The fundamental source of religious mystification is economic slavery

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The first article in this series looked at the resurgence of Islam as an ideology mobilising massive numbers. It was seen how Islam has been adapted to the needs of decomposing capital in the underdeveloped countries, with forms of so called “political Islam” (“fundamentalism”) which have little in common with the creed of the founder Muhammad, but which have the ability to pose as the champion of all the oppressed. It was also shown how, unlike Marx, who thought that the fog of religion was being rapidly dispersed by capitalism itself, later marxists recognised that capitalism in its decadent phase has seen a resurgence of religion, which expresses the increasingly patent bankruptcy of bourgeois society. In the underdeveloped countries, especially, this has taken the form of a turn towards militant “fundamentalist” movements. In the developed countries, the picture is more complex; religious observance in the established denominations has more or less steadily declined over the past fifty or so years, while “New Age” and other alternative religious cults have been growing, side-by-side with a complete turn away from religion and belief in God by some sectors of the population on the one hand, and a resurgence in “fundamentalist” creeds on the other.

These trends are noticeable among persons with a background in all the great religions, except perhaps among Buddhists, although it is noticeable that people who have immigrated from Third World countries often tend to cling more tightly to their religions, not only as a form of solace, but also as a symbol of their “lost” heritage - as a way of maintaining their cultural identity in a cruel and hostile environment.

It is also noticeable that trends are not completely uniform throughout the developed countries, in spite of the clear trend towards secularism in these states. Reportedly, "only 5% of Americans say they have no religion" (Dominique Vidal, 'A Secular Society', Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2001); despite the inroads of secularism; it would unthinkable, for instance, for a US President not to intone “God bless America” at the end of every major address to the nation. In France, on the other hand, where secularism has been at the centre of the bourgeoisie's raison d'être since 1789, "half the population no longer belongs to a church, synagogue or mosque" (Vidal, Ibid), despite an upsurge of “fundamentalism” among some North African immigrants.

Despite a move away from established religion, therefore, religious observance continues. The end of capital's ascendant era and the advent of its decadent phase, particularly its final phase of generalised decomposition, has not only prolonged the life of religious irrationalism, but in many ways generated variations which are arguably more dangerous for humanity.

This article is an initial attempt to examine the marxist approach to the problem of fighting religious ideology in general within the proletariat, under present conditions. It will be seen that there is much that we can learn on this matter from the past history of the workers' movement.

Fighting religion

As we have shown in Part One, Marx saw that religion is simultaneously a dangerous, diversionary mystification of reality (the “opium of the people”) and the “sigh of the oppressed” - that is, a stifled cry against oppression. Lenin added to this the advice for communists to tread carefully with anti-religious propaganda - while not for one moment hiding our atheistic materialism. Lenin's general approach to this delicate question still remains a beacon of communist thinking and a guide to revolutionary practice. This is not because Lenin drew up this framework, basing himself exclusively on quotations from Marx and Engels (for that would be to degrade marxist science into a religion!), but because Lenin's framework on the question sensibly and scientifically addresses all the principal problems. An examination of Lenin's thinking on this question is therefore useful at this point in the discussion. We can then return to the present day situation and consider what the attitude of marxists to this should be.

Interestingly, Lenin's first comment upon religion, which exists in English translation, is a passionate defence of religious freedom. A 1903 Article addressed to Russia's rural poor states that marxists "demand that everybody shall have full and unrestricted right to profess any religion he wants". Lenin denounced the laws in Russia and in Ottoman Turkey ("the disgraceful police persecution of religion"), discriminating in favour of particular religions (Orthodox Christianity and Islam respectively), as particularly "shameful". All these laws are as unjust, as arbitrary and disgraceful as can be. Everyone must be perfectly free, not only to profess whatever religion they please, but also to spread or change their religion.

Lenin's ideas on many aspects of revolutionary politics changed over time, but not as far as this question is concerned. This becomes apparent if Lenin's first major statement on this question - a 1905 article ‘Socialism and Religion’ - is compared to his later writings on this issue.

‘Socialism and Religion’ set the essential framework for the Bolsheviks' attitude towards religion. The article summarised in a popular style conclusions already reached by Marx and Engels on religion - that religion is "a sort of spiritual booze", as Lenin put it, which "exhorts working people to suffer exploitation in the hope of heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven”.

The proletariat, Lenin confidently predicted, would fuse its struggle with modern science, break through "the fog of religion" and successfully "fight in the present for a better life on earth".

Lenin argued for religion to be a private affair, as far as the proletarian dictatorship was concerned. He said that communists demand that the state be absolutely independent of any religious affiliations and should materially contribute to no religious organisation's expenses. At the same time, discrimination must be outlawed against any religion and all citizens "must be free to profess any religion" or, for that matter, "no religion whatever".

As far as the marxist party was concerned, however, religion was never a private affair: “Our Party is an association of class conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class consciousness, ignorance or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs. We demand complete disestablishment of the Church so as to be able to combat the religious fog with purely ideological and solely ideological weapons, by means of our press and by word of mouth (...) And to us the ideological struggle is not a private affair, but the affair of the whole Party, of the whole proletariat”.

Lenin added, however, that religion could not be overcome simply through empty, abstract propaganda.

It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion ... is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No amount of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven”.

Communists, wrote Lenin, were adamantly opposed to any "stirring up of secondary differences" over religious questions, which could be utilised by reactionaries to split the proletariat. The true source of "religious humbugging", after all, was economic slavery. The same themes were restated at greater length during 1909, in an essay entitled ‘The Attitude of the Workers' Party to Religion’:

The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism ... - a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion... Religion is the opium of the people - this dictate by Marx is the cornerstone of the whole marxist outlook on religion. Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class”.

At the same time, Engels frequently condemned the efforts of people who desired to be "more left" or "more revolutionary" than the Social Democrats, to introduce into the programme of the workers' political organisation an explicit proclamation of atheism, in the sense of declaring war on religion. Engels condemned the Blanquists' war on religion, says Lenin, as "the best way to revive interest in religion and to prevent it from really dying out":

Engels blamed the Blanquists for being unable to understand that only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion, whereas to proclaim that war on religion was a political task of the workers' party was just anarchistic phrase-mongering” (Lenin, 1909, Ibid).

The same warning was made in Engels' Anti-Dühring, and with relation to Bismarck’s war on religion:

By this struggle Bismarck only stimulated the militant clericalism of the Catholics and only injured the work of real culture, because he gave prominence to religious divisions rather than political divisions, and diverted the attention of some sections of the working class and of the other democratic elements away from the urgent tasks of the class and revolutionary struggle to the most superficial and false bourgeois anti-clericalism. Accusing the would-be ultra-revolutionary Dühring of wanting to repeat Bismarck’s folly in another form, Engels insisted that the workers' party should have the ability to work patiently at the task of organising and educating the proletariat, which would lead to the dying out of religion, and not throw itself into the gamble of a political war on religion... Engels ... deliberately underlined, that Social Democrats [all marxists called themselves Social Democrats at this time] 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” (Lenin, 1909, Ibid).

The attitude towards religion: principled flexibility

This flexible but principled attitude towards religion by Marx, Engels and Lenin has been attacked by "anarchist phrasemongers" (Lenin's expression) who failed to grasp that the marxist attitude on this question is quite consistent. Lenin explains:

It would be a profound mistake to think that the seeming 'moderation' of Marxism in regard to religion is due to supposed 'tactical' considerations, 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.

Marxism is materialism. ... We must combat religion - that is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently of marxism. But marxism is not a materialism that has stopped at the ABC. Marxism goes further. It says: 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 in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion” (Lenin, 1909, Ibid).

According to "the bourgeois progressist, the radical and the bourgeois atheist", says Lenin, religion maintains its hold due to "the ignorance of the people".

The marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view, the view of narrow bourgeois uplifters. It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way. In modern capitalist countries these roots are mainly social. The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extraordinary events, such as wars, earthquakes, etc.

'Fear made the gods'. Fear of the blind force of capital - blind because it cannot be foreseen by the masses of the people - a force which at every step in the life of the proletarian and small proprietor threatens to inflict, and does inflict 'sudden', 'unexpected', 'accidental' ruin, destruction, pauperism, prostitution, 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 masses who are crushed by capitalist hard labour, and who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way.

Does this mean that educational books against religion are harmful or unnecessary? No, nothing of the kind. It means that Social Democracy's atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task - the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters” (Lenin, 1909, Ibid).

Lenin insisted that this can only be understood in practice dialectically. Otherwise atheist propaganda can even be harmful in certain circumstances. (He gives the example of a labour strike led by a Catholic trade union. In this instance, the marxist must "place the success of the strike above everything", vigorously opposing any division of workers "into atheists and Christians", since it is the "progress of the class struggle" which "will convert Christian workers to Social Democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda"):

A marxist must be a materialist, i.e., an enemy of religion, but a dialectical materialist, i.e., one who treats the struggle against religion not in an abstract way, not on the basis of remote, purely theoretical, never varying preaching, but in a concrete way, on the basis of the class struggle which is going on in practice and is educating the masses more and better than anything else could. A marxist must be able to view the concrete situation as a whole, he must always be able to find the boundary between anarchism and opportunism (this boundary is relative and changeable, but it exists).

And he must not submit either to the abstract, verbal, but in reality empty 'revolutionism' of the anarchist, or to the philistinism and opportunism of the petty bourgeois or liberal intellectual, who boggles at the struggle against religion, forgets that this is his duty, reconciles himself to belief in God, and is guided not by the interests of the class struggle but by the petty and mean consideration of offending nobody, repelling nobody and scaring nobody - by the sage rule: 'live and let live', etc., etc” (Lenin, 1909, Ibid).

Lenin continually warned against the dangers of petty bourgeois impatience in combating religious prejudices. Thus, in a speech to the First All-Russia Congress of Working Women, in November 1918, he noted the young Soviet republic's astonishing success in pushing back women's oppression in the more urbanised areas, but added a warning:

For the first time in history, our law has removed everything that denied women's rights. But the important thing is not the law. In the cities and industrial areas this law on complete freedom of marriage is doing all right, but in the countryside, it all too frequently remains a dead letter. There the religious marriage still predominates. This is due to the influence of the priests, an evil that is harder to combat than the old legislation.

We must be extremely careful in fighting religious prejudices; some people cause a lot of harm in this struggle by offending religious feelings. We must use propaganda and education. By lending too sharp an edge to the struggle we may only arouse popular resentment; such methods of struggle tend to perpetuate the division of the people along religious lines, whereas our strength lies in unity. The deepest source of religious prejudice is poverty and ignorance; and that is the evil we have to combat” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 28, pp. 180-81).

In drafting the Russian Communist Party's Programme the following year, Lenin repeated the traditional call for the complete separation of church and state and continued to warn against "hurting the religious sentiments of believers, for this only serves to increase religious fanaticism".

Then, two years later at a meeting of non-Bolshevik delegates to the Ninth All-Russia Congress of Soviets, when Kalinin (later to be given control of education under Stalin) remarked that Lenin might issue an order to "burn all the prayer books", Lenin hastened to clarify the situation, stressing that he "never suggested such a thing and never could. You know that according to our Constitution, the fundamental law of our Republic, freedom of conscience in respect of religion is fully guaranteed to every person”.

Earlier in 1921, Lenin wrote to Molotov (another future leading Stalinist apparatchik), criticising slogans such as "expose the falsehood of religion" in a circular regarding May Day. "This is not right. It is tactless", wrote Lenin, underlining again the need "absolutely to avoid the affront to religion". In fact, Lenin felt so strongly about this issue that he demanded an additional circular, correcting the previous one. If the Secretariat could not agree with this, then he proposed to take up the matter in the Politburo. (The Central Committee subsequently published a letter in Pravda on 21 April 1921, urging that in celebrating Mayday "nothing should be done or said to offend the religious feelings of the mass of the population".)

Lenin's views on socialism and religion are quite clear cut. The views of Marx, Engels and Lenin on combating the fog of religion can now be briefly summarised. Religion is understood first and foremost as a form of oppression in class society - a means of bamboozling the masses into accepting their oppression. It exists and flourishes in specific material conditions - what Lenin referred to as "economic slavery". The emergence of capitalist decadence means, more than ever, that the proletariat and other oppressed suffer from "fear of the blind force of capital", as capitalism's economic catastrophes thrust the working masses repeatedly and abruptly into "pauperism, prostitution, death from starvation".

The forms of religion vary enormously. But all religion, while unquestionably a diversion from real human liberation, functions as a diversion precisely because it is a comfort in conditions of adversity. It appears to provide hope for a better life (albeit after death, or after some purely supernatural transformation of the material world). And this hope of liberation ('salvation') in the hereafter or the apocalyptic future even enables the illusion to develop that suffering here and now is not in vain, since suffering will be generously rewarded in Paradise, provided the believer submits to God. In the callous, cold, inhuman world of the permanent and deepening crisis of capitalist decadence, religion also provides the oppressed with a means of apparent partial release from their bondage; religion affirms that each person is indeed precious in the eyes of his or her divine creator.

To overcome religion: unity in the class struggle

For anarchists, "narrow bourgeois uplifters" and impatient middle class radicals, the hold of religion on the masses is due to the latter's ignorance. Marxists, in contrast, understand that the material roots of religion are very deep and real in modern capitalism (indeed, they extend far deeper than capitalism itself, to the very origins of class society and even to the origins of humanity itself). Religion cannot therefore be overcome merely (or even primarily) by propaganda. Communists must make anti-religious propaganda, but this must always be subordinate to practical proletarian unity in the class struggle: the anti-religious preaching "must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating its social roots of religion". This is the only materialist strategy of uprooting religion. Attempts to solve the problem by declaring a political 'war upon religion', engaging in tactless affronts to religion, or by supporting measures aimed at restricting religious observance ignore religion's real, material, roots. Such behaviour is folly, from a proletarian viewpoint, since it exacerbates religious divisions within the proletariat and pushes working people into the arms of religious fanatics.

Communists' opposition to religion does not mean that they support measures by any state against religious belief and observance, or against particular religious sects.

Communists remain ideological and political opponents of religion: there is no question of religion being a private matter in the ranks of the revolutionary organization itself, which is made up of class conscious militants who have broken with all forms of religion. This said, in their battle against popular religious prejudices, the communists must be not only materialists - believing and acting on the fundamental standpoint that it is humans who make their own history and can thus liberate themselves through their own conscious activity - but also dialectical materialists. That is, marxists must proceed on the basis of the situation as a whole, being acutely aware of all the crucial interactions between the respective political component parts. This implies linking anti-religious propaganda in a concrete way to the actually existing class struggle, instead of waging an abstract, purely ideological battle against religion. Only with the victory of the proletarian class movement can the social roots of religious prejudice in class exploitation begin to be severed. Religion cannot be “abolished” - the working masses must outgrow it, on the basis of their own experiences. Communists will therefore avoid any measures (such as reviling religious practices) which inflame religious feelings for no good purpose. The state in the period of transition from capitalism to communism, established by the dictatorship of the proletariat, must therefore foreswear all religious discrimination, as well as any material affiliation or tie with religion.

In order to show clearly which class interests religion serves today, revolutionary organisations must integrate into their propaganda the evolution of religion’s role within society. The original creeds and practises of the great religions have been transformed into caricatures, due to the religious establishment's adaptation to and absorption by class society Rosa Luxemburg framed an appeal to religious-minded workers with this in mind, accusing the churches: “Today it is you, in your lies and your teachings, who are pagans, and it is we who bring to the poor, to the exploited the tidings of fraternity and equality. It is we who are marching to the conquest of the world as he did formerly who proclaimed that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Rosa Luxemburg, Socialism and The Churches).

Clearly, there is much that remains useful in our movement's revolutionary heritage. Marx and Engels wrote as militants at the height of capitalism's ascendant era, while Lenin was a revolutionary pioneer of communist praxis at the dawn of capitalism's decadence. Today we are in the highest and final phase of capitalist decadence - capitalist decomposition, when the proletariat will either rediscover its own revolutionary political heritage or humanity as a whole will literally be condemned to extinction. Obviously, this means that it is simply not good enough to repeat the relevant texts of the marxist classics; it is imperative that we also identify what is new in the present era, and what this means in practice for the proletariat and its political organisations.

The struggle against religion in the decadence and decomposition of capitalism

The first point to clarify in this regard is actually something that emerged at the dawn of decadence in about 1914, but has not been stressed sufficiently by revolutionaries; its clarification is therefore something left over from the dawn of decadence. This concerns the Second International’s and the French revolution’s slogan of the complete separation between church and state. This slogan - quite appropriate and necessary at the time it was initially framed - is an unrealised bourgeois democratic demand of capitalism in its ascendant phase. It should be understood clearly that only the proletariat and its party can truly achieve this, due to the countless ties between the religious establishment and capitalism. This was already universally true by the end of the nineteenth century; it is even more evident in the era of state capitalism ushered in by capitalist decadence. It is therefore both pointless and a dangerous illusion to believe that it is possible to campaign for the demand that the capitalist state separate from the religious establishment, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks tended to do.

The second point, as mentioned in the introduction to the present article and in the preceding part, is that, since entering its phase of decomposition, capitalism is now both more irrational and barbarous than at any previous point (see ‘Decomposition: the Final Phase of Capitalist Decadence’, in International Review N°107). Decomposition is the consequence of the situation in which capitalism, having long outlived its usefulness to humanity as a whole, confronts a proletariat, the only force that can overthrow this system and replace it with another society, that is still heavily marked by long decades of counter-revolution and lacking in confidence in itself as a class. The mass workers' movements of 1968-1989 represented a serious weakening of the effects of the capitalist counter-revolution, but in the last decade or so, the period we characterise as that of capitalist decomposition, the working class has suffered a number of powerful blows against its sense of class identity, in particular through all the bourgeois campaigns about the “death of communism” and the “end of the class struggle”, and through the insidious, creeping effects of social decomposition in general.

In its final, vicious and highly irrational phase, capitalism will stop at nothing to attempt to prevent proletarians from becoming self-confident and politically conscious. Furthermore, revolutionary political organisations are not immune from the influence of decadent capitalism's irrationality. A section of the Bolsheviks were gripped by a paroxysm of 'God-building' in the wake of the defeat of the 1905 revolution and the triumph of the Stolypin reaction. More recently, a section of the Bordigists, the group publishing the paper il partito has begun dabbling in mysticism (see "Marxism and Mysticism", in International Review No. 94, and the May 1997 issue of Programme Communiste). And the ICC was compelled, in the mid-1990s, to combat a sudden enthusiasm among certain militants for mysticism and occultism.

The heightened dangers posed by capitalism's decomposition should not be underestimated. Humanity as a whole is by nature a social animal. Decomposition is a sort of social acid, eating away at the bonds of natural solidarity between humans in society, sowing distrust and paranoia in its place. To put it another way: decomposition generates a spontaneous tendency in society to regroup in cliques, clans and gangs. “Fundamentalism” of any sort, cults of all varieties, the growth of inane “New Age” groups and practices, the resurgence of criminal youth gangs, are all warped attempts to “replace” missing social solidarity, in an increasingly harsh world. Because they are not based on the latent vitality of the era's sole revolutionary class, but on individualist replications of exploitative relations, all these attempts are by their very nature doomed to produce only more alienation and distress and, in fact, to further exacerbate the effects of decomposition.

This further underlines the fact that the fight against the revival of religion, against all the forms of irrationalism which are flourishing today, is inseparable from the necessity for the working class to revive the struggle for its own real interests, because it is this struggle alone which can counter the corroding effects of a disintegrating social order. The proletariat, in the struggle to defend its material interests, has no choice but to create the premises for a genuine human community; its authentic solidarity in struggle is the antidote to the false solidarity offered by the culture of gangs and fundamentalism. By the same token, the struggle to awaken the class consciousness of the proletariat – a struggle whose avant-garde is the communist minority- is the antidote to the increasingly debased and inhuman mythologies secreted by a society in putrefaction; and in turn it indicates the path towards a future where man will have at last become fully aware of himself and his place in nature, and thus will have left all the gods behind him.