Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Carlyle’

How Does the Ban on Teaching Anti-Capitalist and Extremist Materials Affect Mainstream Textbooks?

September 29, 2020

Yesterday, Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education, issued his departments guideline informing schools what they could not teach. This included materials from organisations determined to end capitalism, as well as anti-Semitic material, opposition to freedom of speech and which approves of illegal activity. The Labour Party’s John McDonnell pointed out that this would mean that it’s now illegal to teach large sections of British history and particularly that of the Labour Party, trade unions and socialism, because all these organisations at different times advocated the end of capitalism. He is, of course, right. In 1945 or thereabouts, for example, the Labour Party published an edition of the Communist Manifesto. He concluded

“This is another step in the culture war and this drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace and should worry anyone who believes that democracy requires freedom of speech and an educated populace.”

The economist and former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varousfakis, who has also written a book, The Crisis of Capitalism, also commented this guidance showed how easy it was for a country to lose itself and slip surreptitiously into totalitarianism. He said

“Imagine an educational system that banned schools from enlisting into their curricula teaching resources dedicated to the writings of British writers like William Morris, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Paine even. Well, you don’t have to. Boris Johnson’s government has just instructed schools to do exactly that.”

Quite. I wonder how the ban affects even mainstream textbooks, which included anti-capitalist or other extremist literature. For example there are any number of readers and anthologies of various political or historical writings published by perfectly mainstream publishers for school and university students. Such as the one below, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactions to ‘Political Economy’, edited by Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1986). This collects a variety of writings authors such as John Francis Bray, Thomas Carlyle, Marx and Engels, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hill Green, William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. These texts obviously document and illustrate the reactions to the rise of economics as an academic subject in the 19th century, and several of the authors are titans of 19th century British culture, literature and political philosophy, like the art critic Ruskin, the socialist, writer and artist, William Morris, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the liberal political philosophers John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hill Green, and Matthew Arnold, the headmast of Rugby, the author of Culture and Anarchy. This is quite apart from Marx and Engels and John Francis Bray, who was a socialist and follower of Robert Owen. Carlyle’s now largely forgotten, but he was a philosopher and historian who was massively influential in his day.

Clearly this is an entirely respectable text from a very respectable publisher for history students. But, thanks to the government’s new guidelines, you could well ask if it’s now illegal to teach it in schools, thanks to its anti-capitalist contents.

The same question also applies to very respectable histories by respectable, mainstream historians and political scientists, of extremist movements and ideologies like Fascism, Nazism, Communism and anarchism. For example, one of the books I used while studying the rise of Nazism at college was D.G. Williamson’s The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982). It’s an excellent little book published as part of their Seminar Studies in History range. These are short histories of various periods in history from King John and the Magna Carta to the origins of the Second World and the Third Reich, which include extracts from texts from the period illustrating particularly aspects and events. Williamson’s book is a comprehensive history of the Nazi regime, and so includes extracts from Nazi documents like Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Goebbel’s diaries and as well as eyewitness account of Nazi war crimes and individual acts of heroism and resistance. It presents an objective account of Hitler’s tyranny including its horrors and atrocities. There is absolutely no way it, nor other books like it, could remotely be considered pro-Nazi or presenting any kind of positive assessment of Hitler’s regime.

But if schools are now forbidden from teaching anti-capitalist, anti-Semitic, racist and anti-democratic material, does this mean that they are also forbidden from using books like Williamson’s, which include the writings of the Nazis themselves to show the real nature of the regime and the motivations of the men behind it. I hope not, and Owen Jones in his tweet attacking the new guidelines quotes them. From this, it should be possible to make a distinction between texts produced by extremist organisations and extracts from them in mainstream histories or editions from mainstream publishers. According to Jones’ tweet, the guidelines state

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances, include, but are not limited to

  1. a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism or end free and fair elections.

2. opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion and conscience.

3. the use or endorsement of racist, including anti-Semitic language or communications.

4. the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity.

5. a failure to condemn illegal activities in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people and property.

Responding to Jones’ tweet, Jessica Simor QC asks this very pertinent question

Do the fourth and fifth bullet points mean that schools should not accept Government money?

Good point.

I also have no doubt that the vast majority are going to be extremely careful about which organisation’s materials they use because of the danger of using extremist or otherwise inappropriate material.

But I can also how sometimes it may also be necessary for schools to use such materials in order to criticise them and educate their pupils about their dangers. For example, in the 1980s the BNP or NF tried to appeal to schoolchildren by launching a comic. Other extremists have also turned up at the school gates on occasion. When I was at school in Bristol during the ’81/2 race riots, a White agitator with a beard like Karl Marx’s turned up outside the school entrance with a megaphone trying to get the kids to join in. We ignored him and the headmaster next day in assembly said very clearly that any child who did join the rioting would be expelled.

Nazis are also known for lying and deliberately distorting history. If some Nazi group, for example, produced a pamphlet aimed at schoolchildren and teachers found it being passed around the playground one of the actions they could take, as well as simply banning it and punishing any kid who tried to promote it, might be for a suitably qualified teacher to go through it, pointing out the deliberate lies. When Hitler himself seized power, one Austrian university lecturer embarrassed the fuhrer by showing his students how Hitler took his ideas from the cheap and grubby neo-Pagan literature published in the back streets of Vienna. One of these pamphlets claimed that the ancient Aryans had possessed radio-electric organs that gave them superpowers like telepathy. I think it was highly unlikely that anyone listening to this professor’s lectures on Hitler ever came away with the idea that Hitler had some deep grasp of the essential forces of human biology and and natural selection.

I see absolutely no point to this legislation whatsoever. Teachers, parents and educators are already careful about what is taught in schools. In the past few years most incidents of this type have come from fundamentalist religious schools. These have mostly been Muslim schools, which have been caught teaching their students to hate Christians, Jews and non-Muslims, but there was also a Jewish school which became the centre of controversy for its opposition to homosexuality. In the 1980s Thatcher and the right-wing press ran scare stories about Communist teachers indoctrinating students with evil subversive subjects like peace studies. I am not aware that anyone with extreme left-wing, Communist or Trotskite views has been trying to indoctrinate children. But there are concerns about Black Lives Matter, which I have heard is a Marxist organisation. If that is the case, then the guidelines seem to be an attempt to ban the use of their materials. BLM did produce materials for a week of action in schools, which was thoroughly critiqued by Sargon of Gasbag, aka Carl Benjamin, the sage of Swindon and the man who broke UKIP. Sargon has extreme right-wing Conservative views himself, though I honestly don’t believe that he is genuinely racist and his criticisms of the BLM school material was reasonable. Williamson’s guidelines look like a badly thought out attempt to stop them being used without causing controversy by tackling the organisation’s anti-racism or its critique of White society.

But it also marks the growing intolerance of the Tories themselves and their determination that schools should be used for the inculcation of their own doctrines, rather than objective teaching that allows children to come to their own. Way back in the 1980s Thatcher tried to purge the universities of Marxists by passing legislation making it illegal for them to hold posts in higher education. They got round it by making a subtle distinction: they claimed to be Marxian rather than Marxist. By which they argued that they had Marxist culture, but weren’t actually Marxists. It’s a legal sleight of hand, but it allowed them to retain their teaching posts.

These new guidelines look like an extension of such previous legislation in order to preserve capitalism from any kind of thorough critique. Even when, as the peeps Mike quotes in his article, show very clearly that it is massively failing in front of our eyes.

Shaw’s Classic Defence of Socialism for Women Part Three

May 16, 2020

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, foreword by Polly Toynbee (London: Alma Classics 2012).

Socialism and Marriage, Children, Liberty and Religion

Shaw also discusses what socialism would mean for marriage, liberty, children and the churches, and these are the most problematic sections of the book. He looks forward to marriage being a purely voluntary commitment, where people people can marry for love instead of financial advancement. This will produce biologically better children, because people will be able to choose the best partners, rather than be limited to only those from their class. At the same time incompatible partners will be able to divorce each other free of stigma.

He defines liberty in terms of personal freedom. Under socialism, people will be freer because the amount of time they will have for their personal amusement and recreation will be greater. Legislation might go down, because the laws currently needed to protect people will become unnecessary as socialism is established and society advances. Shaw also believes that greater free time would be enough to attract the top brains to management positions in the absence of the usual inducement of greater pay. Shaw realised that not everyone could run industries, and that it was necessary to hire the very best people, who would be a small minority. Giving them greater leisure time was the best way to do this, and he later criticises the Soviet government for not equalising incomes.

But this is sheer utopianism. The Bolsheviks had tried to equalise incomes, and it didn’t work, which is why they went back to higher rates of pay for managers and so on. And as we’ve seen, socialism doesn’t necessarily lead to greater free time and certainly not less legislation. The better argument is that socialism leads to greater liberty because under socialism people have better opportunities available to them for careers, sport, entertainment and personal improvement than they would if they were mere capitalist wage slaves.

Religious people will also object to his views on religion and the churches. While earlier in the book Shaw addressed the reader as a fellow Christian, his attitude in this section is one of a religious sceptic. The reader will have already been warned of this through the foreword by Toynbee. The Groaniad columnist is a high-ranking member of the both the Secular and Humanist Societies, and her columns and articles in just about every magazine or newspaper she wrote for contained sneers at religion. Shaw considers the various Christian denominations irreconcilable in their theologies, and pour scorn on orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Atonement, that Christ died for our sins. Religion should not be taught in school, because of the incompatibility of the account of the Creation in Genesis with modern science. Children should not be taught about religion at all under they are of the age of consent. If their parents do teach them, the children are to be removed from their care. This is the attitude of very aggressive secularists and atheists. Richard Dawkins had the same attitude, but eventually reversed it. It’s far too authoritarian for most people. Mike and I went to a church school, and received a very good education from teachers that did believe in evolution. Religion deals with ultimate questions of existence and morality that go far beyond science. I therefore strongly believe that parents have the right to bring their children up in their religion, as long as they are aware of the existence of other views and that those who hold them are not wicked simply for doing so. He also believed that instead of children having information pumped into them, the business should be to educate children to the basic level they need to be able to live and work in modern society, and then allow the child to choose for itself what it wants to study.

Communism and Fascism

This last section of the book includes Shaw’s observations on Russian Communism and Fascism. Shaw had visited the USSR in the early ’30s, and like the other Fabians had been duped by Stalin. He praised it as the new socialist society that was eradicating poverty and class differences. He also thought that its early history vindicated the Fabian approach of cautious nationalisation. Lenin had first nationalised everything, and then had to go back on it and restore capitalism and the capitalist managers under the New Economic Policy. But Russia was to be admired because it had done this reversal quite openly, while such changes were kept very quiet in capitalism. If there were problems in the country’s industrialisation, it was due to mass sabotage by the kulaks – the wealthy peasants – and the industrialists. He also recognised that the previous capitalist elite were disenfranchised, forced into manual labour, and their children denied education until the working class children had been served. At the same time, the Soviet leaders had been members of the upper classes themselves, and in order to present themselves as working class leaders had claimed working class parentage. These issues were, however, gradually working themselves out. The Soviet leaders no longer had need of such personal propaganda, and the former capitalists could reconcile themselves to the regime as members of the intellectual proletariat. And some of the industrialisation was being performed by criminals, but this was less arduous than the labour in our prisons.

Shaw is right about the NEP showing that nationalisation needs to be preceded by careful preparation. But he was obviously kept ignorant of the famine that was raging in the USSR through forced collectivisation and the mass murder of the kulaks. And rather than a few criminals in the gulags, the real figures were millions of forced labourers. They were innocent of any crime except Stalin’s paranoia and the need of his managers for cheap slave labour. It’s believed that about 30 millions died in Stalin’s purges, while 7 million died in the famine in the Ukraine.

Shaw’s treatment of Fascism seems to be based mostly on the career of Mussolini. He considers Fascism just a revival of the craze for absolute monarchy and military leadership, of the kind that had produced Henry VIII in England, Napoleon, and now Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the Shah of Iran and Ataturk in Turkey. These new absolute rulers had started out as working class radicals, before find out that the changes they wanted would not come from the working class. They had therefore appealed to the respectable middle class, swept away democracy and the old municipal councils, which were really talking shops for elderly tradesmen which accomplished little. They had then embarked on a campaign against liberalism and the left, smashing those organisations and imprisoning their members. Some form of parliament had been retained in order to reassure the people. At the same time, wars were started to divert the population and stop them criticising the new generalissimo. Industry was approaching socialism by combining into trusts. However, the government would not introduce socialism or truly effective government because of middle class opposition. Fascist regimes wouldn’t last, because their leaders were, like the rest of us, only mortal. In fact Mussolini was overthrown by the other Fascists, who then surrendered to the Allies, partly because of his failing health. That, and his utter military incompetence which meant that Italy was very definitely losing the War and the Allies were steadily advancing up the peninsula. While this potted biography of the typical Fascist is true of Mussolini, it doesn’t really fit some of the others. The Shah, for example, was an Indian prince.

Anarchism and Syndicalism

Shaw is much less informed about anarchism. He really only discusses it in terms of ‘Communist Anarchism’, which he dismisses as a silly contradiction in terms. Communism meant more legislation, while anarchism clearly meant less. He should have the articles and books on Anarcho-communism by Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that goods and services should be taken over by the whole community. However, rather than a complete absence of government and legislation, society would be managed instead by individual communities and federations.

He also dismisses syndicalism, in which industry would be taken over and run by the trade unions. He considers this just another form of capitalism, with the place of the managers being taken by the workers. These would still fleece the consumer, while at the same time leave the problem of the great inequality in the distribution of wealth untouched, as some industries would obviously be poorer than others. But the Guild Socialists did believe that there should be a kind of central authority to represent the interests of the consumer. And one of the reasons why nationalisation, in the view of some socialists, failed to gain the popular support needed to defend it against the privatisations of the Tories is because the workers in the nationalised industries after the War were disappointed in their hopes for a great role in their management. The Labour party merely wanted nationalisation to be a simple exchange of public for private management, with no profound changes to the management structure. In some cases the same personnel were left in place. Unions were to be given a role in management through the various planning bodies. But this was far less than many workers and trade unionists hoped. If nationalisation is to have any meaning, it must allow for a proper, expanded role of the workers themselves in the business of managing their companies and industries.

The book ends with a peroration and a discussion of the works that have influenced and interest Shaw. In the peroration Shaw exhorts the readers not to be upset by the mass poverty and misery of the time, but to deplore the waste of opportunities for health, prosperity and happiness of the time, and to look forward and work for a better, socialist future.

His ‘Instead of a Bibliography’ is a kind of potted history of books critical of capitalism and advocating socialism from David Ricardo’s formulation of capitalism in the 19th century. These also include literary figures like Ruskin, Carlyle and Dickens. He states that he has replaced Marx’s theory of surplus value with Jevons treatment of rent, in order to show how capitalism deprives workers of their rightful share of the profits.



Israeli Politico’s Fascist Campaign Ad

April 2, 2019

This disturbing video comes from The Michael Brooks Show. Brooks was a co-host on Sam Seder’s Majority Report, and, like him, is Jewish. They have the same stance on Israel, attacking the Israeli state and its persecution of the Palestinians. Brooks’ criticism of this ad is all the more acute because he is partly of German Jewish heritage, the people, who first suffered the horrific persecution under the Nazis that led eventually to the attempted extermination of the Jewish people across Europe.

Brooks simply says that this is one of the most disturbing political ads ever. It’s for Ayelet Shaked, the Justice Minister in the current Likud coalition government. He describes her as far, far Right, because of the horrific comments she’s made about the Palestinians. She’s recommended killing Palestinian children, so that the ‘snakes’ don’t grow up and try to avenge their parents’ deaths by the Israelis. This is a truly Fascist statement. Himmler and the Nazis made almost exactly the same comment to justify their extermination of whole communities, which defied them. Like the Czech village of Lidice, where all males over the age of 13 were hanged. Brooks states he came to it after he was on Israeli television discussing apartheid.

The advert, in Hebrew with English subtitles, shows Ayelet spraying on perfume from a bottle marked ‘Fascism’. At the end of it, after she finishes spraying herself, she says, ‘Smells like democracy to me’.

And after further brief statements about how disturbing the ad is, that’s how this segment of The Michael Brooks Show ends. I don’t think the message behind Shaked’s video could be anymore explicit: she is actively embracing Fascism. Or if not quite that, it’s a piece of Orwellian Doublespeak where words have the opposite meaning, like ‘War is peace’. Perhaps it’s meant as rebuff to her critics, who are denouncing her as a Fascist. She might be trying to claim in a twisted way that she’s a democrat. But it’s still appalling, even if that’s the case, as it seems to suggest that what others call Fascism, she calls democracy. Which just means she’s still embracing and supporting Fascism.

Not that factions within Israeli society haven’t explicitly supported Fascism in the past. Apart from the Israeli state’s Fascistic persecution of the Palestinians, Buddy Hell has pointed out on the Guy Debord’s Cat blog that in the 1920s the early Zionist pioneers had a Fascist party, the Maximalist Legalists, who wanted to create a Fascist corporative state like Mussolini’s Italy. And Fascists and apologists for dictatorship have claimed that their regimes are somehow more democratic than the democracies. Both Hitler and Mussolini used plebiscites to legitimise their regimes, and then claimed that this proved their governments’ democratic superiority. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a series of Latin American writers and philosophers drew on Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship to claim that the continent simply couldn’t be governed through Anglo-Saxon-style democracy, and needed the rule of great men – the caudillos, military dictators – in order to make progress. Two of these have titles which suggest their authors considered that personal dictatorship in Latin America somehow constituted a unique form of democracy suited to the continent. These were Las democracias latinas de America by the Peruvian author Francisco Garcia Calderon and Cesarismo democratico by the Venezuelan sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz.

Brooks says of this video that it hasn’t been discussed much in America. There’s no need to ask why. The establishment in America, Britain and Europe supports Israel as an outpost of western democracy and culture in the Middle East. This support is strongest on the Conservative Right. In the 1970s American Conservatives claimed that Israel should be supported because of its Judaeo-Christian culture, declaring that ‘their values are our values’. A few weeks ago the wretched Katie Hopkins, who has now made herself so personally toxic that she’s been sacked from the Heil, made the same claim. Well, Mussolini also made a similar claim that he was supporting Christianity and specifically Roman Catholicism after he signed the Lateran Accords with the papacy in the late 1920s. the support Fascism received from large sections of the European Christian churches has been a stain on their reputation ever since, and has been one of the major causes of the massive growth in atheism in western Europe in the 20th century. That hasn’t stopped the religious Right in America continuing to support brutal right-wing regimes, like General Pinochet in Chile and the vicious Contras in Nicaragua. Ronald Reagan even notoriously declared that the latter were ‘the moral equivalent of our founding fathers’. Radical critics of America and its history of racism and the systematic repression of left-wing movements would probably agree. Thus the mainstream news organisations aren’t going to show or discuss this advert, because Shaked’s embrace of Fascism would immediately discredit Israel in the eyes of most severely normal people in America, Britain and elsewhere.

The advert is particularly damaging to specific examples of what may be considered anti-Semitic in the I.H.R.A. definition of anti-Semitism. This rules that it is anti-Semitic to compare Jews to Nazis, claim that Israel is a racist endeavour, or compare its persecution of the Palestinians to the Holocaust. Now Shaked in this advert hasn’t actually gone that far. She isn’t spraying herself with a perfume called ‘Nazi’, ‘Third Reich’, or ‘Hitler’. But she isn’t far off. Marxist historians would actually say that she has. Soviet historians did not refer to ‘National Socialism’ when discussing Nazism, in case this suggested that Hitler’s dictatorship was somehow similar to their own system of government. They referred to it instead as ‘Nazi-Fascism’. There are differences between Nazism and Fascism, but to most people the regimes are more or less synonymous. Nazism was a form of Fascism, and Mussolini passed racist and anti-Semitic legislation in imitation of Hitler’s Germany. If this was shown on TV and in discussed everywhere in the press, the Israel lobby could hardly try to silence those calling Israel racist and Fascist for its persecution of the Palestinians, when one of its leading cabinet ministers is shown in a campaign advert created by her own team fully embracing the accusation.

Whatever the Israel lobby now says, no matter how hard they deny it and try to silence those, who speak out about it, Shaked’s advert shows that she has no problem with Fascism, or at least being described as a Fascist. In the meantime Israel is supplying arms to real, extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic regimes like Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the blatant Nazis of the Azov battalion in Ukraine. And Jewish bloggers like David Rosenberg have made their fears for these nations’ Jewish minorities very clear.

How overt does Israeli racism have to get before our media notices, or has the moral courage and integrity to report on it. And if Oswald Mosley returned to lead the BUF goose-stepping through the East End, would the Jewish Chronicle and Board of Deputies support him if he bought Israeli guns for his stormtroopers and paid his tributes to those murdered by his Nazi counterparts at Yad Vashem? 

Communism’s Basis in Atheism

May 30, 2013

A few years ago I got into a long argument with some atheists on here about my assertion that atheism was an integral part of Communism. Marx was influenced by Feuerbach’s view that God was a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature. For Feuerbach and his followers, humanity could improve itself by rediscovering its own creativity through a new ‘religion of humanity’. The atheists contended that atheism was not integral to Marxism by arguing firstly, that Marx wrote little about religion or atheism. Secondly, Marx’s conception of the origin of religion was different from Feuerbach’s. Lastly the connection between atheism and Communism was disproved by the granting of freedom of religion and worship by the Soviet authorities in the last days of Communism under Gorbachev.

Atheism of Marx and Feuerbach

Marx’s own view of atheism was certainly different from Feuerbach’s. Marx took from Feuerbach the idea that religion, and human culture in general, was formed through the material conditions in which people lived. Where they differed is that Feuerbach saw this as affecting only humanity in the abstract, while Marx held that it defined human society and their communities. There’s also a difference in that although Feuerbach was an atheist, he was not an anti-theist. He has even been described as a ‘pious atheist’, as he did not deny religious values.

Influence of Feuerbach on Friedrich Engels

Feuerbach’s influence on Marx’s friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, can be seen in Engel’s review of Thomas Carlyle’s 1844 Past and Present, ‘The Condition of England’. One of Engel’s criticisms of the book was that Carlyle failed to realise that the roots of the hollow, rotten state of British culture with its soullessness, irreligion and atheism, lay in religion itself, explicitly following Feuerbach’s critique of religion.
The next five pages are more or less one long rant against religion. This is explicitly anti-Christian:

‘We too attack the hypocrisy of the present Christian state of the world; the struggle against it, our liberation from it and the liberation of the world from it are ultimately our sole occupation’. Again in this section he cites Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer as exposing religion’s true nature. Engels then proceeds to state very clearly that the Communists aim to attack and destroy religion:

‘We want to put an end to atheism, as Carlyle portrays it, by giving back to the man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance, and this whole process of giving back is no more than simply the awakening of self-consciousness. We want to sweep away everything that claims to be supernatural and super-human, and thereby get rid of untruthfulness, for the root of all untruth and lying is the pretension of the human and the nature to be superhuman and supernatural. For that reason we have once and for all declared war on religion and religious ideas and care little whether we are called atheists or anything else’.

The next one and a half pages are an explicit attack on the Christian conception of history and the central position within it of the Lord’s incarnation, again stating Feuerbach’s idea that God is merely humanity’s own projection of its alienated nature. Engels felt that the Christian belief in the incarnation made the 1800 years since Christ’s birth meaningless. In fact the incarnation demonstrates that there isa transcendent meaning to history through the deep involvement in it of a loving God. God’s involvement in history did not end with Christ ascension into heaven. Rather, God remains active in the world, as St. Paul states. In Him we live and move and have our being. He is at work bringing good out of evil until the end of time when the world will be renewed and He will once again dwell with us.

Marx on the Economic Basis of Religion

Marx’s own views on the basis of religion in the economic structure of society is stated in the section ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in volume I of Das Kapital. In it Marx stated that the form of society’s religion depended on its stage of social development. Christianity was suitable for contemporary society and its developed capitalism. The ancient world did not have trading societies except at their margins, and so these ancient societies were based on the worship of nature. This view of the nature of primitive religion is also highly flawed. Both the Phoenicians and their great colony, Cathage, were powerful trading civilisations with outposts all over the Mediterranean. The extent of their mercantile contacts is shown by the fact that objects from ancient Egypt have been found in Spain, where they had been brought through Carthaginian merchants. Archaeologists have discovered how extensive trading networks in Europe were as far back as the Bronze Age. These were not capitalist societies, and Marx was correct in viewing some of them as based on subjection. Nevertheless, trade was widespread and important.

Marxism Based in Atheist Materialism, including that of Ancient Greeks

Marx himself was an atheist materialist while at university, before he adopted Hegelian philosophy. His dissertation was on Democritus and ancient materialism and scepticism, and he always considered his own political philosophy to be a continuation of that tradition. This for Marx himself, Marxism was inherently atheistic. The atheist with whom I was arguing also raised the point that it would be possible to adopt a Communist or socialist economic programme without basing it in atheism. This is true. There have been a number of ‘red priests’, clergy with Communist sympathies, in the various Christian churches, including the Anglican. However, Marxism is based on an exclusively materialist conception of the world: there is no God, therefore reality is defined and determined purely through material processes and natural laws. Human society is no different. Any form of belief in God, or a transcendent reality, such as Spiritualism, directly challenges this fundamental assumption, even if their believers adopt a Communist programme for other, moral reasons. Hence the Communists persecution of religion, and Lenin’s denunciation of his ideological opponents as philosophical Idealists, for the supposed basis of their views in a separate, transcendant realm.

Freedom of Religion in Last Days of Communism due to Pressure from Democracies and Human Rights Groups, not Based in Communism

Finally, there is the issue of Soviet state’s recognition of freedom of worship and conscience under Mikhail Gorbachev. Now Gorbachev was a convinced Communist. Indeed, he has been described as the last Communist, and he continued to beleive in the Communist system even as it crumbled around him. He tried to prevent its finally dissolution for as long as possible. He was, however, a radical reformer of Communism, which he believed was necessary for it to survive. In his book, Perestroika, he claimed to base these reforms in Lenin and the democratic nature of Soviet socialism, declaring that the solution was ‘More socialism, more democracy’. Yet Lenin was extremely autocratic, who persecuted the Orthodox Church. Gorbachev’s claims were therefore not convincing. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had been under immense diplomatic pressure to grant freedom of religious belief and conscience since the 1950s and particular after the foundation of human rights groups in the 1970s, such as Charter 77. The granting of religious freedom was to accommodate these groups, not from any rejection of the materialist basis of Communism itself. Gorbachev himself has made it clear that he is an atheist, but appears to have a sympathetic interest in religion. He has published a book with the Dalai Lama, and has visited and contemplated the Vatican. Regardless of his view of religion, I feel that Gorbachev should be admired simply because it was through his relationship with President Reagan that the Cold War finally ended. By stopping Soviet troops entering the satellites during the Velvet Revolution, Gorbachev secured these nations’ freedom and independence. These countries have suffered greatly during the transition to capitalism and democracy. However, the threat of war with Soviet bloc that hung over three generations since 1917 revolution has been lifted. People are now free to travel to and from the former Soviet countries largely unimpeded, to set up businesses and make friends. And that truly is an awesome achievement and one reason to be cheerful in this often threatening world.

Failure of Communism as Philosophical and Economic System, and Its Brutality

As for Communism, that resulted in monumental alienation, oppression and brutality on a massive scale. Marxism continues to have some intellectual vigour through its view of economics as the motive force of history. As an economic system, it has been largely discredited. Amongst the various explanations of the origin of religion, the views of Feuerbach and Marx are now unfashionable and Hegelianism has also been attacked. Even in the Soviet Union, scientists rejected the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. As the despair, alcoholism and drug abuse that permeated Soviet society demonstrates, Marxism did not provide its citizens with a sense of meaning, nor did it reconcile them to nature. The massive engineering projects have caused immense ecological damage to vast swathes of the former Soviet Union. The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe is only one example. In fact the fall of Communism as an atheist system has been remarked on by at least one historian. Looking through one of the bookshops a few weeks ago, I found one history of the Fall of Communism that paid explicit homage to Sigmund Freud’s atheist attack on religion, The Future of an Illusion. This history bore the title The Failure of an Illusion. Despite Marx and Engel’s splenetic denunciations, Communism has been shown to be as, or even more, fallible and illusory as the religions it claimed to supersede and attack.


R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

F. Engels ‘The Condition of England: Review of Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactoins to ‘Political Economy(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986) 85-95

K. Marx ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, ibid, 96-104.