Communism and the Persecution of the Churches: Part 2

My first blog post discussing the persecution of the churches in the Soviet Union has been criticised by Robert, who writes:

‘In order to make your case, I think you need to demonstrate that people of faith would be excluded from persecution, if the regime was agnostic. This is a tall order, and you only assert it, but don’t demonstrate why.

You’ve labeled communism as an atheist philosophy, which has a very strange ring to it. What in atheism accounts for the historical dialectic, class struggle, the state as a tool of the capitalists, the evil of private property, to name but a few of the main pillars of Marxism?

Quite obviously, nothing. You wrote that, “Marx…was strongly influenced in the development of his philosophical and political system by the Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach.” “Strongly” overplays the influence, and you ignore many others. Kant? Hegel? The French socialists, like Louis Blanc?

You wish to establish some sort of atheist-religious dichotomy within Communism that’s simply not there. The philosophy is far broader than that.’

No, Communism was still very much an atheist philosophy that attacked religion as an entity in itself, rather than for reasons of practical politics, such as the political or economic power of specific religious organisations such as, for example, the Russian Orthodox Church. And while Communism did not just attack religion, but also all other competing philosophies and political parties and organizations, nevertheless the attack on religion was an integral part of the Marxist critique of feudal and capitalist exploitation, and not just part of a general intolerance.

Atheism as Integral Aspect of Communism

Actually, I’m not trying to set up an atheist-religious dichotomy within Communism at all. Far from it – Communism was intrinsically atheist, and defined itself very much as an atheist movement. My point is that Soviet Communism persecuted Christians, as well as other peoples of faith, because of their Marxism. In fact I stated very clearly that Marxism was intrinsically atheist. Hence the attack on religion that went far beyond mere political expediency, defined purely as the pursuance of immediately secular goals. Remember, Marx declared that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ and stated that the Christian Church was a ‘false consciousness’ and beyond redemption in that it reinforced the alienation and oppression of the workers’. 1 Lenin, the architect of the Soviet state whose ideas were extensively codified after his death into official, Communist dogma, was vehemently anti-religious. He declared that ‘Every defence or justification of the idea of God, even the most refined, the best intentioned, is a jusification of reaction.’ 2 The Soviet Communist party established its ‘Anti-Religious Commission’ in 1922 during Lenin’s presidency in order to promote atheism. 3 The Communists’ anti-religious propaganda campaign was unofficially directed by Trotsky, under Lenin’s authority, with Lenin taking a great interest in it. 4 The Communist Party was, however, at this stage cautious about attacking religion too violently as it considered that insulting the feelings of religious believers would be counterproductive. 5 Nevertheless, the campaign went far beyond the publication of atheist literature and the organisation of lectures promoting atheism. Trotsky viewed the campaign of expropriation of church property undertaken in the 1920s as a tactic for undermining the ideological, as well as the social power of the Russian Orthodox Church in a ‘short, sharp shock’ that would discredit the Church and encourage the Russian people to convert to atheism. 6 Thus Marxism, and Soviet Communism viewed atheism as an intrinsic part of its ideology. The campaign against religion and to promote atheism was therefore a natural product of Communist ideology. It was not something that the Communists happened to do, as part of a general campaign against non-Marxists. Furthermore, the attack on religion was initially partly restrained from fears that it would alienate people from official, Marxist atheism, rather than encourage conversion.

Persecution of Soviet People of Faith Different from Liberal Attacks on Church Power and Property in Mexico and Italy

As for the statement that people of faith would not have been persecuted if the Soviet regime had been agnostic, rather than atheist, it’s probable that if a non-atheist, socialist party had seized power in the Soviet Union, then indeed religious believers would not have been persecuted simply for being religious believers. During the 19th century, for example, secularising liberal governments in South America and Italy had attempted to restrict the economic, social and political power of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding education. In Mexico from 1827 to the early 1850s under the regimes of Guerrero, Valentin Gomez Farias and Benito Juarez, legislation was passed restricting the power of the Church. These included legislation limiting the jurisdiction of the Church courts to the maintenane of internal discipline in the Church; the disentailment of Church lands, and a restriction on the fees the Church could charge for services such as burials and marriages. These pieces of anti-clerical legislation were incorporated into the Mexican constitution of 1857 and survived until 1917. 7 These policies created considerable opposition from the Church and Conservative politicians, resulting in their repeal by subsequent governments and even in a coup by the army officer, Anastasio Bustamente in 1829, in which Guerrero was overthrown and shot. 8 Nevertheless, despite the attacks on Church property and privilege enacted through this legislation, there was no persecution of Church or of religious believers themselves simply as the Roman Catholic Church and believers. The reformers simply wished to confine the Church’s role to the religious sphere, rather than the economic and political. Similarly, the forcible incorporation of the papal states by the founders of the Italian state during the Risorgimento created strong opposition to it by the Roman Catholic Church, who also viewed the Liberals as exploiters of the poor. The Church did not recognise Italy, and ordered that no Roman Catholic should vote in Italian elections, although this ban was partially lifted in 1899. 9 Despite the Church’s opposition, Italian Liberals did not persecute the Church and its members, although religious education was excluded from Italian secondary schools and religious, rather than civil marriages were no recognised by the state. 10 Now in both Mexico and Italy there were regimes and politicians alienatd from and passing legislation against the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, despite attacking the power of the Church in particular areas, there was no attack on the Church itself for simply being a religious institution. It can similarly be argued that if the Bolsheviks had been motivated primarily by immediate political concerns and with the political and economic power of particular religions in the Soviet Union, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, been genuinely indifferent to questions of religious faith as metaphysical beliefs, and thus agnostic in that sense, then their attack on these faiths would similarly have been confined to the political and economic spheres. Instead, the Soviet authorities attacked the religions and their members themselves, and not simply for the political and economic power they possessed as institutions and individuals.

Influence of Feuerbach’s Atheist Critique of Christianity and Feudalism on Marx’s Critique of Capitalism

Now Communism is an atheist philosophy in the sense that it rejects and attacks religious belief, and also because it based its criticism of capitalist society on the atheist critique of religion by Luwig Feuerbach. Marx himself considered that the criticism of religion was the beginning of the criticism of society. 11 Furthermore, Feuerbach’s atheist critique of Christian belief as the legitimisation of European feudalism, in his statement, for example, that the spirit of subjection arises from religious humility and passivity, is also a criticism of the political relationships in society. 12 Now as I said in the first blog post, Marx was influenced by Feuerbach’s Hegelian critique of Christianity, used his concept of the Gattungswesen – the species being – to critique contemporary capitalism society. I also stated that Marx moved beyond and rejected Feuerbach’s Humanism. Now Marx clearly was influenced by a number of different ideologies, such as Hegel and French Socialism. Nevertheless, Engels described Feuerbach’s Humanism as the mid-point between Hegel’s philosophy and his and Marx’s own conception. 13 Scholars have also stated that through its elevation into historical materialism Feuerbach’s critique of religion prepared the way for Marx’s own critique of ideology. 14 Thus, Feuerbach’s Humanism did indeed influence Marx in its statement that God was merely a projection generated by the alienated human psyche which legitimised oppressive forms of society such as feudalism. Marx went beyond Feuerbach in his development of dialectical materialism and adoption of socialism. Nevertheless, Marxism was influenced and informed by Feuerbach’s atheist critique of belief in God and its societal consequences. In that sense, Marxism is clearly an atheist philosophy as atheism clearly is a major, though not the sole element, in Marx’s critique of capitalism.

Lifting of Restrictions on Religion in USSR and Gorbachev’s Perestroika

Regarding Gorbachev and religion, yes, he did lift restrictions on religion in the USSR in his programme of democratising and restructuring Soviet sociey. In his book Perestroika, Gorbachev includes a number of admiring letters written to him to encourage his reforms, including one from a Lithuanian Roman Catholic stating that through his efforts, believers had something to learn from him and that they were praying for him and his family every Sunday from 9 am. to 1. pm. 15 Now I don’t doubt that Gorbachev was genuine in his attempt to create a humane, democratic form of Communism. However, for all his arguments that perestroika was based on Lenin’s ideas, much of Gorbachev’s programme of reforms contradicted previous Marxist-Leninist ideology. 16 Indeed, Gorbachev complained that not only were Lenin’s ideas being ignored, but that they had also been ‘canonized, idealized and turned into dogma’. 17 Gorbachev’s lifting of the restrictions on religion clearly contradicted the Soviet state’s policy to restrict religion which had been established for decades and which also claimed a basis in Lenin’s ideas. Moreover, Gorbachev’s programme of glasnost – ‘openness’ – his attempt to allow the free discussion of ideas allowed the official atheism of the Communist state to be challenged. A 1989 letter to the Soviet journal, Ogonyok, from someone who had just read the Gospels for the first time, praised them for ‘the austere power of their words, the eleganc of the finely tunedaphorisms, the subtle poetic quality of the images.’ The author stated that the book had reached him quite by accident, and he had read it purely out of literary curiosity. Nevertheless, after reading it the writer of the letter stated he became very angry and having been denied reading the Gospels. ‘What a treasure they had been hiding from me! Who decided, and on what basis, that this was bad for me-and why?!’ The writer continued by criticising the official atheism of the Soviet state and its attempt to impose this on its citizens. ‘A state that is separated from the church should also be separated from atheism. Isn’t spiritual totalitarianism more terrible than the political kind? In returning social fredoms, a democratic state has no right to continue to la claim to its citizens’ freedom of spiritual quests.’ 18 As with other areas in Gorbachev’s perestroika programme, there was opposition to the new toleration of religion in some parts of Soviet officialdom. In 1988 church attendance at the Preobrazhensky Cathedral was so great that in November the Council on Religious Affairs recommended that the Vvedensky church should be re-opened for worship. However, opposition by local council officials meant that the church was not re-opened until 15 members of the church association declared that they were going on a hunger strike and Ogonyok ran the story supporting the members of the church against the party bureaucracy. 19

Conclusion: Persecution of Churches and other Religions in USSR Product of Official Marxist Atheist Ideology

 Thus the Soviet persecution of Christianity and the other religions was indeed based in Marxism as an atheist philosophy, rather than on immediate political reasons. Unlike previous secularising regimes in Mexico and Italy, which were also alienated from and attempting to restrict the power of the Church, the Soviet Communists did not limit themselves to attacking the churches’ political and economic power, but also attacked them as part of a deeper attack on religion itself. This hostility to religion had its origins in Feuerbach’s Humanism, which attacked religion for its role in creating and preserving oppressive social relationships in wider European society, a critique which was influential in inspiring Marx’s own critique of religion and capitalism, and the development of his own ideas for its replacement based on contemporary French socialism. Finally, although Gorbachev attempted to lift the restrictions on religion as part of his attempt to reform and humanise Communism, this contradicted the offical policy of previous decades and led to criticism of the official atheist stance of Soviet ideology and education. While Marxism clearly does not comprise the whole of atheist attitudes and philosophies, it does nevertheless constitute an atheist ideology, and atheism in its turn provided Marxism with the philosophical basis for attacking religion as an integral part of its programme to destroy and supersede feudal and capitalist social relations.



1. David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History (London, Penguin Books 2001), p. 524.

2. V.I. Lenin, Religion (New York 1959), p. 93, and C. Lane, Christian Religon in the Sovie Union (London 1978), pp. 26-7, cited in Chidester, Christianity, p. 527.

3. Chidester, Christianity, p. 528.  

4. Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1979), p. 495.

5. Chidester, Christianity, p. 528.

6. Chidester, Christianity, p. 527.  

7. Peter Bakewell, A History of Latin America (Oxford, OUP 2004), pp. 431-3.

8. Bakewell, Latin America, p. 431.

9. ‘Christian Democracy’ in Philip V. Cannistraro, Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy (Westport, Greenwood Press 1982), pp. 117-8.

10. ‘Lateran Pacts’ in Cannistraro, Fascist Italy, p. 299.

11. ‘Marxism’, in John R. Hinnells, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (London, Penuin Books 1984), p. 205.

12. ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, in Florian Vassen, Vormarz, (Stuttgart, Philipp Reclam jun. 1979), p. 84.

13. ‘Feuerbach’ in Vassen, ed., Vormarz, p. 84.

14. ‘Feuerbach, in Vassen, ed., Vormarz, p. 85.

15. Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World (London, Collins 1987), p. 70.

16. For an example of the argument that Lenin was the ideological basis of perestroika, see ‘Turning to Lenin, an Ideological Source of Perestroika’ in Gorbachev, Perestroika, pp. 25-6.

17. Gorbachev, Perestroika, p. 45.

18. Sergei Zubatov, ‘Why Only Now? Why So Late?’, (1989), in Christopher Cerf and Marina Albee, eds., Voices of Glasnost: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok Magazine, 1987-1990 (London, Kyle Cathie Ltd 1990), pp. 82-4.

19. I. Kholina, V. Tuvin, L. Zoltukina, M. Pilenkova, T. Alekseyeva and 3,000 others, ‘Freedom of Religion, But…’ (1989),in Cerf and Albee, eds., Voices of Glasnost, pp. 149-51.

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5 Responses to “Communism and the Persecution of the Churches: Part 2”

  1. Robert Says:

    I’ll try posting this reply in “chunks”. Maybe that’ll make it show up. In any case, here are my objections to your thesis.

    1) Conflation of atheism with anti-religiosity. Recall that atheism is merely the disbelief in the existence of god(s). Such disbelief does not necessary entail active opposition or hostility to religion, any more than theism necessarily entails active opposition or hostility to secularism. This is readily observable in many instances across history and in contemporary times. This error is repeatedly made throughout your posts, wherein you cite a litany of anti-religious Marxist credos or statements, and then glibly brand them “atheist critiques”. While atheism can form a basis for anti-religious views, it is by no means the sole basis. Moreover, the road goes the other way; anti-religious critiques can form a basis for the atheist belief, as appears to have been the case for Feuerbach. Finally, one can be critical of religion and still retain some form of god-belief, as the deists showed. Thus, we can see that your central claim “communism is an atheist philosophy in the sense that it rejects and attacks religious belief” makes as much sense as the statement “communism is a deist philosophy in the sense that it rejects and attacks religious belief”, or “Christianity is a theist philosophy in the sense it rejects and attacks secularism.” All are equally vapid and do not follow.

  2. Robert Says:

    2) No link established between atheism and the major tenets of communism. Previously I asked what in atheism accounts for belief in the historical dialectic, class struggle, the evil of private property, etc. Your response to this is again to refer to the influence of Feuerbach on Marx, citing the former’s critique of religion. The influence may be there, even as its strength remains murky, but the link between Feuerbach’s views and Marx’s critique of capitalism is very tenuous, to say the least. You cite Marx’s adoption of Feuerbach’s concept of the gattungswesen, but fail to mention a critical distinction. For Feuerbach, it was the idea of God that alienated, while for Marx, it was capitalism that alienated. For Marx, religion is the result of man’s conditions, not their source, something which he criticized Feuerbach for failing to realize. “Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society.” (Theses on Feuerbach, VII). The basis of Marx’s critique of capitalism does not come from Feuerbach, but a variety of other sources, including Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis Blanc, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It was through them that he developed the theory of “surplus value,” the notion of private property as the basis for much social ill, egalitarian distribution, etc. The latter, Proudhon, who famously declared that “property is theft,” is of particular interest due to his background in theology. “My real masters,” he once wrote, “those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.”

    Your conclusion that “atheism clearly is a major, though not the sole element, in Marx’s critique of capitalism” is unfounded. The failure to even identify these other influences (some even with Christian roots)—much less discuss them—is, I think, emblematic of your theory’s tendentiousness.

  3. Robert Says:

    3) No firm link established between atheism and Soviet persecution of the religious. Your argument so far has been that communist ideology’s antagonism and persecution of religion is founded in its atheism. I have pointed out that communist oppression was not limited to just the religious, but included everyone up to fellow communists, and therefore argue that the source of communist oppression of religion was part of a broader struggle for revolutionary social change, which would be effected from the top down (the “Leninism” aspect of Marxism-Leninism, which really formed the ideological basis for much of 20th century communism). It has remained for your theory to explain this societal-wide oppression, which it does not satisfactorily do. You claim that “it’s probable that if a non-atheist, socialist party had seized power in the Soviet Union, then indeed religious believers would not have been persecuted simply for being religious believers” and cite the examples of Italy and some South American governments in the 19th century. First, it should be noted that these governments were not socialist, nor did they have plans to radically redesign society, by force, if necessary, which greatly weakens the analogy. Second, these examples don’t really address my point. For your theory to work, you need to provide instances in which states governed by radical, transformative (but agnostic) socialist ideologies left only the religious free from persecution. If such a state attacked, say, only the bourgeoisie, we cannot say definitively why others, including the religious, were not attacked. The religious must specifically be excluded from a social-wide oppression under such an agnostic government.

  4. Robert Says:

    4) The thesis suffers in practice. If atheism and anti-religion were so central to communist ideology, one would expect a continuous, indiscriminate and unrelenting oppression of all religious peoples. Despite attempts to portray this as so, reality offers a different picture. While persecution was experienced by all believers, its nature and consistency varied widely. On the receiving end of particularly harsh attack were Jews and Catholics. Russian Orthodox believers were initially heavily suppressed, but later officially tolerated as the regime sought to enlist their support for the war. Islam followed a similar trajectory to Russian Orthodoxy, with the government abandoning active suppression in favor of a more co-optive stance under the auspices of regional branches of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims. Soviet policies of détente with respect to these religions were largely reversed under Krushchev and Brezhnev. Nonetheless, as your discussion of religion under Gorbachev showed, the state was never able to eradicate religious belief and finally accommodated itself to the fact with an unprecedented degree of toleration. In sum, Soviet policy toward religion can best be described as schizophrenic, a very curious stance under the view that atheism formed the basis for communist ideology.

  5. Robert Says:

    Conclusion Atheism is not an ideology, no more than a-unicornism or a-Zeusim is an ideology. Beastrabban sees atheism in far broader terms than it actually is, and this mistake forms much of the basis for his erroneous attribution of communism to atheism. Not only can no such link be established on theoretical grounds when tracing communism’s origins, but also on historical grounds. A better understanding of Soviet persecution of the religious is found when it is placed within the context of Marxism-Leninism’s radical formula to remake all of society, whose roots can be traced to a hodge-podge of social, philosophical and economic theories in fashion during the 19th century. Such an understanding makes sense of the suppression experienced by virtually every level of Soviet society, the religious and non-religious alike.

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