing out a revised edition of their handy little book detailing the extent of global poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and war. We do not have the resources to do the desk research to compile all these detailed facts and figures, or to send photographers out to take pictures of destitute people picking over rubbish dumps or police firing on protesters. The authors are enlightened enough to see that capitalism is the culprit, making their analyses useful, without drastic re-interpretation, for the work of presenting the Socialist Party's critique of capitalism and the socialist alternative. Our argument does not change essentially from year to year, but it is important that we relate it to the world situation as others see it.

The central message of the book, which accords with our case, is that political and social changes that seem to benefit the majority only happen if they advance capitalist interests, and are dismantled willy-nilly when those interests change. The particular scenario focused on is what the authors call the "global rollback" of advances in economic development in the South, and the New Deal and the Welfare State in the North, so that corporate America shall enjoy sources of cheap raw materials and labour, and not be threatened by competition from Japan and the Newly Industrialising Nations.

Having with "relentless scholarship . . . crisply laid out" (Susan George in the Foreword) the disastrous consequences of US capital's "dark victory", the writers eventually get around to considering how the world is ever going to recover from this. There is an encouraging paragraph headed "The Role of Working-Class Solidarity" which states that "the globalization of production . . . has brought home to workers in both North and South . . . their common subjugation to the capitalist calculus of short-term profitability". If such an advance in majority consciousness were really what has happened, socialists would be tremendously excited, but later this is referred to as merely "glimmers of hope on the labor front". Pious hopes are expressed in "the power of the conviction that human rights, peace, and environmental welfare are indivisible and transcend the . . . limits set by corporate capital in the name of 'national sovereignty' when it suits its objectives". One is reminded of the high-sounding verbiage produced by one of the many conferences of pressure groups, charities etc.

It is not until the final chapter, an Epilogue focused on "the Asian Economic Implosion", that anything resembling a solution to the world's problems is put forward. The writers declare that "the state must be reformed along the lines of more transparency, more accountability, and more democratic surveillance of government, but the aim of this enterprise is not to banish it as an economic agent but to enable it to more effectively regulate the market". They go on to say: "What is being advanced here is not just the reform of the state but the transformation of the economic regime. While market and state must continue to play a vital role, the fundamental mechanism of production, distribution, and exchange . . . must be democratic decision making by communities, civic organisations, and people's movements". Why the capitalist class and their political servants should consent to handing over the reins to this well-meaning coalition is not made clear. Given the degree of worker solidarity and understanding the authors believe exists in the world today, how much simpler and easier to just get rid of the capitalist mess altogether and bring in a socialist society.




Imagining Nations, Geoffrey Cubitt ed., Manchester University Press.
Fatherland or Mother Earth? Essays on the National Question by Michael Lõwy, Pluto Press.

Two very different books on nationalism. The Cubitt volume is much more "academic", looking at a number of different issues within the area of nationalism. The best thing that can be said about it is that most of the contributors are aware that nations are not in any way natural entities but are products of history. There are a couple of interesting papers, one on the origins of the Ordnance Survey and one on the way that banknotes are used to display patriotic messages, but most of the contents are too dry to repay the reader's time.

Lõwy's book, which examines the writings of Marx and others on nationalism, is more worthwhile, though it contains a number of contradictions. Lõwy is aware that Socialism means a classless, stateless society, but when it comes to the question of whether nations could have any role in Socialism, he wants to have it both ways. At one point he endorses the view that Socialism will be a world without frontiers, with no political delimitation of peoples. Yet a few pages later he seems to accept that Socialism would involve the abolition of national antagonisms but could retain nations with cultural differences. In fact, a true understanding of the implications of Socialism will reveal that the very idea of nations, a political concept, can have no part to play, though there will of course still be cultural differences among people (e.g. language).

While he pays lip service to opposing nationalism, Lõwy also advocates the "right of self-determination" of the Kurds and the Albanians of Kosovo, among others. This is largely based on the Leninist-inspired distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors (always bad) and the nationalism of the oppressed (allegedly worth supporting, even if critically). This even though he is aware that oppressed nations, once "free", can easily become oppressors in turn. Oppression, however, has to be seen in class, not national terms. Both so-called oppressor and oppressed nations consist of oppressor and oppressed classes, and "national liberation" enables an oppressor class to consolidate and expand its power, rather than freeing all the people of a formerly oppressed nation.

It contains some interesting observations, but on the whole Lõwy's book swallows too much leftist nonsense to be recommended.