Almost two years ago, I posted a fairly extensive collection of early Soviet antireligious propaganda from the 1920s and 1930s, along with some excerpts from Engels and Lenin on the necessity of atheist agitprop. Recently a comrade, Amber Frost (who is always brilliant), reblogged it for Dangerous Minds. This post today will serve to expand on the subject. It features some more rare images, part of a 1923 essay by Trotsky, as well as a few more of my own thoughts.
Obviously, there is very little original to say. So we begin, as ever, with the classics. Marx’s essential views on religion can be summed up in the following famous lines from the introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843):
Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man — state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
As Marx began to turn his studies away from the critique of German classical philosophy toward the critique of British political economy, he no longer concerned himself with lengthy diatribes against religion. This is not at all because he changed his mind about it; rather, he considered the issue more or less settled. In an 1879 interview he granted to the Chicago Tribune, Marx once again affirmed: “We know that violent measures against religion are nonsense. But this is an opinion: as socialism grows, religion will disappear. Its disappearance must be achieved by social development, in which education must play a part.” (Socialists today evidently do not share Marx’s conviction. With respect to the lengthier passage cited above, Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin has stated in an interview: “Everyone completely misinterprets that Marx quote. It’s the conditions that, in Marx’s formulation, force people to turn to religion for solace in the first place that need to be combated. But even that is patronizing! I believe religion will always exist in some form. People are drawn to it for existential reasons.”)
For the leaders and theoreticians of the Second International, religious faith was rightly considered a private matter to be left up to personal conscience. One’s political conduct must of course be thoroughly atheistic, however, as this occurs within the broader realm of public affairs, where men are answerable to each other (and cannot be seen taking orders from on high). Sometimes socialists grant membership in the party to believers, sometimes for tactical reasons, but as a rule they preferred devout unbelievers. Countering the philistine notion that Marxism was in any way “compatible” with religion, Trotsky wrote in June 1923: “We will admit into our ranks those comrades who have yet to break with religion not in order to reconcile Marxism with Islam, but rather tactfully but persistently to free the backward members’ consciousnesses of superstition, which in its very essence is the mortal enemy of communism.”
Generally, however, Marxists prefer devout unbelievers. The goal is not always to “meet them where they’re at,” as the vulgar expression goes. Pannekoek explained in a 1907 text on “Socialism and Religion”: “In declaring that religion is a private matter, we do not mean to say that it is immaterial to us, what general conceptions our members hold. We prefer a thorough scientific understanding to an unscientific religious faith, but are convinced that the new conditions will of themselves alter the religious conceptions, and that religious or anti-religious propaganda by itself is unable to accomplish or prevent this.”
Rationalism does indeed tend to fall flat in the face of the objective irrationality of society. Science and education can pierce the enchanted circle of religious mysticism and superstition only to a point. Deeper desiderata remain undispelled because reality itself lies fractured. God is dead, as Nietzsche said, but something of Its shadow survives, much as the shadow of the Buddha livcd on, cast in a cave for centuries after the Siddhartha died. While Lenin would later call for a program of “militant atheism” in 1922, as part of a broader materialist initiative, he understood by this both direct propaganda against religious teachings and institutions as well as the indirect alleviation (or, better yet, annihilation) of those miserable social and economic conditions which give rise to religious ideology in the first place.
Trotsky’s piece, reproduced below, highlights precisely this “dialectical” character of Marxism’s struggle against religion. Enjoy!
July 22, 1924
Let us pause once again on the question of antireligious propaganda, as one of the most important tasks in the sphere of everyday life. Here too I quote from the thirteenth congress resolution. It is brief: “Considerable attention should be paid to propaganda promoting the natural sciences (antireligious propaganda).” I don’t remember whether this kind of formulation has been used before, putting antireligious propaganda in parenthesis after “propaganda promoting the natural sciences.” Even if it was, it has now been authoritatively confirmed. This constitutes a demand for a new and different approach to an old problem.
Under the beneficial influence of the impetus generated by your congress, by the very fact of its being called, I have been forced to look through a great deal of published material which ordinarily I would not have had time to review, in particular the satirical journal Bezbozhnik [Godless], where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists, a magazine which surely has its positive role to play within certain, primarily urban, circles, but which nevertheless is hardly following the right track in the struggle against religious superstitions. Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely. But if this was all we were doing, or if this was our main work, then I am afraid the duel would end up as a draw…
At any rate, it is perfectly evident and beyond dispute at the present time that we cannot place our antireligious propaganda on the level of a straightforward fight against God. That would not be sufficient for us. We supplant mysticism by materialism, broadening first of all the collective experience of the masses, heightening their active influence on society, widening the horizon of their positive knowledge, and with this as our basis, we also deal blows at religious prejudice (wherever necessary).
The problem of religion has colossal significance and is most closely bound up with cultural work and with socialist construction. In his youth, Marx said: ” The criticism of religion is the basis of all 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 able to analyze social relations or ignoring them, man in society endeavored to meet his needs by creating fantastic images, endowing them with imaginary reality, and kneeling before his own creations. The basis of this creation 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 the surrounding environment in order successfully to meet the struggle for existence. In this adaptation there are 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 all other criticism. In order to pave the way for correct and real knowledge, it is necessary to remove fictitious knowledge. This is true, however, 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 do not fit into the frame 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 the antireligious pressure which we have exerted during the last few years is explained by the fact that advanced layers of the working class, who went through the school of revolution, that is, acquired an active attitude toward government and social institutions, have easily shaken off the shell of religious prejudices, which was completely undermined by the preceding developments. But the situation changes considerably when antireligious propaganda extends its influence to the less active layers of the population, not only of the villages, but also of the cities. The real knowledge that 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 necessary, there fore, 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 enormously hasten the process of her breaking off from religion. Chemical crop-dusting methods for destroying locusts may play the same role in regard to the peasant. 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 icon and image lamp, opens one of the ways to freedom from religious prejudices. And so on and so forth. The clubs can and must accurately gauge the tenacious power of religious prejudices, and find indirect ways to get around them by widening experience and know ledge. So also in antireligious struggle, periods of frontal assault may alternate with periods of blockading, undermining, and encircling maneuvers. In general, we have just entered such a period; but that does not mean that we will not resume a direct attack in the future. It is only necessary to prepare for it.
Has our attack on religion been legitimate or illegitimate? Legitimate. Has it had 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 antireligious criticism, satire, caricature, and the like, can accomplish very little. And if one presses too strongly, one may even get an opposite result. One must drill the rock — it is true, Lord knows, it’s hard enough rock! — pack in the dynamite sticks, run back the wires for the fuses, and…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 party congress 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 way of promoting the natural sciences.
To show how an unprepared frontal assault can sometimes give an entirely unexpected result, I will cite a very interesting example, which is quite recent, and which I know about from comrades only by word of mouth, since unfortunately it has not been brought to light in the press yet It comes from the experience of the Norwegian Communist Party. As you probably recall, 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 fishermen. Commercial fishing, as you know, has a very low level of technology, and is wholly dependent upon nature. This is the basis for prejudices and superstitions; and religion for the Norwegian fishermen, as the comrade who related this episode to me wittily put it, is something like a protective suit of clothes.
In Scandinavia there were also 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 skillfully 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, favoring the Communist International with all his heart, said to himself: “It comes down to this. Either I must be for the Communist International, and go without God and fish [laughter] or I must, with heavy heart, break from it.” And break he did…This illustrates the way in which religion can sometimes cut with a sharp edge even into proletarian politics.
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 deep-rooted religious prejudices of the peasantry only by bringing electricity and chemistry to peasant agriculture. This, of course, does not mean that we must not take advantage of each separate technical improvement and of each favorable social moment in general for antireligious 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 for all 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 would like to quote some remarkable words of Engels, until a short time ago unknown, concerning the potential importance of electrification for agriculture.
Recently, Comrade Riazanov has brought out Engels’s correspondence with Bernstein and Kautsky for the first time letters that are extraordinarily interesting. Old Engels proves to be doubly fascinating, as more and more new materials of his come to light, revealing his character ever more clearly, from both an ideological and a personal point of view. I shall now cite his quotation touching directly on the question of electrification and on overcoming the gulf between town and country.
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 — at any rate, one in Germany — he demonstrated the transmission of electrical energy of one or two horsepower for about fifty kilometers. It made a tremendous impression on Engels, who was extremely sensitive to any inventions in the field of natural science, technology, 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 beg inning it will be used by the cities only, ultimately it must become the most powerful lever for the abolition of the antagonism between town and country.
Vladimir Ilyich did not know of these lines. This correspondence has appeared only recently. It had been kept under a hat, in Germany, in Bernstein’s possession, until Comrade Riazanov managed to get hold of it. I don’t know whether you comrades realize with what strict attention, and yet with what strong affection, Lenin used to pore over the works of his masters and elders, Marx and Engels, finding ever new proof of their insight and penetration, the universality of their thought, their ability to see far ahead of their times. I have no doubt that this quotation — in which Engels, on the day after a method has been demonstrated, basically in laboratory terms, for transmitting electrical energy over long distances, looks over industry’s head and sees the village and says that this new invention is a most powerful lever for abolishing the antagonism between town and country — I have no doubt that Lenin would have made this quotation a commonplace of our party’s thinking. When you read this quotation, it is almost as if old Engels is conversing from the bottom of the sea (he was cremated and his ashes buried at sea, by his wish) with Lenin on Red Square…
Comrades! The process of eliminating religion is dialectical. There are periods of different tempos in the process, 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 task, to find the right moment or strike the right pace.
The complete abolition of religion will be achieved only when there is a fully developed socialist system, that is, a technology that 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 people. Religion translates the chaos of nature and the chaos of social relations into the language of fantastic images. Only the abolition of earthly chaos can end forever its religious reflection. A conscious, reasonable, planned guidance of social life, in all its aspects, will abolish for all time any mysticism and devilry.
 Moor was the pseudonym of Dimitri S. Orlov (1883-1946), a prominent caricaturist and cartoonist. After the October Revolution, he worked for the State Publishing House. In 1920 he did posters for the Red Army and the Chief Political Administration, and in 1921 to combat the famine. After 1 922 , he was a regular cartoonist for Pravda.
 Martin Tranmael ( 1879- 1 967 ) was the leader of the Norwegian Labor Party and editor of its major newspaper. After resisting the demands of the Executive Committee of the Comintern to expel dissidents, he broke completely with the International and later helped bring the Norwegian Labor Party into affiliation with the Socialist International.
 David B. Riazanov ( 1870-1938) was an historian and philosopher who joined the Bolsheviks in 1917. He organized the Marx and Engels Institute and later withdrew from political activity. But his scholarly and scrupulous attitude toward party history made him offensive to Stalin, who ordered him to be implicated with the defendants at the 1931 trial of a so-called “Menshevik Center,” which was accused of plotting to restore capitalism in the Soviet Union. He was dismissed as director of the Marx and Engels Institute, later found guilty of treason, and eventually shot.
 Compare with Marx’s claim in the first chapter of Capital: “The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control.”