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Religion and the tasks of the revolutionary party

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Religious movements are on the rise across the world. What is religion and how do Marxists fight it? Mike Evans reviews the revolutionary approach from Marx to Trotsky

As the twentieth century of the Christian era draws to a close, religion is undeniably undergoing a powerful global revival. Its most dramatic victory of recent times is to have breached the citadel of the officially atheist USSR.

In formerly godless Russia the Orthodox Church is being exposed to competition. Protestant evangelist corporations from the USA are marketing their product in a big way. Jehovah’s Witnesses are packing out football stadiums promising to heal the sick, make the lame walk and enact that most elusive of miracles, bring prosperity to the people on the back of capitalism.

Homegrown sects from Africa to Korea have made millions of converts. Muslim fundamentalism has swept westwards from Iran to Algeria and even Morocco, and eastwards to Indonesia.

The young are mobilised around calls for the establishment of a strict adherence to Islamic law. In the Indian subcontinent, first Sikh and then Hindu fundamentalists have declared war on the self-styled secularist traditions of bourgeois Indian nationalism.

In Latin America the pentecostal protestant sects counsel the shanty town poor to forget collective resistance to the established order and seek individual salvation with the Lord. Even in the imperialist democracies there are signs of religious revival and challenges to secularism.

What attitude should Marxists take toward religion? In both its world outlook and method Marxism is consistently materialist; consequently, it is militantly atheistic. Its stance toward religion has its philosophical roots in the materialist philosophers of the eighteenth century. The French materialists—Diderot, Holbach, Helvetius—as Plekhanov noted, “regarded all the psychic activity of man as transformed sensations”. From this they drew a radical conclusion:

“They declared constantly, very ardently and quite categorically that man with his views and feelings, is what his environment, i.e. in the first place nature, and secondly society, make of him.” 1

From this they drew the conclusion that to improve humanity one had to change society. In the eighteenth century the natural sciences were explaining the inner secrets of nature. Newtonian physics, chemistry, botany and physiology displaced superstition. The great scientist, Laplace, when asked by Napoleon where was the Supreme Being in his system exclaimed: “God? I have found no need for this hypothesis!”

For these thinkers the claims of religious truth were just so much deceit and quackery. Asked to account for religion they pointed to the ignorance and fanaticism of the early apostles, the credulity of the masses and later to the corruption and self-interest of the church. It was an outlook that reflected the radical stance of a bourgeoisie that still had to settle accounts with feudalism and its ideological mainstay—the Catholic Church.

But after the French Revolution the bourgeoisie, now in power, found that they had a use for religion after all. A reaction set in in bourgeois thought. Philosophers like Kant and Hegel found a subordinate place for religion either as the foundation of the moral order or as the developing principle of History.

It was left to a new generation of radicals to take up the struggle against clericalism and reaction in the 1830s and 1840s. The first step away from Hegel’s theology had come with David Friederich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (1835). Its target was Christianity. Christianity claimed that its doctrines, unlike those of other religions, were not myths but real history, a true witness of what had happened, namely the incarnation of an omnipotent supernatural being in the person of a definite individual.

The gospels recorded this history and were essential to Christianity’s claims. Strauss demonstrated that the Gospel accounts were so internally contradictory that there was no question of taking them at face value, as historical accounts.

He held that they were rather the products of a myth-creating community which in developing its doctrines changed the purported narrative several times over to incorporate these new doctrines. Christianity thus joined the Greek myths, the Hindu poems or for that matter the stories of the Old Testament in the category of religious mythology.

Strauss did not reject Christianity but he turned it into the highest expression of poetic ideal. In this ideal Strauss identified humanity as a species in unity with the divine. This standpoint remained an idealist one but it was also monist, and thus vehemently rejected a division between the material and the spiritual. Clearly it was but one step, albeit a major one, to turn this monist idealist conception the right way up and to see the divine as merely a mythical expression of the human.

This step was taken by Ludwig Feuerbach, author of the Essence of Christianity (1841). Marx and Engels—indeed the whole generation of Left Hegelians—were still wrestling with the idealist legacy of Hegel. They interpreted his system as a critique of existing semi-feudal, absolutist conditions in Germany. But they remained trapped in a contradiction between their political radicalism and their continued philosophical idealism.

Feuerbach’s book came like a thunderbolt into the intellectual world. Engels was later to write:

“With one blow it pulverised the contradiction in that without circumlocution it placed materialism on the throne again . . . Nothing exists outside nature and man and the higher beings our religious fantasies have created are only the fantastic reflection of our own essence. The spell was broken; the system was broken and cast aside . . . One must oneself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.” 2

Marx’s most famous passage on religion reflects Feuerbach’s influence on him. But it also illustrates the way he overcomes the main weakness of Feuerbach:

“The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs, its condition is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.

Criticism has torn off the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the unadorned bleak chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve around himself and therefore around his true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve round himself.” 3

Marx recognised with Feuerbach the alienated character of religious consciousness. Qualities are taken from human social life—moral ideals, virtues—but then transformed into absolutes, turned into the qualities of an imaginary transcendent being whose perfection in turn condemns and annihilates the worth of real men and women.

Religion justifies and magnifies all guilts and repressions that arise from the oppression of women and youth in the family, the oppression of gay and lesbian sexuality.4 Then it offers absolution and consolation for them. Religion’s essential message is to denigrate humanity’s capacity to shape its own destiny, to preach submission to laws “divine” and “natural” which reproduce exploitation.

Marx then recognised the cause of religious alienation as residing in a society of inequality, oppression and exploitation. This real suffering creates the need for religion. As a result Marx’s solution is different from Feuerbach’s.

Whereas Feuerbach wanted to create a humanistic semi-religion in which Man “worshipped” his own essence, Marx saw that this was entirely useless. The real task was to struggle against and overcome the real social causes of insecurity and suffering. Only then would the necessity for religious opium gradually disappear.

In taking this position Marx made a radical break from the bourgeois atheist view that religion is the main cause of social problems or that the spread of scientific and anti-religious propaganda is the main weapon in this struggle. Likewise, he rejected the anarchist view that God is the ideological embodiment of “Authority” and with the abolition of the state God will also be, as it were, abolished.

Marxism does not locate the cause of human exploitation and enslavement in any ideology, religion included. This explains why Marx, Lenin and Trotsky refused to include atheism in the programme of the revolutionary party. Bakunin and the later anarchists, on the other hand, gave a front rank place to the struggle against religion imagining that it is as easy to abolish God as it is to abolish inequality, the state, money and property.

For Marxists the disappearance of religion will necessarily be a gradual process taking place as all the material causes of alienation in social and individual life disappear and as humanity at last masters its own fate at all levels. Only the end of systematic insecurity in natural, social and psychological life will allow religion to wither away.

This much said, it should come as little surprise to anyone that in the USSR the coercive suppression of religious practice under Stalin—by closing places of worship, impeding the training of priests and the voluntary organisation of religious propaganda—had little lasting effect.

If Stalinism was unable to give the Soviet workers the power to transform nature and society so that all social oppression and insecurity disappeared, then it is no surprise that along with a longing for other commodities in short supply there should be an unsatisfied demand for religious opium.

This demand is now being enormously stimulated as the former Soviet workers experience all the fear and anxiety of the restoration of capitalism. If the workers of the CIS are unable to create a real collective, mass movement of resistance then one can expect the market for religious dope to expand.

In the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism, Marxism does not set as a precondition that first we must rid the masses of religious ideas. As Lenin expressed it:

“Social Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task—the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.” 5

Lenin gives the example of a strike where Christian workers, even a Christian trade union, may be involved in the strike. Here, he says, for the time of this struggle:

“Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be harmful—not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle, which in the conditions of modern capitalist society will convert Christian workers to social democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda.” 6

For Lenin:

“A Marxist must be a materialist, but a dialectical materialist, i.e. one who treats the struggle against religion not in an abstract way, not on the basis of remote, purely theoretical, never varying preaching, but in a concrete way, on the basis of the class struggle which is going on in practice and is educating the masses more and better than anything else could.” 7

The party’s propaganda on religion starts from the view that religion is an ideological (false) consciousness arising out of humanity’s domination by nature, class society and the individual’s own unconscious or only partially understood psychological nature.

Marxism does not bar people who still bear the psychological chains of religion from joining the fight for the proletarian revolution. It does not even bar them from joining the revolutionary party. If a religious person accepts the revolutionary programme and in practice aids the party’s propaganda and agitation—including what it says and does on religion—then they can enter the party’s ranks.

Any contradictions between their activity as party members and their personal beliefs is a private contradiction that they will have to live with. What a religious party member would have to live with is that the party to which they belong does not hold that religion is a private matter.

Religion will always tend to push to the fore what it claims are absolute moral values. The party defends a fighting class morality of the proletariat, rejecting the idea that there can be any absolute morality, human or divine, whilst class society and even the memory and customs of it persist.

Religious belief therefore remains in all circumstances a form of ideological and psychological enslavement to the bourgeoisie. The party must by discussion, education and example try to persuade all of its members of the materialist outlook.

The party must publicly defend and expound an avowed atheist world view, especially in countries where a strong religious ideology still grips the masses. In countries where it is not legal to do so this would become part of its illegal work. It can and must refute the claims of religion to historic truth, to rationality and to scientificity.

Marxism encourages all forms of objective and scientific knowledge about nature and the universe, about the history and customs of societies, about human physiology and psychology. The spread of scientific knowledge can only tend to weaken and undermine religious dogma.

Marxism can patiently and objectively explain the multiplicity of competing religions, relating them to the various social formations, modes of production that have given rise to them. Marxists will not fail to point out the savagery, inhumanity and crimes committed in the name of religion through the ages. However, this anti-religious propaganda and agitation must not set out to deliberately shock and outrage the religious sentiments of the oppressed and exploited classes (the anarchist method).

On the contrary, it must seek pedagogic methods to overcome prejudices. Anarchist (and Stalinist) outrages against religious buildings or believers and persecution of their clergy (except insofar as the latter are active agents of the counter-revolution) are completely alien to genuine Marxism.

Such actions in the context of the continued existence of conditions which give rise to religious alienation will have the opposite effect. It will apparently confirm religious ideas, that life is a “vale of tears” because they will seem a truer reflection of the conditions experienced by the masses than the lying optimistic official ideology that they are already living in a socialist paradise. Hence the rapid revival of religion once these repressions cease.

We must seek to use the contradictions within the religious outlook, agreeing with anything that is progressive. We should concentrate our fire on the most harmful and reactionary policies or doctrines, pointing out the pro-ruling class nature of the church leaders.

But we must not fight solely against its ideological influence. Through its various churches it seeks to fix heads, indoctrinate and circumscribe the possible forms of behaviour of the citizens of the state. The working class has to free itself from all such slavish adherence to the teachings of the church in political or moral life.

This is most obvious today in the question of women’s rights, including control over conception and the right to terminate a pregnancy, and also the rights of lesbian’s and gay men to be free of all forms of discrimination. Communists—all communists—must reject the claims of the church, the mosque or the temples to impose reactionary dogmas on the population.

We fight to ensure that for any state the religious beliefs of its citizens should be a private matter. No religious ideology should be taught in schools. All religious propaganda must be voluntary, paid for by the believers themselves, and not infringe on compulsory, secular universal education for children.

Marxism sees the principal weapon against religious alienation as the struggle against all exploitation and oppression, even or rather especially after the seizure of political power by the proletariat.

Whilst strongly supporting the diffusion of atheist propaganda in the 1920s by journals like Bezbozhnik (“The Atheist”), Trotsky pointed out with whom this was most successful:

“. . . the advanced layers of the working class, who went through the school of revolution, that is acquired an activist attitude towards government and social institutions, have easily shaken off the shell of religious prejudices, which was completely undermined by the preceding developments.” 8

The less active or completely inactive strata can retain their religious prejudices and propaganda alone will not overthrow them. What weapons will? Trotsky says public dining halls, nurseries, clubs and cinemas will draw the masses out of the “close little cage of the family flat with its icon and image lamp”. Education and, above all, entertainment will replace the theatrical ceremonies of the church with more varied and more rewarding diversions in terms of increased knowledge and greater relaxation.

Everything that promotes the real happiness of the masses, their growing understanding of how nature and society works, will weaken religion’s leech-like hold on their consciousness. The liberation of women and of young people, including their liberation from sexual oppression and dependency, was a task the Russian revolutionary workers’ state set itself. It is a task that every future workers’ state will have to set itself.

In a world where the collapse of Stalinism is combined with a prolonged grinding crisis and stagnation of capitalism, the siren calls of religion are getting stronger once more. Faced with the revolt of the masses against poverty, capitalism and imperialism, various religions have, to preserve their influence, demagogically come forward as fighters against them.

Priests and mullahs, utilising their relative immunity, can became influential in mass struggles. Even archbishops (a Romero or Tutu) and ayatollahs (Khomeini) may come forward as denouncers of oppression.

But they will always be forces for containing these struggles and subordinating the masses to new forms of exploitation and oppression. Worse, if their institutions, the churches or the mosques gain prestige and a state recognised role (as they did in Iran or in Poland) then they will introduce all sorts of medieval barbarity back into political life, such as the oppression of women by the banning of abortion, compulsory veiling and so on.

But we must not forget either that every real struggle against oppression and exploitation undermines and potentially exposes these religious dope pedlars, even the ones who claim falsely to fight for better world in the here and now.

It is up to the revolutionary party to drive home these lessons, to assemble a revolutionary vanguard free of prejudices and able to lead the masses in throwing off not only the heavy chains of capitalist exploitation and social oppression but also the false flowers with which religion has so long sought to conceal them.

1 G Plekhanov, “Development of the Monist View of History”, Selected Philosophical Works, Moscow 1961, Vol 1 p546
2 Marx and Engels, “Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German philosophy”; Selected Works, Moscow 1970 p592
3 Marx, “Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law”, Collected Works, Moscow, Vol 3 pp175-6
4 As a product of millenia, religion’s myths, particularly in their artistic expression, contain many insights into social and psychological life and much of imaginative truth and beauty, albeit mixed with the ugly and the slavish. We should credit these merits solely and exclusively to the human capabilities of untold generations of real people fighting against the “blind fate” of nature and society.
5 Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow, Vol 15 p406
6 Ibid p407
7 Ibid
8 L Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, New York 1973 p309