Vol 3, No 3 (2007) The Actuality of Karl Kautsky: On Materialist Reconstructions of Ancient Israel and Early Christianity


Roland Boer


In Karl Kautsky’s search for the origins and sustained strength of that ‘colossal phenomenon’ called Christianity, he delves back to make the first Marxist reconstruction of the social and economic context in which the Bible arose. His Foundations of Christianity is, in other words, a Marxist reconstruction of the economic history of ancient Israel, the Ancient Near East and early Christianity. For all its flaws, the great value of the book is that it begins what is still an unfinished project. For me, the enticement is to take that project further. In doing so, I focus not on the flaws in his reconstruction, but rather on the questions that are still important now. So I begin with the troubled use of unreliable ancient texts like the Bible for the sake of historical reconstruction, an issue that is still very much at the centre of biblical scholarship. If they are chronically unreliable sources, then what historical use (if any) do they have? Secondly, I engage critically with Kautsky’s reconstruction, seeking insights that are still pertinent today. I am particularly interested in his use of the narrative of differentiation, in his discussion of modes of production, especially his argument for a slave mode of production in both the Ancient Near East and the Hellenistic world, in what a new reconstruction in Kautsky’s spirit might look like (what I call ‘the sacred economy’), and in the problem of transitions between modes of production. Third, I pick up an argument he shares with his sometime friend and comrade, Rosa Luxemburg: if early Christianity was a communist movement, then what sort of communism was it? Yet, Kautsky’s interest was much wider than Christian communism, for one of his projects was to recover a much greater tradition of socialist thought and practice, one that predates Marx and Engels’ ‘modern’ socialism. Christian communism becomes an important moment in this longer tradition. At this point I bring in his Thomas More and His Utopia(Kautsky 2002 [1888]) as well as Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation (Kautsky 2002 [1897]). Finally, I develop the further the argument that it was and remains a powerful political myth: it probably never existed, but that only enhances its mythical status.


Karl Kautsky; ancient Israel; early Christianity


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