Karl Marx and religion - part 4

In the last of a series of articles, Michael Malkin outlines the attitude of communists to believers

In previous articles I have tried to set out the framework for a debate about the theoretical and philosophical basis of Karl Marx's attitude to religion, dealing at some length with the question of alienation and outlining what I believe to be the correct way to interpret Marx's view of religion as a form of ideology.

My original plan for this final article in the series was to provide a detailed account of Marx's attitude to the question of religion and the workers' movement. Instead, I shall deal with this matter quite summarily and then turn to a problem of more immediate and practical significance: namely, how we, as communists and revolutionaries, see the religious question in contemporary society, and, more specifically, what attitude we should adopt to the involvement of religious believers in the class struggle and the fight for socialism.

In part, my change of mind was motivated by a letter addressed by a comrade to the Weekly Worker ('Can't be both?', March 22 2001); in part by a very interesting little speech given by Kambiz Boomla of the Socialist Workers Party at the recent Birmingham conference of the Socialist Alliance, in which the comrade sternly took issue with those of us who wanted to see the Socialist Alliance enter the next general election with a revolutionary programme. The whole point, you see, is that any talk of revolution will frighten away such people as a certain "Sister Christine", a Catholic nun who is reportedly on the verge of throwing her weight behind the SA in the East End of London. Subsequent reports suggest that a number of priests are also interested in getting involved.

Good. I have nothing against anyone who sincerely wants to fight for the interests of the working class and is prepared to accept our programme. But I have a great deal against the opportunism so flagrantly displayed by comrade Boomla, when he suggested that the SA programme must of necessity be a compromise between the "minimum programme of revolutionaries" (including, it need hardly be said, the SWP) and the "maximum programme of people coming from Labour".

We heard much of the same kind from other SWP speakers at the conference, including such leading figures as comrades Rees, German and, last but not least, comrade Harman, editor of Socialist Worker. The message was clear enough. Real Marxist ideas, including the dreaded 'R' word, are only for consenting adults in private, where you can be as r-revolutionary as you like. Just do not do it in front of the class, who, poor things, can only be addressed from the perspective of "where they are now". In other words, hold up a mirror to the atomised, passive, and demoralised consciousness of the workers, reflect it back on to them and hope that a few economistic demands will somehow win them in the coming election.

What wretched, patronising philistinism - a combination of 'don't frighten the horses' and 'pas devant les enfants'. I have not made the acquaintance of Sister Christine, but I once knew a nun who, despite being in her late 80s and no doubt getting down on her knees each night to thank her god for another day spent fighting for justice and peace, would probably have regarded the entire SWP central committee as a bunch of lily-livered reformists

But this is no time for one-upmanship. Let us get back to Marx. When he and Engels first got seriously involved in socialist politics in the mid-1840s, there was already a tradition on the left of regarding religion not merely as philosophically compatible with socialism, but even as a positive source of inspiration. Leaving aside the relatively small number of clerics and believers who advocated their own brand of Christian socialism and tended to support workers' demands, there was a much more numerically significant body of socialists, especially in France, whose politics were ostensibly rooted in biblical notions. Works such as Saint-Simon's New Christianity, together with the writings of figures like the communist priest Lammenais and socialists like Cabet and Leroux were very influential, hence Engels's observation that, "It is curious that whilst the English socialists are generally opposed to Christianity, and have to suffer all the religious prejudices of a really Christian people, the French communists, being a part of a nation celebrated for its infidelity, are themselves Christian. One of their favourite axioms is that le Christianisme c'est le communisme" (CW Vol. 3, p399).

A similar strain of thought could be found among German socialists such as Marx's erstwhile colleague, Moses Hess, and notably in the teaching of the autodidact communist artisan and preacher of the 'dictatorship of intelligence', Wilhelm Weitling, who at one stage exercised considerable influence on the direction of nascent German socialism, and for a time worked alongside Marx and Engels in the Communist Correspondence Committee, set up to foster links between revolutionaries and advanced workers.

It was a disciple of Weitling's and a fellow member of the Correspondence Committee, the eccentric Hermann Kriege, whose activities provoked one of Marx's early denunciations of this eclectic mix of 'communist' politics and religious quackery. On his emigration to America in 1845, Kriege settled in New York and established a German-language journal, Der Volks-Tribun, in which he began propagating a utopian kind of agrarian socialism that amounted to the creation of a peasant class where none existed. According to Kriege, a beneficent state could abolish poverty for ever by allocating a smallholding of 160 acres to every family. This was bad enough, but worse was to come when Kriege, in the name of communism, began preaching a new religion of love as an antidote to all human ills. If you take the time to read his febrile ramblings, it is clear that what Marx called Kriege's "amorous slobberings" were the product of a deeply disordered intellect - he died in the madhouse. But Marx quite rightly denounced the teaching of someone who was "preaching in the name of communism the old fantasy of religion ... the direct antithesis of communism". By advocating a view of communism that sought to bring about "the long-yearned for community of the blessed denizens of heaven", Kriege ignored the fact that "these obsessions of Christianity are only the fantastic expression of the existing world and that their 'reality' therefore already exists in the evil conditions of this existing world".

It is important to note that Kriege was expelled from the Correspondence Committee, not because of his weird religious views per se, but because they were, in Marx's view, "compromising in the highest degree to the Communist Party" ('Circular against Kriege' CW Vol. 6, pp35ff). Had Kriege been merely a private individual, his quasi-Christian effusions, had they been noticed at all, would no doubt have met with that mixture of contempt and bemused exasperation with which Marx regarded all forms of religion.

Marx was just as scathing when it came to attempts by Christian ideologists among the bourgeoisie to claim that their religion was in any sense compatible with the struggle for socialism. In 1847, for example, Marx published an article condemning the propagation of a variant of feudal, Christian socialism preached in the pages of the conservative newspaper, the Rheinischer Beobachter.

The paper maintained that the social question in Germany could be resolved within the framework of the Prussian state, provided that the state put into practice what it called "the social principles of Christianity". Marx's memorable retort was to the effect that, "The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and are capable, in case of need, of defending the oppression of the proletariat, even if with somewhat doleful grimaces. The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and for the latter all they have to offer is the pious wish that the former may be charitable. The social principles of Christianity place the Consistorial Counsellor's compensation for all infamies in heaven, and thereby justify the continuation of these infamies on earth. The social principles of Christianity declare all the vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either a just punishment for original sin and other sins, or trials which the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, ordains for the redeemed. The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness: in short, all the qualities of the rabble; and the proletariat, which will not permit itself to be treated as rabble, needs its courage, its self-confidence, its pride and its sense of independence even more than its bread. The social principles of Christianity are sneaking and hypocritical, and the proletariat is revolutionary. So much for the social principles of Christianity" ('The communism of the Rheinischer Beobachter' CW Vol. 6, p231).

Nowhere else in Marx's writings can we find a more personal, more deeply felt and more intensely angry summary of exactly what it was in religion that he found so abhorrent. The lines just quoted are a Promethean declaration of the essential dignity and independence of the human person, for whom submission to the gods represents a defining act of self-abasement in the face of mere illusion and alienation.

For Marx, the notion of 'Christian socialism' was a manifestly absurd oxymoron. In his view, the variants of it that tried to muster support among the masses represented no more than a final, futile attempt on the part of a decadent, senescent aristocracy to stem the rising tide of the bourgeoisie: "In order to arouse sympathy, the aristocracy were obliged to lose sight, apparently, of their own interests, and to formulate their indictment against the bourgeoisie in the interest of the exploited proletariat alone ... As the parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord, so has clerical socialism with feudal socialism. Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the state? Has it not preached in the place of these charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat" ('Manifesto of the Communist Party' CW Vol. 6, p508).

There is no room for any kind of fudge on the matter: in Marx's eyes religion was and could never be anything more than a contemptible form of self-degradation, whereby the human subject transforms itself into a cringing object by voluntarily submitting to the domination of an entirely illusory deity. Hence his anger, near the end of his life, when the German Social Democrats enshrined in the Gotha programme the formula that religion was a 'private matter'. While not sharing the desire of some of his socialist contemporaries like Louis Auguste Blanqui to declare war on religion and persecute its adherents, Marx thought that any workers' party worthy of the name should not limit itself to a mere declaration of freedom of conscience. Just as he had argued against his young Hegelian colleagues decades before, he maintained that the ultimate objective should be not to bring about freedom of religion, but freedom from religion. To argue that "everyone should be able to attend to his religious needs as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in" was not enough. "Bourgeois 'freedom of conscience' is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and it [the workers' party] endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion" (K Marx and F Engels Selected works Moscow 1958, Vol. 2, p323 and p333f).

Space does not permit me to extend the survey of Marx's thinking on religion and the workers' movement. Suffice it to say that he was consistently and unbendingly hostile to any suggestion that religion or religious values - of whatever kind - had anything useful to contribute to the class struggle and the fight for socialism. Indeed, where religious notions did enter into socialist politics, whether in the form of nostrums based on biblically inspired ethical precepts underlying 'true socialism' and so forth, or simply in the form of opportunistic compromises such as those at Gotha, he regarded them in an entirely negative light. The religious beliefs of individuals appear to have interested him not at all, but, where the workers' movement and the nascent Communist Party was concerned, it was an entirely different matter.

At this point I should like to turn to a letter published recently in this paper from comrade Gary Collinge, up in Lancashire, who writes as follows: "Thank you so much for the information you sent me about the Communist Party of Great Britain. I now have a better understanding of the communist view. I have always classed myself as a leftwing socialist but after reading your Party manifesto, I fully agree with most of your views.

"The only thing that stops me calling myself a communist is that I am a Christian and as far as I know you cannot be both. Or at least, I don't think so? I believe that the communists in the Soviet Union made themselves an enemy of god and the Christian church and for that reason I cannot bring myself to be a member of your Party" (Weekly Worker March 22).

I hope the comrade is reading this article, because I should like to take this opportunity of replying not only to his specific question but also of discussing in more general terms why the CPGB maintains that religious believers who are committed to the struggle for revolution and who accept our programme should not hesitate to involve themselves in our work.

As all readers of the Weekly Worker must be aware, every issue of the paper contains a column called 'What we fight for', in which certain basic sets of principles are set out, principles based on discussions that took place long ago during the 4th Conference of the Leninists of the CPGB, held in December 1989. Among them is a paragraph reading "Marxism-Leninism is powerful because it is true. Communists relate theory to practice. We are materialists; we hold that ideas are determined by social reality and not the other way round." Personally, and I expect this goes for most, if not all, members of the CPGB, I take it for granted that Marxism-Leninism, as a scientific theory, is inseparable from materialism and atheism. Certainly, in this sense, materialism and religion are intrinsically incompatible, but we quite correctly refrain from any stipulation that those who support 'What we fight for', those who want to become supporters and eventually members of the CPGB should ipso facto be atheists.

I have no knowledge of the religious history of my comrades. I suspect that most of them have been atheists all their adult lives, like Marx, but I am sure that some have found and others will find their way to us, whose yearning for justice and human liberation may initially have been grounded in some form of religious belief or values, as was the case with the young Engels. Of course, as communists we are committed to fighting against oppression, alienation and superstition in every form, including what we see scientifically to be the illusory claims of religion and its detrimental effects on the struggles of the workers' movement. But also, as communists, we approach the struggle against religion not as sectarian bigots, who demand that nobody can fight by our side who does not accept a priori some credal formulation, nor as atheist inquisitors, bent on grubbing round in the consciences of individual members and denouncing the slightest deviation from dogmatic materialist orthodoxy. No, it is precisely because we are communists in the tradition of Marx, Engels and Lenin that we approach this question with understanding, sensitivity and patience.

It was Marx who wrote that, "Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. 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. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is the demand to give up a condition that requires illusion. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo religion is" (KMSW p64). Notwithstanding his own deep aversion to religion, he was human enough (supremely so) to recognise why it is that religion, as a form of "reversed world consciousness", can take such a hold on those whose oppression, alienation and degradation under the capitalist mode of production and bourgeois society lead them to try to "find themselves" in a world of illusion.

As in so many other things, Lenin - who was hardly a friend of religion, to say the least - showed us the way, by dealing with this question not abstractly, not as a matter of materialist dogma, but as a concrete problem of praxis. We should all take the time to re-read his article, 'The attitude of the workers' party to religion', written for the journal Proletary in May 1909. To be sure, "Marxism ... [is] a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion" (VI Lenin CW Vol. 15, p402), but does this mean that we should "introduce into the programme of the workers' party an explicit proclamation of atheism, in the sense of declaring a war on religion"? Certainly not. Referring to Engels's 1874 polemic against the Blanquist Communards, he points out that, "Engels blamed the Blanquists for being unable to understand that only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion" (ibid. p403).

Yes, "We must combat religion - that is the ABC of all materialism ... But Marxism is not a materialism which has stopped at the ABC. Marxism goes further. It says: we must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion ... must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion" (ibid. p405).

The bourgeois liberal reduces these social roots to mere ignorance and says, "Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!" But Marxists say that the views of such "bourgeois uplifters" are superficial, that they offer not a materialist but an idealist explanation of the problem of religion, whose roots in modern society are predominantly social and rooted precisely in "the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism ... No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of the masses ... until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion"; and they can only do so when they "fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way" (ibid. p406).

To warn against the possible detrimental effects of mere atheistic propaganda - under certain concrete conditions - is by no means an opportunistic compromise of fundamental Marxist materialist principles, nor any kind of "philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections" of the class, but rather a recognition of the fact that the struggle against religion must be subordinated to the class struggle, "which will convert Christian workers ... a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda" (ibid. p407).

Lenin raises the concrete question of how the Bolsheviks should regard a religious believer who wanted to join their ranks, by asking whether "a priest can be a member of the Social Democratic Party". Lenin concedes that, in Russian conditions - where the orthodox church was an absolute bulwark of tsarist autocracy and oppression - such a possibility would be "altogether improbable", but he states that, "If a priest comes to us to take part in our common political work and conscientiously performs Party duties, without opposing the programme of the Party, he may be allowed to join the ranks of the Social Democrats" (ibid. p408).

In these circumstances, "The contradiction between the spirit and the principles of our programme and the religious convictions of the priest would in such circumstances be something that concerned him alone, his own private contradiction; and a political organisation cannot put its members through an examination to see if there is no contradiction between their views and the Party programme." Obviously, "If a priest joined the ... Party and made it his chief and almost sole purpose to propagate religious views ... it would unquestionably have to expel him" (ibid.). He goes on to state that, "We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in god ... but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it. We allow freedom of opinion within the Party, but to certain limits ... we are not obliged to go hand in hand with active preachers of views that are repudiated by the majority of the Party."

Does Lenin's reference to the "private contradiction" implicit in our putative priest-Bolshevik's willingness to serve the class struggle mean that Lenin regarded religion as a private matter, of concern only to the individual? No, comrades, it does not. Where the Party is concerned, religion cannot be seen in such a light. Where the state is concerned, that is an entirely different matter, to which I shall turn presently.

No, the Communist Party cannot remain passively indifferent to the ignorance and superstition objectively represented by religious belief and practice. It remains our duty to break the hold that religion has over the minds and lives of workers. We should not forget that, even in a period where organised religion is in decline, where perhaps the majority of citizens are de facto atheists, church, mosque, synagogue and temple still constitute forces that uphold bourgeois, class society, and all the exploitation and oppression that flow from it. Their calls for charitable, palliative solutions to the woeful effects of global capitalism on the lives of millions - 'Sell all you have and give it to the poor', and so forth - have not surprisingly gone unheeded by the vast majority of their own members and, even where laudable self-sacrifice and devotion by individuals and groups does go some way to relieve human suffering, they at best relieve symptoms rather than remedying the underlying disease.

The current membership of the CPGB is composed of people from a very wide range of traditions within Marxism. There are many questions on which be disagree, sometimes quite sharply. A climate of rigorous debate and engagement with all ideas is, after all, essential to the health of any genuinely communist organisation and, when combined with that unity in action which ensues from open and democratic decision-making, it is a formidable weapon in the struggle. Increasingly, numbers of young people are coming to us with little or no education in Marxism, but they are attracted by the consistent, uncompromising revolutionary politics of our organisation, which they first became aware of through reading the Weekly Worker or browsing our website; then, through their solidarity with us in political action, they experience the material reality of communist praxis. It sounds to me that comrade Collinge might be one of them.

It is this that is the nub of the matter. The question is 'What is to be done?', rather than 'What do you believe?' Hence, nothing should stand in the way of any militant worker - or anyone else for that matter, including those who carry with them the baggage of religion - from entering the ranks of the CPGB, providing, of course, that they accept its programme and agree to work under its discipline. I am inclined to doubt that anyone who came to us while remaining sincerely convinced that the ills of society are the fault, not of the capitalist mode of production, but of the fallen, sinful nature of humankind, the weakness of human nature, or the work of the devil would stay for long. But vestigial adherence to some form of religious tradition, notion or taboo should not in itself be seen to constitute an immovable obstacle. A combination of education - both self-education through study, and collective education through participation in seminars, schools and the Communist University - together with revolutionary social practice are the means to win such comrades to our materialist, scientific world view.

Let us turn briefly to the notion that religion is a "private matter", pure and simple. Historically, the term originated in the 1875 Gotha programme of the German Social Democrats, where we find the lapidary formulation that, "Religion is declared a private matter", and we have already seen what Marx thought of it. The Social Democrats' aim was opportunistic: i.e., to reassure the church that it had nothing to fear from socialism, that it could continue unmolested in the enjoyment of its privileged place in society; furthermore, it was intended to make socialism more 'palatable' to the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry and the backward sections of the working class, rather in the way that the SWP wants to make the Socialist Alliance more 'palatable' to the likes of the good Sister Christine.

With the approach of the Erfurt Congress in 1891, Engels did what he could to ensure that the resulting programme would return German Social Democracy to the position taken by the Eisenachers back in 1869: namely, strict separation of church and state, and church and school. He drafted a resolution incorporating the demand that, "All religious bodies without exception are to be treated by the state as private associations. They are not to receive support from public funds or exercise any influence over public education", but his intervention was ignored (see 'Introduction' Lenin on religion London 1938, p5).

Instead point six of the Erfurt Programme stated that, "Ecclesiastical and religious bodies are to be considered as private associations", in effect preserving the opportunistic fudge enshrined in the Gotha document, and giving added comfort to religious institutions that might still view socialism with trepidation.

History soon passed its verdict on this feeble opportunistic compromise, that can be viewed in a certain light as a foreshadowing of the wholesale class treachery which brought about the demise of the Second International. But what of today? The position of the CPGB on the question, founded on the thinking of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and reflected in our Draft programme leaves no room for doubt. Under 'Immediate demands', the paragraphs dealing with religion (Section 3.16) read as follows: " Religion can play no progressive role for the working class - unlike previous oppressed classes in history - in its struggle against today's ruling class. Nevertheless, though communists want to overcome all religious prejudices, we are the most consistent defenders of the individual's freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. Communists therefore demand:

"1. Separation of the Church of England from the state. End all state subsidies for religious institutions. Confiscate all Church of England property not directly related to acts of worship.

"2. Freedom for all religious cults. Freedom for atheistic propaganda. Religious organisations and individuals have the right to propagate their ideas and seek to win converts. Opponents of religion have the same right.

"3. End all state-sponsored religious propaganda and acts of worship. Religion is a private, not a state matter. Religion can be taught as a subject of academic study, not as a means to indoctrinate children."

The same position was included more or less verbatim in section 3.17 of the CPGB's 'Socialist Alliance draft programme' (Weekly Worker January 25). As immediate demands, calling for religion to be an entirely private matter where the state is concerned, these propositions can and should be incorporated into the framework of society as it now exists, and they already form part of the constitutional arrangements operating in many bourgeois states. Founded as they are on ideas of equality and freedom, they are also applicable to a socialist society that has thrown off the yoke of capitalist oppression. As communists, we have neither the desire nor the intention to declare war on religion, or to try to set up some sort of 'Marxist' 'atheocracy' on the model of the late and unlamented Enver Hoxha's Albania. Persecution of this kind is self-evidently alien to democratic socialism.

In this connection it is apposite to take up comrade Collinge's assertion that "the communists in the Soviet Union made themselves an enemy of god and the Christian church". I know what the comrade means, but I would question the way that he expresses his thinking. As Marxists, we look at concrete historical facts when trying to arrive at conclusions. In the period prior to and following the October revolution, it was not so much the Bolsheviks and the Russian working class who made themselves 'enemies of the Christian church' in this sense, but rather the other way round.

Russian orthodoxy at that time was the least speculative of the churches in philosophy and the least dogmatic in theology. Its appeal then, as now, was to the hearts rather than to the heads of its adherents. Seeing itself as having been 'spared' the upheavals of the protestant reformation and the enlightenment, the Russian orthodox church consciously and contentedly rooted itself in an obscurantist, mystical spirituality that fostered what Lenin called "the primitive, unconscious, matter-of-fact religiousness of the peasant, whose living conditions give rise - against his will and unconsciously - to a truly revolutionary fight against medievalism" ('Classes and parties in their attitude to religion' CW Vol. 15, p422). "Medievalism" is the keynote. In politics the orthodox church on the eve of the revolution occupied a position akin to that held by its Roman counterpart in the high middle ages. Far from being merely the source of 'divine' legitimisation for autocracy and all the oppressive filth that went with it, the church was at the very centre of Russian polity, not least in terms of its status as a massive landowner. Its reactionary approach to all manifestations of 'liberalism' would, in comparison, have made pope Pius IX look like a dangerous radical.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the aftermath of the revolution saw the great majority of the church - from the hierarchs of the holy synod to the humble village priest - take sides with counterrevolution in a crusade against 'godless communism' and, during the horrific years of the civil war, do all they could to support the cause of the Whites. Countless thousands on both sides perished in the course of this bloody conflict, in which counterrevolution at home, combined with imperialist intervention from abroad, threatened the very existence of Soviet power. One can hardly be surprised that the Bolshevik government and the Red Army gave no quarter in what was literally a struggle for the survival of the world's first workers' state.

That the repression of organised religion in Russia and the USSR - even after it no longer represented a significant counterrevolutionary threat - later took on a long-term, systematic character is historically undeniable and I shall make no effort to defend it. In any event it was a profoundly mistaken approach. There is no more effective fertiliser of the seedbed of faith than the blood of martyrs.

I trust that comrade Collinge, having read what has gone before, will have no fears that the CPGB harbours any intention of launching a war against religion, let alone doing to death those who profess their faith in god. Let him and all like him come to us and join the fight for that objective which, whatever our individual backgrounds, unites us all - the self-emancipation of the working class and the communist revolution.