Skip to Content

Book Reviews

Who Was Jesus? by Kamal Salibi, Taurus Parke Paperbacks, 2007
Against All Gods by AC Grayling, Oberon Books, 2007
God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books, 2007

It has long been acknowledged by Christian theologians, and by anyone else who cares to study the evidence, that the Bible does not give a coherent account of the life and sayings of Jesus. There are just too many contradictions and inconsistencies within and between the various books which make up the New Testament. Not only that, many of the historical and geographical references involving Jesus are not confirmed by modern scholarship. For instance, the earliest known archaeological record for the existence of Nazareth in Palestinian Galilee dates from no earlier than the third century AD, which undermines the case for a “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Salibi, a Christian, does a good job of pulling together many of these problems in his book Who Was Jesus?. He draws on the Koran and other sources to argue that “Jesus” is actually a compilation of two people: an Arabian named “Issa” who lived around 400 BC, was a Jewish preacher but was not executed; and about four hundred years later “Jeshu,” a preacher who was crucified in Jerusalem (though the Koran insists that only the first is the real “Jesus” and the latter account is false). Salibi's method is to reconstruct the Jesus story so as to iron out the contradictions and inconsistencies, using careful selection and a fair amount of his own speculations (“it could well have been true”). But it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that the Biblical evidence is so unreliable as to be worthless.

One of the sources Salibi believes early Christianity drew upon was the ancient fertility cult of  the “god” of “life-giving water” — that is, semen. Grayling doesn't swallow this and sticks mainly to a philosophical critique of religion, as befits a professor of philosophy at the University of London. His Against All Gods is short and bluntly put (64 pages and no index). Religions are not deserving of respect just because they are religions; they must be subject to the same scrutiny as any other belief and cannot hide behind the notion that they are personal beliefs. Are atheists themselves fundamentalists? Is atheism itself an act of faith? These claims are often found coming from religious folk who are somewhat taken aback by the plain speaking of people like Grayling. His humanism is guided by reason and respect for the evidence, the antithesis of fundamentalism and faith. And then there is the familiar objection that secular Stalinism and Nazism were worse than religion. Grayling's response is to point out that  Stalinism and Nazism were basically the same as religions in that they were monolithic ideologies of oppression and control.

However, Grayling also argues that most wars in the world's history “owe themselves directly or indirectly to religion.” Granted that in the Crusades of the Middle Ages religion was an important causal factor, but are religions a cause of war in the modern world? Were the First and Second World Wars (where a largely Christian Britain and France declared war on Christian Germany in both cases) caused, even indirectly, by religion? Even if we accept Grayling's description of GW Bush's foreign policy as “conducting jihad for American/Baptist values,” this is not convincing as an explanation of the war against Iraq. Because he doesn't take into account material interests, Grayling confuses cause and consequence: propaganda instead of the underlying cause; religion invoked in the furtherance of material interests.

In contrast, Hitchens' God Is Not Great is lengthy and detailed. The title is his riposte to the Arabic-Islamic phrase Allahu Akbar: "God is Great," which is brave considering what happened to his friend Salman Rushdie. Subtitled “The Case Against Religion” (in the American edition it's “How Religion Poisons Everything”), it's a powerful and vehement denunciation of all religion and its practitioners. According to Hitchens, religionists allow themselves “permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.” All the usual arguments and some you may never have heard of are here. Like Grayling, Hitchens deals with the secular-Nazism-and-Stalinism-was-worse-than-religion argument, only in much more detail. He makes what should be an obvious point, that Hitler claimed to be a defender of Christianity against the “Christ-killer” Jews. (Incidentally, it was not until the 1960s that the Vatican officially absolved “the Jewish people” from collective guilt in Jesus’ death.) And prior to Stalin's political career he did have a strict religious upbringing and did train to be a priest, so he would have conformed to the Jesuit saying: “Give me the child until he is ten, and I will give you the man.” Hitchens claims to have been a Marxist in his youth but now says its “glories” were in the past, without specifying what those glories were or why they are in the past. And Marxism is “no longer any guide to the future,” again without giving any reason. He was a Trotskyist however and he may be really talking about his loss of faith in that dismal ideology. If he had taken a Marxist stand against capitalist imperialism, he would have avoided having to, as he saw it, support the Bush-Blair war against Iraq.

Grayling and Hitchens see themselves as defenders of the Enlightenment tradition of respect for reason and evidence against its traditional foe, religion. But they see nothing wrong in capitalism. Socialists share in the Enlightenment inheritance but recognise that the main source of irrationality in the modern world is to be found in the capitalist system of society. For socialists, therefore, the struggle against religion cannot be separated from the struggle for socialism. We fight religious superstition wherever it is an obstacle to socialism, but we are opposed to religion only insofar as it is an obstacle to socialism.



The fall of the ILP

The Failure of a Dream. The Independent Labour Party from Disaffiliation to World War II.
By Gidon Cohen, Tauris. 2007.

In 1932 the ILP, which had been founded in 1893 and had been instrumental in setting up the Labour Party, voted at its annual conference to disaffiliate from Labour and to set out to establish itself as a leftwing, indeed “revolutionary socialist”, alternative to it. Cohen (a former Socialist Party member as he acknowledges in his introduction) recounts in this book what happened afterwards.

The first thing to happen was that the Stalinists tried to take over the party. With some success. They got the ILP to favour Workers Councils (soviets) as the agent of change, to regard Russia as a “Workers State” on the way to “socialism”, and to commit itself to eventual unity with the Communist Party. In 1935, however, Moscow ordered its agents in the Western Labour movement to change policy and to advocate reliance on the League of Nations (previously, the ‘League of Bandits’) and to agitate for a “Popular Front” of all anti-fascists including Liberals and dissident Tories instead of a “United Front” of workers’ organisations.

The ILP stuck to the old policy and the Stalinists left to join the Communist Party. >From then on the ILP was situated to the left not just of the Labour Party but of the Communist Party too. This aroused Trotsky’s interest and he ordered his followers to “enter” the ILP to try to take it over and get it to support his call for a Fourth International. They didn’t get very far.

The ILP survived these assaults but its membership fell, according to Cohen’s calculations, from over 16,000 in 1932 to  under 2,500 in 1939.

Trotsky described the ILP as “centrist” (whatever that meant). For us, it was just another reformist party as it retained the programme of reforms to capitalism it had had since the start and sought support, at and between elections, on this basis. We also pointed out that it was confused about the nature of socialism, seeing it (as Labour did) as essentially nationalisation and mistakenly seeing state capitalist Russia as some sort of pro-worker regime.

On one issue, however, we were prepared to give credit where it was due: on the question of war. When Italy attacked Abyssinia, the ILP’s Inner Executive (dominated by its 3 MPs, led by Jimmy Maxton) issued a statement saying that “in our estimation the difference between the two rival dictators and the interests behind them are not worth the loss of a single British life”. The Socialist Standard  (May 1936) described this as a “sound line”. However – as Cohen describes in detail – this turned out not to be the view of most active ILPers. They wanted to take sides and support Emperor Haile Selassie as a victim of imperialist aggression.

Similarly, after the Second World War broke out, the Socialist Standard (May 1940) wrote: “The ILP propaganda to-day is largely concerned with the war. It takes a line which, in appearance, seems to be fairly sound and in conformity with the Socialist position. It is an imperialist war, it is argued, fought over questions of trade routes, colonies and for political domination”.

By 1939, as Cohen shows, most of the members of the ILP were resigned to reaffiliation to the Labour Party, which he says would probably have occurred had the war not broken out. After the war, the matter came up again, but Maxton opposed it. Instead, members left and joined Labour as individuals, including prominent pre-war members such as Fenner Brockway, Bob Edwards, Walter Padley and Jennie Lee, who all became Labour MPs. In fact “later a Labour MP” is a phrase that occurs quite a few times in Cohen’s book.

The ILP staggered on until 1975 when it changed its name to “Independent Labour Publications” and became a think-tank within the Labour Party.


Reformism, old and new

Struggling for a Social Europe: Neoliberal Globalisation and the Birth of a European Social Movement.
By Andy Mathers. Ashgate

Mathers begins his book with the claim that “15 June 1997 may prove to be a significant date in the development of the labour movement in Europe”. What, you will be asking, happened that day? Some 50,000 people demonstrated in Amsterdam at the EU Summit that was being held there, including a few hundred who had marched from various parts of Europe to demand “the right to work or a guaranteed basic income”. Nothing very new — or very significant — then. Except for Mathers who had chosen to study these marches for this PhD thesis, but as a “researcher-activist”, i.e. someone who sympathised with their aims but was at the same time studying them like an ethnologist studying a primitive tribe.

He writes as some sort of Trotskyist, so his conclusions are predictable: there is still some mileage to be got from making reform demands on the nation-state (as opposed to the EU), that the trade union movement ought to have involved itself more, etc. He criticises as “the new reformism” those theorists who have written off the working class as an agent for social change and who look instead to some other groups such as students, employed and unemployed graduates, and marginalised youth who make up the bulk of those involved in the so-called “New Social Movements”  (NSMs).

This is in fact an interesting discussion since the “official” labour movement — trade unions and Labour and Social Democratic parties — have given up any idea of changing society, even gradually through a series of social reform measures voted by parliaments. They have abandoned this and now settle for getting the best they can out of the present social system, capitalism. This is a significant development that does need analysing.

The “Labour Movement” essentially only embraced a section of the working class properly so-called - only those who worked in industry and transport whereas the working class is comprised of all those who are forced by economic necessity to sell their ability to work in order to live, so including the so-called “middle class” too.

Mathers does in fact conclude that the non-industrial workers involved in the NSMs are workers, even if they don’t yet recognise it. But his criticism of the “new reformism” is not made from a revolutionary socialist standpoint, but from that of “old reformism”, as can be seen from his description and endorsement of the programme proposed by leading SWP theoretician, Alex Callinicos:

“In An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, Callinicos outlined a set of measures which he argued combined 'immediate remedies' to the consequences of neoliberal policies with a 'different social logic' (p. 132). These demands included those prominent in the European Marches such as the Tobin Tax, the universal basic income, the reduced working week, the defence of public services, and the redistribution of wealth and income. It also included those arising from the broader movement like the abolition of immigration controls and third world debt, the defence of civil liberties, and measures to ensure environmental protection (pp. 132-9).”

Some of these are not even palliatives led alone remedies, but they are all reforms to capitalism.

As it happens, I was myself present in Amsterdam on that 15 June (with my trade union) and witnessed one of the incidents mentioned by Mathers: the reception by the Dutch riot police of a group of masked demonstrators who had travelled from Italy by train (p. 62). Both groups were lined up outside the railway station facing each other, with ordinary passengers walking between then. Apparently, later there were some clashes as the police forced them back on to a train for Italy. What the point was I don’t know.


Marx’s Capital

Francis Wheen: Marx’s Das Kapital. Atlantic £7.99.

Wheen wrote a well-received biography of Marx and here he turns his attention to Marx’s greatest work.

He traces the influences on Capital, the labours Marx went through in writing it, its main ideas, and its subsequent reception and reputation. He gives a decent account of how surplus value comes about: labour power creates more value than it has itself. To the capitalist, the labour market is just another branch of the commodity market. The effects of machinery are invariably malign: the worker is deskilled and forced to work longer hours. Wheen is particularly good in discussing the idea of ‘increasing misery’, and shows that this has to be understood in relative terms. Marx did not claim that there would be an absolute decline in wages, only a relative decline in comparison with profits. And as another example, workers in Britain now work longer hours than was the case in the early 1980s, so we are indeed more degraded as time (and capitalism) goes on.

In the chapter on the ‘Afterlife’ of Capital, Wheen discusses Marx’s fall-out with Hyndman, who had plagiarised from him with no acknowledgement. He also demonstrates that Bolshevism bore little relation to Marx’s ideas. Citing Lenin‘s arguments that workers should place themselves under the leadership of professional revolutionaries, he notes that here ‘one can see in embryonic form what eventually became a monstrous tyranny’.

Marx’s great triumph, says Wheen, lies in revealing the nature of capitalism, and this makes his work still valid and relevant today: he concludes that Marx ‘could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century’.