In this article Leon Trotsky discusses the Bolsheviks’ efforts to break the grip of religion on the people of Russia after the workers’ revolution of 1917.
Trotsky explains that simple scorn and administrative methods are not sufficient. Only together with an increase in humanity’s conscious control over both its own social and economic structures, and its interactions with nature, can criticism of religion be effective.
Religion often gains its strongest hold among the poorest, and feeds on frustration at the inhumanity and uncontrollability of capitalism. Marxists believe that drawing people into struggles for the betterment of their own lives is more likely than mere preaching of atheism to help large numbers of people slough off religion.
But, when they engage in common action with religious people, Marxists do not efface themselves or their world outlook. They do not kow-tow to religion. The Marxists’ own enlightening work is one of the preconditions for the advances they hope for as a result of the common struggles.
The SWP/ Respect’s description of their own electoral flagbearer as the best “fighter for Muslims”, and their attempts to get people elected to public office on the basis of communalist Muslim support, would set Trotsky — not to speak of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg — spinning in his grave.
It is perfectly evident and beyond dispute at the present time that we cannot place our anti-religious propaganda on the level of a straightforward fight against God. That would not be sufficient for us.
We supplant mysticism by materialism, broadening above all the collective experience of the masses, heightening their active influence on society, widening the horizon of their positive knowledge, and in this field we deal also, where necessary, direct blows at religious prejudices.
The problem of religion has colossal significance and is most closely bound up with cultural work and with the socialist structure. Marx in his youth said: “The criticism of religion is the basis of any other criticism.”In what sense?
In the sense that religion is a kind of fictitious knowledge of the universe. This fiction has two sources: the weakness of man before nature, and the incoherence of social relations. Fearing nature or ignoring it, being unable to analyse the social relations or ignoring them, man in society endeavoured to meet his needs by creating fantastic images, endowing them with imaginary reality and kneeling before his own creations. The basis of this creativeness lies in the practical need of man to orient himself, which, in turn, springs from the conditions of the struggle for existence. Religion is an attempted adaptation to surrounding environment in order successfully to meet the struggle for existence. There are in this adaptation practical and appropriate rules. But all this is bound up with myths, fantasies, superstitions, unreal knowledge.
Just as all development of culture is the accumulation of knowledge and skill, so is the criticism of religion the foundation for other criticism. In order to pave the way for correct and and real knowledge, it is necessary to remove fictitious knowledge. In this case, however, it is true only when one considers the question as a whole.
Historically, not only in individual cases, but also in the development of whole classes, real knowledge is bound up, in different forms and proportions, with religious prejudices. The struggle against a given religion or against religion in general and against all forms of mythology and superstition is usually successful only when the religious ideology conflicts with the needs of a given class in a new social environment.
In other words, when the accumulation of knowledge and the need for knowledge does not fit into the frames of the unreal truths of religion, then one blow with a critical knife sometimes suffices, and the shell of religion drops off.
The success of anti-religious pressure which we have exerted during the last few years is explicable by the fact that advanced layers of the working class who went through the school of revolution, that is, the active relation towards the country and the social institutions, have easily shaken off from themselves the shell of religious prejudices, which was completely undermined by the preceding developments.
But the situation changes considerably when the anti-religious propaganda spreads its influence to the less active layers of the population, not only of the villages, but also of the cities. The real knowledge which has been acquired by them is so limited and fragmentary that it can exist side by side with religious prejudices.
Naked criticism of these prejudices, finding no support in personal and collective experience, produces no results. It is, therefore, necessary to make the approach from another angle and to enlarge the sphere of social experience and realistic knowledge. The means towards this end differ. Public dining halls and nurseries may give a revolutionary stimulus to the consciousness of the housewife and may quicken enormously the process of her breaking off from religion. The aviational-chemical methods of destroying locusts may play the same role in regard to the peasants.
The very fact that the working man and woman participate in club life, which leads them out of the close little cage of the family flat with its ikon and image lamp, opens one of the ways to freedom from religious prejudices. And so on and so forth. The clubs can and must measure the strength of resistance to religious prejudice and find indirect ways to widen experience and knowledge.
And so, instead of direct attacks by anti-religious propaganda, we use blockades, barricades, and indirect manoeuvres. In general we have just entered such a period, but that does not mean that we will not make a direct attack in the future. It is only necessary to prepare for it.
Is our attack on religion legitimate or illegitimate? It is legitimate. Has it brought any results? It has. Whom has it drawn to us? Those who by previous experience have been prepared to free themselves completely from religious prejudices. And further?
There still remain those whom even the great revolutionary experience of October did not shake free from religion. And here the formal methods of anti-religious criticism, satire, caricature and the like can accomplish very little. And if one presses too strongly one may get an opposite result. One must drill the rock — it is true the rock is not very firm — block it up with dynamite sticks, use indirect attack. After a while there will be a new explosion and a new fall-off, that is, another layer of the people will be torn from the large mass… The resolution of the eighth meeting of the Party tells us that in this field we must at present pass from the explosion and the attack to a more prolonged work of undermining, first of all, by the way of the propaganda of the natural sciences.
To show how a non-frontal attack can sometimes give an entirely unexpected result, I will cite a very interesting example from the experience of the Norwegian Communist Party. As is well known, in 1923 this Party split into an opportunist majority under the direction of Tranmael, and a revolutionary minority faithful to the Communist International. I asked a comrade who lived in Norway how Tranmael succeeded in winning over the majority — of course, only temporarily. He gave me as one of the causes the religious character of the Norwegian workers and fishermen.
The fisheries, as you know, have a very low standard of technique and are wholly dependent upon nature. This is the basis for prejudices and superstitions; and religion for the Norwegian fishermen, as wittily expressed by a comrade, is something like a protective suit of clothes. In Scandinavia there were members of the intelligentsia, academicians who were flirting with religion. They were quite justly, beaten by the merciless whip of Marxism. The Norwegian opportunists have skilfully taken advantage of this in order to get the fishermen to oppose the Communist International.
The fisherman, a revolutionary, deeply sympathetic with the Soviet Republic, favouring with all his soul the Communist International, said to himself: “It comes down to this. Either I must be for the Communist International, but then without God and fish, or willy-nilly, break off.” And he did… This illustrates the way in which religion cuts into the proletarian policy.
Of course, this applies in a greater degree to our own peasantry, whose traditional religious nature is closely knit with the conditions of our backward agriculture. We shall vanquish the deeprooted religious prejudices of the peasantry only by electrification and chemicalisation of peasant agriculture. This, of course, does not mean that we must not take advantage of each separate technical improvement and of each favourable social moment in general for anti-religious propaganda, for attaining a partial break with the religious consciousness. No, all this is as obligatory as before, but we must have a correct general perspective.
By simply closing the churches, as has been done in some places, and by other administrative excesses, you will not only be unable to reach any decisive success but on the contrary you will prepare the way for a stronger return of religion. If it is true that religious criticism is the basis of any other criticism, it is also no less true that in our epoch the electrification of agriculture is the basis for the liquidation of the peasant’s superstitions.
I shall quote the remarkable words of Engels, until a short time ago unknown, which apply directly to the question of electrification and to the abolition of the abyss between the city and the village. The letter was written by Engels to Bernstein in the year 1883. You remember that in the year 1882 the French engineer, Deprez, found a method of transmitting electrical energy through a wire. And if I am not mistaken, at an exhibition in Munich he demonstrated the transmission of electrical energy of one or two horsepower for about 50 kilometres. It made a tremendous impression on Engels, who was extremely sensitive to any inventions in the field of natural science, technique, etc. He wrote to Bernstein:
“The newest invention of Deprez … frees industry from any local limitations, makes possible the use of even the most distant water power. And even if at the beginning it will be used by the cities only, ultimately it must become the most powerful lever for the abolition of the antagonism between the city and the village.”
Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin) did not know of these lines. This correspondence has appeared only recently, yet he shared this view of the great transformation electricity would make in the peasant psychology.
There are periods of different tempos in the process of abolishing religion, determined by the general conditions of culture. All our clubs must be points of observation. They must always help the party orient itself in this problem, find the moment, take the right tempo.
The complete abolition of religion will be attained only when there is a fully developed socialistic structure, that is, a technique which frees man from any degrading dependence upon nature. It can be attained only under social relationships that are free from mystery, that are thoroughly lucid and do not oppress mankind. Religion translates the chaos of nature and the chaos of social relations into the language of fantastic images.
Only the abolition of the earthly chaos can end for ever its religious reflection. A conscious, reasonable, planned guidance of social life, in all its aspects will abolish for all time any mysticism and devilry.
• The text is taken from J Davis (ed), Labour speaks for itself on religion, 1924