Secularism, atheism and Bolshevik lessons

Religion has a tangled and ancient history, deep social roots and still has a palpable impact on the class struggle. How to respond to religion and religious people is a particularly hot issue today, especially when it comes to islam and muslims. Undoubtedly, the most valuable practical lessons we have available to us, both positive and negative, are to be found in the writings of Vladimir Lenin and the history of Soviet Russia.

Lenin - following in the footsteps of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels - argued that philosophically our world outlook is militantly atheist. Each and every religious institution in modern-day society serves reaction and helps to perpetuate the exploitation and oppression of the working class by serving up an unremitting diet of ideological pap and obfuscation. We have no wish to ‘improve’ religion or blur the distinction between materialism and religion. There can be no concession here to the idealism and superstition promoted and sanctified by religion.

So Lenin favoured the party publishing atheistic propaganda and intellectually striving to break the hold of religion. For the party religion was not a private matter. But, while he opposed the opportunism that made it appear that the party was neatral towards religion, it was also the case that Lenin stood against the phrase-mongering of anarchists and pseudo-leftists.

Simultaneously, therefore, it is necessary for Marxists to combat those revolutionaries who wished to conduct a war on religion. The idea that religion must be persecuted, repressed or banned under socialism is an anathema for Marxists. Such crass atheism is a diversion and can only but strengthen religion. It is moreover a gift to reactionary forces, whether they be in the Kremlin, the Elysée Palace, Downing Street or the White House.

Unhesitatingly, communists stand for the freedom of religion. So we are against state bans on visits by Louis Farrakhan and other posturing demagogues. Religion often seethes with anger, preaches grotesque nonsense and frenziedly invents social demons in order to give a sense of purpose for those who are otherwise crushed, empty, abandoned and despised. Religion is, explains Lenin, “a sort of spiritual booze, in which slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man” (VI Lenin CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, p84).

Religion must be no concern of the state. Religious cults, groups and sects must have no connection with the state and governmental institutions - we are for secularism. Everyone must be free to practise their religion, along with its various codes and requirements, or to practise no religion. Discrimination between citizens “on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable”, insists Lenin. Even mention of a person’s religion in official documents should be eliminated. Certainly the tax breaks and state grants to religious institutions should be ended. Instead there must be the self-financing of all such associations independently of the state. The proletariat therefore demands the “complete separation of the church and the state” and that all persecution based on belief, or non-belief, be immediately ended (VI Lenin CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, p85).

Religion should be declared a private matter. This is the usual formulation which communists uphold. But, as we have already hinted, this formulations needs elaboration in order to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be a private matter as far as the state is concerned. That does not apply to Marxism and the Communist Party. We are not and cannot be indifferent to religion.
Lenin emphasises that, so far as the party of the socialist proletariat is concerned, “religion is not a private matter”. As the party is founded to struggle against “every religious bamboozling”, the ideological struggle against religion cannot be “a private affair” for members, but is the concern of “the whole party, the whole of the proletariat” (VI Lenin CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, pp84-85).

While the programme contains neither the demand for party members to be atheists nor a bar on recruiting believers, it is “based entirely on the scientific, and moreover materialist, world outlook”. “... our programme,” says Lenin, “therefore necessarily includes an explanation of the true historical roots of the religious fog. Our propaganda necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism; the publication of the appropriate scientific literature, which the autocratic feudal government has hitherto strictly forbidden and persecuted, must now form one of the fields of our party work” (VI Lenin CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, p86).

Naturally Lenin warns against the danger of elevating the religious question to the first rank. Religion cannot be overcome through “purely propaganda methods”. Religion is sustained by class society and overcoming religion can only be effectively done through the mass revolutionary struggle against class society. Unitedly fighting for paradise on earth is more important to us than the unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.

That is why the Bolsheviks did not include in their programme the demand that all members immediately rid themselves of religious superstition. The Bolsheviks were convinced that the class struggle would enlighten better than any number of books and pamphlets. Towards that end they tirelessly strove against the hate-mongering and splitting tactics of the Black Hundreds - akin to today’s BNP, FN, etc - and the tsarist state’s discriminatory laws and attacks on religious minorities.
For people who lack a serious attitude towards Marxism this appears to be inconsistent. Either it is viewed as a sop to religion or inexcusable laxness. But anyone who treats Marxism seriously, treats it as a guide to action rather than a sectarian badge of honour, recognises that Marxist tactics in regard to religion “are thoroughly consistent” (VI Lenin CW Vol 15, Moscow 1977, p405). We are not chasing electoral popularity or afraid to upset vicars, priests, rabbis and imams. However, the political line of Marxism flows from a philosophical materialism which sees practice and actually changing the world as primary.

Lenin advocated and always and without exception put politics to the fore. Purely theoretical propaganda is not enough. Involvement is the main thing. Experience of taking part in the class struggle educates the broad masses in a way that is impossible with books and pamphlets alone. Typically they reach and affect the advanced section of the working class; not the medium-developed or backward. Marxists must therefore judge each situation concretely and determine the “boundary between anarchism and opportunism”, which is, of course, relative and constantly shifting, but always exists. Marxists must avoid falling either into abstract - that is, futile - revolu-tionism, or opportunism which, guided by short-term calculation, does everything not to repel, not to frighten, not to offend and adopts the liberal motto of ‘live and let live’.

An inescapable example of this approach in recent times is the Socialist Workers Party. It appears to view islam as a strategic ally against imperialism in general and New Labour in particular. Looking abroad, the SWP glosses over the sexual apartheid presided over by the Iranian theocracy, uses the danger of mass rape to excuse the imposition of the burqa by the Taliban and refuses to condemn the murderous September 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington carried out by al Qa’eda. Meanwhile, at home it courts islamists - above all the Muslim Association of Britain, an organisation which it desperately wants to come into Respect as co-ruler. In pursuit of that popular frontist aim, notoriously at Marxism 2003, the SWP’s Lindsey German described women’s and gay rights as “shibboleths” … and indeed principle after principle has been duly sacrificed.

Former Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman once solemnly pledged that, when we “find ourselves on the same side as the islamists”, the SWP, would “argue strongly with them”, not only over their “attitude towards women and minorities”, but for the need to overthrow “class relations” (C Harman The prophet and the proletariat London 1999, p56). All that has gone by the board. At the October 2004 Respect conference, his replacement as Socialist Worker editor, Chris Bambery, actually went so far as to condemn secularism as islamophobic.

The history of our movement must therefore be distorted or skewed away from the truth, if the SWP is to be claimed as a continuation of the Bolshevik tradition. A good example of this is Dave Crouch’s generally useful article, ‘Bolsheviks and islam: religious rights’, which was promoted with the strap line, “Socialists can learn from how the Bolsheviks approached the muslims of the Russian empire” (Socialist Review December 2003).

What has our SWPer learnt? Under the first subhead - ‘Atheism’ - the comrade assures us that “atheism was never included in the Bolsheviks’ programme”. This is an evasive, one-sided, not to say thoroughly dishonest formulation. The Bolshevik programme featured a specific section on religion and anti-religious propaganda. A fact that goes completely unmentioned by comrade Crouch. His silence on this is doubly significant. The very idea of adopting a written programme is cowardly rejected by an aloof, self-perpetuating but wildly zigzagging SWP leadership which fears being held to account by its rank and file membership. And, of course, neither Socialist Worker’s thumbnail ‘Where we stand’ column nor the SWP’s pinched constitution mentions religion.

Naturally, given the opportunist needs of the SWP leadership, comrade Crouch also steers well clear of the Bolsheviks’ call for extensive propaganda aimed at overcoming “religious prejudices”. Nor does he mention the Bolshevik party’s programmatic attitude towards its own members and their beliefs. Hardly a trivial oversight, when one considers the great lengths to which the SWP has gone in pandering to islam.

Combating religion

The felt need for religion is reproduced by the actual oppression and powerlessness of the masses, as against the state and the blind workings of the global capitalist metabolism. Therefore scientific understanding alone can never eliminate religion. Obviously in the fight against religion the party should produce and disseminate all manner of books, pamphlets and other educational material - an objective factor in the class struggle too. But such atheist propaganda must be subordinated to the basic tasks of developing the mass struggle against the exploiters and the state. People themselves must learn to combat existing conditions by first of all uniting in a conscious, disciplined and organised manner.

That is why Lenin is against giving any needless offence to the religious sensibilities of the workers. For example, faced by a strike jointly organised by a christian trade union, communists would not go along to the picket line to denounce religion and the involvement of the clergy. That would be to play the role of a fifth column. No, the main task of communists under such circumstances would be generating solidarity and ensuring the success of the strike.

This approach of putting the interests of the class struggle first also explains why communists do not regard acceptance of atheism as a precondition for party membership. There is no clause in our programme demanding a commitment to atheism. The party will publish atheist propaganda; but it will also seek out and welcome into its ranks people with religious and similar ideas. That could even include vicars, priests, rabbis, imams, etc. The problem of squaring the party’s practice with their religious doctrines is a matter entirely for them to sort out. As long as they carry out party duties and responsibilities, they can stay as members.

Obviously this possibility of recruiting religious leaders stems directly from Lenin’s own concrete experience of the 1905 revolution and the role of father Gapon, the orthodox priest who led the half-humble, half-threatening demonstration to the Winter Palace and who indignantly rounded upon the tsar for allowing his troops to shoot down the assembled people. Gapon was later exposed as a police agent. But Lenin never lost sight of the necessity of winning religious people alongside the necessity of winning people from religion.

He urged the party to support the demands of all religious groups struggling against the state for their rights. A resolution at the party’s 2nd Congress in 1903 specifically draws attention to the “necessity of working amongst” members of religious sects, such as the Old Believers, in order to bring them “under social democratic [communist] influence” (VI Lenin CW Vol 6, Moscow 1977, p473). As with the rights of oppressed nations and other such persecuted sections of the population, we side with them in their demands for equality. Far from strengthening religion, if communists are energetically involved, it does the exact opposite.

In that light we have not the slightest hesitation in condemning the ban on the hijab in France’s state schools. It has nothing whatsoever to do with defending vulnerable young women, maintaining the values of 1789 or undermining religious obscurantism. It is state-sponsored islamophobia pure and simple; and that demands an unambiguous, principled and vigorous response from the organised left.
Communists defend the right to wear the hijab, by the same measure we defend the right not to wear it: a voluntary discarding of the veil is of course something we positively wish to bring about, and that can best be achieved under conditions of working class confidence, extreme democracy and female emancipation.

President Jacques Chirac and his rightwing UMP government are pursuing an overtly anti-working class and thoroughly obnoxious agenda. Chirac is certainly no “prisoner of the left”. A laughable promise made by the French Socialist Party, French Communist Party (PCF) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire - and their co-thinkers in Britain - who excitedly urged voters to support him in preference to Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National during the 2002 presidential elections. Chirac and his government are cynically demonising France’s five million muslims - an oppressed minority which is over-whelmingly working class, often poor and disproportionately unemployed.
Frankly, in this context, it has to be said that the left in France miserably failed. With a few honourable exceptions it has shown itself to be compromised by chauvinism, economism and islamophobia. The SP, PCF, LCR, Lutte Ouvrière - all of them. Instead of treating seriously Chirac’s hijab ban, the left has either passively wrung its hands or actually sided with the government.

By contrast here, on the other side of the English Channel, the left has not been too bad on this question - with a few dishonourable exceptions like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and its fortnightly paper Solidarity which maintained a diplomatic balancing act on this question before eventually coming out with a mealy-mouthed squeak on the side of democracy. Apparently the AWL was rent with internal divisions.


After the October Revolution the Bolsheviks proceeded to implement their programme. The 1918 decree on ‘freedom of conscience and religious societies’ stripped the Russian orthodox church of the 35-million-rouble annual subsidy granted to it by the tsarist state and all other such privileges. The Soviet government announced: “Every citizen may adhere to any religion or none. Any limitation before the law related to adherence to any kind of faith or non-adherence to any faith is abolished ... Free practice of religious customs is safeguarded in so far as it does not disturb the public peace and does not infringe upon the rights of citizens of the Soviet Republic” (quoted in P Siegel The meek and the militant London 1986, p197).

Some bourgeois states claim adherence to secularism. However, they have never fully broken the link between the state and religion. For example, in France there are many catholic schools which receive generous state handouts. Likewise in the United States, courts, schools and other such public institutions begin their proceeding with an oath to god. The Soviet state abolished all such practices in 1918.

The Soviet Republic’s first constitution, drafted under the chair of Sverdlov, the party’s general secretary, formally enshrined the basic principle of the separation of “church and state and school from church” (EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1975, p135). Henceforth, far from giving churches tax breaks on their property, their estates were confiscated. Treated like any other such voluntary corporate body, they could receive contributions from individual supporters, but they could not hold property. Church buildings were nationalised, but could be used by the congregation free of charge. Nor were the clergy exempt from the universal obligation to perform military service. They could, however, appeal to a Soviet court and offer to do other useful civic duties.

Needless to say, the Russian orthodox church was closely bound up with tsarism and quickly became a vehicle for counterrevolution. Patriarch Tikhon issued an anathema against the Soviet regime (EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1975, p161n). During the terrible famine of 1921 the Soviet government decreed that the orthodox church must hand over its non-religious valuables so that they could be sold on the international market in order to buy grain to feed the people. It refused. In retaliation 45 priests were shot. Of course, exceptional cases such as this are endlessly harped on about by rightwingers to give credence to their bogus claim that Leninism directly led to Stalinism. This not only alibies the foul role of the orthodox church under tsarism and in the civil war, but totally ignores the whole approach to religion advocated and practised by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Religious sects, persecuted under tsarism, were given wide freedoms to practise their faith: the Old Believers were even granted land on which they could try and put into practice their egalitarian values and communistic dreams. In November 1919, Trotsky issued an order allowing evangelical protestants to be excused from military service on the basis of conscientious objection. There was incidentally a sudden spurt in their numbers. The Bolsheviks saw them as an oppressed section of the population under tsarism and consequently treated them with a deal of benign toleration.

Islam was viewed in a broadly similar fashion. Within the tsarist empire muslims constituted something around 10% of the population. They were oppressed as a religion and as a people - it is important to recognise that to be a muslim was as much about ethnic identity as it was religion. Because these people were concentrated in the east, in central Asia and the Caucasus, what the Bolsheviks were dealing with was not a ‘minority’ question but a national and a colonial question.
After the February revolution the Bolsheviks bullishly promoted the slogan of national self-determination. Needless to say, once they took power and established their government in Petrograd, that slogan increasingly went hand in hand with class war and the goal of social transformation in the east. As a result there was an influx of muslims into the Communist Party. It is estimated that in Turkestan and other such areas those party members adhering to islam numbered around 15% (although some give much higher figures).

The existing self-proclaimed national leaders recoiled. Many sought salvation with the gathering forces of counterrevolution. Not that white generals had the slightest sympathy for them and their ambitions. This produced a highly unstable situation, as the nationalists found themselves alternatively pulled and repelled to take one side after the other in the civil war. They defected from the reds to the whites and vice versa.

Discontent had manifested itself amongst muslims even before the February revolution. Fermented by the small stratum of intellectuals, there were incipient national movements against tsarism and the takeover of traditional grazing land by incoming Russian settler colonists. The collapse of tsarism propelled these peoples onto the stage of history. In May 1917 the first all-Russian congress of muslims was held in Petrograd. It demanded not independence, but autonomy. The main bone of contention was between those who wanted it on a national-territorial basis and those who would have settled for cultural autonomy within a unitary Russian state. As a symbolic gesture the Bolsheviks handed over to the Petrograd congress of muslims the ‘sacred Koran of Osman’ which had previously been held in the imperial library.

A second congress of muslims followed in July 1917. It took place in Kazan and was mainly controlled by Tartars, who “played with pan-Tartian aspirations” (EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1975, p322). A Bashkir congress took place simultaneously. A programme was issued demanding that Russia become “a democratic, federal republic”, with Kazakhstan as an autonomous national unit.

Throughout the summer of 1917 there were other similar gatherings and demands. EH Carr stresses that none of them should be regarded as “revolutionary in the social sense” (EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1975, p323). Delegates at the Bashkir congress were, for example, mainly composed of mullahs, elders and kulaks. An entry fee of 50 roubles was charged. So it would be mistaken, at this stage, to present the muslim movement as a break with traditional social and power structures.

Under these circumstances the Soviet government carefully and attentively addressed the national movement. A special appeal was issued: ‘To all muslim toilers of Russia and the east’. It declared that “henceforth” your beliefs and usages, national and cultural customs are “free and inviolable”. They should organise their national life in “complete freedom”. Moreover, the Soviet government promised to protect those rights. In return it called for muslims to lend their support “to this revolution and to its government” (EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1975, p323). Other muslims, beyond the borders of the old tsarist empire, were also promised aid.

A decree of 1918 established a commissariat for internal muslim affairs. It was headed by a Tartar and a Bashkir. Also in 1918, a congress of muslim communists was held in Moscow. It set up a central bureau of muslim communist organisations which issued propaganda in many languages, including a daily paper in Turkish. Its second congress in November 1919 was addressed by both Lenin and Stalin. During the civil war tens of thousands of muslims fought with the Red Army.

Not that the Soviet government was altogether consistent. During early 1918 there was a shift in regard to nationalists, islam included. As commissar of nationalities Stalin determined to destroy the influence of the mullahs who had been the backbone of the ‘bourgeois nationalist movement’ in the east. Apparently there was strong opposition to this about-turn from other leading communists in the field. They wanted to keep the ‘softly, softly’ approach going. However, Stalin’s policy of winning the masses from nationalism and islam and thereby rapidly spreading the revolution proved to be a “fiasco” (EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1975, p326). Whites, nationalists and pan-islamists swept away what pockets of Soviet power existed in the east.

By the end of 1919 the Soviet government appears to have concluded that there was only one way forward. Instead of confronting islam and the mullahs and imams, it was necessary to woo its younger, more progressive members, give them concessions and pursue a broad offensive against imperialism in the east - crucially British imperialism.

In general it seems that hitherto the Bolsheviks underestimated the durability of islam and the fact that mullahs and imams served as judges, law-givers, teachers and intellectuals, as well as political and military leaders. Now they would seek cooperation with the more open-minded members of the clergy. There were those - albeit a minority, the so-called ‘red mullahs’ - who were prepared to see women given legal equality and religion separated from education. The congress of the peoples of the east in Baku in September 1920 was particularly significant in this reorientation.

In the course of the civil war the attitude of the common muslim people underwent something of a shift. In general they had suffered occupation by white armies (physically backed by various foreign powers, including Britain, the US and Japan). White generals showed nothing but contempt for the eastern peoples. Indeed they were committed to a restoration of the old system of land ownership and control. Under these circumstances the Soviet government enjoyed a new, albeit hesitating prestige and sympathy. While the whites fought for a restoration of Great Russian power, the communists in Moscow were proclaiming their commitment to national self-determination.

The tide turned to the Bolsheviks in the civil war and the Soviet government sought to come to a modus vivendi in the east. Stalin insisted that, for example, the largely muslim Dagestan people “should be governed according to its peculiarities, its own way of life”. Religious practices and customs would be left undisturbed. He also promised that sharia law would be considered fully valid as customary law. On the other hand, autonomy “cannot mean separation from Soviet Russia” (quoted in EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 1, Harmondsworth 1975, p333).

In both schooling and the law a parallel system was to be permitted. Friday became the official day of rest throughout central Asia. People were to be given the choice between Soviet and sharia courts. Judgements that contravened Soviet law - such as amputation as a punishment - were forbidden and decisions of the sharia courts could be appealed in Soviet courts. Needless to say, many opted for the sharia courts and there was a ongoing tension between the two. Attempts were made to ensure that women did not suffer from discrimination by the sharia courts; they were also encouraged to take issues like divorce to the Soviet courts.

There were, however, big problems remaining. The soviets and the Communist Party often had the appearance, and the reality, of being little more than a continuation of tsarism. To begin with they were almost exclusively Russian in composition. For example, in Tashkent the revolution was at the outset confined to the Russian colony. One of the first resolutions of the Tashkent Soviet in November-December 1917 was to exclude muslims from governmental posts. The Tashkent Soviet then went on to suppress a revolt in the native quarters of the city.

As for the local Communist Party, it was a strange organisation. Till June 1918 Bolsheviks and Mensheviks sat in the same joint committees. Moreover when the Bolsheviks finally separated themselves off they were operating as an ‘official’, quasi-governmental body. Membership reflected that salient fact. The Russian colony consisted of two types of people: merchants and officials; and railway workers. Both groups joined the party. The result was a Soviet Ulster.

Hence there was the communist priest, the communist police officer and the communist kulak employing hired workers and owning a herd of hundreds of cattle. These communists acted like colonists and looked down upon the natives. The communist muslim minority in turn embraced nationalism or at least nationalist sentiments.

The central committee in Moscow sought to correct this lamentable situation. It considered that it was necessary to draw into government the broad masses of the people on a proportional basis. Mistrust and all traces of Great Russian chauvinism had to be overcome. There were many resolutions, much exhortation and a policy of appointing native people to top posts. The idea was to root the party and the Soviet regime in the national soil. Towards that end the Russian language was replaced in official documents and other such material by indigenous languages. Cyrillic was also dropped and the Latin alphabet adopted throughout central Asia.

The rise of Stalinism in the 1920s and its triumph in the 1930s as a counterrevolution in the revolution marked a dramatic end to these innovations and, to all intents and purposes, a return to Great Russian chauvinism. Stalin declared war on religion.