Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Author’s Foreword

CHRISTIANITY and Bible criticism are themes I have long been concerned with. Twenty-five years ago I published an essay on the Genesis of Biblical Primitive History in Kosmos, and two years later one on the Genesis of Christianity in Neue Zeit. It is thus an old love that I come back to. The occasion was given when a second edition of my Forerunners of Socialism seemed needed.

The criticism made of that book, so far as I have seen it, found fault mainly with the introduction, in which I gave a brief account of the communism of primitive Christianity. It was held that this notion did not stand up in the face of the most recent results of research.

Soon after these criticisms it was announced further, especially by Comrade Göhre, that another conception in my book had been rendered obsolete. This was the notion, first upheld by Bruno Bauer and then accepted in essentials by Mehring and by me in 1885, namely that there is nothing certain we can say about the person of Jesus and that Christianity can be explained without introducing this person.

For these reasons I was unwilling to prepare a new edition of my book, which appeared thirteen years ago, without testing the ideas on Christianity in the light of the most recent literature.

In the process I arrived at the comforting conclusion that I had nothing to alter. However, the latest researches opened up to me so many new points of view and suggestions that checking my introduction to the Forerunners gave rise to a whole new book.

I do not of course claim to have exhausted the subject. It is too gigantic for that. I shall be content if I have succeeded in contributing to the understanding of those aspects of Christianity that seem to me to be the decisive ones from the point of view of the materialistic conception of history.

I certainly can not compare my learning in questions of religious history with that of the theologians who have devoted their lives to the subject, while I had to write this book in the free time left to me by editorial and political activity in an age when the present takes up all the attention of any man who takes part in modern class struggles, leaving him no time for the past.

But perhaps it was just my intensive involvement in the class struggle of the proletariat that made it possible for me to get insights into the essence of primitive Christianity that escape the professors of theology and religious history.

In his Julie J.J. Rousseau says:

“I think it is foolish to try to study society as a mere bystander. The man that wants only to observe observes nothing; as he is useless in business and a dead weight in amusements, he is not drawn into anything. We see others’ actions only to the extent that we act ourselves. In the school of the world, as in love’s school, we have to start by practicing what we want to learn” (Part II, Letter 17).

This proposition can be extended from the study of man, to which it is limited here, to the inquiry into all things. A man never gets far with mere looking-on, without entering into things practically. That holds true even for research into such distant things as the stars. Where would astronomy be if it confined itself to pure observation and did not link it with practice, with the telescope, spectral analysis, photography? And still more is this true of terrestrial things, for which our practice gets much closer under our skin than mere spectatorship. Just looking on is thin-blooded compared to what we learn by working on these things and with these things. We need only think of the tremendous importance of experiment in science.

In human society experiments are out of the question as methods of inquiry; but that does not mean that the practical activity of the inquirer plays a smaller role, given those conditions that are requisite to making an experiment, too, fruitful. These conditions are the knowledge of the most important discoveries made by previous investigators and acquaintance with a scientific method that sharpens the eye for what is essential in every phenomenon, that makes it possible to separate the essential from the unessential and to discover what different experiences have in common.

A thinker thus equipped who takes up the study of a field in which he is active, is likely to achieve results that would be impossible for him as a spectator. Not the last place in which this is true is history. A practical politician, if he has scholarly training, will understand political history better and find his way around in it better than a library scholar who lacks the least practical acquaintance with what makes politics go. The researcher will be helped by his practical experience particularly when he is studying a movement of the class in which he himself is active and with whose nature he is intimately at home.

Hitherto this has been of benefit almost exclusively to the propertied classes, who have monopolized scholarship. The movements of the lower classes have not had many discriminating students. Christianity was in its initial stages undoubtedly a movement of the propertyless, of the most diverse sorts, whom we may lump together under the name of proletarians if we do not mean thereby only wage-workers. Any one who knows the modern movement of the proletariat and what it has in common in the various countries, and knows it by working with them; any one who has been a fellow-fighter of the proletariat and has learned there to share its feelings and aspirations, has a right to expect to penetrate into the beginnings of Christianity more easily, in many respects, than the men of learning that see the proletariat only from afar.

Now although the practical politician with scholarly training has many advantages over the mere bookish men when it comes to writing history, he often loses the advantage because he has stronger temptations, which interfere with his impartiality. There are two in particular: first, the attempt to put the past into the mold of the present; and then the effort to see the past in a way that corresponds to the needs of the politics of the present.

We socialists, to the extent that we are Marxists, feel ourselves insured against these dangers by the materialist conception of history that is directly connected with our proletarian point of view.

The traditional conception of history sees political movements as nothing more than the battle over definite political institutions – monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, etc. – which in turn are the result of definite ethical ideas and aspirations. If we go no further, and do not ask for the basis of these ideas, aspirations and institutions, we come easily to the conclusion that they change only externally in the course of the centuries, remaining basically the same; that the same ideas, aspirations and institutions keep recurring, that all history is a continuous striving toward freedom and equality that always comes up against oppression and inequality, is never realizable, but never altogether done away with.

If somewhere, sometime, fighters for freedom and equality have won, their victory turns into the basis of new oppression and inequality. Then new fighters for freedom and equality arise once more.

In this way all history appears as a circle, always returning upon itself, an eternal repetition of the same struggles, in which only the costumes change, but humanity makes no progress.

One who holds this view will always be inclined to paint the past in the likeness of the present; and the better he knows the men of the present, the more likely he is to fashion earlier times after their pattern.

On the other hand, there is a conception of history that does not confine itself to observing social ideas, but looks for their causes in the deepest foundations of society. In this search it always comes up against the mode of production, which in turn depends on the status of technology in the last analysis, although by no means exclusively.

As soon as we take up the technology and then the mode of production of antiquity, the notion disappears that the same tragicomedy keeps repeating itself on the stage of the world. Man’s economic history shows a continual development from lower to higher forms, although one that is by no means a straight unbroken line. And when we have studied man’s economic relationships in the various historical periods, we lose the illusion of the never-ending recurrence of the same ideas, aspirations and political institutions. We see that identical words change their meaning over the centuries, that ideas and institutions that resemble each other externally have a different content, because they arise out of the needs of different classes under different conditions. The freedom that the modern proletarian demands is different from the freedom that the representatives of the Third Estate strove for in 1789, and this in turn was basically different from the freedom the German Imperial knights fought for at the beginning of the Reformation.

Once one stops regarding political struggles as struggles for abstract ideas or political institutions, and shows their economic basis, he sees immediately that here, just as in technology and modes of production, there is a continual development toward higher forms; that no era is quite like any other; that the same battle-cries and the same arguments mean quite different things at different times.

Now if the proletarian point of view enables us to understand more easily than bourgeois scholars can, those aspects of primitive Christianity which it has in common with the modern proletarian movement, the emphasis on economic relationships that comes from the materialist conception of history helps us understand the peculiar characteristics of the ancient proletariat, characteristics that arose out of its particular economic situation and that made its strivings so basically different from those of the modern proletariat, for all the features they have in common.

The Marxist conception of history guards us against the danger of measuring the past with the yardstick of the present, and gives us a keener eye for the peculiar quality of each era and each people. At the same time it preserves us from the other danger, that of making our description of the past fit the practical interest we are upholding at the present time.

Of course an honest man, whatever his point of view may be, will not let himself be led into a conscious falsification of history. But nowhere is the scholar’s impartiality more needed than in the social sciences, and nowhere is it harder to achieve.

The task of science is not simply to describe what exists, to furnish a photograph of reality that is true to life, so that any observer who is normally equipped will aim at the same picture. The task of science consists in getting at the general, the essential features in the bewildering “complex of features” or phenomena, and out of them to fashion a guiding thread that will enable us to find our way in the labyrinth of reality.

For the matter of that, the task of art is a similar one. It too does not simply furnish a photograph of reality; the artist has to reproduce what seems to him essential and characteristic in the reality he wants to depict. The difference between art and science lies in the fact that the artist presents the essential in a form that the senses can grasp, and that is the way he arrives at his effects, whereas the thinker presents what is essential as a concept or abstraction.

The more complicated a phenomenon is, and the fewer the phenomena it can be compared with, the harder it is to distinguish what is essential in it from what is accidental, and the more the subjective qualities of the researcher and expositor will come into play. The more vital, therefore, the clarity and impartiality of his view.

Now there is no more complicated phenomenon than human society, the society of men, each one of whom is already more complicated than any other being we know of. And at the same time the number of mutually comparable social organisms at the same stage of development is relatively very small. No wonder that the scientific study of society begins later than that of any other field of our experience; and no wonder that it is precisely in this domain that the views of scholars diverge more widely than anywhere else. But these difficulties are enormously magnified when, as is so often the case in the social sciences, different scholars have differing and often contrary practical interests in the outcome of their investigations, interests which need not be personal ones but may be a very matter-of-fact class interest.

It is obviously quite impossible to maintain impartiality when one is interested in any way in the social contradictions and battles of his time, and at the same time sees these phenomena of the present as a repetition of the contradictions and battles of the past. The latter become mere precedents entailing the justification or the condemnation of the former; our judgment of the present depends on our judgment of the past. Can any one to whom his cause is dear stay impartial? The more he is attached to it, the more importance he will attach to those facts of the past, and he will stress those, as the essential ones, that seem to support his own position, and relegate to the background, as unessential, the facts that seem to testify to the contrary. The researcher turns into a moralist or advocate who glorifies or stigmatizes certain phenomena of the past because he is a defender or an enemy of similar phenomena in the present-church, monarchy, democracy, etc.

The situation is quite different once it is realized, on the basis of economic insight, that nothing repeats itself in history, that the economic relationships of the past are gone beyond recall; that former class contradictions and struggles are essentially different from those of today; that hence modern institutions and ideas, for all their external coincidence with those of the past, have a totally different content. One realizes that every age must be measured with its own yardstick; that the strivings of the present must have their basis in present relationships; that past successes or failures have little relevance in the matter; that a mere appeal to the past to justify the demands of the present can but lead us astray. The democrats and proletarians of France found that out often enough in the last century when they relied more on the “theories” of the French Revolution than on insight into existing class relationships.

One who takes the standpoint of the materialist conception of history can look at the past with the most complete impartiality, even though he takes the most active part in the practical struggles of the present. His practical action can only make his view keener into many phenomena of the past; it can no longer becloud it.

So I too have proceeded to describe the roots of primitive Christianity without intending either to extol or stigmatize it, but merely to understand it. I knew that whatever results I might arrive at, the cause I was fighting for could not suffer thereby. No matter how I regarded the proletarians of the Empire, whatever their efforts and results may have been, they were totally different from the modern proletariat, which struggles and works in a quite different situation and with quite different methods. Whatever mighty deeds and successes, whatever miseries and defeats those proletarians may have had, they could not give any testimony as to the nature and the outlook of the modern proletariat, either favorable or unfavorable.

Now if that is the case, is there any practical purpose to busying oneself with history? The ordinary view looks upon history as a naval chart for mariners on the sea of political action; it should show the reefs and shallows where former seafarers were stranded, and enable their successors to get by unscathed. But if the channel of history is constantly changing and the shallows are always forming in new places, so that every pilot must find his way anew by constantly studying the channel; if mere steering by the old chart only too often leads astray, why still study history, except as a dilettante of antiques?

Anyone who took this position would throw out the baby with the bath.

To continue the image we have been using, history can not be used as a permanent chart for the pilot of a political vessel. But that does not signify that it is useless for him. He just has to make a different use of it. He has to use it as a sounding-lead, as a means of learning the channel he is in and finding his way in it. The only way to understand a phenomenon is to learn how it was formed. I can not understand today’s society if I do not know how it arose, how its various phenomena – capitalism, feudalism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. – developed.

If I want to get a clear idea of the social status, the tasks and the outlooks of the class I belong to or have joined, I must get clarity as to the existing social organism; I must understand it from every aspect; and that is impossible if I have not followed it in its development. Without insight into the course of society’s evolution it is impossible to be a conscious and far-sighted class fighter; one depends on the impressions received from one’s immediate environment and the present moment, one is never sure that one is not going to be driven into a channel that seems to lead ahead but soon ends between cliffs from which there is no outlet. It is true that many class struggles succeeded even though those who took part in them were not always clearly aware of the nature of the society in which they lived.

But in present-day society the conditions for that sort of successful struggle are disappearing, just as in this society it is harder and harder to be guided merely by instinct and tradition in choosing one’s food and enjoyments. They might be adequate in simple, natural conditions. The more artificial the conditions of life become as a result of the progress of technology and science, the more they depart from nature, the more the individual requires scientific knowledge to pick out what his organism needs from among the mass of artificial products offered him. So long as men drank only water, the instinct sufficed that made them seek out good spring water and reject foul swamp water. But instinct collapses completely as a guide to manufactured beverages. Scientific insight is needed here.

And it is precisely that way in politics, in social action in general. In the communities of antiquity with their simple and obvious relationships, which often remained unchanged for centuries, tradition and “sound common sense,” that is the insight the individual had attained as a result of his personal experience, were enough to show him his place and his tasks in society. Today, in a society whose market is the entire globe, which is in constant motion, technical and social motion, in which the workers organize into armies of millions and capitalists concentrate in their hands sums amounting to billions: in such a society it is impossible that a rising class, that can not limit itself to the preservation of what exists, that must demand a complete renovation of society, could conduct its class struggle purposefully and successfully if it does not go beyond sound common sense and the practical man’s skill. On the contrary, it becomes an urgent necessity for each fighter to broaden his horizon by scientific insight, to complete his knowledge of social connections in space and time, not in order to get along without practical skill or even to push it into the background, but in order to bring it into conscious connection with the total social process. What makes this even more necessary is that this same society, that increasingly encompasses the entire globe, carries the division of labor further and further, limits the individual more and more to a specialty, a single action, and tends to degrade him spiritually, making him less independent and less able to understand all the immensity of the entire process.

It is thus the duty of everyone who has made the rise of the proletariat his life’s work to counteract this tendency to mental emptiness and narrowness, by interesting the proletarians in large views of history.

There is hardly any way in which this can be done better than by the study of history, by surveying and understanding the course of society’s development over long periods of time, especially when this development contained powerful social movements that continue to operate in our own day.

In order to bring the proletariat to social insight, to self-consciousness and political maturity, to large-scale thinking, it is indispensable to study the historical process with the aid of the materialist conception of history. In this way the study of the past, far from being mere dilettante antiquarianism, will become a powerful weapon in the struggles of the present, in order to hasten the attainment of a better future.

Berlin, September 1908
K. Kautsky                  


Last updated on 24.12.2003