The workers’ movement and religion

Submitted by Anon on 20 April, 2005 - 2:17 Author: V I Lenin


The question of the socialist attitude to religion is now assuming an importance it has not had in most of our lives for many decades. This is in part because of the self-gutting of large swathes of the pseudo-left, in a vain effort to make itself acceptable to reactionary and even quasi-fascist political Islam, which the pseudo-left in its ideological poverty, identifies as “anti-imperialist”.

There are, of course, elements of a criticism of capitalism in some of the things said by the political Islamists. However, what they counterpose to it, a society ruled by medieval Islamic law, would be far worse than the “capitalism” and “imperialism” which they denounce.

It is worse where their ideas are translated into social practice — in Iran, for example, or in the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

Socialists have nothing in common with the “anti-capitalism” or “anti-imperialism” of such people. We might make common cause with them against an attempt to reduce Muslim countries to old-style colonies — as when Russia tried to do that in Afghanistan in 1979–87 — but that is not what is happening now.

The key Marxist idea that it is the class struggle that will finally banish superstition from the working class is only true if the Marxists and socialists actively embody and promote a consistently secularist and humanist world outlook. Lenin’s text here [written in 1909] shows how the Bolsheviks, living in a country awash with medievalism and religion, tackled the problem.

Lenin on religion

Social-Democracy builds its whole philosophy on the basis of scientific Socialism, i.e., Marxism. The philosophic basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectic materialism. This dialectic materialism fully accepts the historical traditions of the materialism of the eighteenth century in France, and of Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany — which is absolutely atheistic, and definitely hostile to all religion. Let us remember that the whole of Engel’s Anti-Duhring, which Marx read in manuscript, accuses the “materialist and atheist” Duhring, of not being a consistent materialist, and of leaving loop holes for religion and religious philosophy.

Let us remember that Engels, in his essay on Ludwig Feuerbach, reproaches Feuerbach for fighting against religion not in order to destroy it, but in order to revive it, to create a new “exalted” religion, etc.

Marx said: “Religion is the opium of the people” — and this postulate is the corner stone of the whole philosophy of Marxism with regard to religion. Marxism always regarded all modern religions and churches, and every kind of religious organisation, as instruments of that bourgeois reaction whose aim is to defend exploitation by stupefying the working-class.

At the same time, however, Engels repeatedly condemned those who, desiring to be “more revolutionary” than Social-Democracy, tried to introduce into the programme of the workers’ party the explicit avowal of atheism — those who strove to “declare war on religion.”

In 1874, commenting on a manifesto by some fugitives of the Commune, Blanquists’ then emigrants in London, Engels described their noisy proclamation of War on Religion as nonsense, and stated that such a declaration of war would be the best means of reviving interest in religion, and in preventing it from dying out. Engels condemned the Blanquists for failing to understand that only the mass working-class struggle, drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into all forms of conscious and revolutionary social practice, will free the oppressed masses really from the yoke of religion; while proclaiming war on religion as a political objective of the workers’ party is a mere anarchist pose. And in 1877, in Anti-Duhring, Engels, while ruthlessly attacking the slightest concession made by the philosopher Duhring to idealism and religion, condemns no less resolutely Duhring’s pseudo-revolutionary notion that religion would be prohibited in socialist society.

To declare such war on religion, says Engels, means “being more Bismarckian than Bismarck himself,” i.e., to repeat the stupidity of the Bismarckian struggle against clericalism (the famous “Struggle for Culture,” Kulturkampf, i.e., the struggle Bismarck waged in 1870 against the German Catholic Party, the party of the “Centre,” and the political persecution of Catholicism that it involved). By this struggle Bismarck only strengthened the militant clericalism of the Catholics, and injured the work of real culture, because he brought religious divisions instead of political ones to the forefront and thus diverted the attention of sections of the working-class and of the democracy from the urgent tasks of class and revolutionary struggle to those of the most superficial and mendacious-bourgeois anti-clericalism.

Engels accused the would-be ultra-revolutionary Duhring of proposing merely to repeat Bismarck’s absurdity in another form. He demanded that the workers’ party should work patiently at those tasks of organising and educating the proletariat, which would lead to religion dying out, and refuse to be drawn into any adventurist political war against religion.

This point of view was thoroughly assimilated by German Social Democracy, which advocated, for example, freedom for the Jesuits, their admission into Germany, and the cessation of the struggle against any particular religion by police methods. Religion is a “private matter”; this famous point in the Erfurt Programme (1891) confirmed these political tactics of Social-Democracy.

These tactics, however, have nowadays become a matter of mere routine. This has given rise to a new distortion of Marxism — one in the opposite direction, the direction of opportunism.

This point in the Erfurt programme has come to be interpreted as meaning that we the Social-Democrats — as a party — consider religion to be for us a private matter. Without undertaking a direct polemic against this opportunist point of view, Engels in 1890 deemed it necessary to oppose it resolutely, not in a polemical, but in a positive way; that is to say, Engels issued a statement in which he expressly emphasised that Social-Democrats regarded religion as a private matter in relation to the government, but by no means in relation to themselves, to Marxism, or to the workers' party.

This is the history of the stand taken by Marx and Engels on the question of religion. To those who take up a superficial attitude towards Marxism, who cannot or do not want to think, this history is a mass of meaningless contradictions and waverings of Marxism; it is a jumble of “consistent” atheism and “concessions” to religion, an “unprincipled” wavering between a revolutionary struggle against God, and a cowardly desire to “ingratiate” oneself with religious workers — a fear to scare them, etc., etc. The literature of anarchist phrasemongers is replete with attacks of this kind upon Marxism.

But anyone who is at all able to take Marxism seriously, to think out its philosophical principles and the experience of international Social-Democracy, will readily see that Marxian tactics in regard to religion are thoroughly consistent and were profoundly thought out by Marx and Engels; it is obvious that what the dilettantes or ignoramuses regard as wavering is but a direct and inevitable deduction from dialectic materialism.

It would be a great mistake to think that the seeming “moderation” of Marxism in relation to religion can be explained by so-called “tactical” considerations, by the desire “not to frighten” the religious workers, etc. [At thte time Lenin was writing (1909), there were vigorous, “sectarian”, bourgeois anti-clericalists around, in a way there are not today. On the contrary, the political line of Marxism on this question is inseparably bound up with its philosophical principles.

Marxism is materialism. As such it is as relentlessly opposed to religion as was the materialism of the Encyclopaedists of the eighteenth century, or as was the materialism of Feuerbach. This is beyond doubt. But the dialectic materialism of Marx and Engels goes beyond the Encyclopaedists and Feuerbach; it applies the materialist philosophy to the field of history, to the field of social science. We must combat religion — this is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently of Marxism. But Marxism is not materialism which stops at the ABC. Marxism goes further. It says: We must be able to combat religion, and in order to do this we must explain from the materialistic point of view why faith and religion are prevalent among the masses.

The fight against religion must not be limited nor reduced to abstract ideological preaching. This struggle must be linked up with the concrete practical class movement; its aim must be to eliminate the social roots of religion. Why does religion retain its hold among the backward strata of the urban proletariat — among wide strata of the semi-proletariat and the masses of the peasantry? Because of the ignorance of the people — answers the progressive bourgeoisie, the radical or bourgeois materialist. Hence — “Down with religion,” “Long live Atheism,” “The dissemination of Atheist views is our chief task!”

The Marxist says: “No, this is not true. Such a conception expresses the superficial limitations of bourgeois culture and the narrowness of its objective. It is shallow, and explains the roots of religion, not in a materialist, but in an idealistic fashion.”

In modern capitalist countries the basis of religion is primarily social. The roots of modern religion are deeply embedded in the social oppression of the working masses, and in their apparently complete helplessness before the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour cause a thousand times more horrible suffering and torture for ordinary working folk than are caused by exceptional events such as war, earthquakes, etc. “Fear created the gods.

” Fear of the blind force of capital — blind because its action cannot be foreseen by the masses — a force which at every step in life threatens the worker and the small business man with “sudden,” “unexpected,” “accidental” destruction and ruin, bringing in their train beggary, pauperism, prostitution, and deaths from starvation — this is the tap-root of modern religion which, first of all, and above all, the materialist must keep in mind, if he does not wish to remain stuck for ever in the infant school of materialism.

No amount of reading matter, however enlightening, will eradicate religion from those masses who are crushed by the grinding toil of capitalism and subjected to the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until these masses, themselves, learn to fight against the social facts from which religion arises in a united, disciplined, planned and conscious manner — until they learn to fight against the rule of the capitalist in all its forms.

Does this mean that educational books against religion are harmful or superfluous? No. Not at all. It means that the propagation of Atheism by the Social-Democracy must be subordinated to a more basic task — the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.

Those who have not gone to the root of dialectical materialism (i.e., of the philosophy of Marx and Engels) may not be able to understand this; or, at least, not able to understand it at first. What! Subordinate ideological propaganda, the propagation of definite ideas? Subordinate the struggle against religion, the thousand-year-old enemy of culture and progress, to the class struggle, to the struggle for transient practical-economic and political aims?

This is one of the many current objections raised against Marxism which reveal a thorough misunderstanding of Marxist dialectics. The contradiction which so confuses those who raise these objections is the contradiction of life itself, i.e., it is a dialectical and not a verbal or an invented contradiction.

To draw a hard and fast line between the theoretical propagation of Atheism, between breaking down the religious beliefs of certain sections of the proletariat, and the effect, the development, the general implications of the class struggle of these sections, is to reason non-dialectically; to transform a variable, relative boundary into an absolute one. It is a forcible tearing asunder of that which is indissolubly connected in reality.

For example, the proletariat of a given district in a given branch of industry can be divided, let us say, into a vanguard of fairly class-conscious Social-Democrats (who are, it stands to reason, atheists), and the rather backward mass which, still having ties with the villages and the peasantry, still believes in God, goes to church, or is even directly influenced by the priest. These constitute, let us assume, the Christian Workers' Union. Let us suppose, further, that the economic struggle in such a locality has resulted in a strike. A Marxist must place the success of the strike movement above all else, must definitely oppose the division of the workers in this struggle into atheists and Christians, must fight resolutely against such a division.

In such circumstances the preaching of atheism is superfluous and harmful — not from the narrow-minded consideration of not frightening the backward elements, or of losing votes at elections, etc., but from the point of view of the actual progress of the class struggle, which, in the conditions of modern capitalist society, will convert Christian workers to Social-Democracy, and to atheism a hundred times more effectively than any bald atheist sermons. To preach atheism at such a time, and in such circumstances, would only be playing into the hands of the Church and the priests, who would desire nothing more than to have the workers participating in the strike movement divided in accordance with their religious beliefs.

The Anarchist, who preaches war against God at all costs, actually helps the priests and bourgeoisie (as in fact the anarchists always do). The Marxist must be a materialist, i.e., an enemy of religion. But he must be a dialectical materialist, i.e., one who fights against religion not in the abstract, not by means of abstract, purely theoretical propaganda, equally suited to all times and to all places, but concretely, on the basis of the class struggle actually proceeding — a struggle which is educating the masses better than anything else could do. The Marxist must be able to judge the concrete situation as a whole. He must always be able to determine the boundary between anarchism and opportunism (this boundary is relative, mobile and ever-changing; but it exists), not to fall either into the abstract, wordy and in fact futile “revolutionism” of the Anarchist, or into the philistinism and opportunism of the petty bourgeois, or liberal intellectual, who shirks the fight against religion, forgets his tasks, reconciles himself to a belief in God, and who is guided, not by the interests of the class struggle, but by petty, mean calculations such as: not to offend, not to repel, not to frighten; and who is governed by the wise rule: “live and let live,” etc., etc.

It is from this point of view that we must decide all particular questions concerning the attitude of Social-Democrats to religion. For example, the question often arises, is a priest eligible for membership of the Social Democratic party? Usually, this question is answered in the affirmative without any reservation and the experience of European Social-Democratic parties is cited. But this experience was the result not only of the application of the Marxist doctrine to the workers' movement, but, of the peculiar historical circumstances in Western Europe. These conditions being absent in Russia (we will say more about these conditions later) an unqualified affirmative in this case is incorrect. We must not say once and for all, that under no circumstances can priests be allowed to join the Social-Democratic Party; but neither should we affirm categorically the opposite.

If a priest comes to co-operate with us in our work — if he conscientiously performs party work, and does not oppose the party programme — we can accept him into the ranks of Social-Democracy, for the contradictions between the spirit and principles of our programme and the religious convictions of the priest could, in these circumstances, be regarded as a matter in which he contradicts himself, as one which concerns him alone. A political party cannot examine its members to see if there are any contradictions between their philosophy and the Party programme. Of course, such a case would be a rare exception, even in Western Europe; it is hardly possible in Russia. But if, for example, a priest joined the Social. Democratic party, and made it his chief and almost exclusive business to propagate religious views, then, of course, the Party would have to expel him.

We must not only admit into the Social-Democratic Party all those workers who still retain faith in God, we must redouble our efforts to recruit them. We are absolutely opposed to the slightest affront to these workers' religious convictions. We recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to carry on an active struggle against religion. We allow freedom of opinion inside the Party, but within certain limits, determined by freedom of grouping. We are not obliged to associate with those who advocate views that have been repudiated by the majority of the Party.

Another example: is it right, under all circumstances to censure members of the Social-Democratic party for declaring that “socialism is my religion,” and for advocating views which correspond to such a declaration? No! This is undoubtedly a retreat from Marxism (and consequently from socialism), but the significance of such a retreat, its specific gravity, so to say, may be different under different conditions. It is one thing if an agitator or someone addressing workers, speaks in this way in order to make himself better understood, as an introduction to his subject, in order to present his views in terminology to which the backward masses are more accustomed. It is quite another thing when a writer begins to preach “God-creating” or God-creating socialism (in the spirit, for example, of our Lunacharsky and Co.).

To pronounce censure in the first case would be mere quibbling, or even misplaced restriction of the freedom of the propagandist, on the freedom of “pedagogical” style; in the second case, censure by the party is necessary and obligatory. For the former, the statement “socialism is my religion” is a step from religion to socialism, for the latter it is a step from socialism to religion.

Let us examine now the conditions which in the West gave rise to the opportunist interpretation of the thesis “religion is a private matter.” Undoubtedly, this is due to the operation of those general causes which gave rise to opportunism generally, such as the sacrifice of the fundamental interests of the workers’ movement for momentary advantages. The party of the proletariat demands that the government shall declare religion a private matter, but it does not for a moment regard the question of the fight against the opium of the people — the fight against religious superstition, etc. as a private matter. The opportunists have so distorted the question as to make it appear that the Social-Democratic Party regards religion as a private matter.

Apart from the usual opportunistic distortion (which our Duma fraction entirely omitted to explain in their speeches during the debate on religion) there are the specific, historical conditions which give rise today, if one can so express oneself, to a considerable indifference among European Social-Democrats upon the question of religion. These conditions are of a twofold nature.

First, the fight against religion is the historical task of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and in the west this task was, to a great extent, undertaken (or was being undertaken) by the bourgeois democracy in the epoch of their revolution — of their attack upon the feudalism left over from the Middle Ages. Both in France and Germany there is a tradition of bourgeois struggle against religion, a struggle which was begun long before Socialism arose (for instance, the Encyclopaedists, Feuerbach). In Russia, because of the conditions of our bourgeois-democratic revolution, this task lies almost wholly on the shoulders of the working-class. Petty-bourgeois (populist) democracy did not do too much for us in this respect (as the new Black Hundred Cadets or Cadet Black Hundreds of “Vekh” think it did), but much too little in comparison with what was done in Europe.

On the other hand, the traditions of the bourgeois war on religion have given rise in Europe to a specifically bourgeois distortion of this struggle by Anarchism, one which the Marxists have explained long since and which repeatedly takes a standpoint identical with that of the bourgeoisie, in spite of the “fury” with which it attacks that bourgeoisie. The anarchists and Blanquists in the Latin countries, Johann Most and Co. in Germany (incidentally Most was a pupil of Duhring), and the anarchists of the eighties in Austria carried revolutionary phraseology in the struggle against religion to a nec plus ultra.

Secondly, in the West after the national bourgeois revolutions had drawn to a close, after the introduction of more or less complete freedom of conscience, the question of the democratic struggle against religion had been forced into the background by the struggle which bourgeois democracy waged against socialism to such an extent that the bourgeois governments deliberately tried to draw the attention of the masses away from socialism by organising a quasi-liberal “drive” against clericalism. Such was the character of the “Kulturkampf” in Germany and of the fight of the bourgeois republicans in France against clericalism. The present day "indifference” to the fight against religion, which is so widespread among Social-Democrats in the West, was preceded by bourgeois anti-clericalism, the purpose of which was to divert the attention of the masses of the workers from socialism.

And this is quite understandable and legitimate, because Social Democrats had to oppose bourgeois and Bismarckian anticlericalism, with the tactics of subordinating the struggle against religion to the struggle for socialism.

Conditions in Russia are quite different. The proletariat is the leader of our bourgeois-democratic revolution. Its Party must be the ideological leader in the struggle against every vestige of mediaevalism, including the old state religion, and against every attempt to revive it or to give it a different base, etc. Therefore, although Engels rebuked the German Social-Democrats rather mildly for their opportunism in substituting the declaration that religion is a private matter for Social-Democrats and the Social-Democratic Party — for the workers’ party demand that the state shall declare religion a private matter, he would have rebuked the Russian opportunists who imitate this German distortion a hundred times more sharply.

Our fraction acted quite correctly when it declared from the Duma tribunal that religion is the opium of the people, and in this way they created a precedent which should serve as the basis for all speeches delivered by Russian Social-Democrats on the question of religion. Should they have gone further and developed in greater detail their atheistic arguments? We think not. This might have incurred the danger of exaggerating the fight of the proletarian political party against religion; it might have led to the obliteration of the line of demarcation separating the bourgeois from the socialist fight against religion. The first thing the Social-Democratic fraction in the Black Hundred Duma had to do was done with honour.

The second, and perhaps the most important thing that had to be done from the Social-Democratic standpoint was to explain the class role of the Church and the clergy in supporting the Black Hundred government and the bourgeoisie in their fight against the working-class. This also was done with honour.

Thirdly, it was necessary to explain the true meaning of the postulate which the German opportunists advance, i.e., “Religion must be declared to be a private matter.”


Anti-Duhring: This is Frederick Engels’ riposte to a certain Professor Duhring who had gained some currency in the German socialist movement in the 1870s. Duhring was dismissive of most socialist thinking. The book is actually an exposition of the materialist socialist world view.

Blanqui (Louis) Auguste: A French early revolutionary socialist. Active in nearly all of France’s revolutions of the 19th century. Blanqui spent 37 years of his life in jail.

Encyclopaedists: collective term for editors and contributors to the Encyclopaedia, a huge work of social and political reference produced in France (1751–2) and associated with the Enlightenment . This was a European-wide movement of thinkers who advocated the end of absolutist monarchy and the power of the church, and promoted rational, scientific thinking.

Feuerbach, Ludwig (1804–72): German philosopher whose criticisms of idealism and religion were important to Marx and Engels. His book The Essence of Christianity was translated into English by the novelist George Eliot.

Materialism: the theory that everything that really exists is material in nature. This kind of theory is the antithesis of religious, or metaphysical thinking.

Populism: Russian political movement of the 1860s and later. The Narodniks (Populists) believed that socialism could be established in Russia on the basis of the existing peasant commune. To achieve it they “went to the people” in the countryside to preach revolution against the Tsar. The first Russian Marxists developed out of the populist movement.

Social-Democracy: before the First World War the main socialist parties in the world were Marxist and called themselves “Social Democrats”.

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