Religion and Socialism: A New Answer To The Religious Question
Prelude to my Magnus Opus on Religion and Socialism
Some Historical Context (those familiar with the Trotskyist interpretation of the history of the Russian Revolution and the “fall of communism” can skip over this)
In 1917 a revolution in Russia erupted that shook the very foundation of the new world. Democracy up to that point had been the democracy of the property owning minority to the exclusion of the toiling masses. The concept of democracy according to the ancient Greeks, and consequently the democracy of America, was turned on its head into a democracy of the 99%, of the workers and peasants, to the exclusion of the property holding minority. It represented therefore an inversion of the dictatorship of the rich ruling class (the bourgeoisie) through bourgeois “democracy”, and its conversion into a dictatorship of the majority of society, of the workers and peasants through proletarian democracy.
Women were, for the first time in world history, given full political and economic equality. Racism was abolished and lost its institutional basis. Homosexuality was decriminalized and the Bolsheviks sought to abolish capitalist exploitation and introduce democracy into the workplace (socialism). Sadly though, many of these gains were undone when Stalin came to power. Immediately after the revolution, 16 imperialist countries invaded the young Soviet Republic, waging a bloody civil war with the fervent monarchist, anti-semitic, and reactionary white army. This invasion was supported by the former ruling class, the landowners and capitalists. It was supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution that had taught the Russian people to revere the Tsar as a saint, to blindly follow him into battle against other working people in whatever imperialist war he wished to wage at their expense.
Most socialists and Marxists were shocked at this, according to Marxism the first socialist revolutions ought to happen in the most advanced capitalist countries first, at the end of capitalist development. Instead the opposite happened, in a backward country where 65% to 80% of the population could not read! The imperialist expansion of the most advanced capitalist economies in the world was largely the cause of the Russian Revolutions surprising emergence in world history.
The Civil War period forced upon the Bolsheviks a necessary policy of Red Terror against the White Terror, a reinvented form of Jacobinism to defend the gains of the revolution. The attacks on the Bolsheviks from other parties, even socialist ones, in these conditions, led to the eventual formation of a one-party socialist state, a system never mentioned in the writings of Marx, Engels nor Lenin. Though tragic, it emerged as a historical necessity to defend the Russian Revolution from its enemies.
The success of the revolution depended entirely upon revolution on the international scale, a fact often stressed by Lenin, Trotsky, and even Stalin at the time. Many fought and died for this cause, but unfortunately the Bolshevik’s salvation never came. The imperialist war that led to the revolution was a result of the fact that the contradictions of the economic system of capitalism, of its markets, could no longer be reconciled within a nation state. It was long thought that socialism, a system more advanced than capitalism, could also only be achieved as an economic system on an international scale, the advent of imperialism furthered this reasoning. When Lenin died and international revolution never happened there was a split in the communist movement, a split between Trotsky and Stalin. Stalin and Bukharin advocated a theory of Socialism in one country, while Trotsky advocated a theory of Permanent Revolution.
Trotsky was exiled by Stalin in 1927 and was eventually murdered by one of Stalin’s agents in 1940. Trotsky believed that the Russian Revolution had been lost under the Stalinist bureaucracy, that it had become undemocratic, despotic, and that it had betrayed the revolution. Stalin on the other hand believed that he had only done what was necessary to keep Russia together under the socialist cause. After WW2 a whole series of liberated countries from fascist Germany and Italy set up systems mirrored not on the 1917 revolution, but on Stalin’s Russia. Stalinism was their political foundation. All of these countries, starting in 1917, were led by parties that waged a relentless struggle against religious belief. Such is the basis of my criticism. In 1989-1991 the USSR, followed by the entire Eastern Bloc, fell to capitalism. Religious persecution was one of the major reasons for the “fall of communism”. That is the historical context for this work.
The Critique of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, et al.
Historical materialism shows that religion, and organized religion in particular, has, in every epoch, acted in defense of the prevailing socioeconomic order, and every socioeconomic order since the emergence of agriculture has been fundamentally based on exploitation. Therefore Lenin states,
“Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious [organization], as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 15, p. 403).
While this certainly seems to be true in Lenin’s time, let us analyze this quotation for a moment in the modern world. Is this true? In Latin America there developed in the spirit of the socialist revolutions that overtook the world in the 20th century, liberation theology, a form of Christianity that saw the material emancipation of the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world as a necessary prerequisite to Christianity. In Soviet Russia, after the revolution, there developed a “living church” that supported the ideals of socialism and communism in spite of the Bolsheviks ideological war on religion as such, it was a church that attempted to distance itself from the reactionary Russian Orthodox Church. There is the National Liberation Army of Columbia that ascribes to an interpretation of Marxism-Leninism through the lens of Liberation Theology. There is the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a militant political movement that ascribes to an Islamic variant of Marxism. There are countless progressive churches in the United States and abroad with a staunch anti-capitalist, pro-socialist programme. Can we therefore say that Lenin was correct in saying that “all modern religions and churches”, and “each and every religious organization” are “instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and befuddle the working class”? Not in the least. In this regard, history has proved Lenin wrong.
These are religious organizations and movements that share in the optimism of progress we all on the left of the political spectrum feel. This puts to bed Trotsky’s declaration in The Revolution Betrayed that
“Marxism is saturated with the optimism of progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcilably opposed to religion.” (p. 27)
Stalin was once asked the following question,
“We know that some good Communists do not altogether agree with the Communist Party’s demand that all new members must be atheists, because the reactionary clergy are now suppressed. Could the Communist Party in the future take a neutral attitude towards a religion [that] supported all the teachings of science and did not oppose communism? Could you in the future permit Party members to hold religious convictions if the latter did not conflict with Party loyalty?”
He answered dogmatically,
“I do not know of any ‘good Communists’ such as the delegation mentions here. It is doubtful whether any such Communists exist at all.” (Stalin, Works, p.137).
Trotsky once remarked,
“…Perhaps you intended to imply that religion is of no political importance? That it is possible to be religious and at the same time a consistent communist and revolutionary fighter? You will hardly venture so rash an assertion.” (Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism, p. 52: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1942-dm/ch03.htm).
All of these assertions have been completely debased and put to bed by the development of liberation theology and other genuinely proletarian religious movements for the liberation of the proletariat.
Of course, one doesn’t blame Copernicus for believing the sun to be the center of the universe, just as one shouldn’t blame Lenin for believing that “each and every religious organization” is an instrument of reaction and bourgeois obfuscation of the proletariat. These men were limited by the historical knowledge and material conditions of human progress in their time. This does not in the least mean that Copernicus or Lenin were not wrong in their final conclusions, merely that the result of their conclusion was underdeveloped by the limits of human knowledge and world history.
In this spirit of ideological hostility to religious belief Lenin declared,
“The party of the proletariat demands that the state should declare religion a private matter, but does not regard the fight against the opium of the people, the fight against religious superstitions, etc., as a ‘private matter’. The opportunists distort the question to mean that the Social-Democratic Party regards religion as a private matter!”(ibid. 410)
Of course, this proclamation directly contradicts the proclamation of German communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg when she said,
“Social-Democracy in no way fights against religious beliefs. On the contrary, it demands complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest possible toleration for every faith and every opinion. But, from the moment when the priests use the pulpit as a means of political struggle against the working classes, the workers must fight against the enemies of their rights and their liberation. For he who defends the exploiters and who helps to prolong this present regime of misery, he is the mortal enemy of the proletariat, whether he be in a cassock or in the uniform of the police.”(https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1905/misc/socialism-churches.htm)
Not even Marx declared that atheism should be an essential policy of a workers party. When the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy proposed as rule number 1 of its program,
“The Alliance declares itself atheist; it wants abolition of cults, substitution of science for faith, and human justice for divine justice.”
Marx replied in a side note,
“As if one could declare—by decree—the abolition of faith!” (Marx Engels Collected Works, Volume 21 p. 208).
In the Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith, Engels says,
“All religions so far have been the expression of historical stages of development of individual peoples or groups of peoples. But communism is the stage of historical development which makes all existing religions superfluous* and brings about their disappearance.” .( https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/06/09.htm).
This is in conformity with the Marxist interpretation of religion as the opium of the people, as religion (the tool for the oppressed worker) is no longer needed when the oppression of the worker ceases to be. The word Engels uses here is superfluous, not abolished by force, not something that comes about by “convincing the masses ideologically”, not something that is established as a prerequisite to communism, but as something that comes about with communism. All this rests though, on the Marxist theory that religion is solely an expression of socioeconomic conditions, is solely “the opium of the people”. Marx also once remarked,
“Communism begins from the outset (Owen) with atheism; but atheism is at first far from being communism; indeed, that atheism is still mostly an abstraction.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm)
But even with this Marx is describing communism in the abstract, not in the concrete as a socioeconomic system.
Marx’s interpretation of communism is, no doubt, atheistic. However would it not befuddle the worker to proclaim Marx a prophet? As someone who’s vision of communism was to be carried out exactly as Marx envisioned? Would it not be rash to consider the ideology of the proletariat in the 21st century to be exactly Marx’s ideology with no historical context? Is it revisionist to make such a claim? Perhaps. But it is thoroughly based on the historical context of the 20th century and the material conditions of the 21st.
Marx’s famous quote about religion has been grotesquely misinterpreted by Stalinists and idealistically by “new atheists” alike. To quote it in full,
“It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)
Truly this is a beautiful quote by Marx, but let us first analyze what Marx is saying. Religion as it is portrayed in this way is a false light in a world of darkness. Marx is calling on its abolition “as the illusory happiness of the people”. He is calling on the abolition of the “conditions that require illusions”. He is not merely attacking religious ideas as illusions as such, but he is calling for their abolition as they manifest themselves as an illusory happiness.
Can anyone who is sincerely religious say they want their religious convictions to be merely a tool for people to achieve illusory happiness in grotesque conditions? Can anyone sincerely religious say they want religion to merely be an opiate for people who live in oppressive conditions? Religious ethics compel one to be compassionate, and therefore compel the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people. There is no contradiction here. It was once alleged correctly that Mother Teresa was “a friend of poverty, not of the poor”. Is this what a “true Christian” is? Someone who takes pleasure in the religious suffering of others in order to spread their faith to the widest possible masses? Not in the least! This is an ethical betrayal of Christianity!
The Contradiction Between The Party and The State
Let us assume, for a moment, that religion should be combatted directly by the party of the proletariat. Well and good ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary folk, but what happens when the party comes to power? Marx, Engels, and Lenin never once mentioned or wrote about a one-party state. It emerged in a later phase of the Russian Revolution and there is no indication that such a system was to remain permanent. If, under such a system, the party controls the state, controls the schools, and all other state, public, and social organs, how can the state be neutral on the grounds of religion and the party not be? Here there is a glaring contradiction that was never once addressed under the Stalinist system. Instead it led to the total abandonment even of Leninism, and even of this contradictory Stalinist interpretation of Leninism.
While there was no “official” state persecution, there were, still, constant anti-religious campaigns carried out by the party, de facto carried out by the state during the entire existence of the USSR and the other Marxist-Leninist states. In Stalinist Albania, this contradiction eventually led to the abolition of freedom of religion entirely! All religion was made illegal in 1967, over 2000 (the total number of) churches and mosques were closed down by the state in a matter of months. It was an action carried out in total violation of even Marxist-Leninist principles as a result of this contradiction. Even the British-Albanian Friendship Association (an anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist organization if there ever was one) distributed a lengthy document labeled “Discussion Document Only – Not for Publication” within its ranks (because it did not want to damage the image of Stalinist Albania) that wholly condemned Hoxha’s anti-religious campaign. It did not in the least point out or even acknowledge this contradiction, but instead blamed it on “hidden revisionists who – by taking advantage of the ‘cult of personality’ built up around Hoxha – sought to [utilize] this sectarian action to discredit the country’s Marxist-Leninist leadership around Hoxha as part of a broader aim of reversing the construction of socialism in Albania” in the typical Hoxhaist bunker mentality of Stalinist anti-revisionism.
The conclusion of the entire lengthy British-Albanian Friendship Association’s analysis is as follows:
“In the context of the anti-religious struggle carried out in socialist Albania, the closure of its religious institutions in 1966-67 had been:
1) in violation of Marxist-Leninist principles;
2) in violation of the Constitution of the PR of Albania;
3) not in compliance with Albania’s international obligations as a UN member;
4) an action embodying certain features of the ‘cultural revolution’ which was simultaneously proceeding in China;
5) an action which must have alienated to some extent religious believers within Albania who might otherwise have been full supporters of the socialist regime;
6) an action which assisted international anti-socialist propaganda;
7) an action which alienated to some extent religious believers who might otherwise have been [favorably] disposed towards socialist Albania;
8) an action which held back to some extent the international Marxist-Leninist movement, of which socialist Albania had been the sole citadel during the sixties, seventies, and eighties, by presenting the image of a state which arbitrarily permits the violation of its constitutional rights, and by alienating to some extent religious believers who might otherwise have been firm supporters of the movement;
9) not initiated by the leading group in the party and state around the PLA First Secretary, Hoxha;
10) initiated by an [organized] and influential group of hidden revisionists who – by taking advantage of the ‘cult of personality’ built up around Hoxha – sought to [utilize] this sectarian action to discredit the country’s Marxist-Leninist leadership around Hoxha as part of a broader aim of reversing the construction of socialism in Albania.”
Even the British-Albanian Friendship Association admitted religious people would have fully supported the government had it not carried out these policies. Dare we not go a step further and say that the Leninist attitude towards religion in general alienated the people who resided in Leninist Russia, the later USSR, and other Marxist-Leninists states to such an extent that it was a major contributing factor in the “fall of communism” in the USSR and Eastern Europe? We have already established that Lenin’s view of religion as being something that, “in every instance”, opposes the liberation of the proletariat to be a wrong interpretation in light of modern conditions. This was his entire basis for his opposition to religion as such, next to, of course, his Marxist interpretation of materialist philosophy.
How did Lenin regard materialism? Lenin said, “Marxism is materialism. As such, it is as relentlessly hostile to religion as was the materialism of the eighteenth- century Encyclopaedists or the materialism of Feuerbach.” (Lenin, Collected Works Volume 15, p. 405). Lunacharsky, yes the same Bolshevik who in 1918 held a mock trial and execution of God himself, in his earlier years was a leading proponent of the “God Builder” faction of the Bolshevik Party. Though he wanted to create a “new secular religion” to replace the old, he held that the workers party should be agnostic, that true materialism is agnostic and not atheistic as the existence or non-existence of God was not an obviously apparent. He said:
“From the socialist point of view, the attitude of the proletarian movement toward religious organizations is built on the basis of their positions in the class struggle. Socialism looks at religious movements from the point of view of the common good, as well as physical, moral and mental development, which implies the following:
1. Socialism is fighting against religious superstitions and prejudices based on empirical knowledge of objective and subjective science.
2. Socialism is fighting against the religious intellectuals serving the bourgeoisie, just as with the secular intellectuals supporting the bourgeoisie.
3. Socialism is alien to militant atheism, based on opposing prejudice and violence against people.
4. Socialist freedom also implies freedom of religion and an independent search for the truth for every person.
5. Socialism cannot dogmatically hold any one position on the statements ‘God is’ or ‘There is no God’, and takes a position of agnosticism or ‘open possibilities’.
6. Socialism unites secular and religious ideological groups in the struggle for the proletariat. Any action aiming to merge socialism with religious fanaticism, or militant atheism, are actions aimed at splitting the proletarian class and have the formula of “divide and rule”, which plays into the hands of bourgeois dictatorship.” (Anatoly Lunacharsky. Religion and Socialism, Moscow (1908))
There is an obvious contradiction in views here as well between the views of Lunacharsky and Lenin. Though Lunacharsky eventually came around to the Leninist view of religion in the years of the revolution, we cannot dismiss his earlier writings. What is the interpretation of materialism according to James Connolly? Connolly said,
“Modern Socialism, in fact, as it exists in the minds of its leading exponents, and as it is held and worked for by an increasing number of enthusiastic adherents throughout the [civilized] world, has an essentially material, matter-of-fact foundation. We do not mean that its supporters are necessarily materialists in the vulgar, and merely anti-theological, sense of the term, but that they do not base their Socialism upon any interpretation of the language or meaning of Scripture, nor upon the real or supposed intentions of a beneficent Deity. They as a party neither affirm or deny those things, but leave it to the individual conscience of each member to determine what beliefs on such questions they shall hold.”
It should suffice, then, that socialists have a materialist interpretation of history, view the world through the lens of materialist dialectics in which “God” is not a variable for change, but on the question of personal belief and conscience in regards to religious belief, it should never compel a fighting socialist to abandon their religious convictions or, as a party, to spread “anti-religious propaganda”.
A New Historical Materialist Approach To The Question
Religion has, in all previous epochs, defended the prevailing socioeconomic system. If we take into account only Asiatic, slave, feudal, and capitalist society we can say that religion has always stood for exploitation and oppression because of its defensive attitude towards the prevailing socioeconomic system. But if we consider for a moment that the ethics of every single religion today are irrevocably hostile to capitalist “ethics”, and are in total sync with the ethics of socialism, why should we assume that organized religious institutions and religion in general would not support a socialist world order? We have no reason to believe that it would as an eventuality. Initially, as always, many if not most religious institutions are undoubtedly reactionary in nature and would initially be hostile to social change. This necessitates an ideological battle against these institutions not on the basis of their being religious as such, but on the basis of them being bourgeois. The exposure of the hostility of these institutions towards a system no doubt resembling that of the early apostles, no doubt in line with the ethics of most every religious doctrine, would cause a massive reformation of religion as it exists today. It would, no doubt, cause new and reformed religious institutions to mercilessly defend socialism. To quote St. Paisios of Mt. Athos,
“Personally, if the communists weren’t atheist, if they didn’t hunt Christ, I would agree with them. It’s good for the plots of land, the factories, to belong to everyone; not for one to be hungry while someone else is throwing away food.”
In this regard, Lenin’s declared official hostility of the Bolsheviks to religion as such, and not to its bourgeois character in the (then) present epoch, actually worked against the cause of socialism. For the religious institutions of Russia, or any other country for that matter, would never, and never did support a militantly atheistic socialist system. This actually led to the fall of Marxism-Leninism in the 20th century. Pope John Paul II’s speech in Poland is widely regarded as the speech that inspired the workers of Poland to finally destroy the Stalinist system, and with that, the first domino in the Eastern Bloc fell. It played directly into the hands of world imperialism and reaction. It was the reason the U.S. reactionaries added “In God We Trust” to currency!
Making the struggle against religion a “natural and indispensable part of scientific socialism” was one of the biggest contributing factors in the fall of Marxism-Leninism in Russian and Eastern Europe. Its dogmatic approach to the religious question alienated the majority of the population and made both believers and the church institutions themselves wage a now hidden, now open ideological fight against the communists, a fight that could have ended either in the utopian abolition of religion under socialism at large, or in the destruction of the Marxist-Leninist system as a whole. History, as we know now, unfolded upon the latter.
What should have been something in conformity with the ethics of all the major religions was turned into something militantly hostile to religious belief. The socioeconomic base of the Marxist-Leninist system lacked the justification and support it had from religious institutions under the asiatic, slave, feudal, and capitalist modes of production and their natural socio-political counterparts. The religious institutions were reactionary because they were capitalist under capitalism. They only remained capitalist because the new socioeconomic order would never allow them to exist freely in society without hinderance, constant ideological war, and persecution.
What, then, should the policy of the workers party be towards religion? It should, as Rosa Luxemburg said,
“in no way [fight] against religious beliefs”,
on the contrary, it must
“[demand] complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest possible toleration for every faith and every opinion. But, from the moment when the priests use the pulpit as a means of political struggle against the working classes, the workers must fight against the enemies of their rights and their liberation. For he who defends the exploiters and who helps to prolong this present regime of misery, he is the mortal enemy of the proletariat, whether he be in a cassock or in the uniform of the police.”
James Connolly lays out the attitude any socialist party can, should and must take in his work Socialism and Religion (1899) saying,
“The Socialist Party of Ireland prohibits the discussion, of theological or anti-theological questions at its meetings, public or private. This is in conformity with the practice of the chief Socialist parties of the world, which have frequently, in Germany for example, declared Religion to be a private matter, and outside the scope of Socialist action. * Modern Socialism, in fact, as it exists in the minds of its leading exponents, and as it is held and worked for by an increasing number of enthusiastic adherents throughout the [civilized] world, has an essentially material, matter-of-fact foundation. We do not mean that its supporters are necessarily materialists in the vulgar, and merely anti-theological, sense of the term, but that they do not base their Socialism upon any interpretation of the language or meaning of Scripture, nor upon the real or supposed intentions of a beneficent Deity. They as a party neither affirm or deny those things, but leave it to the individual conscience of each member to determine what beliefs on such questions they shall hold. As a political party they wisely prefer to take their stand upon the actual phenomena of social life as they can be observed in operation amongst us [today], or as they can be traced in the recorded facts of history. If any special interpretation of the meanings of Scripture tends to influence human thought in the direction of Socialism, or is found to be on a plane with the postulates of Socialist doctrine, then the scientific Socialist considers that the said interpretation is stronger because of its identity with the teachings of Socialism, but he does not necessarily believe that Socialism is stronger, or its position more impregnable, because of its theological ally. He [realizes] that the facts upon which his Socialist faith are based are strong enough in themselves to withstand every shock, and attacks from every quarter, and therefore while he is at all times willing to accept help from every extraneous source, he will only accept it on one condition, viz., that he is not to be required in return to identify his cause with any other whose discomfiture might also involve Socialism in discredit. This is the main reason why Socialists fight shy of theological dogmas and religions generally: because we feel that Socialism is based upon a series of facts requiring only unassisted human reason to grasp and master all their details, whereas Religion of every kind is admittedly based upon ‘faith’ in the occurrence in past ages of a series of phenomena inexplicable by any process of mere human reasoning. Obviously, therefore, to identify Socialism with Religion would be to abandon at once that universal, non-sectarian character which to-day we find indispensable to working-class unity, as it would mean that our members would be required to conform to one religious creed, as well as to one specific economic faith – a course of action we have no intention of entering upon as it would inevitably entangle us in the disputes of the warring sects of the world, and thus lead to the disintegration of the Socialist Party.
Socialism, as a party, bases itself upon its knowledge of facts, of economic truths, and leaves the building up of religious ideals or faiths to the outside public, or to its individual members if they so will. It is neither Freethinker nor Christian, Turk nor Jew, Buddhist nor [Idolater], [Muslim] nor Parsee – it is only human.”
It is this attitude that socialism of the 21st century must take towards religious belief. It must not condone religious intolerance and religious bigotry, or anti-religious intolerance and anti-religious bigotry. As essential as the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky are to the socialist movement, we must take their views into historical context, and, when they are wrong such as in the instance of the religious question, fundamentally revise them. Socialism is, after all, only human.
*My Italics or bold- TFB