Marxists once saw themselves as the vanguard not only of the proletariat but of science and progress, as the bulwark against superstition and reaction. In our postmodern age, we’ve retreated from this, questioned these values and notions, and abandoned the aegis of “science” and “progress” to the bourgeoisie. Our doubts about science and progress were not entirely unjustified, for in the hands of the bourgeoisie they are robbed of their liberatory potential. In its relentless pursuit of profit, the bourgeoisie has revolutionized the means of production and communication time and again. Rather than freeing us from want and widening and deepening democracy, as these advances can, it has instead brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe, overseen the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands through the immiseration of billions, and strengthened the state surveillance apparatus beyond the wildest dreams of the Stasi.
It is no surprise, then, that at a time such as this, when socialists are struggling to cast off the traditions of one dead generation, there are those who would burden us with the traditions of another. Those who would have us exchange the costumes and battle slogans of the Bolsheviks for the robes and psalms of the Apostles. Their rallying cry might well be “One step forward, a thousand steps back! To the Communist message of Christ!”
Both the legacy of Soviet-style state-sanctioned atheism and the neoconservative politics of the so-called New Atheists — whose militant bourgeois atheism is nothing new — have turned off many socialists. Their resulting distaste for militant atheism, combined with pessimism about mobilizing the working class behind the banner of atheism, has led some to call for a reconciliation of socialism and religion.
There are two types of “socialists” who seek such a reconciliation: fools and knaves. Fools genuinely believes that socialism is ordained by scripture, that their conservative co-religionists are unfaithful to their religion by not joining the progressive cause. Just like their conservative counterparts, progressives find what they want to find in scripture and ignore the inconvenient rest. Knaves, on the other hand, are atheist but either cynically see the working class as hopelessly enthralled by superstition or have a soft spot for spirituality, for those few poetic phrases in scripture that might be spun for socialism. They declare: “If Mohammed will not come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed”; if the religious will not come to socialism, socialists must come to religion.
The capitalist uses a mullah, an Orthodox priest, a Catholic friar, and a kabbalist to divert the masses
These socialists have misjudged the nature of religion, the degree to which the working class is enthralled by religion, and the possibility and desirability of a reconciliation between socialism and religion.
It is understandable that, in a world plagued by suffering, people would turn to spiritual means to alleviate their suffering in the absence of material means. “Religious suffering,” as Marx put it, “is the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” It is in this expression of protest against real suffering that we find some socialist-sounding phrases in scripture, but this in no way makes scripture a sound basis for socialism. Religion is not just an analgesic — it isn’t just “the opium of the people.” While it provides consolation to the exploited and oppressed, it also justifies exploitation and oppression. It is a product of suffering, one which reinforces and reproduces suffering.
Religion, at one and the same time, consoles sufferers and justifies suffering here-and-now by the promise of salvation hereafter. It consoles the exploited and oppressed and justifies exploitation and oppression here-and-now with the promise of retribution and justice for exploiters and oppressors hereafter. It justifies suffering on the basis of sin. The material roots of suffering are hidden behind a spiritual facade. Suffering is presented not as an alterable product of this world, but as unalterable punishment by God or karma for our moral transgressions. Just as the bourgeoisie declares that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, religion declares that there is no alternative to suffering, to exploitation and oppression, to class society. We humans are presented as so morally depraved as to be incapable of liberating ourselves — we can only hope for salvation through the grace of God.
Religion commands that the few, the privileged, ameliorate the lot of the many — the exploited, oppressed, poor, propertyless, suffering masses — through charity. Charity serves to ease suffering while leaving unaddressed the roots of suffering. It renders the condition of the exploited and oppressed slightly less intolerable, and eases the conscience of the ruling class. It gives the poor a few scraps from the tables of the rich to keep the poor from demanding a seat at the table. A few scraps do not make for socialism.
Religion is partly a product, as Engels observed, of “the world historical defeat of the female sex.” It is produced by, reinforces, and reproduces a perverse patriarchy in the household, where each man is promised mastery, if not over himself, then at least over his wife and hischildren. It is created by and re-creates the division of labour between the sexes. In doing so it divides the working class, setting up hierarchies within the exploited and oppressed. It gives some of the exploited and oppressed a taste of mastery, of domination, and thus attempts to give them a stake in maintaining the system of exploitation and oppression.
Socialists cannot compromise over sexism. To be a socialist is to be a feminist, because the working class’s struggle for its self-emancipation cannot be separated from women’s struggle for self-emancipation. After all, as even Mao realized, “Women hold up half the sky!” Women are half, if not more than half, of the working class. We must let go of the antiquated image of the male industrial worker and the female peasant, especially since there has been an unprecedented feminization of the manual labour force. We cannot struggle for the emancipation of the whole working class while embracing an ideology that would see half of society remain enslaved.
Members of the Union of the Militant Godless crowd around a statue of Lenin for a photograph, 1929
We cannot claim to be working toward the self-emancipation of the working class — and through this the emancipation of the whole of humanity — if we appeal to authoritarian, homophobic, misogynistic, and generally misanthropic texts and institutions for aid and inspiration. There cannot be a reconciliation of socialism and religion; to call for such a reconciliation is to call for a reconciliation of emancipation and slavery. For every fine-sounding phrase in scripture or out of the mouth of a priest, there are countless more vile words. Religiously inspired deeds of cruelty far outnumber acts of charity.
The bourgeoisie has managed to cast off the shackles of religion, by elevating itself from the squalid conditions that give rise to religion. It has already turned its back on religion, in deed if not in word. For all its public professions of piety, behind closed doors it is as atheist as any of us. What Cicero said of the ruling class of his day, of which he was a member, is no less true of the ruling class of today: “It is difficult to deny that the gods exist, in public, but in private it is perfectly easy to do so.” Appearances must be maintained. “A tyrant,” as Aristotle remarks in the Politics, “must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. They less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.” It is profit that dictates policy, not piety. The bourgeoisie bows before Mammon, not Yahweh. Continue reading