Matthew Kneale (2013) An Atheist’s History of Belief Bodley Head, London.
There may have been worse books that this on the history of religion. But that’s about the best you can say about it. Sadly, perhaps because of the author’s success at writing fiction, it got published. Notwithstanding his status as an author being based on works of fiction rather than work of a factual nature, it is liable to be used as the basis, or as legitimation of, arguments in the future.
I’m therefore giving detailed answers here to many of the arguments he makes and to some he assumes or implies. If you’re only looking for a short (but accurate and well-written) review, you’d be best off looking here, albeit Tom Holland does sixth-formers a disservice by comparing Matthew Kneale’s writing to theirs.
Did I say this was a book on the history of religion?
What’s Wrong With the Title:
The careless book buyer, or library borrower in my case, could be forgiven for intially thinking that Kneale actually wrote a history of religion from an atheistic perspective. Especially since the cover is a detail from Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam. But the word ‘belief’ in the title means that Kneale has, inter alia, given himself scope to conveniently define ‘Marxism’ into the purview of his ‘history’.
Although, oddly, not ‘utilitarianism’, ‘social democracy’, ‘humanism’, ‘conservatism’, ‘free-market economics’, ‘social darwinism’, ‘alternative medicine’ or ‘game theory’. We’ll return to this.
2. The apostrophe
Look at the title again:
An Atheist’s History of Belief
The placement of the apostrophe, as well as the singular ‘An’, signals that this is a ‘history’ belonging to only one atheist. This wouldn’t be significant if Kneale had tried to write a work that was of service to all atheists (and principled agnostics) in their disagreements with religion. But by broadening his target to ‘belief’, Kneale has prevented us from understanding the singular ‘atheist’ in his title as being an ideal type, representing all those who believe that there are no Gods. The only atheist unambiguously referred to in this title is Matthew Kneale. But, somehow, Matthew Kneale’s History of Belief doesn’t sound quite as likely to fly off library shelves.
There’s a long tradition in historical writing of magisterial works that combine wide-ranging investigation with minute examination of important source material. It’s difficult to do this briefly. And, given the sheer bigness of the human past, almost impossible to do it within any tidy argumentative framework or even the knowledge of a single individual with only one lifetime at their disposal – hence the flaws in even the best historical writing. But a signal that historian feels they have got as near as possible to presenting the best mixture of the evidence possible at that moment is a title that, with knowing false modesty, goes something like this:
A history of …
If you’re going to do less justice to an essentially mahoussive subject matter than, for example Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples does for its vast topic, then it’d more honest to drop the false modesty and go for the proper stuff. If you were just aiming to trace some family resemblances between selected instances of religious belief, whilst appending some gratuitous insults to Marxists and anarchists en route this might do it:
Some moderately atheistic observations on religion, with appended notes on their applicability to Marxism and other things Matthew Kneale doesn’t like too.
Aside from the apostrophe, putting ‘atheist’ and ‘belief’ into the same phrase suggests a presumption of opposition which doesn’t stand scrutiny. I ‘believe’ in gravity, but this doesn’t make it in any way like a religion.
Whereas atheism, like religion, is itself a belief. It posits an unprovable claim (there is no God / there are no gods). In contrast, philosophical agnosticism, the claim that it is impossible to either prove or disprove the existence of said being/s, is happy to methodically confront the beliefs of atheists and religionists alike.
Both atheism and agnosticism are, of course, the children of religion. After all, without religion, their claims would be unnecessary and meaningless.
… is ‘Understanding our most extraordinary invention’.
We’ll come back to the description of religion as an invention. Although I personally perceive it to be a failure of imagination, rather than an achievement worth eulogising, this is not Kneale’s perspective.
However, even if it is worth looking at religion as an invention, it’s a bit of a stretch on several counts to call it ‘our most extraordinary’.
It’s not ‘ours’ – at least not if you’re an atheist. It’s ‘theirs’.
And it’s not ‘extraordinary’. It is everyday, average, pedestrian and dull. Anybody can invoke supernatural allies, or attend a religious service, without much thought or effort. But to build unique houses, create alphabets, paint, blow glass, irrigate fields, chip rocks into human shape or write books – each of those things require invention and effort, whatever the motivation for that effort. And to do any of these things is essentially human, whilst there is no demonstrable reason to presume that we don’t share the habit of lazy and unproductive superstition with other creatures.
Despite the subtitle though, Kneale shows no sign of being genuinely impressed with the inventiveness and creativity of those who created the beliefs he examines.
What’s Wrong With the Rest of the Book
Scholarly history comes with a scree of footnotes. Arguable statements – and many that are not – are referenced beyond doubt. The exceptions, as you’d expect, are statements which are the author’s opinion.
History intended for the lay consumer doesn’t generally have the same rigour. I suspect this is because publishers in general have a deep faith in the ignorance and laziness of their readership, and prefer to publish quicker and with less expensive editorial checking. That said, even the most venal publishing practices can be ameliorated by an author who has read widely, has wide foundations for any statement of fact, and who quotes with the same catholicism.
No such luck here.
The entire book features only twenty-nine direct references. That’s what you’d expect of a good foundation level essay of less than a thirtieth of the length, and less than feature in this reply. This paucity of references means that we have no evidence for how much responsibility we should place for Kneale’s misunderstandings and gaps on the other books listed in the ‘sources and further reading’ chapter. Especially as he hasn’t bothered to provide a guiding paragraph in that section on what he used each of these texts for.
It would be just as useful if he’d simply said ‘hey guys, just google it‘.
2. Over-simplification in the Prehistory of Religion
What we can tell is that the texts we have been directed to don’t give us the sense of wide debate or of possible alternative interpretations of the episodes in Kneale’s history. The first academic named in Kneale’s text is David Lewis-Williams, who is described as a ‘cognitive archeologist’. Not one of Lewis-Williams’ critics gets a look-in.
Does it really take a ‘cognitive archeologist’ to construct a compelling hypothesis about why early cave paintings of animals might be missing hooves? I hope not, because coming up is a far tighter argument than the one cited by Kneale.
As anyone who lacks ability in the visual arts can attest, drawing feet (like drawing hands) is really hard. And, as all art historians (should) know, its only since photography that anybody has succeeded in accurately depicting the way that horses run. The same difficulty would face anyone seeking to accurately render the movement of a cave lion or a gazelle during a high-speed pursuit. With rudimentary tools and cave walls instead of canvases, it’s a miracle of human ingenuity that those cave people managed to do any recognisable pictures at all. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at some pictures:
Teton Sioux Horserace outside Fort Dakota, 1833. Note the uncomfortable stance of the two horses on the left in an otherwise anatomically plausible picture. This is not how horses run. Artist unknown. From Wikimedia Commons.
Eadwarde Muybridge, the pioneer of speed photography, explaining – in 1879 – the understanding of equine leg movement that his techniques made possible for the first time. File from wikimedia commons.
Until Muybridge’s work no-one had ever been able to accurately represent the leg movement of animals moving at speed. Why then, would anybody expect prehistoric artists to include the feet – let alone be so silly as claim that the absence of feet constitutes positive evidence of primitive religiosity?
But from this erroneous foundation, Kneale launches immediately into fantastic speculation about ‘early religious services’. Along with uncritical recitation of other potted details of the shamanic perspective of Lewis-Williams, we are told that in early religious services:
‘There could well have been music”.
Really, Kneale actually says that.
As if there was ever a time when human beings were incapable of singing or clapping hands.
It’s easy to be mean when faced with a silly slip like this. So easy, in fact, that we should resist the urge to be kind about it. The idea of early art as fixated in religious belief issuing from universal human cognitive structures is assumed, but not carefully examined. Not even when – crucially – Kneale acknowledges in passing that the role of ‘shaman’ in this description of ancient history excludes many people: therefore meaning that this is not in fact something universal deriving from our genetic predispositions.
If Kneale had looked at just one critic of Lewis-Williams, he’d have found that the shamanic perspective is problematic because anything can be interpreted as ‘shamanic’. Rock art is like a ventriloquist’s dummy – it can say anything you like. Indeed, much of what ‘cognitive archaeology’ sees in rock art refers to structures that underlie all art (Quinlan, 2000).
This means, I’d suggest, that ‘cognitive archeology’ is close to making the same kind of universal explanatory claims religion is so fond of.
Similarly, Kneale recounts the finding of a forty-thousand year old figurine of a man with the head of a cave lion. We are supposed to accept his explanation of this as a human attempt to get inside the spirit of an animal, or as possibly connected with a religious or pre-religious ritual. But in the same area, from the craftspeople of the same civilization, there have been found several figures that look like women with very large breasts. These, conveniently, he ignores.
Perhaps because an even-handed and well-informed analysis uniting the figurines of the lion-men and the large-breasted women would reveal, at best…
nothing but speculation.
It may be that enough evidence will eventually accrue for us to say something definite about what people in these societies believed – including why they carved and broke statues both of men with animal heads and women with large breasts. For now, however, we can be certain that there is not enough information about that period for us to claim any understanding of its spiritual life.
Or to assert that it even had one.
Kneale moves in his first two exhibits from the existence of art to the existence of religion. He completes his brushsoft reasoning circle with the claim that religion was a ‘leading sponsor of the arts’ even then. But you don’t need a ‘sponsor’ to learn to carve a figure out of rock with rudimentary tools – you just need time and rock, both of which cave dwellers had plenty of.
Before leaving speculative prehistory for the era of fact, Kneale introduces another idea that could allegedly explain the birth of religion. This is ‘Theory of Mind’. Apparently it’s attracted ‘increasing interest’ in ‘recent decades’. Which makes you think it would be worth mentioning an author who was interested in it. Or, as interest has been ‘increasing’, perhaps several, with more of them from the very recent past than from the more distant past.
Nope. Not one.
Which is a shame, as both the internet encyclopedia of philosophy and wikipedia have very good articles on the subject, with extensive bibliographies. The former concludes by noting the growth of scepticism within psychology regarding ‘mindreading’ approaches to cognition, with the newest writing referenced suggesting that templates derived from experience are generally better explanatory devices in routine situations than is mindreading. If you’ve ever used a bus timetable or a restaurant menu without bothering to relate to the driver or the waiter you have acted, in a small way, upon this understanding.
Thus Kneale’s suggestion that people first invented religion in an attempt to get on better terms with the imagined minds of the natural world is essentially weakened. What we are left with is, again…
…nothing but speculation.
Until there is actual evidence of how religion(s) began, that’s all there is. Even then, seeking a single root template for the invention of religion is a quixotic and conceivably doomed quest, given the very large number of clever people who have lived and had ideas about how the world works – and disagreed with one another. And the even larger number of very ordinary people who have written and preached half-truths and falsehoods and pretty words in the various pursuits of promotion, seduction, revenge, blame diversion, oneupmanship, japery and the unalloyed artistic pleasure of telling a bloody good story.
Luckily for the reader, Kneale is not this loose with logic and facts throughout the book. There are moments of clarity and adequate description too, and these become more regular when he’s addressing eras about which facts are more widely available. As he clearly realised. On page nineteen he tells us:
It is time, though, to move on from vague conjecture. A new technological breakthrough was on its way, one which would allow us, for the first time, to see people’s religious beliefs in clear detail: writing.
But, as he’s on the subject; we have a right to pause here and ask exactly what rationale he can provide for doing a bodyswerve round it some pages earlier. When dealing with what is allegedly the first monument complex ever built, at Göbekli Tepe, he notes that some of the stones there have patterns that
…look beguilingly – and misleadingly – like writing.
He makes no attempt to demonstrate that these patterns are not actually writing. This is just as well. It is impossible – ever – to conclusively prove that any deliberately created visual pattern is not writing. At least without reference to evidence other than the visual pattern itself. He’s also on shakier ground than he may realise by passively accepting (although not explicitly referencing) Klaus Schmidt’s view of the meaning of the Göbekli Tepe site. Kneale asks, rhetorically, why the builders chose to make their lives harder by climbing and building temples on a mountain, when they could have been “gathering nuts or hunting animals.”
Hold that thought… Perhaps they were hunting animals. From the top of the mountain they could observe herds on the plains below, as well as the behaviour of predators. And the behaviour of human interlopers who had been too slow in joining in with the scientific revolution in hunting. Big stone pillars would have given enhanced vantage positions; whilst making these in T-shapes would have enabled more people to get onto them without falling off. Carvings on the rocks, representing different types of predators, would have been a useful visual aid for ‘tribal’ seminars on hunting strategy.
Given the large number of people passing through the area, and engaged in regular discussion about food availability, some may have worried about overhunting. One rational response to this would be to launch intensive investigation into methods of improving crop yields. If you were attached to this idea though, you’d probably be better advised to quietly leave rather than forcefully questioning hunting as life-strategy. After all, hunting is essentially about methodical and successful violence. But you wouldn’t go far before stopping and settling down to experiment with seeds – because it would be necessary to hunt in addition to doing agriculture.
Perhaps just as far as the Karadag hills, would do it.
Thus, without mentioning religion at all, it is possible to deal with all the facts presented by Kneale relating to the period prior to the proven existence of religion in quite a different way. And to suggest an alternative hypothesis to his suggestion that religion was the root cause of agricultural development.
This thought experiment, it should be noted, is closer to what you’d have expected to find in an ‘atheist history’.
3. Over-simplification in the Early History of Religion
Kneale’s analysis of the religion of Mesopotamia, on the other hand, focuses on the problems of running a society based on religious fear and anxiety. Just what you’d expect of an atheist’s history. And, as you might expect from a crude atheist, he is dismissive of the rituals and beliefs of that society, repeatedly exclaiming at the apparent pointlessness of rituals he claims were initially intended to reassure.
But the same vast information-gathering exercises that informed these beliefs would also, even accidentally, have led to the acquisition of useful and powerful knowledge. Looking at the stars for portents logically means working out which celestial events are not portents. Thus astrology becomes astronomy. Looking for portents in unusual animal behaviour requires understanding what normal animal behaviour is – pretty useful if you’re hunting, raising livestock, keeping pets or trying to stop wild animals eating your crops. The preservation of dead languages, even for the purposes of spell-casting or prayer, means a deeper understanding of how all languages work – greatly beneficial for trade, diplomacy and multilingual seminars on agricultural techniques.
The Mesopotamians, then, despite ‘angst’ in the face of miserable religious beliefs, had ample reason to stick with them.
If, of course, they did.
Kneale notes that “The [Mesopotamian] Empire, despite its ruthless brutality – or perhaps because of it – suffered constant rebellions from its subject people”.
Interestingly, whilst seeing ‘brutality’ as a possible source of rebellion, he doesn’t pause to address the possibility that some rebellions in that era stemmed from religious differences – or even irreligious and antireligious ones. Or, even (as in most more recent revolutions and rebellions) a mixture of both.
5. The Absence of Counter-Argument
What I’m writing here is a set of criticisms of a published book, in the form of a blog entry that is likely to attract less than tens of readers. So it should be no surprise that I’m not pausing to contemplate possible answers to my charges. But, by contrast, anyone claiming to construct a history of anything should be expected to consider alternative perspectives to contentious claims.
Kneale suggests that religion was born out of a need for ‘reassurance’, and yet finds it ironic that it often fails to reassure.
But another possible atheistic perspective could contemplate religion’s birth as a mechanism of social control. And its subsequent evolution as, at least in part, a history of attempts to resist, reassert or modify that function. This would fit all – yes, all – the facts in the remainder of Kneale’s book perfectly well.
6. Anachronism and False Association
The possible atheistic perspective I’ve just outlined could help create sympathy for ‘resistance’ to social control, as well as to offer a way of sympathetically treating some of the differences within religions. But Kneale doesn’t seem to have much truck with the idea of resisting power.
Revolutionary movements of every era (after Mesopotamia) are lumped in with ‘apocalyptic religion’. Their failures are dealt with summarily, incompletely and without naming the historians whose research he’s abused. But this has nothing to do with careless use of language. Every failure is carefully presented as inevitable due to the rebels’ utter wrongheadedness. Here’s an example:
Next came a kind of communist apocalypse. Leaders of England’s 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, such as John Ball, urged on their supporters with slogans that Lenin would have admired, including ‘When Adam ploughed and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’ A generation later, in Bohemia, members of a like-minded movement, the Taborites, abolished all taxes and burned down their own farms, so they would be free of property and might bring Jesus’s kingdom closer. So began what would grow into an enduring feature of European politics. [Italics in original]
Lenin? I thought he was an atheist with a deep, albeit provocatively nuanced, suspicion of British socialism, and of Christian socialism. My mistake, obviously.
But Lenin, unlike Kneale, was definitely pretty hot on quotations and used shedloads of them. If he had indeed quoted Ball with admiration amongst the vast number of words he penned in his career (I don’t think he did, but you’re welcome to peruse this voluminous source and double check), he probably would have said ‘delved’. Just like nearly everyone else who’s ever quoted John Ball. Not being a common word in modern English, it’s pretty routine for people to be puzzled about the exact meaning of ‘delve’. Kneale was obviously just trying to make it clearer, although he may consequently have missed some interesting subtleties.
Like the fact that ‘delve’ does not mean ‘plough’; but ‘dig’.
Sorry, maybe I’m being too picky. Let’s move on.
‘[A] like-minded movement’. In what way exactly ? Did the peasants of England burn down their own farms in 1381?
Did they abolish all taxes?
Because they didn’t manage to seize power.
More to the point, they were, at least initially, resisting a series of Poll Taxes rather than the principle of taxation per se. Governments ever since have taken care not to tax the poor as heavily as the rich. At least not too blatantly. The consequences have been severe when they’ve been stupid enough to forget.
Those revolting peasants weren’t the misguided apocalyptic religious fanatics Kneale makes out. And the other movements that followed them as ‘an enduring feature of European politics’ may have been less purely religious – and more realistic – than he bothers to consider.
It’s not only in dealing with revolts that Kneale trots out more recent communisms as irrelevant bogeymen. He also refers to the purges of the Gregorian Reforms, because they “encouraged attacks on rich clergy by poorer colleagues and non-clergymen…” as “… a kind of Catholic Maoist Cultural Revolution.”
Except without any Maoism, obviously. And without intellectuals being despatched by the Communist Party to till the fields. And without a Communist Party. And without a nuclear arms race in the background, a long history of genocidal colonial occupation, and an antagonistic global superpower willing to reinstate old colonial powers whenever and wherever it fitted their agenda.
So, nothing like it at all, then.
You could be forgiven, earlier in the book, for thinking these anachronistic references were merely there to help fulfil the purpose of making religious history comprehensible for the lay reader. But they do have a purpose.
First, though, let’s look at how he gets from early religion to modernity.
Sorcery, Witchcraft, Irrelevance and Missed Opportunity
Sorcerors, Kneale assures us, were to be found in all cultures across the world. Their universality may apparently have grown from shamanism. They are not the same as witches, however.
Witches, by contrast, “as any serious historian would agree” did not exist in medieval or Renaissance Europe. Who are the serious historians who established this, and why should we dismiss as ‘not serious’ those who might be tempted to disagree? We are not told.
The narrative that follows is painfully short. But having defined witches as whatever witch persecutors perceived them to be, it outlines in brief the evolution of mass witchcraft allegations as a means of religious control; a means that was buttressed with the most sophisticated technology and propaganda tools of the times, and eventually outlived its usefulness.
Having convincingly demonstrated this case via the events he sketches, including in 1687, Louis XIV’s “new and reasoned law on sorcery”, Kneale performs an odd reversal in the concluding paragraphs of the chapter. Instead of revisiting the origins of the witchcraft craze he just talked about, or commenting on the law that he’s just noted, Kneale jumps instead to claiming that Europe simply “outgrew” (my italic) the witch craze.
In place of events and evidence, we are blandly assured that “Europeans tired of intense religious belief and became increasingly drawn to the rational”. The only datable thing associated with this assertion is the freethinking Voltaire, who is referenced a paragraph later.
But Voltaire wasn’t even born when Louis XIV enacted that law. No other concrete causal mechanism for the end of the witch craze is suggested. If religion and its attendant paranaoias and persecutions were about ‘reassurance’, rather than social control, then Kneale has missed out an entire century’s evidence – whilst giving lots for an entirely different view.
Careless. Very careless.
But not half as careless (if you genuinely were an atheist seeking to explain and document the history of religion) as the total failure to notice the re-emergence -or invention – of witchcraft, paganism, astrology and associated beliefs from the 1960s onwards. And their fusion with ‘Eastern’ belief systems, along with their systemic presentation as ‘scientific’ or as refuting a prejudiced scientific concensus.
It’s tough to miss these. If you live. Anywhere.
But, just in case you’re having trouble imagining them, any of the following could provide a starting point. John Lennon’s life with Yoko Ono. Tony and Cherie Blair, and their relationship with Carole Caplin. Nancy Reagan’s secret astrological budget. The Gaia hypothesis – but more especially its various abuses. Homeopathy. Neurolinguistic Programming. Ley Lines. Flower Remedies. Reiki Healing. Power Animals. Angel Healing. Faith Healing. Anything else that gets called ‘healing’ instead of ‘medicine’ or ‘health’. As well as, of course, the species of thought underlying many of the practices referred to as ‘alternative medicine’, ‘traditional medicine’ or ‘complementary medicine’.
How does Kneale avoid this rich seam of contemporary ‘belief’?
He just looks the other way, and goes somewhere else, like a cartoon witch drunk in charge of a broomstick. Or a bad journalist late for a deadline.
What’s Wrong With the Concluding Chapter
‘Inventing New Comforts’ comes in two parts. The first gives whistlestop recountings of the ‘Taiping Rebellion’, Marxism, and the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, and finally dismisses them all in a single paragraph as merely childish instances of wounded patriotic pride. This short section reveals the purpose of those earlier clumsy references to mediaeval Maoism and social rebellion, and demonstrates the snobbery that renders him insensible to the function of religion as social control.
The second part stirs the occult and ‘scientific’ antecedents of Nazism into a strange soup along with the Mormons and Scientology, and throws in a few select comments aimed at creating mental associations between Marxism and Nazism along the way; before jumping to a concluding page that achieves the signal feat of combining evangelical fervour, misplaced complacency and factual error.
I’m going to look now in some detail at the failings of each subject in that first part as narrated (or avoided) – by Kneale. Then I’ll show why the claim of them being linked by wounded patriotism is pigswill. From there we’ll note a couple of the sub-tabloid asides in part two, before shifting focus to the magnificently incoherent conclusion.
- (Not) the Taiping Rebellion
Whilst the ‘Taiping Rebellion’ was a common name in the Occident for the events of 1851 to 1864 that Kneale describes, the name he uses is not universal. It’s never been the terminology the Chinese themselves used, for example. Western historians now routinely refer to those events as the ‘Taiping Civil War’, due to the fact that the term ‘rebellion’ would suggest that the Qing dynasty was an accepted and legitimate authority (Meyer-Fong 2013). But even this is problematic. Some of the most important elements and actors in the conflict were international or global. So much so that I’m tempted to suggest that a more suitable name for the conflict – in view of its nature, date and devastating scale – might be ‘The First World War’.
Unfortunately, that name’s already been taken. By way of a temporary solution here, I’m going to avoid names altogether.
Let’s start with what may have been the biggest material cause of the conflict: drugs.
In 1836 Lin Tse-hsü was appointed Imperial Commissioner in Canton, with instructions to shut down the opium trade. That trade was causing such a severe drain on the Chinese economy that it had – by itself – transformed a favourable balance-of-payments situation into a negative one. (Selby 1968: 13-14)
Lin took his job seriously, and the cartels started hurting. A head of one of the major British firms in the trade made these comments in company correspondence – prior to Britain going to war on behalf of the opium industry:
In consequence of severe Imperial edicts lately recieved from Pekin, the dealers are in such a state of panic that it is impossible to sell a single chest on any terms… Should the same rigid persecution be continued for twelve months the consumption would not be more than one third of the average consumption for the last three years…
(James Matheson, quoted in Selby 1968, pp.14-15)
Not content with merely issuing edicts restricting dealers from selling opium – which still allowed them to smuggle it to other parts of China – Lin’s forces seized and destroyed 20,000 chests of British-owned opium (Selby 1968, p.16). This would have been, according to this source, about half of China’s average annual consumption at that time, with a bulk value of around 1.6 million dollars.
That was when a million dollars was a lot of money.
Expressed in today’s prices, and calculated by relationship to GDP, this would be roughly equivalent to between 9.5 and 176 billion dollars. That’s the wholesale price. Street value would, of course, have been considerably higher.
China had been an intensely bureaucratic state for over a thousand years, and through several dynasties – each of which had given rise to innumerable bandit gangs and rebellions. What was new in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a disturbing rise in state corruption (Davis 2002, 350-8) and the attendant breakdown of the ‘ever-normal’ granary system, which had been designed to alleviate the effects of drought, famine and flooding.
Put in contemporary terms, the welfare system was breaking down.
One ingredient in this was corruption attendant upon the opium trade. Another, of course, was war.
Each conflict between China and the European powers during this period also resulted in extraterritoriality ‘agreements’. China was forced to allow British subjects committing crimes in China to be tried by British courts (Selby 1968). Similarly, China was forced to accept Christian missionaries, and the Chinese state was held responsible, and forced to pay vast ‘indemnities’ on the occasions that Chinese people violently rejected those missionaries (ibid). Which is to say, the Chinese themselves were not subject to Chinese law, but to the laws (perhaps it would be better to say ‘whims’) of alien powers. Each concession to foreign powers occasioned making the same concession to all the other colonial powers: with all insisting on ‘most favoured nation’ status.
Nor was the ruling dynasty itself even Chinese. The Qing dynasty had not universally established themselves as native two centuries after seizing power, and enforced widely-resented codes of dress, hairstyle and gendered brutality. For men, the shaved head and braided ‘queue’ were the mark of subjection. Women – who could not run (or even walk) away due to the practice of footbinding – were routinely traded as chattels in times of hardship.
Given this combination of circumstances it would be shocking if there had not eventually been a revolutionary uprising against the opium trade, foreigners, and the Qing state. The alternative to revolution, repeatedly demonstrated in China and India for the rest of the century, was death by famine – on a scale equalling the holocausts of the Twentieth Century (Davis). And given the forced expansion of Christian evangelism during this period, it is unsurprising that one of the uprisings that took place was heavily coloured by Christianity.
Kneale has committed a cruel error of emphasis by pretending that religion is the key object of analysis here, as well as by his failure to consider the idea that people who live in hell have every right – and justification – for storming heaven.
Don’t take my word for it though. Lord Elgin dictated the terms of Treaty of Peking in 1860, enshrining British privileges there which only fully ended in 1997 with the ‘handover’ (return) of Hong Kong to China. Following that treaty, British and American mercenaries and gunboats joined Chinese imperial forces in destroying the Taiping and making China safe once more for British opium and American missionaries. Elgin said this about how history might judge him:
I feel that I am earning myself a place in the Litany immediately after plague, pestilence and famine. (Selby 1968: 196)
This is the context within which the Taiping Kingdom rose and fell. Kneale’s narrative of it, on the other hand, merely sniggers at its ‘strangeness’, its failure and the hypocrisies of its leaders. As if religion is necessary for people to be hypocritical.
Inventing new Marxisms
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. Karl Marx in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
Interestingly, having avoided noting the Taiping’s historical relationship with actual opium, Kneale immediately ignores Karl Marx’s famous metaphorical use of it.
Matthew Kneale has an opium problem.
This may also help explain his awkward attitude to time:
Is there a place for Marxism in a book of this kind? Marxism was not a religion, after all, but a political philosophy. Its appeal – and although it has been much discredited, it was genuinely popular, notably in Russia during and after the First World War, and in China in the 1940s – lay in its seeming modernity. [The underlinings are mine, the italics are Kneale’s.]
Fervidly imagining ‘Marxism’ into the past might have been warranted immediately following the death of the Soviet Union, assuming you had no interest in literary criticism, cultural studies, social history or the Kurdish independence movement.
But this book was published in 2013 – five years after a set of generation-defining economic collapses. That was the same year as Thomas Piketty got a Nobel prize in economics for conducting a vast tranche of empirical research that demonstrates that capitalism – absent steeply redistributive taxation – causes steadily increasing inequality, and divorces work from wealth. The greater the degree of inequality, the less the role of income from work in maintaining and increasing the wealth of those at the top. This came as no surprise to Marxists – who really ought to make more of possessing the only system of political thought centrally concerned with the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
We are returning – or, perhaps, have returned – to the gilded age. In a deliberate nod to Marx, Piketty’s work is called Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
As well as being wrong though, Kneale’s written about this in the wrong book.
Marxism as Religion?
It’d difficult, in fact, to tell how Kneale thinks Marxism does warrant a place here. Mostly because he doesn’t get round to telling us.
Despite him having explicitly posed the question we quoted above, he doesn’t answer it in a similarly explicit manner. Kneale, like a bad chess player, believes attack is the only form of defence. And he just can’t wait to get started.
His first, profoundly quixotic, avenue of attack is that Marxism has various forms of ‘appeal’. It was ‘popular’ amongst Chinese and Russian elites seeking to modernise their states. It had powerful ‘appeal’ because the Communist Manifesto was quite short. And the Communist Manifesto in turn was popular because it was electrifying. Not just ‘electrifying’, you understand, but electrifying in a way that can only be communicated by the use of italics.
None of this, it should be noted, has relevance to anything bad or religion-like in Marx’s ideas or his way of expressing them. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing well. Or with modernising things.
When Kneale descends from literary sniping to historical fact, he falls immediately into embarassing error. He introduces the Communist Manifesto‘s condemnation of bourgeois hypocrisy thus:
Here he is, thundering, bishop-like, against imagined bourgeois critics who claim that communists would undermine the institution of the family…
If Marx was simply ‘imagining’ such critics, that would mean that they did not in fact exist.
But they did.
Here’s an American example from 1915:
…they propose State nurseries for the infants, where the baby will get Socialistic state milk in a Socialistic state bottle, administered by a State nurse. All this is done to liberate the mother from “sex slavery”, that she may not depend on the father of her child for support. This is done to destroy the “family”, which is, in the socialists’ view, an institution established by religion to promote capitalism.(Hubbard, 1915, p.16)
Marx, it appears, was absolutely right to anticipate and seek to counter such criticism in advance. One might even call him ‘prophetic’. In the good sense, that is.
But let’s be absolutely fair to Kneale. Maybe by ‘imagined’ he simply means that such criticisms of communism weren’t yet commonplace when Marx was writing. This would be true. In 1848 there still wasn’t enough communist literature around to warrant a heavyweight intellectual response – and the early academic response to the rise of communist thought was to ignore it in the hope that it would go away.
But, whilst in Reflections on the Revolution in France Edmund Burke doesn’t expend a great deal of words on the importance of the family, he does acknowledge in passing its logical necessity for the hereditary principle. The hereditary principle (alongside Christianity, Englishness and suspicion of Jews) – is held to be vital for resisting ideas of revolution and human rights. Burke, as most readers will be aware, is commonly held to be the founder of modern conservative thought. As such his work is close to being the apotheosis of ‘bourgeoise criticism’.
Adam Smith, however, creator of the idea of the ‘invisible hand’, is bourgeoise criticism incarnate. His Theory of Moral Sentiments, especially in his last amendments to it, makes explicit the claim that capitalist stability depends upon stark division of the sexes. The public sphere is to him a male one, and the private sphere is a female one. (Nerozzie and Nuti 2008). Anything else is chaos.
Marx didn’t imagine those bourgeoise critics at all. Kneale, rather, fantasizes their non-existence. Yes, I’m picking on a single ill-tempered word here. But Kneale, throughout this book, commits some of his worst sins in single – apparently throwaway – words.
When outlining Marx’s historical schema Kneale is similarly inaccurate.
We are told that, like various other religions, Marxism is ‘apocalytic’ – with a simplistic and daft historical schema that divides human life into only three eras. This three eras model is shared with other major ‘apocalyptic’ religions, including Christianity. In the case of Marxism, this historical schema divides simply into pre-capitalism, capitalism, and communism.
This is not true. Just. Not. True.
At the very crudest interpretation of Engel’s version of Marx’s schema of history, there are five rough stages of human social development. Marxists (including Marx) have creatively added to and subdivided these almost at will. Lenin and Trotsky & Gramsci & Mao at various moments of their careers, by contrast, were pretty nifty in making the case that you could maybe skip a stage – though Gramsci was open in saying this would constitute a ‘Revolution against Marxism’. That would still leave Kneale’s figures out by one despite him dealing with extremely small numbers.
If we take Kneale as just simplifying a bit for the sake of the lay reader, then it gets worse. Because, with sufficient disregard for historical complexity – and facts – any political idea at all can be reduced to three eras. Neoliberalism? No problem! The free market was everywhere in stage one, then the state interfered, and then the free market was re-established. Atheism – a la Matthew Kneale? Simples! First there was shamanism, then there was religion, and then everybody ‘outgrew’ religion. Feminism? Everybody was sexist, then women got the vote, and now everybody’s equal.
His false logic in seeking to associate Marxism with religion, likewise, can be applied to any belief. Vehemence of belief is not what makes something a religion. And beliefs don’t magically become ‘religions’ just because a novelist alleges similarities in the structures of their ideas. Or because that novelist notes similarities in the length (honestly) of selected documents he identifies as important for them.
No. Religions are distinct from ‘beliefs’ because they confidently assert that there is some form of life beyond physical death, and that they have some knowledge of it. Kneale’s mendacious attempt to avoid such a perfectly simple definition is the entire basis of this book. And his payoff comes not in confronting religion, but in wilfully misrepresenting Marxism.
What’s Missing from Kneale’s Marxism or The stuff an Oxford Graduate in Modern History Really Ought to Know
In his desperation to dismiss Marxism, Kneale doesn’t merely mislead by commission and rhetorical sleight of hand. He repeatedly lies by omission.
In economics, he fails to note the contribution of Marxist economics to our understanding of cyclical collapses and the crises of capitalism. That’s unfortunate, given that the regularities of the Kondratieff cycle provide one of the few areas where economics as a discipline has succeeded in producing long-term predictive knowledge. As a result of that predictive knowledge (Kondratieff published his theory of waves through the 1920s), and particularly in its confirmation in the Great Crash of 1929 and the human disasters that followed, the Western states – under Keynes’ tutelage – substantially modified how their economies worked. The aim was to avoid the periodic crises which might lead to revolutions, Marxist or otherwise. The reversal of the Keynesian settlement and the insatiable expansion of ‘the market’ since the 1970s has, with remarkable directness, led us back to the kind of instability Marx anticipated and sought.
Whenever capitalist economists deal with history rather than idealised fictions or false a priori assumptions, they find themselves replying to Marx. Some of the best amongst them have reacted to this by building on large aspects of Marx’s work. The breathless jargon of ‘change’, ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ that suffuses contemporary politics and advertising is drawn from the ouevre of Joseph Schumpeter. His ideas in turn were inspired – often explicitly – by his pro-capitalist adaptation of the ideas and observations of Marx and Kondratieff.
In history and historiography, similarly, the importance of Marxism over the last century is unquestionable. Kneale really ought to remember some of this, if the kudos of his Oxford degree in Modern History is at all merited.
Christopher Hill was explicitly indebted to Marxian analysis. The schools of prehistoric archeology Kneale draws on for his view of proto-religious ideas were – are – explicitly responding to the prior domination of their field by Marxists. The most famous global history of the modern world is probably that authored by Eric Hobbsbawm. Literary history and cultural studies, since Raymond Williams, cannot be done without either addressing or doing a painful bodyswerve around insights drawn from Marxism.
In sociology Marxists (as well as those routinely dismissed as Marxists) have dominated the academic analysis of media bias and its nature (see for example, anything by the Glasgow Media Group) – and the rigour of their arguments and fact-checking has been such that government and media organisations have preferred to attack sociology as a whole rather than to deal with the findings of the studies themselves.
So far, you’ll note, I’ve barely got started in describing its impact even in merely academic terms.
But that academic power grew from social and political strength. Kneale seeks to limit the political impact of Marxism solely to its failings during the period that it controlled the governments of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and thus – deliberately – fails to acknowledge the impact of Marxism through the twentieth century.
So, what does he miss?
Well, he misses the way the First World War ended – with Marxist-inspired revolts in Germany. And Austria. And Italy. He misses the rise of socialism in France before the First World War. And in Wales and Scotland and Ireland. He misses the role of revolutionary socialists in achieving Irish independence. He misses the time US voters gave over three percent of the vote to a Marxist presidential candidate who was in a prison cell and didn’t have a single newspaper supporting him.
He misses the literary inspiration of Richard Wright, the lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit’, London’s working class and jews sending Mosley’s fascists packing, the partisans of France and Italy and Yugoslavia, the PKK, Students for a Democratic Society, the parties handing out banners at every anti-nuclear march ever, the antifa, the politics of Jean-Paul Sartre, the birth of the Third World movement, Woody Guthrie, the Spanish Civil War, the Cuban Revolution, the Red Scare, the Second Red Scare, McCarthyism, the Query Club and the education of Nye Bevan, the Angolan Civil War, and the Zapatista Rebellion.
He misses the miners’ strikes, the General Strikes, the history of the Pinkerton agency, the ANC, the Front Populaire, 1968 everywhere, the origins of New Labour in Marxism Today, the legends of Red Clydeside, the central role of Marxists (and ex-Marxists) in separatist movements in Scotland, Wales, Quebec and the Basque Country.
He misses the entire Cold War.
He misses the (Marxist) Soviet Union beating off the Nazi onslaught whilst the greatest (capitalist) empire in history, controlling the combined resources of Australia, India, Canada, Iraq, New Zealand, Palestine, Egypt, Kenya, Rhodesia, South Africa etc., could do no better than wait for allies and take out loans and pray they got saved before the rockets started raining down.
And if there should be anyone in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, South-East Asia, Latin America, the Carribean or on a space station reading this, they’d be perfectly within their rights to complain that I’d unfairly ignored the continuing impacts of Marxism in their part of the universe.
Most importantly for Kneale’s case however, he misses the fact that the Communist Party still controls China: and that China’s rise to major power status only happened after the revolution he is so derisive about. Neither of these are small points. The current president of China, Xi Jinping, holds a Ph.D in Marxist Theory, and has directed increased resources to the publication and study of Marxist and Maoist works; as well as explicitly seeking to rehabilitate the Cultural Revolution. His use of those ideas may be hypocritical, of course – but that speaks more of the continuing power of Chinese Marxism than its disappearance.
Once again, Kneale gives us a pen portrait of his chosen demon, whilst barely acknowledging the single biographer he has read. The day of Sayyid Qutb’s execution by the Egyptian state is chosen to set the scene. But we are not told the constellations on the night before that morning, the time of the growing season, the names of the executioners, how the scholar was dressed or the types or numbers of seabirds bobbing placidly on the waves as he left his beach house for the last time.
We are told, however, that the execution occurred on “One hot summer’s night”.
This may shock anyone expecting Sayyid Qutb to have died in one of those famous Cairo snowstorms.
Over the next three pages we are treated to a potted treatment of the evolution of Qutb’s thinking into what we might now recognise as the foundation of’Islamic fundamentalism’. Hardly enough space for significant errors, obvious logical blunders or deliberate evasions.
Kneale notes that Qutb went to America ‘in’ 1948. But he fails to mention that he spent two years there studying education. Instead, in a gross twisting of facts, those two years are presented to so as to mislead the innocent or stupid into viewing Qutb as ungratefully riding a gravy train at taxpayers’ expense.
And, more sinfully, being ugly to boot. Here’s how it’s done:
…Qutb was shocked when both the West and the Soviet Union gave their support to a Jewish State in Palestine in 1948. When, in that same year, he was sent on a government-sponsored trip to the United States, unlike other Egyptians, who returned from their visits filled with admiration, Qutb grew more fixed in his disdain. On his return he attacked America as filled with racial prejudice, sexual laxity and an absence of spiritual feeling. His former friend Mahfouz, no friend of puritanical Islamicists, came to regard him as sinister, with his bulging, serious eyes.
(The italics are mine. Everything else there is as written by Kneale)
In 1948, 1949 and 1950 seven lynchings were officially recorded in America. Five of the victims were black. In 1967, a year after Qutb died, Mildred and Richard Loving – a black woman and a white man with a beautifully appropriate surname – were jailed in Virginia for marrying one another. Public buildings and spaces across the southern states enforced rigorous segregation between races.
Religiously, to coin a phrase.
As least as far as race was concerned, then, Qutb had a point.
We are not told who the Egyptians were that visited America at this time, and were filled with admiration. It would be reasonable to guess, however, that, unless they were ‘government-sponsored’ they would usually be relatively wealthy – and quite possibly looking for a new home for that wealth.
Because from 1936 (at the latest) onwards both the monarchy and the Wafd (then the main political party in Egyptian life) were under existential pressure. Both were contaminated by compromise with British imperial interests, and Britain was too weak to reimpose direct rule. In the increasingly fraught environment of the 1940s the Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood were part of a broad intellectual and cultural ferment built out of the protests and general strike that had won Egypt its formal independence in 1922. Intellectuals and activists like Nasser and Qutb were united against a common enemy – and they knew they were going to win.
And so, for a time, they looked like friends. Until the final ousting of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and 1953 – exactly the point at which you’d expect them to fall out over the nature of the new order.
Once again, Kneale doesn’t tell us any of this – essential – background. For him the origins of Qutb’s thought are essentially mysterious, and were just exacerbated a little by things in the actual world. Really:
Though this change began within him, it was furthered by events of the time.
Despite the book’s titular claim to atheism, Kneale has finally surrendered to the doctrine of divine intervention. Only God – or Allah, it appears – is capable of inspiring anyone to fundamentalism. We see here the true extent of Kneale’s failure. His blind refusal to relate to religion on its own terms finally has faith appearing as something inexplicable and internal. Just as all the prophets (and Sayyid Qutb) always claimed.
Instead of history, we are left with mystery, and some ‘events’.
As Kneale signs off his look at Qutb, he sums up his own worldview:
Romantics often have a certain incendiary potential. When their dreams are disappointed, trouble follows. A sprinkling of cynicism makes for a safer mix.
Amusingly for the rest of us though, cynics also see their dreams fall in tatters.
Albeit tatters somewhat greyer and less significant than other people’s. No-one pauses to sigh with them. The world does not forgive traitors just because they were only being cynics in bowing before power, or abusers because they picked on the weak, or bureaucrats who laughed about losing the forms that could have saved their victims from hunger and homelessness. In every generation cynical politicians draw up maps and plans for a world in which the powerful do whatever they like and the powerless do whatever they’re told. And in every generation their ‘realistic’ calculations are ripped apart by revolutionaries here, saints there, and martyrs where nobody thought to look.
And, sometimes, real historians and researchers turning the pitiless gaze of evidence back upon the powerful.
On ‘Wounded Patriotism’
So, finally to answer the question raised earlier: what did Marxism, Qutbism and Hong Xiuquan’s Heavenly Kingdom all have in common? All three offered cures for the same malady: wounded patriotism …
Just one year before Hong Xiuquan began preaching his Chinese Protestantism, China suffered shameful defeat by the British in the First Opium War. It was as if he hoped, by adopting his enemies’ religion, to borrow a little of their magic. Russia and China both adopted Marxism after national shaming: Russia by the armies of the Kaiser’s Germany, and China by both Western colonialists and imperial Japan. Qutbism, although it has only been taken up by a relatively small number of people, wholly rejected the last few centuries of Islamic history, when the Muslim world was faced by European aggression, Western scientific advances, and loss of lands to the new Israeli state. (Italics in original)
This is an unfortunate statement in terms of how history works in general: and in how it misrepresents all – yes, all – the historical facts referred to. We’ll look first at the simple and general point.
History is not some grand game of ideas in which the very worst that can happen is ‘shame’ at losing face or losing land. Losing the land that feeds you is just as important as the shame of your loss. The greatest wounds of the Opium Wars were not to ‘patriotism’, but to flesh and bone. In China’s wars in the Twentieth Century, mass murder and starvation were augmented by mass rape. And as Western powers installed tame aristocrats throughout the Arab world to ensure its resources went to Europe and American overlords, so the poor starved in sight of oil wells that should have made them rich.
Or, to put it another way: historical changes don’t stem primarily from perceptions of circumstances, but from the circumstances themselves. Kneale believes fervently in a ‘healthy dose of cynicism’. But despite – or because of – his self-mythologisation as a practical man and a bit of a cynic, he doesn’t have much regard for the facts.
We can see this in every – every – particular mentioned in those paragraphs.
The Taiping’s war with their state (not initially a war against the colonialists at all, and during the early part of which they sought to negotiate agreements with the colonialists) actually started when the Qing’s Army attacked the Taiping; rather than when Hong Xiuquan started preaching. The primary opium smugglers – and most direct colonialists – were British (and Anglican), whilst the missionaries were largely American (and Southern Baptist). You could argue that Hong Xiuquan sought to ‘borrow his enemies magic’, in Kneale’s tinhat colonialist phrasing – but only if they thought all white people shared the same religious ideas. And if you think they mistook the Mongol-descended emperor of China for a white bloke.
Hong’s fellow Taiping, meanwhile, were certainly rational enough to research and implement military ideas based on taking the best of whatever information and equipment they could get, without stopping to ask God for help (Selby 1968). In this sense, then, the Taiping Kingdom appears little different to other states with monarchies that lay claim to a sacred right to rule. One of those monarchies being that of the Romanovs, the last hereditary rulers of the Russian Empire.
They were, in sober fact, not deposed only by Marxists – but by a massive coalition of socialist revolutionaries, anti-war activists, war-sickened women, anarchists, parliamentary socialists, trade unionists, liberals, disillusioned soldiers and hungry peasants. Including some Marxists.
The Bolsheviks were able to create a second revolution nine months later, largely because the victors of the first had failed to make peace with the Kaiser’s Germany. The ‘national shaming’ of giving up much of the European part of the Russian Empire didn’t happen before the Marxists took power. It happened after and because they took power, and the willingness to make it happen was how they took power. Kneale has his Soviet history precisely arse backwards.
In China the wars that finally brought the Communist Party to power lasted through most of the first half of the Twentieth Century. They opened with the murderous expulsion of Communists from the Chinese nationalist movement in 1923. The wars during the period of the Japanese invasions were complex, shifting and many-sided affairs involving Japanese imperial forces, local warlords, Soviet forces, Americans, Muslim regionalists, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang nationalists, and Communist forces under competing leaderships.
It’s logically – and morally – wrong to reduce the final outcome of a vast thirty-plus year war to something as nebulous as ‘national shaming’. Kneale’s crass personalisation of China ‘adopting’ Marxism makes it look as if this was simply some teenager in a momentary hissy fit of ‘wounded patriotism’ – rather than an epic struggle for one of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations. Or for the land and resources it occupied.
Qutbism doesn’t have any connection with these instances of revolution, of course. And Kneale’s attempt to connect them with it is silly. As well as factually inaccurate. Qutb did not reject Wahhabism – even though he pointed to the hypocrisy and love of luxury of some Muslim rulers who claimed Wahhabist inspiration. Nor, despite causing some of his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood discomfort by his fanaticism, did he reject the Muslim Brotherhood. It is, pretty clearly, absolute tosh to state that Qutb ‘wholly rejected the last few centuries of Islamic history’.
These are not small or insignificant exceptions. The House of Saud draws its legitimacy from Wahhabism, and the Muslim Brotherhood continues as a powerful radical force. Since the acceleration of global oil dependency in the second half of the twentieth century, Arab states with a formal commitment to Islam have been gaining economic and political power. That also means, of course, scientific power. For now, this is manifested in the world’s tallest buildings, artificial islands and state-of-the-art dock facilities for use by American warships. But it is difficult, given these achievements, to carry on calling the science ‘Western’ or insisting that the command of science must necessarily displace religion. Some Arab and Muslim states that sought to emphasize their secularism, on the other hand, have faced relative or absolute decline or revolutions that have increased the reach of radical religion. Egypt is the prime example of the first – as well as being one of those that has suffered the greatest blows to its status as a result of the establishment of the state of Israel. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria illustrate the second, quite dramatically. Iran and Libya and illustrate the third.
In passing, Kneale doesn’t mention the superiority of ‘Western Science’ when addressing Russia or China. This may be well-advised. It was, after all, those pesky Russian Marxists that first put man into space, and later forced America to make the internet a global civilian technology. China’s industrial development has also been fuelled by astonishing technological progress – you don’t build computers such as the one I am now typing on merely by having access to cheap labour, nor build the world’s largest sea bridges.
Not in passing, on the other hand, he refers patronisingly to Qutbism only having gained a small number of adherents. This is despite him already having noted that Qutb recommended a ‘vanguard’ strategy for reviving puritanical Islam. Vanguards are, by definition, composed of small numbers that seek to influence the world by superior determination, courage and organisation. Armed vanguard groups seek, by actions carried out by tiny numbers against symbolic targets, to cause established authorities to become repressive to the point of destabilising themselves.
I shall leave to you the question of whether Islamic fundamentalists have made any progress in this respect.
To summarise, Kneale’s attempt to draw the Taiping, Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism into a single simplistic framework of ‘wounded patriotism’ is plain wrong. It is wrong because he gets historical events in the wrong order. It is wrong because he reduces vast complexes of events he has not bothered to research to simplistic and shallow ideas. And it is wrong because – quite contrary to what you might initially expect from a sincere atheist – it makes irrational ideas into the motors of history.
At least, that is, when those events involve people who Kneale feels himself superior to; such as anyone who advocates revolution for any reason, anyone who identifies with religion, or anyone who doesn’t do Western science.
Guilt by Association – Kneale Plays the Nazi Card
In a final attempt to bury Marxism in the far distant past, Kneale brings us to his conclusion with a short section entitled “Filling the Great Vacuum”, which moves through Mormonism, the supernatural roots of Nazism and then to the present day via Scientology. Not too much room there, you might think, to get in sidewipes at Marxism.
But what’s this? Whilst casting around for links between Joseph Smith (who died in 1844, in America) and Madame Blavatsky (who first published in the 1870s, in America) Kneale notes that “around 1850 there occurred quite an explosion of radical new notions.”
Although these often ‘contradicted each other’ (as happens with books in bookshops right up to the present day, funnily enough) – they could be found at the same bookstalls and were read ‘by the same people’. People who could read but weren’t privileged. People who therefore were:
not unlike the poor independent artisans and tailors who had supported radical new beliefs in Europe for the last thousand years, from Tanchelm to the Muggletonians. For that matter it was just such people who had lately commissioned Marx to write the Communist Manifesto.
“Such people” – because they have been excluded from privileges such as Matthew Kneale’s private school education – are, it seems, inevitably mistaken. It seems they should be content, once God, Allah, Marx and the spirits of the Earth are abolished, to worship their privileged betters.
Even if their privileged betters can’t do research, logic or geography.
Does it get worse? Oh yes:
At almost exactly the same time that Marx was hurriedly writing his Communist Manifesto, a disgraced, former grave-robbing Scottish surgeon, Robert Knox, was working on the racialist equivalent of Marx’s work: The Races of Men: A Fragment.
Just think, two different people writing books saying totally different things at different times. There must be a link. Or, then again, perhaps not:
Unlike the Communist Manifesto, The Races of Men: A Fragment was an instant bestseller.
Several pages later, during which we are presented with plentiful but unremarked evidence that many influential Austrian and German racists and xenophobes were in fact extremely privileged, and neither poor artisans nor tailors, we finally get Kneale’s idea of the connection.
List and Lang [Austro-Hungarian proto-fascists], like Hong Xiuquan and Marx, offered reassurance in the face of national panic…
Was this national panic serious? Well, in a word, no:
Not that Austria-Hungary had been shamed by foreign occupation, but some Austrians were highly uneasy about the future…
Who were the Austrians feeling uneasy about the future? Were they artisans and tailors? Were they Jewish intellectuals who’d dropped out of law school and starting writing revolutionary pamphlets? Not really:
German-speakers, who had formed the Habsburg’s ruling class for centuries, could see their advantages ebbing away.
Funnily enough, when we’re presented with idiotic and nasty members of a ruling class adopting an explicitly vicious and xenophobic belief system in defence of privilege, Kneale seems no rush to judge, pity or psychoanalyse them. Which is a shame really, given that psychoanalysis was born in Austria during this period.
Never mind, I was far past expecting any interesting intellectual diversions by this point.
Having established his spurious link to Marxism, Kneale ploughs on to the inevitable Hitler connection:
After her defeat in the First World War, Germany felt a similar sense of national panic. Here List and Lanz’s claims [for their xenophobic and anti-Jewish mythological invention] found new followers. There is some evidence that Hitler himself had been a keen readers of Lanz’s magazine, Ostara, during his days as a struggling artist in Vienna…
Hang on a fucking minute…
… though, if he had been, he kept quiet about the fact during his rise to power.
Oops, there it goes, flying away into the ether. The last tiny vestige of the last fraction of the ghost of the remnant of a vague association between religion, Marxism and the Holocaust.
Kneale attempts to recover the thread by pointing out that Himmler, head of the SS, gave List and Lanz’s best mate a job and got him to ‘design’ the SS’s Death’s Head ring. Somewhat awkwardly for anyone maintaining a belief in the centrality of the newer occult ideas for Nazism, Himmler then sacked him in 1938, before overt discrimination and persecution against Jews turned into outright and systematic mass murder.
It doesn’t take much research to uncover a far more central episode in Himmler’s political career. Himmler was a Freikorps officer – one of those hired by clever and cynical politicians in the Social Democratic Party to put down the revolutions in Germany that ended the First World War.
Here we see the foul little trick Kneale has played by attempting to identify religion as sharing an essentially commonality with ‘Marxism’ and with ‘Nazism’. He has taken those ‘beliefs’ he viscerally hates, and by a long string of false associations, strategic omissions and bad history, sought to roll them into a single rational-looking explanation for the most famous evil of the modern age. At the end of it all, though, the best exhibit he’s got is a trashy ring that looks like half a badly sculpted Jolly Roger. Really.
Detail from an SS Totenkopf Ring:
History books with a grand reach and rigorous research, however strong the opinions of their authors, tend to have concluding chapters where they spell out what their arguments are. This enables the critical reader to go back and double check whether the author has distorted the facts in order to suit their arguments. But this isn’t even a history book. It’s a set of badly made – or often merely presumed – arguments for a partial, snobbish and banal version of atheism.
It’s a version of ‘atheism’ that excludes the 46% of Chinese respondents who claimed to be atheists in the online poll referred to here – or, at least, any of them who’ve got anything positive to say about Marxism. It’s a version of atheism that avoids dealing with religion as a form of social control – despite the spectacular demise of emperor worship being a very viable explanation for the rise of atheism in Japan referred to in the same article. And it’s a version of atheism that believes so simplistically in the ‘cooler comforts of science’ that it has ditched one religion for another.
The sudden two paragraph conclusion (aside from giving another impression of frantic hurry towards a publisher’s deadline) introduces new and unreferenced factual assertions. But only one of them is stated clearly enough to be falsifiable:
In Britain a politician with even modest religious belief is regarded with deep distrust.
I’d like it if that was true – or even if it was as true as the statement that the British do not generally trust politicians.
But it’s not.
David Cameron’s religiosity and his happiness about being ‘evangelical‘ didn’t do him any harm. It was Brexit that triggered his resignation. And a minor cause of that, sad to say, may have been Nigel Farage’s open embrace of ‘Britain’s Judeo-Christian heritage‘. And whilst (false) claims of Labour anti-semitism got wide and hysterical coverage preceding the most recent elections, Labour’s Sadiq Khan became the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city – with a thumping majority. It’s really not like he played down being Muslim either – in February 2016 he was awarded the honour of being named British Muslim politician of the year, after being nominated on two previous occasions. Immediately upon being elected Mayor of London, Khan – rightly – laid into Donald Trump for seeking to exclude ‘mainstream Muslims’ like him from the US.
Before the obligatory disclaimer about being unable to foretell the future (after all, it’s not like he’s God or anything), and saying that we may have a ‘few more invented worldviews’ to go, Kneale gets as close as any sane editor would allow to saying that religion is on the way out pretty much everywhere:
Even in parts of the world seen as intensely religious, such as the Middle East, the world is becoming obstinately more complex, and old certainties more elusive.
Insisting on ‘complexity’ as the cause of anything is a profoundly simplistic way of looking at the world. It means there’s always an excuse for not understanding, for not asking questions, and for not finding answers.
And, worse, for not caring. Kneale’s bleak conception of ‘atheism’, and his lazy dismissal of any resistance to power after the Mesopotamian era, is of a piece with the laxity and dishonesty of his research and presentation. It doesn’t ultimately matter how bad things get – for Kneale, the true atheist will always resist the beliefs that promise to make things better.
With a vision so venal, it’s no shock this book has no soul.
Sources not linked to in the text above.
Mike Davis (2002) Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, London, Verso
Angus R. Quinlan ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy: A Critical Review of Shamanism and Rock Art in Far Western North America’ in Joumal of California and Great Basin Anthropology Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 92-108 (2000).
Thomas Taylor Meadows (1856) The Chinese and their Rebellions, London; Smith, Elder & Co.
Accessed via https://archive.org/stream/chineseandtheir02meadgoog
This is free to download, and notwithstanding the author’s mid-Victorian racism worth reading for its vast detail and subtlety in the face of facts and language in matters where the author had personal experience.
John Selby (1968) The Paper Dragon: The China Wars 1840-1900, London; Arthur Barker Ltd.