‘The Relation of the Workers Party to Religion’ (1909) by N. Lenin from Workers Monthly. Vol. 5 No. 16. February, 1927.

‘The Relation of the Workers Party to Religion’ (1909) by N. Lenin from Workers Monthly. Vol. 5 No. 16. February, 1927.

THE speech of the deputy Surkov in the Duma debate on the budget of the Synod, and the discussions in our Duma fraction over the draft of his speech, have raised an extremely important and at the present moment topical question. Interest in everything connected with religion has today undoubtedly taken hold of considerable sections of “society,” and has also made its way into the ranks of the intellectuals who stand near the labor movement, and even into certain working- class circles. Social Democracy must definitely make clear its attitude to religion.

Social Democracy builds its whole world conception on scientific Socialism—that is to say, on Marxism. The philosophic basis of Marxism is, as Marx and Engels have repeatedly pointed out, dialectical materialism, which has taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century French materialism and of the materialism of Feuerbach in the early nineteenth century—that is, of materialism which is absolutely atheist and definitely hostile to all religion. We recall to mind that the whole of Engels’ Anti-Duhring, which was read in manuscript by Marx, accuses the materialist and atheist Duhring of the inconsistency of his materialism, because he leaves a backdoor open for religion and religious philosophy. We would further call to mind that Engels in his work on Feurbach brings against the latter the reproach that he fought religion not in order to annihilate it, but in order to revive it, to discover a new “elevated” religion, etc. Religion is opium for the people—this Marxist fundamental principle is the pivot of the whole Marxist world conception in questions of religion. Marxism regards all present-day religions and churches, each and every religious organization without exception, as instruments of bourgeois reaction, which serves as a shield for the exploitation and deception of the working class.

At the same time, however, Engels repeatedly condemned the attempts of those who wished to be “more left” or “more revolutionary” than Social Democracy and to introduce into the program of the workers’ party a direct confession of atheism in the sense of a declaration of war on religion. In 1874, in the discussion of the famous manifesto of the Communist refugees, the Blanquists, then living in exile in London, Engels treats their noisy declaration of war on religion as folly, and expresses the view that such a call to war is the best means to revive interest in religion anew and hinder the actual dying out of religion. Engels blames the Blanquists for their inability to see that only the class struggle of the working masses, which draws the widest numbers of the proletariat into a conscious and revolutionary political activity, that only this is able really to free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion, while the declaration of war on religion as a political task of the working class is a piece of anarchistic phrasemaking. Also in 1877, in the Anti-Duhrig, in which Engels flays without mercy the slightest concessions of the: philosopher Duhring to idealism and religion, none the less he condemns the would-be revolutionary idea of Duhring that religion should be forbidden in the Socialist society. Such a declaration of war on religion, he declares, is “to out-Bismarck Bismarck,” i.e., to repeat the folly of Bismarck’s “Kulturkampf” against the clericals, the fight ‘which Bismarck in the ‘seventies waged against the German Catholic Party, the “Center,” by means of police persecutions of Catholicism. By this fight Bismarck only strengthened the militant clericalism of the Catholics, only injured the cause of real cultural advance, since he pushed into the foreground religious divisions in place of political divisions and drew away the attention of certain sections of the working class and of the democratic forces from the urgent tasks of the class struggle and revolutionary struggle into the direction of an entirely superficial and deceitful bourgeois anti-clericalism. Engels accused the would- be ultra-revolutionary Duhring of wishing to repeat Bismarck’s folly in another form, and he demanded of the workers’ party the capacity to work patiently at the organization. and enlightenment of the proletariat—a work which leads to the dying out of religion—without throwing itself into the adventures of a political war on religion. This standpoint has entered into the very flesh and blood of German Social Democracy, which accordingly supported, for example, the freedom of the Jesuits, their permission to stay in Germany, and the removal of all police measures against this or that religion. “Declaration of religion as a private affair”— this famous point of the Erfurt program (1891) confirmed the above political tactics of Social Democracy.

This tactic meanwhile has become a routine and has produced a new distortion of Marxism in the opposite direction, in the sense of opportunism. The statement of the Erfurt program began to be interpreted in the sense that we Social Democrats and our party actually regard religion as a private affair, that for us as a party, for us as Social Democrats, religion is a private affair. Without entering into a direct polemic against this opportunist conception, Engels considered it necessary in the ‘nineties to make a definite stand against it, not in a polemical but in a positive form. He did this in the form of a declaration—on which he deliberately laid stress—that Social Democracy regards religion as a private affair in relation to the state, but not at all in relation to the workers’ party.

This is the outward history of the views of Marx and Engels on the question of religion. For people who handle Marxism carelessly, who cannot and will not take the trouble to think, the history is a tangle of senseless contradictions and vacillations of Marxism: a mess of “consistent” atheism and “indulgence” towards religion, an “unprincipled” vacillating between the r-r-revolutionary war on god and the cowardly wish to suit one’s words to the believing workers, the fear of frightening them away, etc. In the literature of the anarchist phrase-makers many attacks on Marxism after this fashion are to be found.

But whoever is even in the least able to take Marxism seriously and to go more deeply into its philosophical foundations and the experiences of international Social Democracy, will easily see that the tactics of Marxism in relation to religion are completely consistent and fully thought out by Marx and Engels, and that what the dilettantes and ignoramuses consider to be vacillations are a direct and necessary conclusion of dialectical materialism. It would be a great error to believe that the apparent “modernation” of Marxism in relation to religion finds its explanation in so-called “tactical” considerations, in the sense of the wish “not to frighten away,” etc. On the contrary, the political line of Marxism in this question is inseparably bound up with its philosophical foundations.

Lenin’s mausoleum.

Marxism is materialism. As such it is no less hostile to religion than the materialism of the eighteenth century Encyclopaedists or of Feuerbach. This is certain But the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels goes further than that of the Encyclopaedists and Fuerbach, in that it applies the materialist philosophy to history and to the social sciences. We must fight religion. That is the A B C of all materialism, consequently also of Marxism. Marxism goes further. It says: we must know how to fight religion, and for this purpose we must explain on materialistic lines the origin of faith and religion to the masses, The fight against religion must not be narrowed down to an abstract ideological preaching; the question must not be brought down to the level of preaching of this character; the fight must be brought into close connection with the concrete tasks and activity of the class struggle, which is directed to the elimination of the social roots of religion. Why does religion maintain its hold in the backward strata of the town proletariat, in the strata of the semi-proletariat, and in the mass of the peasants? Because of the ignorance of the people, answers the bourgeois progressive, the radical or bourgeois materialist. So: down with religion; long live atheism; the spreading of atheist views is our principal task! The Marxist says: Wrong! Such a conception is a superficial, narrow bourgeois view of “spreading light and culture to the people.” Such a conception doe snot explain deeply enough the roots of religion, does not explain it materialistically, but idealistically. In the modern capitalist countries these roots are above all social. The social oppression of the working masses, their apparent absolute impotence before the blind forces of capitalism, which daily and hourly inflict upon ordinary working men and women sufferings and atrocious tortures a thousand times more frightful than all the extraordinary happenings, such as war, earthquakes, etc.—here is to be sought the deep present-day roots of religion. “Fear has created the gods.” The fear before the blind power of capital— blind because its action cannot be foreseen by the mass of the people—the fear that hangs like a menace over every step of the proletarian and the small owner, and can “suddenly,” “unexpectedly,” by “accident,” inflict upon him poverty, downfall, to be turned into a beggar, a Pauper, a prostitute, hand him over to death by hunger—here is the root of present-day religion, which the materialist must before all and above all hold before his eyes, if he is not to remain stuck in the children’s shoes of materialism. No mere books of propaganda are ground down by the convict system of capitalist forced labor, who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, so long as these masses have not themselves learnt, as a united, organized, systematic, conscious force, to fight against this root of religion— the domination of capital in all its forms.

But does it follow from this that a book of propaganda against religion is harmful or superfluous? Not at all. Something quite different follows. What follows is that the atheistic propaganda of Social Democracy must be subordinated to its principal task—that is, to the carrying forward of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.

Whoever has not thought out fully the fundamental principles of dialectical materialism—that is, of the philosophy of Marx and Engels—can misunderstand this basic principle, or at least not understand it at once. How is this? Shall the propaganda of the spirit, the propagation of certain ideas, the fight against the thousands-of-years-old enemy of culture and progress—that is, the fight against religion—be subordinated to the class struggle—that is, to the fight for definite practical aims in economics and politics.

An objection of this character belongs to those customary objections to Marxism which arise from a complete ignorance of Marxist dialectic. The contradiction which troubles those who argue thus is the living contradiction of living life, i.e., a dialectical not a verbal or artificial contradiction. To place an absolute unbridgeable barrier between the theoretical propaganda of atheism—that is, the annihilation of religious belief in certain sections of the proletariat—and the success, progress and conditions of the class struggle of these elements means not to argue dialectically, but to turn what is a movable relative barrier into an absolute barrier, to separate forcibly what in living reality is inseparably bound. Let us take an example. The proletariat of a given place and industry is divided, let us suppose, into the progressive section of conscious Social Democrats, who are naturally atheists, and backward workers, who are still bound to the village and peasant traditions, who believe in god, go to church or are at any rate still under the influence of the local priest, who has, let us suppose, formed a Christian trade union. The Marxist must unconditionally place in the foreground the success of the strike movement, must resolutely in this struggle work against any division of the workers into atheists and Christians and actively expose any such division. In such circumstances atheist propaganda can be seen to be both superfluous and harmful, not from the point of view of the philistine who does not want to frighten off the backward sections, or to forfeit an electoral seat, but from the standpoint of the real progress of the class struggle, which under the conditions of mod- ern capitalist society will bring the Christian workers over to Social Democracy and atheism a hundred times better than bare atheist propaganda. The preacher of atheism would at such a moment and in such conditions only be playing into the hands of the priests, who would wish nothing better than a division of the workers, not according to their participation in the strike, but according to their belief in god. The Anarchist, who preaches war on god at any price, would in reality only be helping the priests and the bourgeoisie (just as the Anarchists in their action already helped the bourgeoisie). The Marxist must be a materialist—that is, an enemy of religion—but a dialectical materialist—that is, one who takes up the fight against religion, not abstractly, not on the basis of an abstract, purely theoretical, unchangeable preaching, but correctly, on the basis of the class struggle, who practically accomplishes his object and teaches the masses most widely and best. The Marxist must be able to take into consideration the whole concrete situation, must know how to find the border line between anarchism and opportunism (this border line is relative, movable, changeable; nevertheless it exists); he must neither fall into an abstract phrase-making empty “revolutionarism” of the anarchist nor into the philistinism and opportunism of the small bourgeois or liberal intellectual, who shrinks from the fight against religion, forgets this task of his, reconciles himself with the belief in god, and lets himself be led, not by the interests of the class struggle, but by petty, miserable considerations—to cause pain to no one, to drive away no one, to frighten no one—who guides himself by the wise rule, “Live and let live,” etc.

From this standpoint also must be determined the special questions which bear on the attitude of social democracy to religion. The question is, for example, asked whether a minister of religion can be a member of the Social Democratic Party, and this question is commonly answered, with any reserve, in the affirmative, by a reference to the experience of the West European Social Democratic parties. This experience, however, is not a simple product of the application of Marxist doctrine to the labor movement, but is a consequence of particular historical conditions in West Europe, which are absent in Russia, so that an unconditional affirmative answer to this question is here incorrect. One cannot say absolutely and for all conditions that ministers of religion cannot be members of the Social Democratic Party, but neither can the opposite rule be laid down. If the minister comes to us to common political work, and fulfills his party work with understanding, without bringing himself into opposition to the party program, then we can receive him in the ranks of social democracy, since the opposition between the spirit and fundamental principles of our program and his religious convictions can only concern him and remain his personal contradiction; a political organization cannot examine its members as to whether there is not a contradiction between their conceptions and the program of the party. But an instance of this type could naturally only be a rare exception even in Western Europe, and in Russia it is still more improbably. If a minister should enter into a Social Democratic Party and then wish to take up as his principal and almost his only work an active religious propaganda in the party, the party would undoubtedly have to expel him. With regard to groups of workers who have still retained their belief in god, we must not only admit them into the party, but should energetically draw them in; we are absolutely against the slightest injuring of their religious feelings, but we win them in order to be trained in the spirit of our program and not in order to take up an active fight against it. We allow inside the party freedom of opinion, but only within certain limits, which are determined by the freedom of the formation of groups; we are not obliged to go hand in hand with those who actively propagate points of view which are rejected by the majority of the party.

Another example. Should one under all circumstances condemn a member of the Social Democratic Party for the declaration, “Socialism is my religion,” as one would for the propagation of points of view which correspond to that declaration? Oh, no. A deviation from Marxism and therefore from Socialism is very definitely here, but the meaning of this deviation, its specific gravity, as it were, can vary in different situations. It is one thing when an agitator or someone coming before the masses speaks in this way, in order to be better understood, to draw interest into his subject-matter, to express his point of view more vividly in forms which are more accessible to the undeveloped mass; it is quite another thing when a writer begins to propagate some god-construction or “god-constructing” socialism (for example, in the spirit of our Lunacharsky and his associates). Just as in the first case censure would only be captious caviling or an uncalled-for limitation of the freedom of the agitator, the freedom of the teacher’s methods of work, so in the second case censure by the party is necessary and obligatory. The maxim, “Socialism is my religion,” is for the one a form of transition from religion to Socialism, but for the other—from Socialism to religion.

Let us now consider the conditions which in Western Europe have produced an opportunist interpretation of the thesis, “Proclamation of religion as a private affair.” Certainly there are also general causes here in play which at all times lead to opportunism, as the surrender of the permanent interests of the working class for the sake of temporary advantages. The party of the proletariat demands from the state the proclamation of religion as a private affair, but does not regard as a private affair the question of the fight against. the opium of the people, the fight against religious superstition, etc. The opportunists distort the question so as to make it as if the Social Democratic Party actually regarded religion as a private affair.

But in addition to the vicious opportunist distortion (which in the debates of our Duma fraction on the treatment of the question of religion was not at all made clear) there are also certain historical conditions which have produced the present, so to speak, excessive indifference of the Western European Social Democrats in questions of religion, These are conditions of two kinds. First, the task of the fight against religion is an historical task of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and in the West this task has to an important extent, or at least partially, been fulfilled by the bourgeois democracy in the epoch of its revolutions against feudalism and mediaevalism. Both in France and in Germany there is a tradition of the bourgeois fight against religion, which was ‘begun long before Socialism (the Encyclopedists and Feuerbach). In Russia, in accordance with the conditions of our bourgeois democratic revolution, this task also falls almost entirely on the shoulders of the working class.

On the other hand, the tradition of the bourgeois war against religion in Europe has produced a specific bourgeois distortion of this war in the hands of anarchism, which, as the Marxists have long ago and repeatedly shown, stands on the basis of a bourgeois world conception, despite all the “vehemence” of its attacks on the bourgeoisie. The anarchists and Blanquists in the Latin countries, Most (who was a pupil of Duhring) and his associates in Germany, and the anarchists of the ’eighties in Austria raised the revolutionary phase in the war against religion to the highest pinnacle. What wonder that the European social democrats today fall into the other extreme! This is comprehensible and even in a certain measure justified, but we Russian social democrats must not forget the special historical conditions of the west.

Secondly, in the west, after the conclusion of the national bourgeois revolutions, after the introduction of more or less complete freedom of religion, the question of the democratic fight against religion was already to such an extent historically overborne by the fight of bourgeois democracy against socialism, that the bourgeois governments consciously attempted to draw the masses away from socialism by sham-liberal crusades against clericalism. Such was the character of the of the “Kulturkampf” in Germany, as also of the fight of the bourgeois republicans in France against clericalism Bourgeois anti-clericalism as a means to draw the attention of the masses away from socialism in the west is what preceded the present “indifference” among social democrats towards the fight with religion. This is also comprehensible and justified, since the bourgeois and Bismarckian anti-clericalism must be held in check by the social democrats on the ground that the fight against religion must be subordinated to the fight for socialism.

In Russia the conditions are quite different. The proletariat is the leader of our bourgeois democratic revolution. Its party must be the spiritual leader in the fight against all remains of mediavalism, including the old official religion, as also against all attempts to renovate it, or reconstruct it either on a reformed basis or on a completely new one. If Engels corrected with comparative mildness the opportunism of the German social democrats—who, in place of the demand of the workers’ party that the state should declare religion a private affair, put forward the proclamation of religion as a private affair for social democrats themselves and the Social Democratic Party—it can be imagined how a taking over of the German distortion by the Russian opportunists would have earned a hundred times sharper criticism from Engels.

Our Duma fraction, in declaring that religion is opium for the people, acted entirely rightly, and has in this way established a precedent which must serve as the basis of all future acts of the Russian social democrats in questions of religion. Should one have gone further and set out in full detail] all the atheist conclusions? We think not, This might have called forth an exaggeration of the fight against religion on the part of the political party of the proletariat, and have led to a blurring of the boundary between the bourgeois and socialist fight against religion. The first task which the social democratic fraction could do in the Black-Hundreds Duma has been honorably accomplished.

The second, almost the most important task of social democracy—the exposure of the class role of the church and the clergy in the support of the Black-Hundreds government and of the bourgeoisie in their fight against the working class—has also been splendidly fulfilled. Certainly, there is still much to be said on this theme, and the social democrats will on further occasions know how to amplify the speech of Comrade Surkov; but his speech was nevertheless excellent, and it is the duty of our party to spread it among all party organizations.

Thirdly, the right sense of the thesis which is so often distorted by the German opportunists—the “proclamation of religion as a private affair’—should be explicitly made clear. This, unfortunately, Comrade Surkov did not do. This is the more to be regretted, as the fraction had already committed an oversight in this question, which the Proletariat at the time nailed to the counter, namely, the error of Comrade Beloussov. The debates in the fraction show that the discussion on atheism concealed the question of the right interpretation of the demand for the proclamation of religion as a private affair. We shall not lay the blame on Comrade Surkov alone for this error of the whole fraction. More, we state openly that it is the fault of the whole party, which has not sufficiently cleared up this question and has not sufficiently made social democrats aware of the meaning of Engels’ comment concerning the German opportunists. The fraction debates show that there was an unclear approach to the question, not a deviation from Marxism, and we are convinced that this error will be put right at a later meeting of the fraction.

In broad outline the speech of Comrade Surkov is, as said, of outstanding excellence and should be circulated by all our organizations. In the handling of this speech the fraction has shown a conscientious fulfillment of its social democratic duty. It only remains to wish that correspondence concerning the debates in the fraction should appear more frequently in the party press and so build up a close ideological unity in the activity of the party and of the fraction.

The Workers Monthly began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Party publication. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and the Communist Party began publishing The Communist as its theoretical magazine. Editors included Earl Browder and Max Bedacht as the magazine continued the Liberator’s use of graphics and art.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/wm/1926/v5n16-feb-1927-1B-FT-80-WM.pdf

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