Religion - a Marxist View

Did the ancient Greeks actually liked it under Roman rule because they carried the name (Eastern Roman Empire) even if it’s their own empire?

This was a Quora question. I like this question – one of my pet moans about 19th century historians. When Gibbon described the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire in the 18th century he meant the Empire until it’s final fall in 1453.

One big problem in interpreting history is that it is always approached from the from the standpoint and using the values of the historian’s own day and society. Often these values are ones that the people only perceive to be of their own day. So people look at the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition who tortured and burnt, Jews, Muslims and heretics, or the brutality of medieval and Tudor times and believe we are “ civilised” now. Yet the 20th century encompassed more brutality and human slaughter than at any time in human history. Apart from two world wars, to be Jewish in Germany was a death sentence. To be an actual Marxist in Stalin’s Russia was a death sentence. To be South Vietmese peasant was as likely as not be a death sentence and of course many more. Today to be Muslim in Burma ? To be Muslim in Serbia, to be Muslim in Israel? To be a Christian in Syria?

Anyway back to the Roman Empire. To the average person the Roman Empire fell in 5th century and was followed by the “ dark ages”.

This was the western centric view. The Empire that carried on in the east was redesignated by 19 th century historians as the “ Byzantine” Empire – something very foreign and rather exotic. They were not proper Romans because they spoke Greek. Western rulers were very keen to emulate what they thought the ancient Greeks and Romans to be. The American constitution includes a Senate, an upper house of wisdom, Capitol Hill itself is a tribute to the Romans. Napoleon saw himself as the Caesar of a new Roman Empire. The British thought that Parliament was like classical Athens, the Spartans – a more successful state in many ways – were crude by comparison. Palmerston’s marathon speech to the House of Commons summed it up with the subject of “Pax Britannica”. Britannia herself, symbolises Britain is depicted as a Roman goddess. While western society loved the ancient Greeks, as the foundation of modern culture – actual Greeks, the ones were regarded as Eastern, untrustworthy and lacking culture not even to be trusted with ancient monuments – Elgin clearly regarded Britain as in the inheritor of Graeco Roman culture – not the modern Greeks, so long under Turkish rule.. This is why Roman Empire was Latin and not Greek. The “real” Roman Empire was Latin and ended in 427, the rest became Byzantium, a Medieval Greek Empire.

But the actual history is different. When you look at a map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent it’s eady to see that the major cities, the main ports are in the east, Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, Nicaea, Byblos, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Alexandria among the main ones. All through the Middle Ages the mightiest City of all, with a population at its height in the 8th & 10th centuries exceed 1,000,000 was Constantinople . Excepting towns in Provence, towns in West were trifling. Throughout the history of the Empire the balance of trade and production was in the east. Anatolia and Egypt were the bread baskets of the Empire. Everywhere in the east Greek was spoken as the lingua franca. Rome itself became too remote, too peripheral. The decision by Constantine I to move Rome to the small Greek village of Byzantium. So the new Capital was called New Rome, after his death, it was designated “ The New Rome that is called Constantinople”. After Justinian, who had built the wondrous Hagia Sophia, Latin ceased to be language of government. From that time onwards the government language was Greek. But they were Romans, for them Roman meant civilisation, it meant the known world. The last Emperor Constantine XI who died defending the city on the walls of Constantinople in 1453 was designated “ Roman Emperor “.

However, looking from a people’s point of view, the Roman Empire was fundamentally a slave economy – the foundation of which was the high productivity ( relatively) in the Eastern half. While trade – as far as China and Sri Lanka flourished, this enabled cities like Constantinople, Antioch, Adrianople etc to become very large. As it shrank because of growth of Islamic states on the one hand and Western Europe’s ( particularly Italy) slow emergence from feudalism, together with the continued movement of peoples fro east to west, it became more petrified into feudal like structure.

Religion - a Marxist View

Where was Byzantium?

We have to try and place ourselves in the shoes of a Roman inhabitant. The concept of the Empire was not the same as ours. To us an empire is a central power governing and controlling colonies and countries that have been conquered – like the British Empire. The Empire to the Roman was not a number of countries ruled by Rome, but the civilised (after 325, Christian) world. Rome was the sentimental capital, but they had no trouble in moving the capital to New Rome ( Constantinople).

So to be a Roman was to be a citizen of the civilised world. Sometimes there were two emperors ruling side by side, that was not regarded as divisive – a good example was Romanus I and Constantine VII who governed successfully together and were not related. Also when the Empire was divided East and West, it was not regarded as two empires, but a purely administrative division of the whole Empire. This is illustrated by time when after the overthrow of the last western Emperor Romulus Augustus, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who made himself King of Italy sent the Imperial regalia back to Emperor Zeno in Constantinople as an acknowledgement that he was simply ruling Italy in the name of the Emperor.

All through the history of the Empire, the balance of power and trade was biased towards the East, the major production was there, trade and so on. The lingua franca of the Eastern half was predominantly Greek. From southern Italy eastwards, Greek was the the major language. So Greeks from Greece itself saw themselves as Greek speaking Romans, as the people of Anatolia, Alexandria etc saw themselves. Emperor Justinian, in the sixth century was the last Latin speaking Emperor, but Latin had always been the minority language in Constantinople. “Byzantium “ was the name of the small town upon which Constantinople was built. Nineteenth century British historians liked to see the Roman Empire as an early version of the British Empire – to them it was Latin, the Greek speaking Empire in the East after the fall of the West, was foreign, exotic, Eastern, almost Russian. So they coined the term “Byzantine” and imposed it on our concepts. To The Greeks, in Anatolia and Greece itself, Roman meant Christianity and civilisation.

After the fall of Constantinople, Despot of Morea ( Greece) regarded himself as the Roman Emperor in Mistras ( very well worth a visit). Even under Turkish rule Greeks regarded themselves as Roman, so when the Greek kingdom was set up in 1834, the rulers numbered themselves after the last emperor. The last king of Greece was Constantine XIII, numbered after Constantine XI the last Emperor in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. This was the driving force behind the Greek attempt to take Constantinople in 1920. I’m told that some Greeks still refer to themselves as ” Romans” even today.


Religion - a Marxist View

Capitalism and Marx

The key thing for me is how Marx applied his philosophy derived from Hegel. As he said, philosophers understand the world – the key thing is to change it. In other words to apply your philosophy to your empirical observation to find a programme for change. In terms of observation Engels contributed a massive amount. His book “ the condition of the English working class” is an in depth observation of the abject squalor that existed in Manchester while surrounded by booming wealth of the capitalist class.

To start with dialectical materialism gives you an understanding that everything is part of a system, a system is part of another system as so on. A system is formed of opposing forces, in contradiction to each other but in equilibrium. However all equilibriums are unstable, so disturbances cause changes until a new equilibrium is established.

When people work they always produce a surplus over their individual needs. If they didn’t do this human society couldn’t exist. If every individual spent every waking hour producing only enough to keep themselves alive then society couldn’t exist. Humans therefore have to organise themselves into some kind of system to distribute this “ social “ surplus. A primitive hunting gathering society may only have enough surplus to maintain the young, but perhaps not enough for the old. But who decides this? Collectively, by evolution of rules, rituals and religion or other ways ?

As society evolved through various systems, class rule developed. This occurs when on group organises society and controls the distribution of the social surplus by taking control of the means by which that society produces everything they need. In a slave society, people are owned by a ruling class, in feudal society the land on which society produces is owned by a class of lords. In capitalism, capital, ie the means to erect factories etc is owned.

Capitalism is massively more productive than any previous system and therefore produces an enormous social surplus. The decisions on how to distribute this lies with the ruling class. How much of this surplus is used on social things and not profit depends on the equilibrium between the classes at a particular time and the needs of the capitalist state.

The class system is a system so it does comprise of forces opposing each other. The working class was the creation of capitalism – its means to produce and make profits. In creating this, they created a force capable of overthrowing and establishing a new equilibrium. In order to prevent this, a great part of the surplus is devoted to a massive state structure. Police, military courts etc also ideology aimed at convincing workers that the capitalist order is not only good but a law of nature. Also another contradiction- capitalism is complex, so it needs an education system for producers to work. That very same education system will also make people aware that they are being exploited.

Also the producing class will always oppose and try and defend against their rulers by one means or another. Sometimes slaves rise up. Sometimes feudal peasants rise up. Workers form unions, opposed and suppressed initially by the ruling class, but now adjusted to and incorporated into the system.

Capitalism is only the latest form of evolution of human society and just as capitalism overthrew feudalism – often violently eg the English Civil War, the French Revolution, it will succumb to its own contradictions be overthrown. Society will then organise itself differently and find a new system to distribute the social surplus – hopefully to benefit everyone and not have the majority of it creamed off into private hands.

Capitalism is different to others in that the system works by constantly revolutionising methods of production in order to defeat their own capitalist competitors. So capitalists have a joint interest in maintaining themselves against workers while at the same time destroying fellow capitalists. When this growth ceases because the world is saturated with capitalism it begins to eat itself. Social surpluses spent on public social products like health, education, prisons, military, utilities etc are taken over by themselves in a frantic attempt to keep up profits. Privatisation of health might produce profits in the short term but does not add to the social surplus. Thus capitalism is already in decline because in western countries it has already started to consume itself.