Tag Archives: Byzantium

Opium of the People

Religion is the opium of the people” is a frequently quoted phrase by Marx whose meaning is more ambiguous than it is I suspect often taken for. In this short post I want to capture briefly the interpretation given it by Sven-Eric Liedman in his book “A World to Win” recently re-published by Verso in English translation.

The phrase, is often taken to mean that religion is used by the dominant forces in society as a mechanism of control over the working class, something manipulated cynically as a means to keep the working class quiescent. It seems more than likely that this is a view conditioned by the nineteenth century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China.

Liedman disagrees. He states that in fact Marx was using opium in what might be described as a more ‘self-medicating’ sense. Religion is the drug that allows the exploited and oppressed to

“It is thus the shortcomings of the earthly life that constitute the breeding ground of religion.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99)

He then goes on to quote a longer passage from Marx to demonstrate the point.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99, quoting Marx “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”)

There is an interesting example of a very similar phenomenon in the description by Cyril Mango of the world view of inhabitants of the medieval Greek Byzantine Empire. Mango describes the invisible world of demons and evil as felt to be very much part of reality by the average Byzantine. What’s more the existence of demons is used to make sense of the world around them, of things for which in the absence of modern science the existence of demons provides a ‘rational’ explanation. Mango notes that

“It would be a mistake to dismiss these as a product of superstition, unworthy of the historian’s consideration.”

(Mango 1998, p.159)

Mango quotes many examples from the lives of saints where ordinary people gain comfort from the intervention of monk or other holy man who drives the demons away. The medieval Byzantine experiencing ‘real distress’ searched for something that could make sense of the world around them, and found the answer in the invisible battle between good and evil, and the comfort of religious protection.

Marx is making a similar point. Superstition and religion are a rational response by ordinary people to the oppression and misery of their daily lives, something that can make sense of what they are experiencing and provide comfort.

Liedman, Sven-Eric A World To Win (Verso, London, 2018)

Mango, Cyril Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome (Phoenix, London, 1998)

Marx, Karl Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (First published in 1844, available in translation at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)


Decline of Byzantine Cities

At the moment I’m reading “Byzantium in the Seventh Century – the Transformation of a Culture”. This is a book by John Haldon who is open about his historical materialist (ie. Marxist) approach to studying history.

Chapter 3 covers the controversy about the fate of Byzantine cities between the 5th and 8th centuries. This is a matter of some debate with scholars putting various theories forward. At the end of late antiquity (the 5th century) the eastern half of the Roman empire remains noticeably antique. It is a literate urban culture where cities form the key centres. Cities had once been the focus of local administration, and vestiges of this still remained although much of the real power had shifted to the central government. Physically these cities were broadly of antique style with open centres and broad thoroughfares with spaces for public life to take place.

One aspect of the controversy is the extent to which this picture remained by the 8th century. To what extent is there continuity between the later cities and the earlier ones?

Simply presented the two extremes of opinion are first that there was a large degree of continuity. That most sites remained in broadly the same place and slowly changed in form and function until the medieval city emerged. The second extreme suggests that there was a significant breakdown with the antique cities being destroyed in the turmoil of Persian and Arab invasions. Later ‘cities’ were dramatically different and effectively new foundations – even where located close to an ancient site.

Haldon makes what must be the important point from an historical materialist perspective. This is simply that it is clear that change happened. The cities of the 8th century had radically different form and function from those of the 5th century. The question for the historian to answer is what changes in social relations drove the changes in the cities – regardless of what stimulus eventually brought the transformation about, and whether the change was gradual or traumatic.

In fact, Haldon explains, historians have been looking in the wrong place – trying to define continuity or change according to whether a site remained occupied or was abandoned. What is clear is that the role of the city within the structure of late antique society was changing – and that this process of change can be identified both in areas where the Arab invasions will have had a dramatic impact (the borderlands) and in places where they didn’t.

The city was no longer relevant to the needs of the state or the ruling elite. Fiscal and economic control had passed to the central offices of the bureaucracy – a process which began in the 4th century driven by the need to maximise revenue. The old local curial order migrated into the new service elite based around the Emperor’s patronage and shrugged off the now un-rewarding municipal ties.

The cities morphed into medieval towns in diverse ways depending on local circumstance – or disappeared completely in places.