Atheism, Marxism and the Soviet Persecution of the Churches Part 3

Robert has offered a further criticism of my posts describing the official persecution of the churches in the Soviet Union as part of the Communist campaign to eradicate religion and promote religion. I’ll post each part of his critique in italics, and my comments will follow afterwards.

Robert: (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.

This is predicated on an anachronistic distinction between atheism and anti-theism. This distinction only dates from the 1970s. It also seems to be stating that Marxist critiques of religion cannot be proper atheist critiques, because they come from a Marxist perspective. Yet the Marxist attacks on religion are nevertheless atheist attacks on religion and the belief in God. The only difference is that they are articulated from a Marxist perspective. Furthermore the simple description of Communism as an atheist philosophy is nevertheless true. It is indeed an atheist philosophy in that it explicitly denies the existence of God. The rejection of the existence of God is integral to Marxism. It is not like other political philosophies, such as Conservatism, Liberalism or Socialism, that in themselves say nothing about the existence of God, leaving that to their adherents’ own consciences. Marxism explicitly rejects the belief in God. No matter how vapid it is, nevertheless the description of Marxism as an atheist philosophy is accurate.

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.

No, I stated quite clearly in my original post that Marx had gone beyond Feuerbach’s critique of religion. Now Marx had become an atheist through reading Epicurus, Democritus and adopting Feuerbach’s Neo-Hegelian approach to the critique of religion. Thus, atheism was influential in shaping Marx’s personal view of religion and social relationships. The fact that Marx later revised his view of the origin and role of religion within social relationships does not change the fact that Marx still denied the existence of God, and still considered religion to be contrary to the workers’ interest and its extinction as something to be looked forward to.

 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.
Firstly, you seem to believe here that the Communist persecution of people of faith could not be due to their atheism, because so many other groups were attacked by the Marxists. But I don’t have to show that the other groups were persecuted because of the Communists’ atheism to show that people of faith were. All that needs to be shown is that the atheist component of Marxism resulted in the persecution of people of faith, and clearly this is what occurred. The jailing of people of faith for ‘slander of the Soviet system’ indicates the extent to which atheism was considered a central tenet of Soviet ideology. Secondly, your comments that my examples of militantly anti-clerical regimes in Latin America that did not persecute the church are wrong because they never attempted a complete transformation of society misses the point: atheism was a part of the Marxist programme to transform society. The distinction between atheism and Marxism misses the point. The Communists were not indiscriminate. They most certainly did not lack judgement, and their attacks on the church were not due to an arbitrary hostility to anything seen as conflicting with their programme, but based on a view of religion and belief in God that had been established as part of Marxist ideology by Marxi himself. Atheism was thus the basis for the Marxist attacks on religion. As Socialist ideologies that did not attack religion, I presented the examples of the Utopian Socialism of Saint-Simon and Thomas Spence.
(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.
Actually, one would not necessarily expect the persecution of people of faith to be uniform and continuous if atheism was such as an important part of the Soviet regime. Writers like George Orwell noted that the Soviet regime had an extremely utilitarian attitude towards policy generally, and described it as actually counter-revolutionary in the way it acted with bourgeois Republican parties to suppress non-Marxist revolutionary groups behind a facade of a ‘popular front’. Now the non-Orthodox faiths, like Judaism and Roman Catholicism were under particular suspicion because the adherents of these faiths were considered to have divided loyalties. In the case of the Jews, to Israel, and in the case of Roman Catholics, to the Vatican. That’s certainly a political motivation for their particular persecution. But the Orthodox Church was also persecuted, and the toleration eventually extended to the Church was very limited. The programme was to gradually strangle them, rather than totally suppress them. Even so, people of faith were still harassed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. The lifting of restrictions on religious belief by Gorbachev probably had more to do with his own desire to increase democracy and free speech, in contrast to the views of his predecessors, than anything established as orthodox Marxism by previous administrations.
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.
I’m sorry Robert, but here’s you’ve definitely misunderstood me. I never said that atheism was a distinct ideology. In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog that atheism is a set of views, attitudes and ideologies, rather than a single philosophical or metaphysical system. Nor do I deny that Marx took his views from a number of sources. In fact, I agreed with you that Marx was also influenced by the Utopian Socialists, amongst others. Now Feuerbachian Humanism here was a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the development of Marxism. Atheism formed part of Marx’s critique of society and religion, but it was not the sole influence that was responsible for the whole of Marxist ideology. Thus, atheism was part of the Marxist attempt to transform society, established as part of Communist doctrine by Marx himself, and not the product of political expediency in Soviet political praxis, although this certainly determined the severity of the persecution. Thus, the Communist regime was still motivated to persecute people of faith through an officially promulgated atheism.

3 Responses to “Atheism, Marxism and the Soviet Persecution of the Churches Part 3”

  1. Bjørn Are Says:

    Thanks for another good analysis, Beast!

    We’re not a few who follow you writings rather eagerly, even if we may not always respond in numbers;-)

    I’ve even blogged about some of it here:

  2. Ilíon Says:

    Well, you know, you really can’t *expect* intellectual honesty from an ‘atheist’ — at any rate, not about anything touching on atheism. Certainly, it’s nice to encounter, and never to be spurned … just don’t count on it.

  3. Feyd Says:

    An enjoyable read Beast. I’d guess there’s no further replies from Robert as he can clearly see no matter how cleverly he tries to argue he’ll just be providing opportunities for you to air even more evidence about the undeniable link between atheism and brutal oppression.

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