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.”
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…
lenin + technology = the death of god
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. Continue reading