Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Heart of a Heartless World: Marxism and Religion

I recently noticed that I passed the 50,000 'hit' mark, which apparently means 50,000 different people have at one stage or another come across this blog on their travels. The internet has been amazing for communications. As one left wing blogger once noted of the number of 'hits' he recieved, they 'are roughly the same as Partisan Review’s monthly circulation circa 1938, when the likes of James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, Paul Goodman and Clement Greenberg published there. That’s a readership I can definitely live with.' I subscribe wholeheartedly to this sentiment, though I am not sure exactly how my average compares to Partisan Review's circa 1938.

Anyway, to celebrate this historic milestone, I thought I would put up the text of a short talk I gave to a SWP meeting recently on the subject of 'Marxism and Religion'. I wrote it quickly, and shamelessly plundered two excellent articles for information - 'Marx and Religion' from Socialist Worker earlier this year, and 'The Bolsheviks and Islam' from an article in International Socialism. Those wanting to explore the question of Marxism and Religion more thoroughly might like to read Michael Lowy, Chris Harman on Islam and 'Islamo-fascism', and Paul N Siegel's comprehensive work The Meek and the Militant. Okay, here goes:

The question of the relationship between Marxism and religion is a facinating one, but one which remains a source of quite considerable misunderstanding.

On the one hand, there are those who tell us that Marxism and religion have absolutely nothing in common with each other – and that Marxists and religious believers can not and should not work together for a common aim at all. There are all sorts of varieties of this argument. Historically, during times of social upheaval, supporters of the existing system have tried to win believers in God away from revolutionary Marxists by denouncing Marxists for their ‘Godless atheism’. Yet, even worse, at times certain people have, in the name of Marxism, declared a war on ‘religion’. Perhaps the worst examples of this came in Stalinist Russia, where in whole areas Russian Orthodox Christian churches were destroyed, icons looted and burned and priests abused during the period of forced collectivisation. In China under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, religious believers were harassed, religious scriptures and art destroyed and religious buildings closed. Today in Britain there are even a few people who call themselves ‘Marxists’ yet join up with Islamophobic pro-war Liberals in denouncing those Marxists who – like those of us in the Socialist Workers Party, who work in united fronts like the Stop the War Coalition and the Respect Coalition with Muslim activists, on the grounds that believers in Islam are somehow inherently reactionary (Oddly enough, these people do not seem to make an issue of us working with the likes of Tony Benn or George Galloway, who are both Christians, but anyway...)

On the other hand, Marxism is often attacked not for being ‘Godless atheism’ – but for quite the opposite reason – being ‘just another religion’. People say, don’t join a Marxist organisation – they are just like a 'religious cult'. Again, such people can point to historic examples where those acting in the name of Marxism have indeed acted as if Marxism was a religion. One thinks again of Stalinist Russia – or Maoist China - and the cult of the great infallible leader that existed. One can read all sorts of books where a kind of parallel between Marxism and religion is attempted, with Marx and Lenin as the kind of God figures, and then Stalin or whoever as the ‘Son of God’, the legitimate successor. Lenin himself noted in his classic work, The State and Revolution, that after the death of great revolutionists, ‘attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to surround their names with a certain halo for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time emasculating the essence of the revolutionary teaching, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.’ Yet this is exactly what happened to Lenin himself after his death at the hands of the conservative Stalinist bureaucracy. And, indeed, after attacking the Russian Orthodox Church, once his regime was more established Stalin now returned to the relationship with the Church that the old Tsars of Russia had enjoyed – a somewhat ‘strange alliance’ now formed. Indeed, during the Second World War, the Russian Orthodox Church called for God’s blessing upon Stalin and Stalin’s regime, just as in the First World War. ‘Let us intensify our prayers, declared the Patriach Alexii, ‘for the divinely protected Russian power and for its Authorities headed by the wise Leader, whom the Will of God chose and set up to lead our Fatherland along the path of good deeds and glory.’ Stalin went from being the feared tyrant and persecutor of religion to God’s chosen appointee.

Given the confusion then that exists, it is arguably worth briefly restating firstly what Karl Marx himself said about religion, and secondly what the tradition of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was with respect to religious believers, in particular with Muslims, before some general conclusions might be drawn for today.

What did Marx say on the question of religion? Well, As Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right(1844) famously put it, religion was:

‘at the same time the expression of real distress and 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 a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.’

Now I want to digress for a moment on what is meant by the phrase ‘opium of the people’. Opium at this time was widely smoked by those who could afford it at this time – for pleasurable effects. There is a famous book by Thomas de Quincey called Confessions of an Opium Eater. All sorts of writers and novelists got off on the stuff. Think of Arthur Conan Doyle's character, Sherlock Holmes, a heroin addict yet widely remembered as an archetypal Victorian bourgeois gentleman. By comparing religion to opium, Marx was not damning it all. Indeed, the British Government at this time traded hugely in opium, indeed British Imperialism grew the stuff in the territory they had conquered in India, and even went to war on China for the stuff – in the Opium Wars on the 19th century. Today, by fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, the British Government is presiding over a massive rise in opium production – despite the clearly damaging effects of street heroin on working class communities at home.

More importantly perhaps is the fact that the description ‘opium of the people’ is not specifically Marxist – similar can be found in various contexts in the writings of other German philosophers of the time – like Bruno Bauer (who we will come onto in a bit), Moses Hess and Heinrich Heine.

Yet, Marx’s comparing of religion to a nice pleasurable drug is of course an implicit criticism of religion – and Marx stood in the tradition of the Enlightenment, which placed rationality above superstition, and scientific reason over notions of ‘divine will’ and ‘divine intervention’ as an explanation for social change.

Yet Marx was equally critical of those liberals who elevated criticism of religion above all other political concerns. To understand why, one has to look a little bit into Marx’s life.

Marx was born to a Jewish family, in Prussia – now part of Germany – in 1818. Prussia at this time was still an absolute monarchy full of ancient restrictive laws, propped up by the stifling ideology of the Holy Roman Church. Jews like Marx faced systematic discrimination with laws determining where they could live and the jobs they could hold. This discrimination was so bad that Marx’s own father even converted to Christianity to escape oppression.

In the 1840s, while Marx was in his twenties and working as a radical journalist on a Liberal paper, there were debates raging about Jewish emancipation in progressive circles – and Marx spent time arguing with a circle of Liberals known as the Young Hegelians – after the great German philosopher, Hegel. These liberals were inspired by the Great French Revolution which had so thrilled Hegel himself, and longed for the kind of democratic elections and separation of Church and State seen in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

Yet, they didn’t actually want to have to go through the messy and risky business of organising a revolution themselves – and instead organised campaigns in an attempt to reform the creaking Prussian State.

Yet despite the fact that the campaign for Jewish emancipation was one part of this struggle – and Marx himself backed the campaign to scrap the discriminatory laws, not all the members of the Young Hegelian liberal circle followed suite.

Most shockingly for Marx, a former tutor of his from University, Bruno Bauer, who was very prominent in the group – indeed he had been sacked from his University post in 1842 for his radical views – came out against Jewish emancipation, mobilising in his defence an apparently left wing argument.

Bauer argued that religion was the main enemy, - there are parallels today with liberal atheists like Richard Dawkins who has just written a book called The God Delusion, arguing that if only everybody could be like him and realise God was an invention of humans, rather than humans being the invention of a God that doesn’t exist – the world would be a better place. Anyway, back to Bauer – Bauer was very critical of religion and given it was the main problem that therefore for progressives to waste time supporting Jews supporting emancipation as Jews would be capitulating to religion and be the special pleading of a religious minority.

Bauer argued that if Jews first renounced their religion, they would then be worthy of support by liberal atheists like him. As Bauer wrote, ‘As long as he is a Jew, the restricted nature which makes him a Jew is bound to triumph over the human nature which should link him as a man with other men, and will separate him from non-Jews’. Now, this doesn’t sound too bad on the face of it – placing the fact we are all human above a particular religious identity. Yet Bauer quickly followed this up with a second essay, which revealed what was really troubling him about the idea of Jewish emancipation.

As Bauer put it, while Christianity was equally as bad as Judaism, there was something about Judaism that made it different from Christianity as a religion. ‘The Christian has to surmount only one stage, namely that of his religion, in order to give up religion altogether. The Jew on the other hand, has to break not only with his Jewish nature, but also with the development towards perfecting his religion, a development which has remained alien to him’.

There are lots of parallels here with the question of Islamophobia today – a lot of Liberal secularists and even people on the Left refuse to defend Muslims rights despite the fact that they are on the receiving end of a racist backlash on the part of the warmongering Blair Government, currently illegally occupying two Muslim countries an oppressed Muslims. Instead these people – some of them calling themselves Marxists - either downplay, ignore or worse collude in Islamophobia, joining in with the likes of Jackboot Straw in calling for Muslims to take off their veils so they can be integrated into Blair’s authoritarian ‘Britain’, with all the joys that entails. While insisting they are against all religion, they feel there is something special about Islam which means it is responsible for women’s oppression, homophobia and even terrorism – in a way which they feel other religions are not.

How did Marx at the time react to his former mentor Bauer? Did he join in the attacks on ‘Jewish backwardness’? Did he simply mouth pleas for more ‘tolerance’ of Jewish people?

No, Marx wrote a polemical essay entitled ‘On The Jewish Question', published in 1844 – the same year as his opium quote – where he turned his guns on Bauer’s liberal politics – noting that Bauer’s secular insistence on a distinction between Church and State was nothing like enough even to accomplish Bauer’s aim of ending religion – in America the US Constitition was avowedly secular, yet the US was a deeply religious country still, teeming with religious sects of all sorts.

More fundamentally, Marx insisted that religious faith was an effect – not a cause - of a much more general oppression. Focusing on matters of theology and trying to win people to atheism were a distraction from real social struggle against this general oppression.

Marx also took on the Liberal idea that political emancipation could only be restricted to the question of state policy, while not touching on private ‘civil society’ – which left unchallenged whole areas of human existence like the question of private property and wage labour which accompanied it. Society was not just a mass of atomised individuals motivated solely by self interest – as the Liberals saw it – (and saw themselves, for that matter, as Marx noted), but was characterised under capitalism by oppression and exploitation. In contrast to the Liberals, Marx called for not just political emancipation but a more general human emancipation. This demanded not only an atheistic understanding of the world, but a consistently materialist understanding of human society and its history.

After this exchange of essays, Bruno Bauer would shift off back to the right and later become a cheerleader for the vile anti-Semitism that emerged in Germany in the 1870s under Bismarck’s rule, an ideology which would lead to the Nazi gas chambers. Today he is a forgotten figure – remembered only for his debates with Marx. Marx, on the other hand, after writing this and other essays in 1844, Marx would go onto become the revolutionary champion of the working class that he is remembered as today.

It was arguably Frederick Engels – Marx’s collaborator – rather than Marx who really did pioneering work to trace how religious conflicts in the past – such as the rise of Protestantism - were matters of far greater importance than theological debates over transubstantiation – but represented social and economic conflicts and clashes. Otherwise, it is doubtful if they would have ever needed to burn any heretics at the stake. Anyone who reads Engels fine work on the Peasant War in Germany – which heralded Thomas Muntzer, leader of a peasant revolt which swept Germany in the early sixteenth century, as a ‘quasi-Communist’ and a ‘religious revolutionary’ will be able to see this for themselves.

Indeed, Frederick Engels was so inspired by lectures he attended as a student at Berlin University in the early 1840s on the subject on the Book of Revelation – one of the last books in the Christian Bible which predicts the Second Coming of Christ down to Earth to wreak vengeance on all the exploiters and oppressors of the world - that he wrote an article on ‘The Book of Revelation’ in 1883 from the notes he claimed have been ‘carrying with me since 1841.’ In the article he expressed sadness that the study of the Bible as a document was not as widespread as it was, and outside Germany tended to have a ‘mild, but utterly unhistorical, spirit.’ Along with trying (unsuccessfully) to date when it was written by playing around with the number 666, he concluded ‘instead of being the darkest and most mysterious, it is the simplest and clearest book of the whole New Testament.’ Indeed, ‘as an authentic picture of almost primitive Christianity, drawn by one of themselves, the book is worth more than all the rest of the New Testament put together.’ In the 1920s, the socialist writer DH Lawrence devoted his last work to a study of ‘Apocalypse,’ noting optimistically, ‘just as inevitably as Jesus had to have a Judas Iscariot among his disciples, so did there have to be a Revelation in the New Testament. Why? Because the nature of man demands it.’ ‘The religions of renunciation, meditation, self-knowledge, pure morality…express the individual side of man’s nature’ and ‘isolate’ it. They are ‘not for complete individuals’ as they ignore the ‘collective’ part of human nature, which Revelation epitomised.

In fact, the Book of Revelation represented not so much a contradiction in human nature, but, as Chris Harman has shown, the contradictory position the persecuted Christian sects found themselves at the time it was compiled. ‘The most bitter resentment could find an outlet in the vision of the apocalypse, which would witness the destruction of the “whore of Babylon” (easily understood to mean Rome) and the reign of the “saints,” with the high and mighty pulled down and the poor and humble ruling in their place.’ Yet by the second and third centuries AD, the Christian sect was growing and trying to appeal along class lines to richer elements of society, and so, ‘by projecting the transformation into the future and into a different, eternal realm, the revolutionary message was diluted sufficiently to appeal to those whose bitterness was combined with a strong fear of real revolution.’ Nevertheless, as Karl Mannheim noted, ‘the very idea of the dawn of a millennial kingdom on earth always contained a revolutionary tendency, and the Church made every effort to paralyse this.’ They want you to read the Bible – but just not the Book of Revelation at the end – as it is all about social revolution. If you don’t believe me, go away and read it...

That really is the point about religion – religious believers can find support for pretty much anything in the founding texts – and explains the contradiction whereby the Christian religion can include on the one hand George W Bush and Tony Blair and the Pope and on the other Tony Benn, Martin Luther King or even more radical people like the Liberation Theologists of Latin America.

It is sometimes suggested that there are no examples of left wing figures or organisation emerging among Islam – yet Malcolm X was a major influence on the leaders of the revolutionary Black Panthers Party in the 1960s despite coming from a background of the Nation of Islam. Leaders of the Mujahadeen in Iran argued for a fusion of Marxism and Islam in their guerrilla struggle against the dictatorial US backed Shah. If it is then clear that Muslims can – surprise surprise, like any other religious believers – hold revolutionary beliefs (incidently, given there are now 1 billion Muslims in the world, quite how some ‘pure’ Marxists can hope for socialist revolution internationally if Muslim people can’t lead revolutionary struggles is a mystery to me) it might be worth concluding with some brief comments on how Lenin’s Bolsheviks related to the 16 million odd Muslim people of the former Russian Empire during and after the October Revolution of 1917 – before the revolutionary hopes were crushed by the rising Stalinist bureaucracy.

Firstly, while the Bolshevik Party’s programme was avowedly atheist, atheism was never a condition of party membership, as religion was the private affair of the citizen and indeed Lenin argued in 1909 that the party should recruit religious believers without offending their faith in any way. As Lenin put it:

‘The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparent complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extraordinary events such as wars, earthquakes etc’.

When workers in 1905 marched behind a Russian Orthodox Priest, Father Gapon, to petition the Tsar during the General Strike, the Bolsheviks didn’t stand aside and denounce the workers for following someone who was linked to the Church which was a key bastion of reaction for the Tsar – but joined the movement. Incidently, the fact Gapon was a priest didn’t stop the Tsarist troops massacring this workers demonstration.

In October 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power and declared the Soviet State to be non –religious – not anti-religious. Religious communities were given remarkable freedoms under the revolution, including Muslim communities, though clearly the links between the Russian Orthodox Church and Tsarism meant that religion could not be allowed total freedom given the conditions of civil war. Religious believers were welcomed into the Bolshevik ranks, while national rights of formerly oppressed peoples were defended. The Bolsheviks did not make an issue out of the Islamic veil – and indeed it was Stalinist bureaucrats and Great Russian Chauvinists in 1927 – after Lenin’s death and Trotsky’s isolation from the Bolshevik leadership – who launched a mass assault on the veil. The Bolshevik tradition was the opposite – as Zinoviev and Radek put it at one moment during the Civil War in 1920, at the Baku Congress of the People’s of the East, it was vital Muslims were won to fight for Soviet Power – even invoking that struggle as a jihad – ‘holy war’:

‘You have often heard the call to holy war from your governments, you have marched under the green banner of the Prophet, but all those holy wars were fraudulent, serving only the interests of your self-serving rulers, and you, the peasants and workers, remained in slavery and want after these wars…we summon you to a holy war for your own wellbeing, for your own freedom, for your own life!’

Today, the anti-capitalist slogan ‘another world is possible’ seems to me to go to the heart of the issue. Our present world is indeed a kind of hell – with famine and poverty killing 18 million children a year, and the ever present grave danger of humanity being destroyed by war-criminals like Bush and Blair and huge corporations who put profits before both the planet and the people. But we must work to construct that ‘other world’ on earth – through building an anti-capitalist movement strong enough and confident in its own powers to overthrow the existing system. That inhuman, racist and barbaric system is our main enemy – and only once we have built a new world on earth – a world of peace, equality and social justice – should Marxists bother themselves about such questions as to whether or not a God exists.

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At 1:19 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:05 pm, Blogger Callum said...

"That’s a readership I can definitely live with.' I subscribe wholeheartedly to this sentiment, though I am not sure exactly how my average compares to Partisan Review's circa 1938. "

Hmm, while the numbers may be similar, or indeed greater, its implications for politics are much less sharp, I fear.

For one, readership on the internet, as opposed to "printed news", is dispersed throughout the entire world. That is, you'd rather have 1000 readers in London than 10,000 in the whole of Europe, I think.

Secondly, the act of buying something tangible denotes a commitment to the project, whereas simply clicking your mouse probably does not.

At 7:50 pm, Blogger Louis Proyect said...

Minor correction. It was Dennis Perrin who compared his circulation on "Red State Son" with Partisan Review.

At 9:21 pm, Blogger Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Nice article, but Seigel's book is rubbish.

Much better is 'Marxism and Religion' by McLennan.

Your hits make mine look pretty anaemic: nearly 3000 since Feb 2006.

Rosa Lichtenstein


At 5:53 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey.. great post :)- Loved reading it.


At 11:18 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for comments people.

Louis - apologies - I have changed it now.


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