INTRODUCTION, 2006, TO ARTICLE FROM WORKERS REPUBLIC, SUMMER 1967
Much of the ostensibly “revolutionary socialist” left has fallen on its knees before the forces of reactionary anti-Western political Islam, hailing it as a progressive “anti-imperialism”.
The increasingly strange organisation that still, perhaps for old times’ sake, calls itself the Socialist Workers’ Party, welcomed the victory in Palestine of the Islamic fundamentalist party Hamas! It has aligned itself on the side of a world-wide reactionary-Islamist offensive against secularism, liberal civil rights, women’s liberation, lesbian and gay rights, non-religious education, and, indeed, most of those values in the modern bourgeois world which form the subsoil of rational socialism.
They do this, so they tell themselves, for the best “anti-imperialist” and even “socialist” reasons. They find the bourgeois world so unsupportable that even feudal-minded Islamic clerical fascism is preferable to it.
They are people in the grip of a lethal confusion, who are so keen to fight imperialism and capitalism that they have half-forgotten that socialists fight capitalism and imperialism in the name of something better — of liberation. They reduce anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism to a nihilistic negativism — which believing in nothing positive is prepared to accommodate to anything.
Rather than the socialists, secularists and bourgeois liberal-democrats in the Muslim world, they ally with and “defend” clerical-fascism, and the fascistic terrorism of political Islam which targets not rulers and their mercenaries but ordinary people.
They have lost the socialist plot. They mix up the historical “narratives” of socialism and fascism, liberation and theocracy, emancipatory revolution and enslaving counter-revolution.
It is not only the pixilated “revolutionary left”. Blair’s New Labour government is organising a big expansion of “faith schools” in which young people are given over for indoctrination to religious people rich enough to finance schools!
In the USA the Christian fundamentalists, with their irrational belief in divine prophecy, their rejection of the idea of the evolution of species, their belief in a “creator” pursuing “intelligent design”, their adoption of the idea of the Second Coming of Christ (that is, the end of the world), are a tremendous political force which has captured even the Presidency. In Britain, Islamist militancy has given a self-assertive courage (which they had lost in recent decades) to Christian reactionaries.
Many rational socialists have difficulty orienting themselves in this situation. The fight against religion — not the search for liberal formulas to coexist with it, but the fight against it — has not for many, many decades been part of the mental furniture of the British left. Our ancestors had, it seemed, won that fight.
Now, however, we must win it again.
“Rapprochement” with religion did not start with Tony Blair or the SWP. The Stalinist parties got there first. In the 1960s and 70s, they pursued a “dialogue of Marxism and Christianity”.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-5) shook up the Catholic Church. Groups of Catholic radical socialists appeared, such as the group which issued the “Slant Manifesto”. (The literary critic Terry Eagleton is the best-known member of that grouping). In Latin America, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist Catholics developed a “liberation theology”, and some joined leftist guerrilla movements.
The coming to power of the Polish pope John Paul II in 1978 put an end to all that.
The Communist Parties tried to engage with liberal-minded and socialistic Catholics. In doing that they threw overboard much of the Marxist critique of religion. But the Stalinists of the 1960s and 70s — even the Stalinists! — would have baulked at allying with the clerical fascists towards whom the SWP turns its face.
The following article on the “Christian-Marxist dialogue” is reprinted from the summer 1967 issue of Workers’ Republic, an Irish Marxist magazine trying to confront the long self-debilitating accommodation of the earlier Irish left, including James Connolly, to the Catholic Church. What it said about the CPs then is relevant to the pseudo-Trotskyist allies of Islamism now. It is also an historical outline of the Marxist thinking on this issue.
[The article, by Sean Matgamna, appeared under the name Anthony Mahony.]
MARXISM AND RELIGION
It’s like one of those old Hollywood movies of the 1930s — “boy meets girl,” then we have 90 minutes of “misunderstanding” during which they row and slang hell out of each other, only to wind up in an embrace, recognising each other as true soul mates after all. Maybe the “affair” between the world Stalinist movement and Christianity hasn’t yet reached a passionate embrace, but the sight of these two reactionary forces huddled in a tete-a-tete — officially called the dialogue between Marxism (!) and Christianity — is startling enough to provoke thought.
Joint conferences have been organised, international as well as national, in which Jesuits of the first draft confer with Stalinists of easy intellectual virtue, Jesuits of the second draft, who in their time have given one more twist to the concept of Jesuistry. Reports are published in religious journals. The extensive press of the British Communist Party has carried a rash of articles on the growing mutual understanding between “Marxism” and all brands of Christianity.
The editor of Marxism Today discourses on the subject for the readers of the Morning Star. And across the Irish Sea, old Raftery* — Pope John’s Vicar on Earth — rambles on month after month in the [CP Dublin-based monthly] Irish Socialist about the new Irish Workers’ Party [Communist Party of Ireland] articles of faith, “Progressive” Papal Encyclicals. The CP youth are also being infected: large portions of [the British Young Communist League journal] Challenge are given up to exploring the brave, foggy new world of obscurantism, and the YCL Bulletin Cogito (I think!) produced a special number entitled “With God On Our Side”. It carried an article by a Christian vicar and one by a notorious old Stalinist deacon, Pat Sloan! The British Communist Party put its official seal on all this with a statement of “ideology” in which it invites not only religious laymen to become lay members (which would be correct in certain circumstances) — but specifically, declares the Party unconditionally open to ministers of religion.
For the CPs the capitulation to religion and philosophical idealism is just the latest symptom of their abandonment of the Marxist evaluation of the world — and of revolutionary attempts to change it. In itself it is not new.
In places like Italy and France the parties are only marginally different from mass social democratic electoral machines. Ideologically the edges have long been blurred. At the funeral service long ago of militant atheism (and much else besides) officiated the Stalinist “Red Dean” of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, and a Russian Orthodox priest. Stalinism and religion have never been incompatibles.
A more cordial phase of the collaboration between the Soviet bureaucrats and imperialism coincides now with the Church’s exploration of the possibilities of coexistence with the bureaucracy in Stalinist society. There has been a rapid throwing down on the part of the CPs of all remaining barriers to religion. One more birthmark has gone.
Organised religion plays along in tune with western rapprochement with Russia and in response to the far-gone assimilation of the CPs in the west as a stout prop of the capitalist system. It has long been obvious that reIigion can thrive in Stalinist society, as witness Russia itself, where the Russian Orthodox Church and the Stalinist bureaucracy have for decades been on friendly terms. The post-war Church-state conflicts in Eastern Europe, when there were spectacular show trials of Church dignitaries, were not primarily conflicts about ideas but material conflicts. They were part of the Stalinist reorganisation of the old class structure of eastern Europe, in which the Church had been paramount in its share of the spoils. (In Hungary, for example, the Church had owned about 50% of all the land.) But the Church, however much it would like to restore its fortunes in eastern Europe, has always known how to adjust to changed reality, and these events are 20 years old.
Religion in crisis
christianity itself has been going through a deep crisis in all its sections, and on issues from birth control through clerical celibacy to high theology. The traditional concepts of a personalised God, and even serious belief in an afterlife, have given way in whole areas of organised Christianity to something very much like a general pious agnosticism. Even many nominal Christians remain “believers” only in the sense that the uncleared debris continues to clutter their minds.
The continuance of social uncertainty, heightened by the possibilities of nuclear destruction, means that the conditions which have maintained mass religion (born of uncertainty before nature) still persist. Despite this, the clean winds of the class struggle can lead to growing belief in the power of the workers to alter the world: scientific Marxist education never had a bigger opportunity.
In this situation, the CPs step into the breach… and choose to abandon demonstratively the struggle against religion and bend their strength to buttressing superstition as they have long buttressed capitalist society. Trying to cash in on the broadest of broad alliances for the pettiest of petty reforms within class society, the CPs lend their prestige to help bolster up Christianity in its crisis and decay. Two parasitic growths intertwine, with the design of feeding off each other. Those workers disappointed and betrayed by the CPs in their struggles and aspirations towards socialism are now offered instead a sedative from the opium-pot of the ages.
Significantly, the leading role in palming off religion on the rank and file has fallen to men like Pat Sloan (author of that once-famous work of light fiction, Soviet Democracy), and James Klugman (who wrote a eulogising article on “The Constitution of the New Yugoslavia” in-the Modern Quarterly, 1947: a few-months later, when Stalin broke with Tito, the same Klugman wrote a famous book which “proved” Tito to be an old fascist. Its title? “From Trotsky to Tito”. Its fate? “Withdrawn” when Yugoslavia and the USSR made friends again in 1955!) Of course one can easily see why these orphans of Stalin should also need the consolation of religion in their guilty old age.
This new alliance of religion and the old-established imaginative writers of the Communist Party is a formidable combination: who knows what may result from it? If Sloan and Klugman set their minds to providing as convincing proof of the existence of God as they once provided proof of the existence of workers’ democracy in Russia, we may yet see a mass return to religion! The seer who described in detail the workings of a non-existent democracy should have no difficulty in providing the faithful with detailed description of the features of the face of god! How appropriate it is that high priests of the Stalin cult should now don gleaming white dog-collars over their fading OGPU tunics!
Marxism and religion
Marxism, scientific socialism, is the antithesis of the mystical fog of religion. It is impossible to improve on Marx’s own exposition of the scientific view of religion:
“Man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self consciousness and self-feeling of man, who has either not yet found itself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a reversed world consciousness, because they are a reversed world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the fight against the other world, of which religion is the spiritual aroma.
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and a 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.
“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion.
“Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he may take off the chain and cull the living flower. The criticism of religion diillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve round himself and therefore round his true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolved round man as long as he did not revolve round himself.
“The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of the world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the saintly form of human self-alienation has been unmasked, is to unmask self-alienation in its unholy form. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”
From Contribution to the critigue of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
Militant atheism is an integral part of the world outlook of Marxism, insisting that the only reality is material reality, of which mind is a function, one form.
Lenin put it thus: “The philosophical basis of Marxism is dialectical materialism, Marxism, which is absoluteIy atheistic and resolutely hostile to all religion. Let us recall that the whole of Engels’ Anti-Duhring, which Marx read in manuscript, is an indictment of the materialist and atheist Duhring for not being a consistent materialist and for leaving loopholes for religion and religious philosophy.
“Let us recall that in his essay on Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels reproaches Feuerbach for combatting religion not in order to destroy it, but in order to renovate it, to create a new ‘exalted’ religion, and so forth.... Religion is the opium of the people — this dictum of Marx’s is the cornerstone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion. Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches and all religious organisations as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to drug the working class.”
The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion.
Distortion of Marxism
Against this Marxist background of militant materialism, how do the CP think-boys justify their new line? Dr John Lewis, one of the Party’s leading intellectuals, contributed an article to the British Communist Party weekly Comment (20.5.67), aimed at the broad CP membership. It is typical rather than exceptional. The title, “Religion, Friend or Foe?” set the tone. He begins by stating that Christianity is not necessarily, always the enemy. “In some ages, some sections have been the enemies of progress.” Other sections have at the same time been progressive. Some past progressive classes have based their ideology on religion.
Lewis continues with a turn of phrase which will be familiar to any student of Stalinist line-changing technique: “A Marxist will not forget, therefore, that Christianity has never meant the same thing to everybody.” Trading on the fact that Marxism recognises the complexity and relativity of the world, these Stalinist “Marxists” claim the right to arbitrarily emphasise whatever aspect best suits their interests of the moment, quashing any objections with the magic word “dialectics”.
Not only, says Lewis, have there been Francos [the Spanish fascist dictator] and Spellmans [US Cardinal] but Father John Ball [who led the English Peasant Revolt in 1381], the Puritans and in our own day, such luminaries as Hewlett Johnson and the Labourite Donald Soper! The Archbishop of Canterbury has talked of using force againt the white settler regime in Rhodesia when it made a unilateral declaration of independence in November 1965, and the Pope (like US President L B Johnson!) wants negotiations in Vietnam — and so on…
The point of thus emphasising the trite facts of current religious “progressivism” and the fact that past revolutionary movements have often taken their ideology from some form of religion? Lewis wants to say that the same thing can happen for the modern working class movement.
He nearly says as much, discussing the social role of religion: “It can... lend powerful supernatural support to the authority of the ruling classes and the monarchy on the one hand, and can give courage and inspiration to revolutionary movements.”(My emphasis)
One wonders if Lewis realises the support this sort of rubbish can give to the ruling class today? The implication is that the working class can get inspiration from “progressive” religion. Presumably he thinks that the liberation of mankind is not sufficient inspiration, and/or that the inspiration of a false religious consciousness can play a serious part in the final, proletarian, revolt — against class society as such, Though all this is qualified by a ritual endorsement of Marxism (!) at the end, the article is itself a repudiation of all Marxism.
What served for previous revolutionary classes is useless and harmful to the working class struggle. To even conceive of the workers taking power demands a level of conscious understanding which was unnecessary and anyway unattainable for those classes. In the bourgeois revolution the aspiring bourgeois ruling class had already a degree of wealth and control of the means of production within the old society. They were therefore able to improvise an ideology, feeling their way from their growing economic power, adapting elements of religion to fit their needs: the revolutionary political changes followed, more or less as a reflection and extension of their developing economic control, more or less piecemeal. Their ideology was an expression of their immaturity, a mark that they were merely a link, not the end, in the chain of class societies.
By contrast, the proletariat does not develop control of a portion of the means of production within the old system. It remains in wage-slavery up to the point of taking power and expropriating the capitalists. It must deliberately smash the old state and establish a new worker’ type of state to secure its victory. The conscious workers’ struggle based on science, the prelude to the conscious domination of reality, is central to the Marxist theory of the proletarian revolution.
An absolute prerequisite for the members of the revolutionary party, aiming to lead the working masses out of slavery, is a consistently scientific and therefore materialist, world outlook. Only such an outlook, rigorously pushing aside all obscurantism and reliance on “powers” other than human activity, can show the working class what its historic interests are and how it can serve them. Dialectical materialism is not an optional but an essential weapon in the struggle of the working class to remake the world.
The founders and leading contributors to the development of Marxism therefore made war on religion as superstition, dream compensation for slavery and anointing oil of class society, providing some of the ideological cement for that society. In the historic Marxism there was no place, as we have seen, for gods or for the agnostic indifference now becoming fashionable.
How to be practical
Lenin fought tooth and nail against all flirtations with religion and against attempts to tamper with the philosophic basis of Marxism, even on the finest theoretical points whose significance was far from obvious to most of his own party. He ruthlessly split the Bolshevik faction at a time when it was already weakened by the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, rather than co-exist with a group, the so-called faction of “God-builders”, which attempted to marry religion with elements of Marxist socialism. To the pseudo-practical politicians now calling themselves Communists, who have always gladly traded all the “books” of Marxism for deals and alliances, lately known as co-existence, Lenin’s action must seem utterly impractical, the epitome of sectarian dogmatism. But there is practicalness and practicalness!
The only revolutionary practicalness is that which educates and mobilises the workers to fight for power. Opportunist concessions on theory are in direct opposition to this goal; on principled and theoretical questions, the only practical preparation for this goal is Leninist intransigence, Lenin’s practical success, the only one so far, in leading the working class to take and consolidate power, is in no way separable from this. And for us, an understanding that theory was the fundamental bedrock of the original Bolshevik Party, is essential to the building of another such party.
Religion and the
Perhaps the classic statement on religion is Lenin’s May 1909 article “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion”. Discussing Engels’ attitude in the 1870s to a “super-revolutionary” declaration of war on religion by some fugitives from the defeated Paris Commune, Lenin comments:
“Engels blames the Blanquists for failing to understand that only the class struggle of the working class masses could in fact, by comprehensively drawing large numbers of the proletariat into conscious revolutionary social practice, free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion.”
Demanding that religion should be made “a private matter” in relation to the state — i.e. complete secularisation, no state subsidies for any religous activity or institutions, no religious tampering with education, complete freedom of conscience and worship for all believers coupled with complete freedom for atheist propaganda — Lenin, and later the early Comintern, insisted that religion was not a private matter in relation to the revolutionary party.
The German Social-Democrats had, under the slogan from their Erfurt Programme; “Religion is a private matter”, opposed persecution of the Catholics and even advocated freedom for the Jesuit priests. But these correct tactics had become such a routine matter that a new distortion of Marxism had been engendered — in the direction of opportunism:
“This point in the Erfurt Programme has come to be interpreted that... our party considers religion to be a private matter, that religion is a private matter for us .., as a party.” Lenin pointed out that already in the 1890s Engels himself had opposed this view by insisting "that Social-Democrats regard religion as a private matter in relation to the state, but not in relation to themselves, not in relation to Marxism, and not in relation to the workers’ party.”
Using an old CP technique of isolating one aspect of Marxism from the rounded whole, Dr John Lewis attempts to duck this issue. He hides behind the fact that one cannot eliminate religion in society as a whole by mere simple “preaching” to the broad masses (pretending this is the whole of Marxism on religion) to justify abandoning any struggle against religion within the “Workers’ Party” and at its periphery. But if Marxism has it that the changing of society by the workers is necessary before the vapours of religion among them can dispelled, it also stresses, as we have seen, that the elimination of religion in the advanced layers of the workers, i.e. the Party, is one of-the pre-conditions for changing society, and so abolishing religion.
Lenin in his article went on to point out that any apparent contradiction in the Marxist attitude to religion was illusory. “It would be a profound mistake to think that the apparent ‘moderation’ of the Marxist attitude toward religion is due to supposed ‘tactical considerations’ by the desire not to ‘scare away’ anybody, and so forth. On the contrary, in this question too the political line of Marxism is inseparably bound up with its philosophical principles...
“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 materialistically. The fight against religion must not be confined to abstract ideological preaching.
“The fight must be linked up with the concrete practical work of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion.... ‘Fear created the Gods’, Fear of the blind forces of capital — blind because it cannot be foreseen by the masses of the people — a force which at every step in life threatens to inflict, and does inflict, on the proletarian and small owner ‘sudden’, ‘unexpected’, ‘accidental’ destruction, ruin, pauperism, prostitution and death from starvation — such is the root of modern religion which the materialist must bear in mind first and foremost if he does not want to remain an infant school materialist.
“No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of the masses, who are crushed by the grinding toil of capitalism and who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until the masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way.
“.... Social-Democracy’s atheistic propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task — the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters....
“A Marxist must be able to take congnisance of the concrete situation as a whole, must always be able to determine the boundary between anarchism and opportunism (this boundary is relative, shifting and changeable, but it exists) and must succumb neither to the abstract, verbal, and in fact empty ‘revolutionism’ of the anarchist, nor to the philistinism and opportunism of the petit-bourgeois or liberal intellectual who fears to fight religion, forgets that this is his duty, reconciles himself to the belief in God, and is guided not by the interests of the class struggle, but by the petty and mean conception of offending nobody, repelling nobody and scaring nobody — by the sage rule: ‘live and let live’.”
Religion in Ireland
As far as our local Stalinists, the Irish Workers Party, are concerned, prostration before religion is old hat. For years they have been hiding their dim light under a bushel of ecclesiastical glimmerings and Pope Johnisms which, on demonstrations in Dublin, they brandish in preference to revolutionary slogans.
If in general a revolutionary Marxist Party can only be built on the basis of science, in Ireland there are even extra reasons why the defence of materialism is a vital practical question. Here religion has become entwined over the centuries with the social divisions and struggles to a degree that makes Ireland unique in western Europe. Here the religious divisions of the divided Irish bourgeoisie — linked with the political expression of their interests, Orangeism and Tory-Nationalism — have bitten deep into the masses of the working class in a demonstration of the vicious destructiveness of bourgeois ideological domination of the proletariat. In Ireland religious bigotry, Protestant and Catholic, with its division of the workers into supporters of the Orange and Green Tories, is one of most reliable props of bourgeois and imperialist interests. Its elimination in common working class struggle is a pre-requisite for any serious revolutionary class politics in Ireland.
To refuse to fight religion as such in these circumstances is to internalise inside the revolutionary movement the very religious sectarianism which we must overcome. Only a scientific Marxist organisation, in this connection as in others, offers any road out. Precisely because the mental level of reaction in Ireland is that of the 17th century, revolutionaries must be demonstrably of the 20th century. Irish conditions in particular demand an approach which seeks to sink the bourgeois religious divisions under a scientific working-class approach.
Thus the open capitulation of the IWP in the South to Catholicism is doubly criminal and is one of the most glaring expressions of the fact that it is a Little — 26 County — Republic Party.
The struggle against religion is first of all the struggle against passivity: people on their knees before an ethereal mirror-image of themselves will never build socialism. On the more directly practical level, to fail to fight for demarcation of the members and supporters of a revolutionary party is to leave dangerously divided loyalties lying around — to allow people bound by strong threads to bourgeois society and its ideology to be in a position to sabotage the working class fight.
Unfortunately the predominant approach in Ireland today is a continuation of what has been the tradition of even the best Irish socialists — of a frankly opportunist attitude to religion. The nearest thing to repudiation of it rather resembles the antics of students “going through a phase”: loud criticism of aspects of the church and religion as a verbal overcompensation for the essential timidity of not breaking with it as such — snapping at its heels and yet fearing to bite. But if the Irish left in all its history has withheld blows from the Catholic Church — that church has never pulled her punches from the left.
We must break with the old tradition here — and come out in the Marx-Lenin tradition. It is no exaggeration to say that without that Marxist tradition no revolutionary party in Ireland can fight for working class unity against the influence of Green and Orange Tories. The way we fight religion must be guided by the dialectical approach of Lenin — but fight it we must. Those “socialists” and Republicans who take the “easy” road and accommodate to religious sectarianism merely put the stamp of impotence on their own politics.
One problem Marxists face is the appearance of small groups of self-proclaimed “Christian Marxists”, whose “Marxism” amounts to agreement with some points in the socialist programme, while they retain their idealist religious outlook on the world (eg the Slant Group.) But to think that agreement on some or even all the concrete proposals in our programme makes these people Marxists is itself to substitute empiricism for Marxism, as an integral conception of the world. So long as such groups remain little intellectual cliques they have nothing to contribute but anti-Marxist confusion: if they develop a working class following, we should certainly work with them on concrete questions.
But then in particular there can be no question of ideological peaceful co-existence: merciless criticism is obligatory towards religious idealism — and particularly when it “fuses” with a socialist programme.
We have tried to show that the struggle against religion and for science is not optional for revolutionaries who are serious: without Marxism we are blind. But when revolutionary science and the working class unite — then indeed we can dispense with Gods, and control more or less at will the world in which we live. Fighting on that perspective we can well abandon the old miracle shops to the Stalinist and bourgeois tricksters.
Workers Republic 19, summer 1967