Igor Shoikhedbrod, Slave Morality Revalued and Sublated [2018 C4eJ 8] (Book Forum)


Igor Shoikhedbrod*

As a courtesy to readers who may be unfamiliar with Abraham Rotstein’s scholarship and posthumously published book, I begin by providing an intellectual background for Myth, Mind, and Religion before offering some critical comments. The first question that readers will undoubtedly ask is: what led an economic historian to write a book about the apocalyptic narrative? This question would then be followed by a related query: what can an economist possibly teach us about the myth, mind or religion? Although it is impossible to provide comprehensive answers to either of these questions, Abraham Rotstein’s intellectual biography offers some helpful clues.

The first thing to note is that Abraham Rotstein was a favourite student of Karl Polanyi, the great economic historian and anthropologist whose The Great Transformation is an intellectual tour de force, offering one of the most expansive historical accounts of the capitalist market and the “liberal creed” that still fuels it ideologically. Abe Rotstein and Polanyi co-authored Dahomey and the Slave Trade, and plans were in the works for a co-authored sequel to The Great Transformation, which, sadly, never made it to the press because of Polanyi’s incessant perfectionism.

We learn from Abe’s 2014 Tribute Lecture for the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy that Polanyi became increasingly interested in Hegel’s philosophic attempt at grasping religious consciousness.[1] Polanyi spoke of “Three Revelations” in this co-coauthored sequel. One of these revelations centered on Martin Luther’s notion of the “unblemished conscience”, which was discussed in his famous essay, “On the Freedom of a Christian,” and to which Abe devotes a chapter of his book. Abe and Polanyi regarded the civil rights branch of modern liberalism as an offshoot of Christianity. Not surprisingly, Polanyi’s third revelation concerned the “reality of society” and the challenges of realizing freedom in a complex society. What does it mean to have an “unblemished conscience” in a rigidly technological world, where the reach of the state grows in tandem with global problems, both real and exaggerated?  It should be noted that Polanyi was a lot more pessimistic about the prospects for institutional transformation in his later work, although he still left room for hope. Abe and Polanyi were convinced that a thoroughly technological world renders civil liberties all the more sacred because we are all “walking on the same tight rope.”[2]

Following in Polanyi’s footsteps, Abe also picked up the theme of “religious consciousness” in his late work, although he made overtures in this direction as early as the 1970s. In many respects, Myth, Mind and Religion offers Abe’s definitive conclusion to the joint project that he and Polanyi began but did not see through to the end. Myth, Mind and Religion presents a far-reaching and critical analysis of the apocalyptic narrative, spanning the Old and New Testaments, Augustine, Luther, Hegel, Marx, and the Third Reich. Abe’s book is an attempt at unearthing a common thread that runs through the history of Western civilization and its prevailing ideologies. Early in the book, Abe cautions readers that he is less interested in the ideologies themselves, whether theological or secular in content, and instead takes as his point of departure the reoccurrence of binaries, of inversions, and attempts at “turning the world upside down” across the secular-religious divide.  Abe submits: “At bottom, this is a book about the messenger, not the message. The human mind, we argue, is the dramaturge that has marshalled these epic [apocalyptic] dramas on their special occasions both sacred and secular. We speak of the forms only, not their content.”[3] I will return to this important point later in the commentary.

Myth, Mind and Religion sets out to follow through with Claude Levi-Strauss’ anthropological study of the so-called primitive religious myths and extend his method of analysis to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. When Abe serendipitously chanced upon Levi-Strauss and pressed him on the matter  in person, Levi-Strauss denied that his mythologie could be applied to the Judeo-Christian tradition, partly because he thought, like Max Weber before him, that the Western Judeo-Christian tradition shed its religious myths with the process of rationalization and the “disenchantment” of the world. The other reason, which I learned in private conversation with Abe, was that Levi-Strauss never came to terms with his rabbinical ancestors and thus sought to tread lightly.

Abe ventured ahead despite Levi-Strauss’ reservations, and the thesis of Myth, Mind and Religion is that, however much Levi-Strauss and Weberian sociologists of religion may deny it, Western civilization has been in the thrall of an apocalyptic narrative over the span of some 3000 years, which is comparable (with some notable differences) to the “primitive” myths that Levi-Strauss detected among tribal peoples. Although I quibble with Abe’s occasional conflation of myth, legend, and religion, I am generally sympathetic to the book’s thesis. However, as always, the devil lies in the details.

Abe maintains that the “choreography of the mind”—the history of consciousness—offers subtle hints about reoccurring patterns throughout a 3000-year history.  More specifically, Abe traces the apocalyptic narrative to Ancient Judaism and the slavery and oppression that the Jews endured under the Pharaoh. This slavery was then inverted such that the Jews—the slaves—became masters in the land of milk and honey.

A similar, though somewhat more complex inversion unfolds in the New Testament, in which human beings are initially depicted as slaves to their bodies until, through a leap of faith and inversion, they become masters in the kingdom of heaven, where only the just can dwell. Soon enough, the apocalyptic narrative extends to the secular eschatology of Karl Marx, who in spite of his distaste for organized religion reproduced its narrative in secular form.[4]  “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”—of oppressor and oppressed—wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. The sequence of Marx’s materialist dialectic runs as follows, according to Abe: an initial setting of oppression that is then followed by a process of inversion (where the dominated proletarian class achieves political supremacy over the bourgeoisie), reaching its finale in a post-conflict and classless communist society. Abe traces the apocalyptic narrative in Marx back to Hegel’s dialectic of Lordship and Bondage and ultimately to Luther, whom he regards as the dialectician part excellence.

Of course there are eschatological parallels in Marx and the Marxist tradition. It would be foolish to deny it.  Did Marx not write, in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, that the proletariat and its “complete loss of humanity can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity”? [5] Moreover, who would dare deny the striking Christian parallel that can be discerned in at least one version of the Internationale, which declares: “We have been naught we shall be all.”

The most interesting question, at least for political theorists, concerns the normative or ethical implications of the apocalyptic narrative. Recall that Abe’s claim is that his extension of Levi-Strauss’ mythologie to the Judeo-Christian tradition is morally neutral (a mere form of the mind) that does not pass judgement on the content or message. For anyone, like myself, who has come under the influence of Hegel, Marx and the critical theory tradition, the proposition that form can somehow be separated from content in a morally-neutral manner is highly suspect. Abe was not neutral when it came to the apocalyptic tradition. Although he does not state it explicitly, Abe was horrified by the culmination of the apocalyptic narrative—whether in its theological or secular iterations. The inversion of oppressor and oppressed, he argued, could not help but culminate in totalitarianism—a yearning for a perfect community that does not tolerate dissent and heterogeneity. This looming spectre of totalitarianism, as Abe would routinely remind me “shakes every liberal bone in one’s body.”

On the one hand, I have interpretive reasons for questioning Abe’s conclusions with respect to the spectres of totalitarianism in Hegel and Marx. On the other hand, he does have good reasons for cautioning us about the dark side of the apocalyptic narrative. After all, the traditional rendition of the apocalyptic narrative posits a Manichean world, where the pursuit of liberation and justice are achieved at the cost of positing a world that can only build its foundations upon the ashes of the past. There is indeed something eerie and sinister about such a destructive vision of social transformation, and it is no surprise that the Nazis made use of it for their nefarious aims.

The reoccurring references to inversion in Abe’s book manuscript reminded me of Friedrich Nietzsche’s depiction of the slave revolt in On Genealogy of Morals. Taking note of the peculiar absence of Nietzsche in Abe’s wide-spanning manuscript, I urged him at the time to read the first essay of On Genealogy of Morals, where the inversion of good into evil and bad in good is attributed to an act of spiritual revenge by the oppressed Jews, who were indeed enslaved, though by the Romans rather than the Egyptians. Notwithstanding the close affinities between Abe and Nietzsche on inversion and “the hunt for alienation”, Abe resisted my suggestion and concluded that Nietzsche only had scorn for the slave. I begged to differ then and beg to differ now. After all, it was Nietzsche who wrote that “human history would be altogether too stupid a thing without the spirit that the impotent [Jews] have introduced to it.”[6] Elsewhere, Nietzsche affirmed that “the slave revolt in values begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values.”[7] Whatever one thinks of Nietzsche, these are not words of scorn!

To be sure, Nietzsche abhorred the culmination of Hegel’s dialectic of Lordship and Bondage (the ascendance of slave morality and democratic modernity), but he gave credit to the “world-historical” legacy of the slaves. We should guard against Nietzsche’s call for a new master morality in the twenty-first century. A far more subversive and constructive reading of Nietzsche calls for a re-evaluation and sublation of slave morality. In a world where the quest for social justice is increasingly dismissed as the resentment of politically-correct “social justice warriors” while rule by incompetent billionaires is linked with an assertive psychology, slave morality needs a spiritual and material renewal beyond anything Nietzsche would have dreamt in his nightmares.

Abe affirms in Myth, Mind and Religion that the apocalyptic narrative lends itself to progressive and demonic versions. In the present theological-political context, it is not the social justice warriors that we need to be most worried about but the self-professed prophets of truth who preach a far more destructive apocalyptic gospel in an era of “post-truth”. What we need today is a revaluation and sublation of slave morality, not unlike the call of its greatest secular representative, who concluded that “the criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the supreme being for man. It ends, therefore, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all those conditions in which man is an abased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being.”[8]

Karl Marx may have been unconsciously rehearsing the ancient Hebrew prophets of social justice when he reached the aforementioned conclusion concerning the categorical imperative of human liberation. Marx’s position may be an unpopular one to take today, but it speaks to a basic yearning (not to be oppressed) that is a central feature of the human condition. It should be remembered that Abraham Rotstein was not one to give up on his principles when they were no longer in vogue, and neither should those of us who continue to fight for human liberation and social justice in the twenty-first century.

* Ph.D., Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.

[1] Abraham Rotstein, “The Reality of Society”, Tribute Lecture for the 13th International Karl Polanyi Conference, Concordia University, November 7, 2014 <https://www.concordia.ca/content/dam/artsci/research/polanyi/docs/conference-2014-papers/Rotstein%20Abraham%20Montreal%202014.pdf>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Abraham Rotstein, Mind, Myth and Religion: The Apocalyptic Narrative (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), xiv.

[4] Ibid, 17.

[5] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction”, Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978).

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, On Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, Trans. Walter Kauffman and RJ Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 36.

[7] Ibid, 36.

[8] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” 60.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, Trans. Walter Kauffman and RJ Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 36.

Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction”, Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978).

Rotstein, Abraham. Mind, Myth and Religion: The Apocalyptic Narrative (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), xiv.

Rotstein, Abraham. “The Reality of Society”, Tribute Lecture for the 13th International Karl Polanyi Conference, Concordia University, November 7, 2014 <https://www.concordia.ca/content/dam/artsci/research/polanyi/docs/conference-2014-papers/Rotstein%20Abraham%20Montreal%202014.pdf>.