Early Soviet antireligious propaganda

Goodbye, Cardinal Ratzinger, we hardly knew ye.

To celebrate the papal vacancy, here are a ton of images from Soviet antireligious propaganda. And some thoughts about the question of religion’s compatibility or incompatibility with Marxism, etc.

Cover to Bezbozhnik, Godless (1923)

Cover to Bezbozhnik, Godless (1923)

Some reflections on the recent exchanges regarding Marxism, atheism, and 18th-century materialism. Not that the positions outlined here should necessarily be adopted today. Perhaps we’re no longer in any sort of position to be as radical as Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky were. Nevertheless, while they were perhaps written in response to the prevailing idiocy of the New Atheist neoconservatives, I found many of the arguments that represented these revolutionary Marxists as somehow conciliatory toward religious ideologies, even those of minority religions, to be deliberate distortions of historical reality. There is all too often an attempt to “update” various Marxist positions so as to accommodate fashionable tendencies in the present, even under regressed political conditions. This has been undertaken by leftists as diverse as Deepa Kumar, Alessandro Tinonga, Enaemaehkiw Túpac Keshena, Ben Fowkes and Bülent Gökay, etc. There’s the temptation to reason that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” To argue that the leading Bolsheviks’ attitude toward religion was not that of crushing it mercilessly is deluded.

What’s strange is that this conciliatory move on the part of many leftists comes alongside the ongoing disenchantment of the world, including the progressive secularization of society and the disintegration of traditional religious forms. Brief religious revivals, which tend to produce the most virulently reactionary forms of religious politics (born-again Evangelical Christianity, Islamism, Jewish and Hindu terrorist groups), have usually resulted in nothing more than a brief blip in the overall pattern of decline in religiosity. The paradox is that the world is far less religious today on the whole than it was in, say, 1848 or 1917. Nevertheless, leftists during this earlier time continued to push an uncompromisingly atheistic line in their struggle to overturn the existing bourgeois social order, of which religion is a central component.

The commonplace notion that the Bolsheviks or Marxism in general has been unsuccessful because they offend the religious sensibilities of their “target demographic,” the proletariat, is simply untrue and has no basis in historical reality. Quite the contrary: the masses largely followed the Marxists’ lead in smashing and seizing religious property, looking to eradicate religion both directly (by direct expropriation) and indirectly (by removing the antagonistic social conditions that give rise to religion in the first place). They aimed to render it completely obsolete by obliterating the conditions that create it.

Also, I’ve been bothered by this weird neologism “theophobia.” It doesn’t even make sense etymologically. Most monotheistic faiths are actually all in favor of “theophobia.” “Theo” = God. “Phobia” = fear. “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” says some ancient Jewish text written in praise of their desert god. For a Marxist, however, the fear of nonexistant entities would be the very height of infantile irrationality.

ifth anniversary issue of the journal Godless (1927), featuring the three-headed giant of monotheism, a Muslim, a Christian, and a Kabbalist. Allegations of its antisemitism are baseless; most of the editorial staff including its founder Emelian Iaroslavskii were Jewish

Fifth anniversary issue of the journal Godless (1927), featuring the three-headed giant of monotheism, the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, God the Father from Christianity, and a Jewish Kabbalist. Allegations of its antisemitism are baseless; much of the editorial staff including its founder Emelian Iaroslavskii were Jewish

Friedrich Engels on the necessity of recirculating 18th-century French materialist texts in order to propagate atheism amongst the masses:

The point is, therefore, to be more radical than everybody else as far as atheism is concerned. Fortunately it is easy enough to be an atheist today. Atheism is so near to being self-obvious with European working-class parties nowadays — although in certain countries it is often enough like that of the Spanish Bakuninist who maintained that it was against all socialism to believe in God but that the Virgin Mary was a different matter, every decent socialist ought naturally to believe in her. It can even be said of the German Social-Democratic workers that atheism has already outlived itself with them: this purely negative word no longer has any application as far as they are concerned inasmuch as their opposition to faith in God is no longer one of theory but one of practice; they have purely and simply finished with God, they live and think in the world of reality and are therefore materialists. This seems to be the case in France too. If not, nothing would be simpler than to have the splendid French materialistic literature of the past century spread on a large scale among the workers. For in that literature French thought made its greatest achievement both in form and in content and, considering the level of science at that time, it is still infinitely high today as far as content is concerned and has not been equalled as to form.

Bolshevik depiction of the Prophet Mohammed slyly duping the Muslim populations of the Caucasus regions

Bolshevik depiction of the Prophet Mohammed slyly duping the Muslim populations of the Caucasus regions

Above is a cover from the fifth issue of Godless (1922), founded under Lenin’s directive, depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The word attached to his turbin is “Allah.” This makes that 2005 Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad look like child’s play. Doubtless such a representation would today be called “Islamophobic.” As for Arab members in the Union of the Militant Godless, at its height it recorded a membership of over three million individuals. Despite the extreme minority of ethnic Arabs within the territories of the former USSR, I would be astonished if none of these members were of Arab descent. Nevertheless, while they weren’t Arabs, but rather Turko- or Mongol-Caucasian (from the Caucasus mountain region), the Union of the Tatar Godless [Союз безбожников Татарии, later renamed Союз воинствующих безбожников Татарии in the 1930s] was founded by local atheists in 1927, two years after the Russian chapter, as a branch of the overarching Union of the Militant Godless. This organization also had government support, but also an extremely enthusiastic popular following. The Tatar atheists came from a an Islamic background, and so I would suspect that such representations of the Prophet Muhammad were directed against the archetype of Muslim religiosity in general and not intended as a racist jab at Arab peoples. Unfortunately, the Union of the Tatar Godless came under intense persecution by Stalin after its members agitated for greater national autonomy within its Soviet Republic, and many of its leaders were thus imprisoned and put on trial between 1928-1930. The anti-religious fervor of atheists of Tatar background was naturally directed against that with which they were most familiar, and which prevailed within their republic, Islam.

Here’s Lenin in 1922 calling for the foundation, funding, and promotion of a militant materialist organ to spread atheism and militant atheist propaganda to the masses, including 18th-century French materialist literature. The journal formed in order to carry out this task was the one from which I am pulling images here, Безбожник:

[A militant materialist organ] must be a militant atheist organ. We have departments, or at least state institutions, which are in charge of this work. But the work is being carried on with extreme apathy and very unsatisfactorily, and is apparently suffering from the general conditions of our truly Russian (even though Soviet) bureaucratic ways. It is therefore highly essential that in addition to the work of these state institutions, and in order to improve and infuse life into that work, a journal which sets out to propagandise militant materialism must carry on untiring atheist propaganda and an untiring atheist fight. The literature on the subject in all languages should be carefully followed and everything at all valuable in this sphere should be translated, or at least reviewed.

Engels long ago advised the contemporary leaders of the proletariat to translate the militant atheist literature of the late eighteenth century for mass distribution among the people. We have not done this up to the present, to our shame be it said (this is one of the numerous proofs that it is much easier to seize power in a revolutionary epoch than to know how to use this power properly). Our apathy, inactivity and incompetence are sometimes excused on all sorts of “lofty” grounds, as, for example, that the old atheist literature of the eighteenth century is antiquated, unscientific, naive, etc. There is nothing worse than such pseudo-scientific sophistry, which serves as a screen either for pedantry or for a complete misunderstanding of Marxism. There is, of course, much that is unscientific and naive in the atheist writings of the eighteenth-century revolutionaries. But nobody prevents the publishers of these writings from abridging them and providing them with brief postscripts pointing out the progress made by mankind in the scientific criticism of religions since the end of the eighteenth century, mentioning the latest writings on the subject, and so forth. It would be the biggest and most grievous mistake a Marxist could make to think that the millions of the people (especially the peasants and artisans), who have been condemned by all modern society to darkness, ignorance and superstitions — can extricate themselves from this darkness only along the straight line of a purely Marxist education. These masses should be supplied with the most varied atheist propaganda material, they should be made familiar with facts from the most diverse spheres of life, they should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, stir them front the most varied angles and by the most varied methods, and so forth.

The keen, vivacious and talented writings of the old eighteenth-century atheists wittily and openly attacked the prevailing clericalism and will very often prove a thousand times more suitable for arousing people from their religious torpor than the dull and dry paraphrases of Marxism, almost completely unillustrated by skillfully selected facts, which predominate in our literature and which (it is no use hiding the fact) frequently distort Marxism. We have translations of all the major works of Marx and Engels. There are absolutely no grounds for fearing that the old atheism and old materialism will remain un-supplemented by the corrections introduced by Marx and Engels.

image depicting a lynching in America with the mocking title, "God's country"

Image depicting a lynching in America with the mocking title, “God’s country”

Trotsky, also writing in 1922, about the need for the Communist Youth (the Komsomol) to spread militant atheist propaganda. The journal Godless was funded through the Komsomol, amongst other branches of the Soviet state:

Religion is a sop and a leash. Religion is a poison precisely during a revolutionary epoch and in a period of the extreme hardships which are succeeding the conquest of power. This was understood by such a counter-revolutionary in political sympathies, but such a deep psychologist, as Dostoevsky. He said: ‘Atheism is inconceivable without socialism and socialism without atheism. Religion denies not only atheism but socialism also.’ He had understood that the heavenly paradise and the earthly paradise negate one another. If man is promised a hereafter, a kingdom without end then is it worth shedding his own and his brothers’ and his children’s blood for the establishment of a kingdom just like this here in this world? That is the question. We must deepen a revolutionary world-outlook, we must fight the religious prejudices in the youth and approach the youth, including those having religious prejudicies, with the maximum pedagogical attentiveness of the more educated towards the less educated. We must go to them with the propaganda of atheism, for only this propaganda defines the place of man in the universe and draws out for him a circle of conscious activity here on earth.

Godless at the Bench (1922-1931)

More antireligious posters and propaganda (1924-1933)

Photo gallery of Soviet antireligious campaigns, demonstrations, etc. (1921-1934)

Other militant atheistic Soviet publications and paraphernalia (1922-1930)

3 thoughts on “Early Soviet antireligious propaganda

  1. Pingback: Marxism’s relation to “communism”: Bruno Bosteels, Jodi Dean, and Boris Groys | The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: Weekend Roundup 03/11/13

  3. Pingback: Real abstraction: On the use and abuse of an idea | The Charnel-House

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