Socialist Jesus, Communist Santa, and modern tailism

Alright, I’ll say it. I don’t like it when, every Christmas time, the left tries to claim Jesus and Santa as icons of socialist ideology. I don’t care if that happens to be the seasonal fetish of other communists or socialists, or for any rhetorical merits they might argue for. It’s stupid, it’s a form of cultural and religious tailism, and it only serves to reinforce either the still-hegemonic status of Christianity or the commercialist culture we live in, at least if it all isn’t a pure meme anyway, and I’m going to give my reasons for why you should pack this bullshit in if you’re a leftist and still doing it. Also, I know it’s pretty late for me to talking about this basically a week after Christmas, but the march to the New Year is still part of the holiday season in some unofficial sense, so in my opinion there’s time to explore this subject before 2022.

When it comes to Jesus, the obvious center of the Christian concept of Christmas (which, by its namesake, is meant to literally mean “Christ’s Mass”), there are no shortage of left-wing narratives aiming to cast Jesus as a socialist, or even the first communist. To be honest, a lot of this simply comes from Jesus having smashed up the money-changers in the Temple in Jerusalem, and his attendant proclamation against them, saying “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of theives” (Matthew 21:13). It’s a truly memorable episode from the New Testament, one that echoes through our culture as one of the central defining moments through which we understand the character of Jesus, and admittedly it does make for an epic moment of defiance against the intrusion of market forces, servicable to empire, in the otherwise unadulterated domain of religion. It’s easy enough to come away thinking of the Cleansing of the Temple as an ancient proto-typical anti-capitalist narrative. But, there are problems with framing it in this way.

What is a money-changer? A person whose trade is to exchange one currency for another. Are money-changers capitalists? It’s not obvious that they are. Keeping in mind, of course, that the society that Jesus lived in predated the existence of not only capitalism but also the medieval system we call feudalism. This has important implications for the material conditions relevant to any attempt to elevate the anti-capitalist credentials of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple. A capitalist is an individual who controls a given means of production and portions out a fraction of the fruits of the labour generated through it to those willing to sell their labour power for a wage. So what’s a money-changer, then? Just a merchant, ultimately, and specifically one whose services allowed Jews to exchange Roman coins for shekels in order to make payments to the Temple, which did not accept the standard Greek and Roman currency as payments. It is not clear that these merchants followed the model practiced by the bourgeoisie as it would have emerged centuries after Jesus’ time. As for Jesus himself, he is traditionally described as a carpenter, and it’s not clear that he had any employees working under him, so Jesus would have been a self-employed carpenter. In Marxist terms, if we’re going to apply the definitions of the capitalist system onto the narrative of Jesus’ life, this might make him one of the labour aristocracy, which is a privileged sector of the proletariat who benefit from superprofits and have no desire for revolution, sometimes siding with the ruling capitalists to preserve their own advantage. So if we interpret the Cleansing of the Temple solely on the basis of class, Jesus would have been a pre-modern labour aristocrat clashing with merchants of a similar class background. This is hardly the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, in abandoning his carpentry in order to focus on his ministry, since he did not take on a productive job in which he sold his labour power for a wage, by some standard he might well be considered one of the lumpenproletariat, a submerged sector of class society who are either disorganized, “declassed”, and assumed not to be revolutionary. Marx and many successive Marxists also despised the lumpenproleriat, condemning them as degenerates and outcasts, which is sort of unusually moralistic for a thinker who Karl Vorlander noted for his wholesale mockery of morality as a concept. But returning to the subject of Jesus, if he is a lumpenproletarian, and we take the view that lumpenproletarians are still part of the proletariat, then it is only in this sense that, perhaps, Jesus represents the working class, but in a struggle against a mercantile labour aristocracy and not the bourgeoisie.

So what’s the real meaning of the Cleansing of the Temple? It’s not in any way obvious that Jesus has a problem with currency exchange in itself, and instead the problem expressed by Jesus is simply that the money-changers turn the “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves”. It’s easy enough to take from this that Jesus thinks currency exchange is in itself theft, but the only time Jesus seems to talk about money-changers is in the Temple instance. A popular explanation is that Jesus thought they were cheating their customers and overcharging them, though this might actually be a simplistic interpretation. In fact, some argue that the main issue with the Temple was its functioning as a bank, at the centre of a whole local economy in which wealthy property-owners lent money to the poor at the cost of debt, which if unpaid would result in the loss of land. Still, the exact language and statements given by Jesus suggest his main problem was not so much economy itself as much as the intermingling of economy with religion. In other words, Jesus’ problem was specifically with the presence of markets in the Temple, which means his problem was with the merging of economic life and religious life, the latter of which was to remain pure and unadulterated by the influence of economic activity, and in this instance the problem was not with the economic system as a whole, let alone with capitalism.

To further communicate some of the problems with the radical credentials ascribed to Christianity, I’m going to draw a lot from everyone’s favorite quasi-Marxist and quasi-apologic socialist politicial scientist Michael Parenti, or more specifically his 2010 book God and His Demons, which, although probably flawed on its own, draws from Biblical scripture to make its argument against the anti-capitalist or progressive credentials of Christianity. For all the abolitionist credentials ascribed to Christianity, Jesus himself in no way opposed the institution of chattel slavery and in fact affirmed the categories of slave and slave-owner as legitimate via the right of the slave-owners to beat the slave, harshly or gently depending on whether or not the slave knowingly disobeyed their owners (Luke 12:47). The master-slave or master-servant relationship is affirmed throughout Jesus’ parables, such as the parable of the faithful and wise servant described in Matthew 24 and Luke 12. Jesus also seems to accept poverty as something that will always exist, rather than something that can be abolished through socio-economic change, as is shown Mark 14:3-9 where a woman is admonished by others for pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ head instead of selling it and sharing the profits with the poor, and Jesus defends the woman by saying “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me”. In other words, Jesus is saying that poverty will always exist, and you can always ameliorate it through private charity, but what really matters is that his followers please and serve him because he won’t be around forever. This is not an anti-capitalist message, to say the least. Indeed, in the account of Jesus’ accomplishments given in Matthew 11:5, the poor are not given wealth but instead only “the good news”, while the blind, the “lame”, the lepers, and even the dead all received miraculous reversals of their prior predicaments. The Bible also declares that there is no authority on earth not established by God, and thus that whoever is in charge serves God for your good and rebellion against authority means going against God and paying for it (Romans 13:1-7). This would mean that the authority of capitalism exists by God’s decree, and thus should be obeyed.

And it doesn’t stop with the Jesus. St. Paul supported the institution of chattel slavery by urging slaves to respect their masters in order to defend God’s teaching (1 Timothy 6:1). St. Peter also supported slavery by urging those who reverently feared God to submit to their masters in slavery, even if their masters were harsh, and praised those who endured beatings for doing good as part of their service (1 Peter 2:18-22) . Origen, one of the early church fathers, chastised the poor in Book VI of Contra Celsus by claiming that the majority of them have bad characters and that “not even a stupid person would praise the poor indiscriminately”. Elsewhere, in On Prayer, Origen says that if you are poor and bear your poverty “ignobly”, and conduct yourself in a “more servile and base” way than is becoming of the Saints, you fall away from “heavenly hope”, and counselled that the “daily bread” that Christians are to subsist on consists not in actual physical bread but instead in spiritual or “supersubstantial bread”, thus the rich and the poor alike are to depend solely on the spiritual nourishment of God, and presumably thus not demand the betterment of their own living conditions, since this would mean subsisting yourself or enriching your situation with elevated material conditions by your own hands as opposed to simply relying on the spiritual sustenance of God. Clement of Alexandria referred to the destitute, those who begged for daily bread, and the poor who were dispersed on the streets as the “most blessed” on account of their extreme poverty, want, destitution, and lack of subsistence, thus sacralizing and glorifying the condition of poverty. Clement also opposed the view that God commanded Christians to renounce property, and instead counselled Christians to simply manage property without inordinate affection in service of God. The early Christian text On Riches, attributed to Peter of Alexandria, apparently rebuked the poor for their supposed envy, their concern about the rich, and their ingratitude to the God who “made them free from the cares about which the rich man is concerned”. In other words, the poor are to be grateful what they have. The rich are divided into the “wicked and merciless rich” who abuse their wealth and property and the “merciful and loving rich” who use their wealth and property benevolently and align with the will of God, whereas the poor are not divided in such a way and the author of On Riches declares that he does not “honor the poor by making them equal to the rich” nor “favour them”, and if anything holds that the poor man may leave his poverty only for “another poverty seven times more evil than this”.

Despite prominent popular discussion of Matthew 19:24 as a Christian indictment of the rich and despite The Cleansing of the Temple, in Christianity wealth is not always considered a bad thing, and in fact has been considered a good thing so long as it is managed according to the will of God. The Christian condemnation of the rich and their wealth pertains to the extent to which earthly riches or simply the love thereof impedes devotion to God, or that the management of wealth is unscrupulous, harms the poor, or simply leads the rich man away from God. From this standpoint, as applied to capitalism, capital, as a form of wealth, is not actually inherently against God’s will, only the “wicked” use of it against God is, and a just society is one where both the capitalists and the poor working class all observe their ordained social stations in a manner that comports with God’s will. Class society as divided between bourgeoisie and the proletariat is still to exist, since it too is ordained by God, but each class is to observe God’s will and act humbly, mercifully, and dutifully within their respective terms. Since wealth, thus capital, is only bad insofar as its use does not serve God, the capitalist class would be compelled to reform their ways so as to be more “merciful” in alignment with God, which would suggest no real policy changes other than perhaps a couple of benign reforms agreed upon by a consistently Christian ruling class. In modern terms, Christian teaching is only about as anti-capitalist as Elizabeth Warren is, which is to say not at all.

Some leftists might point to Acts 4:32-35 as a kind of pre-modern expression of religious communism, describing a society ruled by the apostles and inhabited by believers in Jesus who were all one in heart and mind, shared all of their possessions and claimed no private (or seemingly even personal) property, no one was needy, and those who owned land and houses sold them and brought their profits to the apostles who distributed the money to anyone who needed it. In Acts 5, it is further described that those who keep any of their profits from selling houses and property for themselves miraculously fall down and die after being called out by St. Peter, suggesting that God would punish those who retain some personal profit with death. This sounds vaguely like what a communist society might look like, though hard to reconcile with Jesus’ teaching about the inevitable condition of poverty or early church teachings about wealth and property. It could just be a vague utopian commune project devised by the apostles. But what has always bothered me is that, for a religion that supposedly has inscrutable socialist or proto-communist credentials, most of the history of Christianity has not yielded any lasting socialist or communist society under the banner of Christian power. There were Christian efforts at establishing proto-socialist communities in Europe, but they were suppressed by the larger Christian establishment, who invariably upheld the legitimacy of the owning class. Of course, the Catholic Church is well-recognized as an edifice of elite power, but anti-revolutionary sentiment is not limited to the Catholic Church. The German Peasants’ War, in which peasants fought for freedom from restrictions imposed upon them by their lords, divided the Protestant movement in its response, with Thomas Muntzer and some more radical sections of the Protestant movement supporting the peasants while Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, not only opposed the peasants and claimed they were on the side of the Devil but also sided with the nobles and called for the punitive and violent suppression of the peasants. Very little of Christian society has manifested lasting working class power under the banner of the Christian faith, and in fact the rise of capitalism seems to seen Christianity emerge as a religious legitimator of the capitalist order and state power.

The trouble with using the Bible, Jesus, and Christianity to form a religious anti-capitalist narrative, and from there the wider problem with Christian Socialism or Christian Communism, is that it is necessarily selective, and cannot reflect the whole of the Christian vision of a society that is considered just insofar as it aligns with God’s will. A socialist or radical anti-capitalist interpretation of Christianity requires a hyper-fixation on a select handful of verses of the Bible and episodes of Jesus’ purported life that can be interpreted in a sufficiently anti-capitalist light, while leaving out the parts of the Bible that can be interpreted as supportive of a capitalist order or not entirely condemning of the rich, as well as creatively de-spiritualizing the message of Jesus by reducing it to a single economic substance such as debt forgiveness, thus leaving out not only the broader religious/spiritual content of the Biblical message but also the wider history of the early Christian movement and its tendency to chastise the poor while telling them to be content with their lot and defending at least some of the rich. Their concern was not with the material emancipation of the masses from the ruling economic and political order but instead a spiritualized, ethereal, and indeed extramaterial deliverance from the world into the kingdom of God, and attaining it by obeying the will of God, which, as I have shown, includes obedience to the system. Such efforts make sense only so as to attract religious Christians to the message of socialism by hopping on the bandwagon of its hegemonic popularity, instead of challenging the authority of Christianity, presumably off the back of either winning the unity of the working class or votes that might otherwise go to conservatives. In summary, it is a kind of religious tailism.

But before we get to that let’s touch on the other subject of my article: Santa Claus. Jacobin Magazine, with what seems to be a touch of humour, once published an article in 2018 advocating that socialists should embrace Santa Claus on the grounds that he is an egalitarian internationalist who disregards the borders of the nation state and free market norms to give gifts to children. The same magazine, during the same year, also seems to have published a parody article deconstructing Santa Claus as a robber baron who exploits his elven workers and rose to power through violently subjugating of the inhabitants of the North Pole. But in any case, the idea of Santa Claus as some sort of communist icon spreads around annually in certain corners of the online left, and sometimes in conservative circles. But is there reason to go along with it?

Putting aside the predictable discourse about how Santa Claus, if real, would subsist on exploitative practices for his workers, expecting them to constantly produce toys for little in the way of a wage, let’s just go right to the heart of the matter: the Santa Claus we all know is just a corporate mascot. The modern image of Santa Claus derives his name from Saint Nicholas, who is known for his secret gift-giving involving distributing wealth to the poor, but much of the iconography and character of the modern Santa Claus was developed from various precursors in European folkloric traditions (some of which, such as the Dutch Sinterklaas, were based on Saint Nicholas) by several soft drink companies into the holly jolly gift-giving figure of pop culture, often sanitized from a number of harsher equivalents in pre-existing folklore, such as the Joulupukki of Finland. So one of the many faces of capitalism is to be recast as one of its opponents on behalf of the workers of the world. Of course, that’s not even getting into conversation we can have about how the myth of Santa Claus probably encourages rampant consumerism on the part of parents and children, lending to the annual mass support of capitalist markets.

Now, to be fair, there is the argument to be made all of this represents a form of detournement, the art of taking popular icons of the dominant culture and integrating them into a new, radical context, in which the original icons are then subtextually altered so as to gain a new and more subversive meaning. The idea of turning a capitalist icon into a partisan of communism certainly does make sense as an act of detournement, as does the idea of enlisting the most popular religious figure in the Western world as an opponent of capitalism. Except, the idea is not really to subvert the dominant culture. Instead, the idea is to affirm socialism and/or communism not as a radical opposition to the order of society but rather as innate within the cultural DNA of the society we live in, which need only be unlocked in order to awaken the class consciousness of the public. In practice, this means blindly following the popular ideas of Jesus, Christianity, and Santa Claus and what they represent in order to reinterpret them, without challenging them. Contrast with this with the use of the inverted cross by Satanists and other anti-Christian elements that I discussed a few months ago. This represents the subversion of traditional symbolism undertaken as a conscious challenge to its original traditional context, as opposed to embracing the popular context of Christianity so as to claim it as your own. Thus we come to the concept of tailism, as developed in Marxist political theory.

The concept of tailism, as it is understood by Marxists, can be traced to Vladimir Lenin and his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, which for Marxism-Leninism can be thought of as a landmark expression of its core ideological goals. In What Is To Be Done?, Lenin talked about the tendency of some socialists who advocated for the practice of “dragging at the tail of the movement”, by which Lenin seems to mean “bowing to spontaneity” and straggling behind the tendencies of popular movements without actually leading and educating the masses, a tendency which is then elevated to a point of principle. This is what Lenin referred to as tailism. Mao Zedong took this concept further in On Coalition Government, in which he defines tailism as the practice of “falling below the level of political consciousness in the masses” instead of leading it forward, thus tailing behind backwards elements within the working class, resulting in some comrades adopting backwards and reactionary attitudes on social issues. In modern circumstances, we can see this tendency especially pronounced in certain social-democratic elements of the left who, like all social-democrats, are captured by the promises of electoral power and, unlike most, come to think that by appealing to facetious narratives of the inherent conservatism of the working class they may yet win power and defeat the conservatives, or even in certain Marxist-Leninists who seem convinced that the bourgeois conservative image of the working class is the true identity of the revolutionary proletariat or that their tailism is actually a means of breaking free from the limits of bourgeois politicial thought.

The way that certain leftist elements attempt anually to frame Jesus or Santa as socialist or communist revolutionaries, and Christianity as nothing more than a political message of debt forgiveness, constitute a form of tailism in one sense. Even if not in the manner of the notable reactionary contingents of the social-democratic or Marxist-Leninist movements, we can look at the frequent attempts to Marxify Jesus and Santa as tailing behind popular consciousness, or perhaps actually falling below the imaginary that has been constructed for the masses by the powerful, without actively and consciously challenging said consciousness or imaginary. In a religious sense, it is thus religious tailism, and in a cultural sense, it is thus cultural tailism, but these are still modes of tailism whether Novara Media or Jacobin like to admit it or not. As such, what might otherwise be an attempt at detournement is guided by the desire to bind revolutionary socialism to the spirit of a popular society that it is in the business of remaking or overturning, and showing the masses for the subjugation that it is.

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