William B. Greene, “Equality—No. 6. Cain and Abel” (1850)

Like several of the other articles that he contributed to The Worcester Palladium, this early article by William Batchelder Greene contains some of his most direct expressions of anarchistic and socialistic ideas, but weaves them together with his rather esoteric readings of scripture. The result is both striking and perplexing. 

Equally perplexing is the question of just which essays we should consider to be the fourth and fifth entries in the “Equality” series. While the two installments of “Capital and Labor” were included in the book Equality, the themes here seem to be a continuation of the material covered in “The Red Republic” and “Plutocracy,” both of which reference Pierre Leroux, whose own work Equality was an important inspiration for Greene’s book of the same name.

For the Palladium.

Equality—No. 6.


The history of Cain and Abel would appear—if we may place confidence in the system of interpretation adopted by Fabre d’Olivet an Pierre Leroux—to be a sublime allegory, wherein is expressed the eternal antagonism of the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the elect and the outcast, the patrician and the plebeian, the baron and the serf, the tyrant and the subject. Cain and Abel are mysterious symbols; and in the story of their conflict, lies hidden the secret of the wonderful sorrow that has, at all times, weighed on the heart of the children of Adam. Abel is the man of high, honorable, disinterested sentiment, whom Cain slew in the beginning, who Cain slays now, and whom Cain shall continue to slay, till the new Jerusalem descends from God out of heaven, and the reign of righteousness is established on the earth.

The meaning of the word Cain—which word symbolises the character of him that was designated by it—is simply this: an acquisition, a possession. Cain was a proprietor. Moses is careful to mark this meaning strongly, in the verse where Cain receives his name: “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Kain, and said I have gotten (acquired, possessed—Heb. kanithi) a man who is Jehovah.” The idea of royalty or self-centering power, has always been attached to the word, Kan, Kin or Cain. Kanh or Kahn, is still the title of the monarchs of Asia; and the same word, with a slight variation, is the royal title in the west of Europe. Thus in Tartary, they have the great Kahn; and in England, the King.—The word Abel, signifies vacuitas, emptiness, a mere vapor. Abel was, therefore, a non proprietor.

The murder of Abel by Cain, his brother, is the establishment on this earth of unjust, jealous, exclusive proprietorship—proprietorship established by Cain at the expense of Abel: that is, the establishment of despotic ownership, of feudal tenures, of capital yielding usurious rents, interests, and profits. And not without the mysterious seal of a divine poetry, was this magnificent symbol impressed on the minds of men. The oriental nations have recognized in Abel the genius of good, and in Cain the genius of evil: Saint Augustin saw in Abel the figure of Jesus Christ and of his persecuted disciples, while in Cain he saw the figure of the persecutors. But the duality at the bottom of all these contradictions and antagonisms, must be sought for in the word pronounced by Eve—KANITHI, I possess. By the mere fact of Cain’s jealous and exclusive possession, Abel—the proletariat—is slain.

The world suppose, from the common translation, that God condemned Cain, because of the murder, to be a wanderer and a vagabond on the face of the earth: but the common translation leads us astray. For we must notice that Cain’s first act, after receiving the Divine sentence, was to build cities. God does not condemn Cain to wander, but gives him a sublime lesson in political economy. Because Cain followed the impulses of his own blind egotism, he rendered himself miserable; and such is always and everywhere the reflex penalty, and the natural consequence of egotism. Cain was condemned to remain poor by his very desire to possess all things: for he slew the brother who was predestined to make him rich. Cain usurped the earth by killing his brother, and thus the earth, being no longer cultivated by Abel, refused its fruits to him, Cain.

“And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength.”—Gen. iv, 11, 12.

But Cain nevertheless believes that his is condemned to be a vagabond on the face of the earth. He does not himself understand the sublime lesson which the Almighty has given him. He supposes that he will be thenceforth under the necessity of wandering, and hiding from the face of God and man.

“Cain said, my punishment is more than I can bear. Behold, thou has driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from they face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass that every one that findeth me, shall slay me.”—Gen. iv, 13, 14.

But the Supreme reassures the murderer:

“And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him seven-fold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.”—Gen. iv, 15.

Taking all this as literal fact, would it not appear somewhat absurd that God should not only carefully preserve the life of the fratricide Cain, but should also establish, by this solemn precedent, as a principle of abiding justice, that the life of Cain is worth in his eyes the lives of seven aggressors upon Cain? Such justice on the part of the Supreme, would be inconceivable. But the Bible is not speaking in this place of one man, Cain, and of another man, Abel; it is, on the contrary, speaking of the establishment among men, of jealous exclusive property; and this under the symbol of two races, or rather of two humanities; one humanity of possessors and proprietors, called Cain, and another humanity compose of those who possess nothing, called Abel. What then is the signification of the words which Moses here puts into the mouth of the Almighty? The words of the Supreme are a continuation of the political lesson given to Cain: they characterize the law which God in his anger permits Cain to establish—the law of the strongest, which may be called the legislation of Cain, the Cainic law. God says that he will permit false right, false law, to reign on the earth; and herein is the manifestation of the Divine justice, of the Divine vengeance, if you will, against Cain. The ferocious murder fears that some one may kill him. The Supreme answers, in that terrible and magnificent sentence which has been so absurdly taken for an act of merciful clemency,—Fear nothing! for it is thou, Cain, who shalt kill: thou hast established on the earth a law of violence which necessarily draws forth seven-fold violence upon him that exalteth himself against thee: whoever shall fall upon thee, thou, Cain, murderer that thou art, shalt render back to him a seven-fold recompense of evil!

But what was the seal, or mark, which God set upon the forehead of Cain, that whoever found him might not slay him? It is the prestige which protects the right of the strongest. The right of the strongest, right founded on mere material fact, has reigned from the beginning, and reigns now, in the earth. We behold the sway of this iniquitous right; and no one has power to overthrow it. It is, in fact, consecrated. It exists, after all, by permission of God; and vindictive kings do well to call it—divine right. In the absence of true right, false right reigns of necessity. Material force reigns, but material force is not the origin of right; for if force appeared as mere force, no one would willingly consent to obey it. Law is, however, so necessary to us, that we respect force as though it were law, because it stands in the place of law. Our hands are raised to strike, but they are arrested by the divine seal set upon the forehead of Cain. When Cain slays, and revenges himself seven-fold, he believes that he slays justly; and he against whom Cain rises up, experiences a sort of fascination, which makes him admit, and recognize—up to a certain point—the right of Cain. For the aggressor upon Cain, in his act of armed rebellion, appeals to no right other than that which flows from the Cainic law. All the tyrannies which have invaded the earth, have been founded on this prestige of fact, of actual and forcible possession. The history of the present reaction in France, throws great light on the principle of the seven-fold vengeance of Cain. The violent party (so called of order) is the instrument in all countries, of seven-fold iniquity. Abel, if he presumes to act on the principle of the Cainic law, is always the victim of his temerity, is always slain afresh, the earth opening her mouth to drink up his blood.

The posterity of Cain complete the work of their founder, and organize proprietorship and inequality throughout the earth. *

The Bible, in treating of the establishment and development of the Cainic law, speaks 1st, of Cain, whose name signifies acquisition, property: 2d, of Enoch, whose name signified limitation; for the first effect of the system of property, is the limitation of each individual within bounds which he naturally strives to enlarge; 3d, of Irad, whose name signifies invading passion; that inward cupidity which is a desire to encroach on the possession of one’s neighbor’s: 4th. of Mehajael, whose name signifies manifestation, activity: 5th. of Methussel or death’s fathomless pit: 6th. of Lamech, whose name signifies bond in dissolution. Lamech fully establishes the Cainic law, and thus checks the movement of the Cainic society in its road downward toward extinction: for, first, limitation brings in isolation and division among the children of Cain: then invading passion sets those who already limit each other, into mutual antagonism: then this invading passion passes over into open manifestation, hostility, internal war: afterward, this hostility and internal war push society into the gulf of destruction, death’s fathomless pit, threatening the race of Cain with utter extinction: at last comes Lamech, the legislator of iniquity, the great organizer of the right of the strongest, he who establishes a legal system of oppression, tyranny, and irresponsible power.—Lamech organises polygamy, and, by consequence, a system of castes; and then, standing in the door of his tent, he thus sums up, in an address to his harem, the final developments of the law of Cain:

“Adam and Zillah, hear my voice!
Ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech!
For the least wrong done unto me, I will kill;
For a wound, I will kill a man;
For a deadly wound, I will kill a child even;
For if Cain avengeth himself seven-fold,
Surely Lamech shall avenge himself seventy and seven-fold.”

Meanwhile, by a rapid movement of thought, and without any preparation of words, the writer of the book of Genesis brings back the primitive authors of the human family upon the scene.

“And Adam knew his wife again, and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: for God, said she, hath APPOINTED me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew.”—Gen. iv, 25.

It was the man of system and conventions, that came into the world this time; for the name Seth signifies, appointed. Cain was the man of mere material fact; and his pretended legislation was nothing other than the dictate of his own will and egotism: but Seth bears a very different character; for he brings conventions with him; and we may indeed discover in his legislation, the first germs of constitutionalism. The race of Seth is evidently contrasted in the Bible, with the race of Cain. Abel is no dead; Cain and Seth have the world to divide between them; society developes itself under new conditions: let us follow therefore, the order of the legislation of Seth. Seth begets Enos, whose name signifies weakness, invocation: the Bible explains this symbol by adding,

“The began me to call upon the name of the Lord.”—Gen. iv, 26.

Thus the line of Seth, feeling its weakness, threw itself in its desperation, on the protection of God; but it did not escape sudden ruin.

“Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan.”—Gen. v, 9.

Behold, therefore, the race of Seth, from the third generation, participating fatally in the condition of Cain, and reproducing, to a certain extent, the other race. For Cainan is no other than Cain (as Fabre d’Olivet shows by an examination of the biliteral roots) with a softening of his peculiar characteristics. Cainan begat Mahalaleel, who is a softening down of Mahajael, the fourth in the line of Cain. Mahalaleel begat Jared, who is the Irad of the other line. Jared begat Enoch, apparently the identical individual who appeared in the other list. (For it is allowable, in a mythus, to cause the same person to be born of various mothers.) Enoch begat Methuselah, the Methusael of the line of Cain: and Methuselah, as before, begets Lamech, the ultimate Legislator of the right of the strongest!

What else could indeed have been expected under the circumstances? All constitutional monarchies, all republics which are founded on mere material interests, or mere conventions, and which take no account of the proletariat, but sacrifice it to the supposed welfare of the privileged classes, all such constitutional monarchies and republics, are but an alliance of Cain and Seth, contracted over the dead body of Abel. It is Seth, the man of conventions, and of science, who consummates the murder of Abel. This legislation of Seth, which ends with Lamech, the oppressor of the weaker sex, and the organizer of inequality, begins with Enos, the man who ‘invokes God!’ Cain is a murderer, a highway robber, a pirate; but Seth is a respectable man, a church-member, as it were, who, though he does precisely what Cain does, yet does it in another way; for he does it scientifically, legally, and meanwhile invokes God! Cain, standing alone, is a lawless, bloody tyrant; but Cain in alliance with Seth, is a tyrant who contrived to work his arbitrary will in accordance with conventions regularly signed and sealed; but who, nevertheless, grinds the proletariat to powder, and always with the utmost deference to law and order.

Such is the sense, and the connection, of the mythus of Cain, Abel, and Seth.


* The reader may deny the authority of Fabre d’Olivet, and refuse to accept the interpretation of the name of the patriarchs, which we propose to lay before him; it is a matter of indifference to us; the philosophical sequence of idea is complete in itself, and will stand by its own weight.

Omega, “Equality—No. 6. Cain and Abel,” The Worcester Palladium 17 no. 31 (July 31, 1850): 3.

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