Atheism, Materialism and Pre-Revolutionary Russian Radicalism

In my earlier blog posts on the persecution of Christianity in Soviet Russia, I discussed the origins of the Communist attacks on religion and people of faith in the atheism and materialism that formed an integral part of Marxism itself. This seems odd, even profoundly mistaken to many people given the apparent lack of connection between the Communist political programme and the defining tenet of atheism that there is no God or gods. However, metaphysical beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality have throughout history informed the nature and essential political and social institutions of cultures and civilisations around the world. Before the secularisation of society beginning in the 18th century, religion to a greater or lesser extent provided the basis for the justification of political and social institutions. By denying the existence of God and the value of religion, atheism challenged the metaphysical basis of society, and demanded its radical restructuring according to secular political ideologies. Rather than simply being about the non-existence of God, 18th century religious scepticism was necessarily part of a wider debate about the nature of society itself.  

Atheism in Marxism and Early 19th century Russian Radicalism

Marx was strongly influenced in his critique of contemporary 19th century society by the Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose theory that God was merely a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature caused Marx to consider that all social criticism began with religious criticism, and to state that ‘the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness’. 1 As a result, the Soviet state attacked and persecuted religion and promoted atheism in an attempt to create an atheist, Communist state. However, the connection between atheism and militant political radicalism predated the emergence of Marxism in Russia, dating back to the 18th century philosophes in France and the radical, violent opposition to the French ancien regime and contemporary European civilisation. French positivism, utopian socialism and some German Left-Hegelian ideas entered Russia in the 1840s. The literary circle around M.V. Butashevich-Petrashevsky, before its dissolution by the Tsar’s secret police, actively promoted the ideas of the French utopian socialist Fourier, for example. 2 Deeply concerned by the backward state of Russian society, and particularly serfdom, and the political oppression of Tsarist autocracy, Russian radicals such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobrolyubov and Dmitry Pisarev turned for solutions to their country’s political and social problems to atheism, materialism and western science. 3 This generation of dedicated revolutionaries was later depicted and epitomised by the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in the character of Bazarov in his novel, Fathers and Children. In it, Turgenev attempted to describe the confrontation between the old generation of Russian liberals and traditional civilisation with the younger generation of Russian radicals and their harsh positivism, which had no use for anything that could not be established rationally.  In the novel, Bazarov is a dedicated materialist and revolutionary. A self-described Nihilist, he attacks and rejects anything that cannot be established by rational, empirical science, including literature, philosophy, the beauty of art and nature, tradition, authority, religion, intuition, and all uncriticised assumptions, whether of conservatives, liberals, populists or socialists. 4 Bazarov recommends to his friends contemporary popular explositions of materialism, such as Buchner’s Kraft und Stoff. 5 As part of his personal project to establish science as the only true knowledge, Bazarov dissects frogs. 6 The book was immediately controversial amongst the Russian left, with some feeling that Turgenev had betrayed them by portraying them as Bazarov. Others strongly supported Turgenev. The radical literary critic, Pisarev, declared that he identified with Bazarov, and that the character showed that true progress would not come from tradition, but through active, self-emancipated, independent people like Bazarov who were free from romanticism and religion. 7 Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Herald, the review in which Fathers and Children originally appeared, presented his own perspective on the character in an unsigned review in his magazine. Bazarov, Katkov felt, was not interested in scientific truth, otherwise he would not promote cheap materialist tracts, which were nothing but materialist propaganda. Similarly, Bazarov dissected frogs not because of any genuine interest in science, but simply as a method of rejecting civilised and traditional values. Indeed, Bazarov and the other Nihilists were not true scientists genuinely interested in research, but political propagandists offering radical slogans and diatribes in place of hard, scientific fact. 8 Bazarov has been described as the first Bolshevik, despite the fact the character was as critical of socialism as of the other ideologies he considered to be unscientific. 9 Despite his critical stance towards socialism, Bazarov nevertheless shared the later Soviet regime’s claim to represent atheism and science in his revolutionary views.

Religious Scepticism and 18th Century Revolutionary Ideology

Bazarov’s violent rejection of existing culture was shared by some of the radical atheists of the 18th century. Sylvain Marechal, in his Dictionnaire des athees, demanded the destruction of Christian civilisation, declaring that

‘the utter destruction of a long-standing and imposing error, which affects everything in existence, which distorts everything, virtue itself included, which is a pitfall for the weak, a lever for the strong, and a barrier to genius – the utter destruction of such a gigantic error would chyange the face of the world.’ 10 This attack on Christianity culminated in the attempted suppression of Christianity in favour of the Cult of Pure Reason in revolutionary France, and the demands of Hebertists for the absolute suppression of religious belief as a whole. Marechal himself was a Communist, who, during the French Revolution wrote a Manifesto of the Equals to promote his radical political views. 11

In fact hostility to Christianity and organised religion in French revolutionary ideology extended far beyond Communists like Marechal. Philosophers and political theorists such as Helvetius and Rousseau criticised Christianity not just for being false in their view, but also for being unscientific and preaching a destructive morality in conflict with the loyalty required by the state. One could not be both a citizen and a Christian, according to Rousseau, because of this conflict in loyalties. For Helvetius, the conflict between religion and the state would only disappear if the ministers of the legislative body had both temporal and spiritual powers. 12 Rousseau was not an atheist, and looked back to the ancient Greek city states for the type of civic religion he felt would produce morality and virtue, while Helvetius believed this could be produced simply by social legislation and institutions. 13

Just as 18th century atheism viewed humanity as a machine, rather than an ensouled individual, as in LaMettrie’s book L’Homme Machine, so contemporary radical philosophers also viewed society in mechanistic terms. In his 1755 political treatise, Code de la Nature, Morelly declared that society was a marvellous automatic machine’. 14 Based on the same materialist determinism that influenced Baron d’Holbach and Helvetius’ 1758 De l’Esprit, the radical philosophers of the French revolution believed that they had found the basic rationality that would allow the laws of justice to be formed with the same accuracy and certainty as the natural sciences.  They therefore believed in a kind of cosmic pragmatism, in which it would be possible to create a state in which only those acting against the natural order, the foolish and wicked, would fail to be virtuous. 15 The result was the inflexible, doctrinaire attitudes of the French revolutionaries that resulted in the massacre of hundred of thousands in order to create a new, perfect, revolutionary state and society founded on immutable, rational principles. The failure of these ideologies to recognise the reality of human nature as fundamentally flawed, and their consequent impracticality, was recognised by some of the revolutionaries themselves. Salle, a liberal member of the Gironde, in 1792 wrote in alarm to Dubois-Crance, remarking that ‘the principles in their metaphysical abstractness and in the form in which they are being constantly analysed in this society – no government can be founded on them; a principle cannot be rigorously applied to political association, for the simple reason that a principle admits of no imperfection; and, whatever you may do, men are imperfect.’ 16 Morelly’s book was the first discussion of Communism as an achievable political reality, rather than a utopia, and inspired Gracchus Babeuf’s own attempts to establish it in the 1795 Conspiracy of Equals. 17 Over a century later, the establishment of the Soviet Union as a Marxist state following the Russian Revolution was a continuation of the radical 18th century project to create a perfect state on atheist, materialist principles, an experiment that similarly collapsed through its inability to conform to the realities of human nature rather than abstract political theory.

Conclusion: Marxist Atheism a Continuation of 18th Century Religious Scepticism in Radical Politics

Thus French revolutionary ideology included religious scepticism as part of its radical critique of existing society, and demanded the abolition of Christianity and its replacement by a civil religion as part of its political programme. This is not surprising, considering the quasi-theocratic nature of contemporary European states, where there was no separation of church and state in the modern sense. In 19th century Germany Hegelian philosophy was an official part of the educational system, used to justify the Prussian monarchy, while in the Russian Empire the authority of the tsar was supported by the Orthodox Church. Thus revolutionary ideologies attempted to attack the philosophical and religious basis of the feudal and autocratic regimes they criticised and rejected. However, these ideologies went far beyond advocating the separation of church and state or the toleration of different faiths in religiously neutral state, but advocated instead the abolition of religion, either revealed or as a whole, as part of a complete reorganisation of society. Thus the hostility of the Soviet authorities to religion and their attempts to destroy it were due not just to Marx, but were also part of a long tradition of politically radical atheism dating from the 18th century. In their attempts to create a perfect society based on fundamental materialist principles, the atheism of the 18th century French revolutionaries and their successors in Soviet Communism formed part of a general attempt to create a society based on the absence of revealed religion. For these revolutionaries, atheism was about far more than rejecting the existence of God, but was a metaphysical attitude that affected all aspects of society and political theory. 


1. K. Marx, ‘Religion as Opium: Man Makes Religion’ in Paul Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 229.

 2. Victor Terras, A History of Russian Literature (New Haven, Yale University Press 1991), p. 172.

3. Isaiah Berlin, ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly, Russian Thinkers (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1978), p. 19.

4. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 277.  

5. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 279.

6. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 284.

7. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 282.

8. Berlin, ed., Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 284.

9. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 279.

10. Paul Hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1954), p. 141.

11. J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy: Political Theory and Practice during the French Revolution and Beyond (Harmondworth, Penguin Books 1952), pp. 186-7.

12. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 22.

13. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 23.

14. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 17.

15. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 18.

16. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, pp. 20-1.  

17. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, pp. 17-18.

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9 Responses to “Atheism, Materialism and Pre-Revolutionary Russian Radicalism”

  1. Feyd Says:

    Good blog Beast. Here in England Gordon Brown is the closest we’ve had to a Prime Minister whos tried to run society as though it’s a machine. He’s far more rational and less instinctive than any other PM I can think of. Even worst than the arguably atheist James ‘Winter of Discontent’ Callaghan. You probably know they used to call Brown Stalin in his treasury days. We’re now beginning to see the consequences of thinking you can run a country according to rigid principles. Roll on 2010!

    Happy St. Georges Day!

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the appreciation, Feyd.

    Yeah, I’d seen the comments about Gordon Brown being Stalin. One of the current columns in Private Eye , the successor to the ‘St. Albion’s Parish News’ which lampooned Blair as an Anglican vicar, currently has Brown as a Communist dictator. It’s replete with the coagulated language of abuse and denunciation that characterised a lot of Communist-era speeches, and the column logo features Brown’s face peering out of a Soviet-style design. Of course Brown isn’t a Communist, but the charicature does seem to capture the way contemporary party politics seems to be about personal groups and factions and characterised by sloganeering rather than on any ideological depth or ideals.

    I’ve also got the feeling that the simplistic view of humanity and society as nothing more than machines has just about been taken up by all the political parties. I don’t know if you saw it, but there was a documentary series screened on the BBC on Sunday evenings a few months ago about the way Freudian psychology and Games Theory had been taken up by politicians since Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher as a way of predicting and manipulating the economy and the services sectors based on the assumption that people were ruthlessly selfish. The programme discussed the way this dangerously simplistic view of human nature had led to the creation of the contemporary use of quotas to control the performance of the public sector industries, and the bizarre ways staff in them had attempted to circumvent the quotas, such as the notorious incident in which a hospital left a patient on a trolley in a corridor, but declared it to be a ‘bed’ because they’d taken the wheels off.

    Just as worrying was the way the psychiatric profession had tried to get around the various subjective factors involved in mental illness by producing questionnaires that simply asked about symptoms without going beyond these into the underlying circumstances which may cause or promote depression in the attempt to find a universal, objective cure. The result was that people who had every reason to be depressed in the first place, such as those who had been bereaved, or suffered the break up of their marriages, loss of jobs and so on, were treated as mentally ill in exactly the same way as others whose depression and mental health issues were less directly related to their personal experiences. The result of this was that individuals who were have been just as well served with counselling or some other treatment were prescribed the same medication as the more profoundly ill.

    The programme also covered the way government ministers had become less leaders of society, and more like managers. Under Tony Blair, apparently, the prime minister’s press briefings had become particularly boring with the fourth estate subjected to endless statistics intended to show how well the government was performing in its management of the UK. I got the feeling that the producers and writers of the programme had been forced to attend one too many of these meetings, and were going to have a bit of revenge for all the officious boredom they’d suffered.

    The programme had a definitely left-wing bias – it’s central thesis was that thanks to Game Theory and Sir Isaiah Berlin’s theory that true freedom meant that the government should not interfere in the economy and society, real democracy in the West had declined and the ‘dreams of freedom’ had been lost and betrayed. Now clearly the programme’s conclusions are highly debatable, but it did make for thought-provoking television. Also, aside from the party political aspects of the programme, it severely criticised the ‘selfish gene’ and evolutionary psychology, which I don’t think is a bad thing.

    As for the politicians of the 1970s, paradoxically I find myself comparing them very favourably with those today. I’m probably giving them far more respect now than I would have given them at the time, but many of them seem to have had a genuine idealism and sense of moral conviction that appears to be absent from today’s politicians. I realise that Richard Nixon is the great, huge, massive glaring proof to the contrary, but even in the case of ‘Tricky Dicky’ he actually had the decency to accept that his actions had done terrible damage to politics and the public’s faith in the political process. There’s footage of him telling David Frost in the classic interview that they had, that he (Nixon) was sorry for the kid who, after Watergate, now thought that all politicians were corrupt and out for themselves. Nixon was a crook, no question, but he had a clarity of vision and transparency, at least in that moment, than some contemporary politicians who’ve been caught in scandals. Too bad Nixon didn’t think about it before he tried undermining the Constitution.

  3. beastrabban Says:

    And I also hope you had a great St. George’s Day too, Feyd! 🙂

  4. Feyd Says:

    Cheers Beast. You’re talking about The Trap by Adam Curtis. Yes I’ve watched it several times, its available for download from several sites, or is on utube . I have some limited experience of working in Whitehall back in the nineties and Id say Curtises documentry is the single most accurate source Im aware for someone who wants to understand the interplay between accademic ideas and their practical expression in modern politics. Curtis is a bit liberal for my taste to but he’s perceptive and open minded and has an amazing knack of finding just the right footage to reinforce the key points.

  5. PTET Says:

    “The Trap” was indeed very, very good. And I agree that politiations from the 70s now seem like giants compared to the monkeys we’re now laden with. Hey ho.

    Here’s one for you, trivia fans… Adam Curtis was the archive footage consultant for the movie “The Queen”.

    As for Nixon and the Constitution… What should we do when the Attorney General of the USA describes it as a “quaint document”? Apart from weep, that is…

    Back on topic to your comments (but you your post)… Yeah, Adam Curtis has a “lefty” editorial bias… But he takes great care to back up his arguments, and whether you agree with him or not, he’s always going to make you think.

  6. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Feyd and PTET, and for putting up the links to Curtis’ documentary on YouTube, Feyd, and for the info about Curtis being the archive footage consultant for the documentary, The Queen , PTET. I can well believe it, as he had a very, very good choice of striking images and footage to illustrate his points. Clearly there was a left-wing message in his documentaries, but they were intelligently argued and really did make you think.

  7. JOR Says:

    “I realise that Richard Nixon is the great, huge, massive glaring proof to the contrary, but even in the case of ‘Tricky Dicky’ he actually had the decency to accept that his actions had done terrible damage to politics and the public’s faith in the political process.”

    I agree for the most part that scientistic conceptions of society and economy has done a great deal of damage to intellectual life and to the moral community.

    But really.

    Is the problem really that Nixie damaged the reputation of politics? Or is the problem that politics was, and is, quite worthy of the damage it took to its reputation?

    There’s no honor in thinking higher of something than it deserves. Principles always; heroes, when they’re affordable.

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Hi JOR, I’m glad you mostly agree with me about the damage to morals and intellectual life a rigid, spurious materialist conception of society has done. As for Nixon, I doubt he’s many people’s idea of a hero after his misgovernment of America. The impression I got is that historians today view him as incompetent, and unable to cope with the demands of power. As for politics generally, corruption and the cynical pursuit of personal advantage and power have always been part of it. That’s especially true of 18th century British politics, which were notorious for the corruption of the electoral system and the way the parties used an elaborate system of sinecures to reward their members once in power. I doubt very much there was ever a time when politics was exclusively the preserve of noble idealists intent on serving their countries disinterestedly.

    That said, despite the scandals that seem to erupt with monotonous regularity, I still think that most politicians do work hard and try to do a good job, whether I agree with their policies or not. But given some of the scandals that have appeared over the past few decades, and the revelations of various shady deals at the highest levels of power it really isn’t at all surprising that so many people are alienated from politics. And this worries me.

    My fear is that with the falling turn out in elections, and the inscreasing apathy and alienation from politics amongst voters, politics will become more autocratic and the gap between those who govern and the rest of the population will widen. Joachim C. Fest, in his biography of Hitler, considered that part of the Nazis appeal to the German electorate came from a traditional middle class distrust of politics as a dirty business. The Nazis, in Fest’s opinion, offered to liberate Germans from politics with the creation of the dictatorial state. Now I think that in Britain and America democratic feelings are too deep for a dictatorship like Nazi Germany to arise, but I am afraid that the increasing withdrawal of the electorate from active participation in politics right across Europe will lead to less responsible government from those in power, and an increasingly authoritarian attitude by those in government towards their peoples.

  9. Diane Vera Says:

    Back in the 1800’s, in an era when there were still quite a few autocratic regimes with strong ties to a particular church, it is understandable that Christianity would be seen by many as an arm of autocratic tyranny, and that many atheists would have sought to rid the world of Christianity entirely. Quite a few “anti-Sharia” activists have a similar attitude toward Islam today, and for similar reasons.

    However, with some noisy exceptions, today’s atheists tend to be more tolerant toward Christianity, or at least toward the more liberal forms of Christianity.

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