The Jubilee and the Apocalypse: a reply

Issue: 101

Neil Faulkner

In ‘The Jubilee and the Apocalypse’ (International Socialism 98), John Rose wrote a strong critique of my book Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome, AD 66-73.1 The debate is important for two reasons. First, it concerns a crucial stage in the development of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which, as John points out, has been central to ‘Western civilisation’. Second, at a time when US imperialism is a major global issue, it concerns the nature of imperialism in antiquity and the class struggle waged against it. This debate therefore has contemporary resonance. There seem to be four main areas of disagreement, and I shall deal with each in turn.
Historical method

John accuses me of not following the example of Geoffrey de Ste Croix and (a) having a full ‘scholarly apparatus’, and (b) avoiding the use of ‘modern analytical concepts’.2 The first point is invalid because it amounts to criticising me for not writing a different book. Apocalypse is a popular narrative for the general reader, not an academic tome like The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. My discussions of source criticism, methodological problems and scholarly debate are therefore restricted to short summaries-whereas they are the very essence of de Ste Croix’s work. John’s comparison is therefore pointless.

Much more important is his second point. This is worth quoting in full:

…there is his [de Ste Croix’s] stern warning about importing modern analytical concepts into ancient-historical analysis. His test was simple. Did the ancient Greeks have a similar concept? If not, then, he writes, ‘it may be a salutary warning to us that the phenomenon we are looking at may not have existed’.3

Now if de Ste Croix had really meant as John says, then he would have been wrong-wrong in general, wrong about his own method, and wrong in relation to many other statements in the very book from which the quotation is taken. The essence of The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World is the application of Marxist class analysis to the understanding of ancient history.4 Let me spell out the obvious in relation to this. No ancient Greek was a Marxist. No ancient Greek had a developed class analysis of history. No ancient Greek could have done because the material basis for such an understanding did not exist in antiquity. Marxism-the theory of international proletarian revolution-could not exist until a class had arisen that contained within itself the possibility of general human emancipation.5 You cannot have Marxism without the proletariat. That is why Marxism is a product of the 19th century. Up until that moment, all theories of history were tied in some sense to social classes with particular interests; they were, if you like, ideological. A theory of history that was scientific only became possible when a class appeared that had, instead of particular interests, universal ones. We now use that scientific theory to analyse history as a whole, and it is de Ste Croix’s great achievement that he pioneered its application to classical antiquity. To argue that we should use only ancient concepts to explain ancient society-to argue, in effect, that ancient society explained itself-is to deny the scientific breakthrough that Marxism represents. In fact, with its implicit denial of any truth beyond a society’s own perceptions of itself, it amounts to a collapse into postmodernism. And de Ste Croix was far too good a Marxist to make such a mistake. Here is some more of the passage from which John quoted so selectively:

I feel much happier, in dealing with the history of the ancient Greek world, if I can legitimately make use of categories of social analysis which are not only precise, in the sense that I can define them, but also general, in the sense that they can be applied to the analysis of other human societies. Class, in my sense, is eminently such a category. Nevertheless, I realise that it is a healthy instinct on the part of historians in the empirical tradition to feel the need at least to begin from [de Ste Croix’s emphasis] the categories and even the terminology in use within the society they are studying-provided, of course, they do not remain imprisoned therein [my emphasis].6

My conclusions may be mistaken in Apocalypse, but my historical method-the use of ‘modern analytical concepts’ to explain antiquity-most certainly is not.
Ancient nationalism

John takes particular exception to my use of two modern concepts: nationalism and racism.7 He disagrees that they are applicable to antiquity, and takes me to task for not defining what I mean by them. I will take them in turn, starting in each case with a definition.

John is right to praise Eric Hobsbawm’s work on modern nationalism. He has done as thorough a hatchet job as one could hope for, exposing nationalist ideologies as fabrications based on invented traditions rooted in the state-building projects of modern capitalist and proto-capitalist ruling classes.8 So let us use Hobsbawm’s definition:

I use the term ‘nationalism’ in the sense defined by Gellner, namely to mean ‘primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent’. I would add that this principle also implies that the political duty of Ruritanians to the polity which encompasses and represents the Ruritanian nation, overrides all other public obligations, and in extreme cases (such as wars) all other obligations of whatever kind.9

This seems a perfectly serviceable definition. The problem for John is that there is nothing in it that need apply only to the capitalist nation-states of recent times. It could be applied to any state in any period. Provided we have an invented ‘nation’ (or ‘people’ or ‘tribe’ or whatever the imagined cultural entity happens to be), and provided this imagined group is associated with a particular state or prospective state, we have nationalism-ie an ideology promoting identification between the group and the state that purports to represent it. Engels, let us recall, argued that the state arose out of the contradictions inherent in class society: without ‘armed bodies of men’, the social order-at root, ruling class control over surplus-could not have endured.10 The state, in other words, is an apparatus for the defence of surplus against both subject populations and rival states. It is therefore an essential feature of all class societies.

Nationalism has its root not in any particular form of state, but in the state itself-it is, in essence, a ruling class ideology geared to mobilising support for the state. Hobsbawm is right to argue that the ‘nations’ of modern nationalism are invented, but John is quite wrong to argue that invented ‘nations’ are new to history. The process of invention-of nations, peoples, tribes, ‘cultural identities’-can be traced backwards through the historical record until we lose sight of it in the grey mist of prehistory. The ancient literature is full of it. The Roman historian Livy frets that his ‘passion for Rome’s past’ might impair his judgement, since he believes ‘that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours, or richer in good citizens and noble deeds’.11 Thucydides has the Greek politician Perikles speak of ‘the greatness of Athens’ and men ‘falling in love with her’, as he delivers a funeral oration for the city’s war dead.12 God announces to Moses, the leader of a band of stateless refugees wandering in the desert, that ‘if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples… You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’.13 Much of the Hebrew Bible-or Christian ‘Old Testament’-can in fact be read as a nationalist tract supporting the state-building aspirations of the ancient Jewish ruling class-and a nationalist tract of the most virulent kind, with its advocacy of imperialist war, ethnic cleansing and wholesale colonisation.14

There was, moreover, no Chinese wall between upper class nationalism and lower class reformism. Just as modern nationalists have mobilised peasant populations in ‘national liberation struggles’ by supporting social reform, so too, we can safely assume, did ancient ones. Josephus-our principal source for the Jewish Revolution of AD 66-73-may not tell us anything about this, but that proves nothing since he tells us very little altogether about the ideology of the rebels. If, though, we turn to the well documented histories of some of the Greek city-states and of the Roman republic, we find that a central feature of these is the periodic emergence of ruling class politicians advocating a popular programme of land reform and debt cancellation as a way of stabilising the state and maintaining its military cohesion.15 This meshing of state-building and social reform is also reflected in the Bible: the ‘Promised Land’ was-theoretically, at least-subject to a periodic ‘Jubilee’ when slaves were freed, debts lifted and lands restored to their original owners.16 If Vietnamese peasants fighting landlords, government officials and US soldiers in 1960-1975 were waging some sort of ‘national liberation struggle’, then so too, I would suggest, were Jewish peasants fighting landlords, government officials and Roman soldiers in AD 66-73.
Ancient racism

John rejects my argument that Roman society was both racist in general and anti-Semitic in particular. The idea that racism is peculiar to capitalist society is widespread among Marxists. When Peter Alexander defined racism in Racism, Resistance and Revolution, he put it thus:

Racism can be properly understood only from a Marxist perspective, which treats it as an historically specific, materially caused phenomenon. Racism is not, as is widely assumed, a universal feature of all societies. In the sense of discrimination against a group on the grounds of some imputed inherited characteristic, such as colour, racism is a product of capitalism.17

Why a product of capitalism only? It is certainly true that forms of racism vary from one society to another-ie racism is ‘an historically specific, materially caused phenomenon’-and also that some societies (classless ones) are without racism. But there are strong theoretical and empirical grounds for believing racism of some sort to be a feature of all class societies. What, after all, are racism’s material roots? First, the division of the world into states, or rather, since the two elements are effectively inseparable, ‘nation-states’. State-building ruling classes not only employ nationalism to bind together ‘the people’ of their states, but also direct racism against the excluded as a justification for pursuing the goals of the nation-state. The excluded may be present within the state-non-citizens, ‘metics’ (foreigners), slaves, guest workers, asylum seekers-or they may be the external enemies of the state. The second root of racism lies in the competition within society for material benefits that are in scarce supply-land, subsidies, commercial contracts, jobs, housing, and so on. The ruling class uses racism to divide and confuse popular resistance to its own control of surplus, and it finds it easy to embed it in the actual experience of a competitive struggle for survival among the subordinate classes. On these theoretical grounds, we should expect racism in all class societies. We should anticipate its appearance alongside the family, private property and the state at the dawn of history. What is the evidence?

The arguments against ancient racism on empirical grounds are desperately weak. This comment of John’s is typical:

But slaves, Jewish or otherwise, could obtain manumission, their ‘freedom’, and become Roman citizens. And very large numbers did so. This could not have been possible in a racist state.18

Or there is this from Chris Harman:

Many important figures in Roman history came from north Africa, including at least one emperor; no text bothers to mention whether they were light or dark skinned.19

By the same token, given that Colin Powell, the head of the US armed forces, is black, we would have to conclude that the modern United States is not racist. Chris continues in the same passage:

There was deep hostility to the Jews in medieval Europe. But this was hostility on the basis of religion…not on the basis of allegedly inherent physical or mental characteristics… What was involved was irrational religious hatred, not irrational biological racism.20

I do not believe the distinction Chris is drawing here-between ‘irrational religious hatred’ and ‘irrational biological racism’-has any great significance. If racism is rooted in the competition between states, groups and individuals in class society, and if it is fostered by the ruling class in response to these contradictions, it cannot be defined by something so trivial as an ideological nuance. Nor, in practice, do we do this. ‘Biological racism’ is not, in fact, the dominant form of racism today; this idea is largely restricted to the fascist right. Much more widespread is one form or another of ‘cultural racism’. When told by a leading politician that an ‘alien culture’ is threatening to ‘swamp us’, we regard this as racism. When Muslim culture is accused of fostering ‘terrorism’, we do not describe this as merely an ‘irrational religious hatred’. Rightly so. Racists do not make subtle distinctions between religion, nationality and race when choosing their targets. The forms of racism vary, the choice of victim often determined by historical traditions, but we deal with essentially the same phenomenon whether it is Nazis claiming biological supremacy for the ‘master race’, New Labour politicians persecuting asylum seekers as ‘scroungers’, or a Hindu chauvinist mob attacking a Muslim mosque.

Racism in antiquity may not have involved pseudo-scientific claims about the biological inferiority of the oppressed. But pseudo-science is, of course, an ideological form peculiar to capitalism. There is no question, however, that ancient literature contains countless statements of cultural racism, and quite a few that consider the assumed differences to be innate. The source evidence has been synthesised in a splendid book called Romans and Aliens by the late ancient historian J P V D Balsdon:21 ‘For years now, the Syrian Orontes [a major river] has poured its sewage into our native Tiber-its lingo and manners, its flutes, its outlandish harps…its native tambourines, and the whores who hang out round the circus’.22 Thus the Latin poet Juvenal. What is one to call this sort of thing if not ‘racism’? Or there is this from Cicero: ‘Syrians were born slaves, like Jews’.23 I find it difficult to conceive of a more categorical statement of biological inferiority than this. John quotes this in his review, announcing airily that it is nothing more than ‘social class snobbery and the celebration of Roman “civilisation” over and above other, “lesser” beings’.24 Lesser? In what sense? Well, Cicero tells us, does he not? Born fit for slavery-lesser in that very biological sense. Cicero, moreover, is mainstream and typical-always reliably on-message about Roman aristocratic values. That the Romans had a strong sense of their inherited biological superiority is, in fact, implicit in many texts. In Virgil’s Aeneid, we are told that the divinely ordained destiny of the Roman ‘race’-the Latin word genus is explicitly biological-was to rule the world.25 The Romans, in other words, took it for granted that they were antiquity’s ‘master race’.

Racism was inherent in the ancient world because, like the modern, it was divided into classes and states. It is therefore no surprise to find it in abundance in the ancient texts.
Was Jesus a revolutionary?

John denounces me for ‘recruiting Jesus as one of the leading revolutionary cadres’ and for ‘enveloping the whole discussion in an aura of religious mysticism’.26 To describe Jesus thus-which I do not-is too strong.27 It is, however, possible to interpret him as a messiah in the traditional Jewish sense-which means not the god-man of Christian belief, but a special prophet-king who leads the people of Israel in the apocalyptic battles at the end of time to rid the world of corruption and injustice. Jesus may, that is, have been a revolutionary millenarian of a kind familiar through much of ancient and medieval history. If so, he was a dangerous political subversive, one of several known to us in the sources for 1st century Palestine, and it is hardly surprising that he was arrested and executed by the imperial authorities.

This interpretation is based on a critical reading of the Gospels in the context of other evidence for the period.28 I claim no credit for either method or conclusion. To repeat, Apocalypse is a work of synthesis, not primary scholarship, and the discovery of a revolutionary millenarian Jesus in the Gospels is not new. John does not accept this reading of the texts, but he does not engage directly in the argument, contenting himself with references to alternative scholarship. There is therefore nothing more to be said here, except for me to voice two concerns. I think John is altogether too trusting of the judgements of non-Marxist scholars who (a) do not employ a dialectical method, and (b) do not accept the centrality of the class struggle in history. Mastery of a body of evidence is one thing; the ability to fit material into a wider historical framework is quite another. One common error among specialist scholars is to interpret the past in terms of rigid categories. Jesus has to be something definite: a Pharisee, an Essene, a Zealot, a Gnostic, or, for Geza Vermes in Jesus the Jew (which John mentions approvingly), ‘one of the holy miracle-workers of Galilee’.29 But history is not formed of rigid categories. It is a process, a sequence of changes, a dynamic clash of contradictions in which both the people who make history and the history they make are in flux. Jesus does not need a label-he needs a context. How he, his followers and his enemies understood the situation was undoubtedly contested and changeable-as in any living movement.

The second problem is that non-Marxist scholars consistently downplay the possibility of popular self activity unless there are explicit references to this in written sources. Moreover, when confronted by it, they are often willing to take at face value the hostile critiques of ancient commentators. Martin Goodman is a case in point. I do take his work seriously, but as a Marxist I reject his revisionist conclusions, for he follows his source-Josephus-in turning the Jewish Revolution of AD 66-73 into a mere factional struggle for power between self interested politicians.30 We can do better. Using ‘modern analytical concepts’-Marxism-we can read our sources critically, place the class struggle at the centre of events, and so attempt to understand ancient history properly.


1. A paperback edition of Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome, AD 66-73 will be available in paperback from Tempus in January 2004, price £12.99.

2. J Rose, ‘The Jubilee and the Apocalypse’, International Socialism 98 (Spring 2003), pp117-118.

3. As above, p117.

4. G E M de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Duckworth, 1981), pp3-30.

5. The definition offered in J Molyneux, ‘What is the Real Marxist Tradition?’, International Socialism 20 (Summer 1983), pp3-53.

6. G E M de Ste Croix, as above, p35.

7. J Rose, as above, pp118-119.

8. The two key works are E Hobsbawm and T Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983), and E Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

9. E Hobsbawm, as above, p9.

10. F Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York, 1972). Engels’ argument is, of course, that all the primary features of class society necessarily arise at the same point in history. I would extend the argument to include nationalism and racism, since these are essentially ideological expressions of a division of the world into states.

11. Livy, The Early History of Rome (Penguin, 1960), p18.

12. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Penguin, 1972), p149.

13. Exodus 19:5-6.

14. An excellent study of this is R Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (Viking, 1991). See N Faulkner, Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome, AD 66-73 (Tempus, 2002), pp68-73, for a summary.

15. This was especially true of the Greek turannoi (‘tyrants’) and the Roman populares (‘populists’)-in both cases, aristocratic politicians with reformist programmes and popular mass bases.

16. N Faulkner, as above, pp116-117.

17. P Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution (Bookmarks, 1987), pp1-2.

18. J Rose, as above, p119.

19. C Harman, A People’s History of the World (Bookmarks, 1999), p252.

20. As above.

21. J P V D Balsdon, Romans and Aliens (Duckworth, 1979).

22. Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires (Penguin, 1974), p89.

23. Quoted in J P V D Balsdon, as above, p67.

24. J Rose, as above, p118-119.

25. There are many such references, but the best known is Virgil, The Aeneid (Penguin, 1958), pp172-173.

26. J Rose, as above, pp120-121.

27. John’s implication that I portray Jesus as if he were the leader of a group like the Jacobins or the Bolsheviks is unfair. I believe he was a charismatic religious leader who almost certainly inspired millenarian expectations in his followers, but I make no attempt to argue that this makes his movement comparable with modern revolutionary parties. Indeed, the relative incoherence and nebulousness of the Jewish revolutionary movement in AD 66-73 is, I would suggest, one of its key characteristics.

28. N Faulkner, as above, pp97-101.

29. G Vermes, Jesus the Jew (SCM Classics, 2001), pp195-197.

30. This is the argument in M Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt Against Rome, AD 66-70 (Cambridge University Press, 1987). The title reflects the perspective accurately.