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New Left Review I/23, January-February 1964


Martin Malek

‘The Religions of the Oppressed’

The Religions of the Oppressed. Vittorio Lanternari. MacGibbon & Kee, 50s.

Lanternari documents the appearance in America, Africa, Asia, Australasia and Oceania of messianic religious cults, which sprang up throughout the world as a first pre-political response to imperialist incursions into indigenous societies and cultures. As the traditional rulers were discredited by their inability to meet the challenge posed by Europe, the need for leadership grew. The messiah filled this need. Frequently he adopted and turned against the European features of the Christianity which had been thrust on him, substituting for the ‘white’ European Christ a second indigenous Christ. Often these cults took direct and military action against the European. Messianic cults underlay the Mahdist rising in the Sudan, the last Red Indian wars, the Maori wars. But the cults were not able to drive out the colonizer and they often relapsed into a second, contemplative, ‘accepting’ phase: peyotism, Ringa-Tu, Bahai. Nevertheless, they had enabled the colonized people to maintain their national consciousness and dignity and this later bore fruit when purely political movements succeeded where messianism had failed. Even in this later, political stage of the liberation struggle, we can detect messianic remnants. Some cults made a transition themselves from messianism towards political struggle of an advanced kind: the Black Muslims are an example. Lanternari’s book has an astonishingly wide range of scholarship. It is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the cultural impact of Europe on its colonies and the history of national liberation movements. Martin Malek

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