‘The Jewish Communists—the Essenes’ from Social Struggles in Antiquity by Max Beer, 1922.

‘The Jewish Communists—the Essenes’ from Social Struggles in Antiquity by Max Beer. Translated by H.J. Stenning. Small, Maynard and Company Publishers, Boston. 1922.

It was not merely the common people who had no sense of private property. Several thousands of the noblest men among the Jews of Palestine made the attempt to introduce Communism into practical life.

These were the Essenes, who first appeared in the second century B.C. and passed as a special sect. They were mentioned with high esteem and admiration by all contemporary writers who made any reference to them. The Jewish intellectuals, like Philo and Josephus, who were familiar with Greek philosophy and generally with the intellectual life of the Roman Empire, spoke of the communal principle as the quintessence of virtue. Josephus regarded Cain, the fratricide, as the founder of private property (Jewish Antiquities, chap. ii). It is a notable fact that Cain was also the first to establish a city-state.

With great satisfaction, Philo narrates:

“There lived in Palestine 4000 virtuous men, called Essenes; they dwelt in the villages and avoided the towns on account of the licentiousness which was customary among the inhabitants. Many of them carried on agriculture, others pursued peaceful avocations, and in this wise employed themselves and their neighbours. They accumulated neither silver nor gold, nor did they acquire lands in order to procure large incomes for themselves; but they toiled merely to secure the necessary means for supporting life. Thus they are practically the only men who possess no property, not because of the mischance of fortune, but because they do not strive after riches, and yet they are, in truth, the richest of all, as they count as riches the absence of needs and contentment. You will not find among them artificers of arrows, javelins, swords, helmets, breastplates and shields, nor any who are engaged in the construction of implements of war, or generally anything which pertains to war. Commerce, liquor manufacturing, and seafaring have never entered their heads, for they desire to avoid all things that give rise to covetousness. There are also no slaves among them. All are free and work for each other. They despise rulers and governors not only because the latter are unjust in violating equality, but also because they are ungodly in abolishing an institution of nature, which, like a mother, creates and nourishes all as true and loving brothers, a relationship which is destroyed by triumphant cunning and avarice, which have put alienation in place of trustfulness and hatred in place of love. The Essenes are taught the principles of godliness, holiness and righteousness in the government of the house and the community, in the knowledge of what is good and what is evil, and they accept as their three moral conceptions or principles, love of God, of virtue and of mankind. The manifestations of love of mankind are benevolence, equity and community in goods, which cannot be praised too highly. We may add something about the latter. First of all, none has a house which does not belong to all. In addition to the fact that they dwell together socially, every house is open to comrades who come from a distance. Also the storehouse and the provisions contained therein belong to all, as well as the articles of clothing; likewise the eatables are available to those who do not observe the common meal-times. And generally the condition of dwelling, eating and living together socially has, among no other race, been carried to such a high degree of perfection as among these men. For they do not keep for themselves what they have earned during the day, but put it together and offer it for general consumption. The sick and aged are treated with the greatest care and gentleness.”


Philo states further that the Essenes were everywhere held in the greatest esteem. “Even the most cruel rulers and proconsuls were unable to do them harm. On the contrary, they quailed before the unsullied virtue of these men, met them in a friendly spirit, as such as had the right to make their own laws and were free by nature; they commended their meals in common and their most praiseworthy institution of holding goods in common, which was the most striking proof of a full and happy life.”

Josephus, too, was pleased to refer to the Essenes and wrote: ” They despise wealth, and the common life they practise is marvellous. Thus, it is impossible to find among them any one who wishes to distinguish himself by property. For it is a law that those who are admitted into this sect transfer their property to the order. Consequently there is neither privation and poverty, nor superfluity and luxury.”

In regard to marriage, it is stated by some that the Essenes preferred celibacy, while others assert they married. It would appear that in this respect they thought as the Apostle Paul, who gave the preference to celibacy, but did not forbid marriage. With the quotations we have given from Pirke Aboth and the institutions of the Essenes, we have already penetrated into the intellectual life of primitive Christianity.

The anti-political tendency among the Essenes is noteworthy; they turned aside from the State, and held social ethics and social economy to be the essential things. This feature was characteristic throughout the entire history of the Israelites in Palestine. In contrast to the Greeks, who were engaged so vigorously with constitutional questions and investigated the most various forms of government, the Jews passed through only a solitary political crisis, about the year 1000 B.C., when they progressed from tribal organisation to State organisation and founded a kingship. Gradually there developed among the Jews a strong antipathy to all State organization involving compulsion. This antipathy found its first expression in a condemnation of the monarchy, in I Samuel viii., which is of later origin. The conduct of the great imperial Powers which dominated Palestine— the whole history of the great ancient empires whose waves overflowed into Palestine—was, in fact, not calculated to make State politicians of a people which so earnestly sought after righteousness. A strong sidelight on the attitude of the Jews towards the State is thrown by the following passage which is preserved in the Talmud: “No person here below (on earth) becomes a State official, but is condemned above (in heaven) as an evil-doer.” God is the sole ruler, and his commandments are the principles and guides of mankind.

Social Struggles in Antiquity by Max Beer. Translated by H. J. Stenning. Small, Maynard and Company Publishers, Boston. 1922.
Max Beer.

Contents: I) INTRODUCTION, The Meaning of the Term ‘Antiquity’, Ancient Communistic Theory Natural Rights, II) PALESTINE, Social Conditions, Class Antagonisms and Prophets, Social Righteousness, Efforts at Reform, The Jewish Communists Essenes, III) GREECE, Economic and Social Development, Economic Antagonisms, IV) THE PRACTICE OF COMMUNISM IN SPARTA, The Lycurgian Legislation, Agis The First Communist Martyr, The Reforms of Cleomenes, Communistic Settlement in Lipara, V) COMMUNISTIC THEORIES IN ATHENS, Solon’s Middle-Class Reforms, Capitalism and Disintegration, Plato, Aristotle versus Plato and Phaleas, The Poets of Social Comedy, Aristophanes, Zeno Communistic Descriptions Egypt under the Ptolemies, The Downfall of Greece, VI) ROME, Character of Roman Historical Writing, Patricians and Plebeians, World Policy and Dissolution, Reform Struggles Gracchus Catiline and Cicero, Slave Insurrections, Spartacus, VII) ROMAN SOCIAL CRITICS, The Laments of the Dispossessed, Longings for Simplicity Freedom and Harmony, VIII) PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANITY, Pre-Christian Palestine, Jesus, Communism in the Primitive Communities, The Spirit of Christianity and of the Patristics, The Millennium Communistic Kingdom of God, Downfall of the Ancient World, Causes of the Downfall of the Ancient World, INDEX. 222 pages.

PDF of original book: https://archive.org/download/socialstrugglesi00beer/socialstrugglesi00beer.pdf

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