The Spirit of the Whole: Socialism and Religion

It has been observed that putting the words ‘socialism’ and ‘religion’ in the same sentence can have dangerous results. This seemingly unstable mixture has been known to produce the following noxious reactions:

  • “Socialism is a religion!”
  • “Never forget what the Soviets did to the Church!”
  • “Religion is evil and all socialists must be atheists!”

It should be noted that before we can get anywhere with this, we have to separate Stalinism from socialism. Under Stalin and his bureaucracy the terminology of socialism was indeed used in a way that resembles a state religion. But this was purely a linguistic matter, an appropriation, an absurd form of theft not entirely unlike postmodernism’s stealing of scientific terminology to give its irrationality the sheen of respectability. That postmodernists have used the term “fuzzy logic” to make their ideas sound like they have a basis in something other than opportunism and sophistry does not invalidate fuzzy logic – or mathematics.

The Soviet Union as it came to exist under and after Stalin was a planned economy, but it was not a socialist state. (The two notions – “a strong state” and “socialism” are often portrayed as the same, especially in the US media, but this is little more than propaganda. There are many forms of political organization; there are many types of state.) The purges that anti-communists like to reference were, after all, purges of actual revolutionary socialists. It’s not like the people Stalin spent so much time worrying about were capitalists: his victims were people like Trotsky, who wanted a democratic, progressive Soviet Union that would use the scientifc mindset that is the basis of Marxism (a term Marx himself disliked, and that I wish we could let go of) to create a sustainable, fair society.

The “scientific” part is the important one here, and is also the real reason postmodernism is so opposed to socialism. Marx did not write about ideals or utopias – he wrote about economics. Socialists are sometimes idiotically portrayed as “wanting everyone to get along and be friends” and other such piffle. Socialism is not about friendship or idealism; it’s an economic system, not a self-help group. It does not posit the possibility of a world where everyone will be happy. It posits that examining the patterns of economic growth in various systems can lead us to understand how to build a more stable system based on rational, scientific principles – a system aimed towards sustainability and quality of life, including intellectual life. This will not be Utopia; it will not be an unchanging paradise. There will still be divorces, unpleasant people, differences of opinion, even crimes of passion or insanity. But maybe there won’t be a billion people starving while we have enough food to feed them twice over, or tiny groups of people controlling most of the planet’s natural resources for the noble goal of making even more money that they can never spend.

Socialism isn’t a religion. It’s common sense.

Because socialism, unlike Stalinism, is not a dogma, it is also in no way monolithic. (It may well not be monolithic enough. Socialists tend to laugh harder at the People’s Front of Judea than anyone else, I think. Because it’s true and because it hurts.) Though there is much common ground, there are many different approaches to how a sustainable system should be built. And these different approaches aren’t about various ancient texts, worshipping different editions of Das Kapital. People like David Harvey have spent decades refining, adapting and evolving the analytical tools of Marxism for the modern world. 2012 is not 1867.

Let’s leave aside the clichés about the religion of socialism, however, and talk about a more direct intersection of the two: the persecution of religion in the Soviet Union.

Now this is a very, very tricky subject matter. The narrative of “the evil Soviets persecuted the poor Christians!” is popular not only with nutty Black-Book-quoting anti-communists, but also with many Western liberals. And what makes it even more tricky is that it’s true… partially. The problem, as usual, is one of context.

A brief detour: I was raised in Greece, and until I left Greece I was a militant atheist. Why? Because, apart from history and philosophy and everything else, there was the Greek Orthodox Church. And the Greek Orthodox Church is, to put it mildly, evil. It’s a tangled-up net of corruption, racism, sexual abuse and general backwardness. It is a cancer in Greek society, draining it of money, using ridiculous excuses to steal vast amounts of land, and promoting hatred, nationalism and superstition. By the latter I do not mean the belief in a divine creator or the philosophical engagement with the poetry of the Gospels, but the idea that hitting yourself on the head with a piece of painted wood will make a saint cure you, or believing yourself to be superior to others because you belong to the chosen ones… while you starve and the priest of a Messiah who commanded his followers to give away their possessions to the poor sits on a throne like a fat pig with a golden hat on his head.

I’m not going to make any excuses for this organization. It supports fascism, exploits the people, spreads reactionary ideas and regularly engages in criminal activities. Growing up in a country with these self-important, power-hungry abusive barbarians makes it almost impossible to appreciate anything positive about Christianity.

That’s the Greek Orthodox Church in 2012. The Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 makes our current church look like the Unified Church of Carlin and Maher.

Of course the revolutionaries went after the church. I would go after the church, too. This was an organization strongly opposed to any change, an anti-revolutionary centre of power. It existed to spread philosophical ideas that kept people intellectually depressed and unwilling to fight for their own interests. It was, above all, a political organization – like churches usually become when the state gives them authority. It said “God wants you to be poor, God wants you to obey the tsar, God wants you to hate the Jews!” Note that Lenin was strongly opposed to anti-Semitism, while the tsarist regime organized horrific pogroms against them. The Wikipedia has a quote from the New York Times of 1903:

There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep.

These are the people the socialists of the Russian Revolution were faced with, and it is entirely natural that they fought them, and hard.

But how far is too far?

Religion has very often played a very negative role in the development of the human species. There is no question about this. Organized religion is responsible for some of the most horrific crimes in human history, and even without the actual authority of the church, the thought patterns encouraged by religion have supported vile behaviour by individuals and groups the world over. No matter what you believe in, there is no way around these facts. Even if you believe in the Catholic Church with all your heart, you cannot deny the simple fact that Catholic priests abused children, and that the Church systematically covered it up. And if you have even the slightest bit of moral fibre, you will have to confront facts like these and think about them.

Furthermore, in a democratic state, religion does not belong in schools or courtrooms. We cannot have freedom of thought without the possibility of freedom from religion. Religion must have nothing to do with the state. We cannot have democracy without making sure that power is wielded by the people, and not by a religious authority.

But when does fighting for freedom of thought transform into persecuting those who think differently? When does free thought become atheist dogma?

Because it does happen, and it does matter.

We live, once again, in times when religion is extremely powerful. Churches are economic behemoths, the official political discourse is afraid to even touch a questioning of religion, and science and logic are under constant attack by religious fundamentalists (and technophobic postmodernists). It’s gotten worse than anyone could have imagined thirty years ago, as these things do when an economic and political system is in crisis and desperately trying to keep itself going. Religion has always functioned as a support for the status quo.

Simultaneously a movement of militant atheism has emerged, represented by people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. These individuals are not socialists or even particularly left-wing; Hitchens in particular is a fine example of the fact that atheism does not equal any kind of progressive agenda. His open hatred and gleeful racism are quite remarkable, though they will not be the focus of this article. But socialists, while staying well away from the Islamophobia of the militant atheists, very often still maintain that atheism and socialism are inextricably bound. And this is where things become problematic.

A scientific worldview is essential to socialism, but a scientific worldview does not equal atheism. It equals only one thing: examining the world and drawing conclusions on the basis of evidence. This can lead to atheism – there’s certainly no hard evidence to suggest the existence of a deity – but it doesn’t have to. In my case it leads to agnosticism. In other cases it may lead to religion. Why? Because while personal experience cannot be enough for us to build theories from, it is enough to lead to personal opinions. The complexity of the human experience makes the complexity of economics pale by comparison; it would be entirely unscientific to disregard the accumulated data of millennia in this regard. It is entirely reasonable to expect everyone to form their opinions and beliefs on the basis of logic, but history and common sense show us that we cannot possibly expect everyone to come to the same conclusions.

It’s more than just that, though. Socialism values humanity – the value of humanity must be a fundamental supposition of socialism, or why seek to preserve and enhance it? – and there is a great deal in our history that has to do with religion and that is valuable. Take Leo Tolstoy, for example. You can’t reduce him to his anarcho-pacifism; his greatness is bound up with his Christian beliefs. The same goes for William Blake, or G.K. Chesterton. And in fact it is my opinion that Chesterton was terribly wrong in many of the things that he wrote, in particular in his defense of the Catholic Church. But I don’t want to live in a world without Chesterton. Or Blake. Or Tolstoy. The fanatical Christians would create a world without Carl Sagan. The fanatical atheists would create a world without J.R.R. Tolkien. Either world would be a world without me, because both Tolkien and Sagan shaped who I am today.

The truth is that a desire for meaning and transcendence will always be part of this species. We can get rid of racist preachers, greedy churches and hate-filled beliefs; we can get rid of technophobia and philosophical arrogance; we can learn to look at the universe and consider our place in it; perhaps we can even learn to allow children not to be indoctrinated at a young age, but to choose a religion (or none) when they’ve had some time to think. We might even eliminate the term ‘religion’ (it can go on the same heap as ‘Marxism’). But we’ll never eliminate that yearning. We’ll never eliminate worship.

As the great philosopher, writer, and socialist, Olaf Stapledon, wrote in the glossary to his magnum opus, Star Maker:

Worship. At the risk of raising thunder on the Left, I have used this word to designate an emotional attitude or activity which I believe to be extremely important, and to be the essential meaning which the common debased use of the word has obscured. [All emotion is an attitude or activity consequent on valuing something or other either actually enjoyed or merely needed. Sometimes what is valued is a simple bodily activity; sometimes it is something demanding more developed powers of apprehension, for instance, personal triumph, or the well-being of another individual, or of a community. More developed emotion, though always woven of simple emotional responses to primitive situations, such as hunger, and danger, becomes complicated and refined in relation to more subtle situations, such as personal and social relationships, adequately cognised. Now we may adopt, or strive to adopt, an emotional attitude appropriate not merely to personal or social relations but to our relation to our experienced universe as a whole. I suggest that this attitude, when it really is appropriate, is the most significant meaning of the word ‘worship’.] I should describe the essence of worship as the attempt to see and feel all experienced things not merely from the private or even the racial point of view but from the universal point of view. It is a prizing of the whole of things (so far as revealed) not as means to personal or racial advancement, but for its own sake. ‘The whole of things’ needs qualification. Perhaps the activity which I am calling ‘worship’ is an appreciation not precisely of the whole of experienced things, but rather of an attribute or essence that is experienced as characteristic of all particular existents. Metaphorically this essence might be called the ‘spirit of the whole’.

And to carry us back to relationship between religion and socialism:

Religion. (a) In the mouths of Communists the word means a particular sort of capitalist dope, namely certain doctrines and practices calculated to withdraw attention from the need for revolution, and to fix it upon an unreal world of fantasy, thus relieving the ‘religious’ person from the moral responsibility of serving the revolution. Some readers may condemn this book as ‘religious’ in this pejorative sense. (b) In another sense ‘religion’ includes all that is best in the emotional attitude of Communism itself, namely the resolute will to live devotedly in service of mankind. ‘Religion’ in this sense includes also a conviction that this will has in some manner not merely terrestrial but also cosmical significance. Further, it includes the feeling that even the will to fight in life’s battle against the forces of death should be complemented by an ultimate piety toward something superhuman, and even super-vital, a piety toward fate, or the whole of being, or some inconceivable deity. This attitude, so well expressed by Spinoza, is alien to contemporary Communism; but it is not to be confused with capitalist dope, for those who have felt it most strongly have been amongst the most active in the service of mankind.

Maybe, then, at the very heart of socialism, there is something similar to religion after all: that fundamental idea, defended by Chesterton and Blake and King and X and Tolstoy and so many others, that there is something worth serving, something greater than just the ego of the individual, something that includes life and love and art and philosophy and simple human existence. Everything that lives is holy.

Or maybe that’s just common sense.