Marxism, socialism & religion

By Dave Holmes

Despite the apparently secular nature of so much of modern life, religion is a long way from being a spent force. For revolutionary socialists aiming to mobilise the masses for a fundamental transformation of society, religion is a question which cannot be ignored.

1. While each country has its specific situation, in the West it is undeniable that the traditional religions are considerably diminished compared to even a few decades ago, with church attendances down and religious identification increasingly nominal for wide layers of the population. Moreover, the churches are being shaken by multiple and ongoing controversies and crises — over the role of women and gays, especially as priests; over revelations of past and present sexual abuse of women and children in their institutions; over financial scandals; in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, over damaging exposures of leading clergy flouting their own code of celibacy; over clashes between their conservative and more liberal wings; and over their increased integration into the activities of the state through government funding for charitable and welfare work.

However, despite the difficulties they are experiencing, the mainstream churches remain powerful institutions with a significant influence in society. Furthermore, both within and outside the traditional churches, fundamentalist currents and groups have gained an increased following.

2. In a considerable number of African and Asian Third World countries, urbanisation and modernisation notwithstanding, Islam remains a major factor in society. So-called Islamic fundamentalism serves the ruling classes as a very effective weapon to control the masses and oppose the advance of the popular and progressive forces. In India, Hindu chauvinism plays a similar role and in Sri Lanka the Buddhist clergy have been highly vocal supporters of the regime's war against Tamils seeking self-determination.

3. The other contender in the Third World is Catholicism, which still retains a huge following. In Central and Latin America, while the traditional church remains very powerful, with the rise of the class struggle from the early 1960s on, a popular and liberationist current developed in many countries, in some instances even supporting the armed struggle and, in the case of Nicaragua after the 1979 revolution, radical priests and lay figures participated in the Sandinista government in defiance of the pope. In a number of traditionally Catholic countries in the 1980s and 1990s, right-wing Protestant sects made extensive gains.

Marxism, Socialism & Religion (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2001) presents a selection of classic writings on religion by Karl Marx, Fredrich Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. The focus is on Christianity and the European experience but the basic points made have a universal relevance for our understanding of religion and the fundamental considerations determining the way in which the revolutionary socialist movement should relate to it.

The selection addresses a number of key topics: The basic Marxist analysis of religion; the origins and evolution of Christianity; the role of religion in historical revolutionary struggles; the political attitude of the socialist workers’ party towards religion and religious believers; and the attitude of the post-revolutionary workers’ government towards religion.

'The opium of the people'

In Engels' 1886 work included here, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, he explains Feuerbach's contribution to the evolution of the philosophical views of Marx and himself.

Germany in the first part of the 19th century was in the grip of feudal absolutism. But precisely in this stifling atmosphere of repression and censorship, a veritable revolution in human thought took place through the work of Georg Hegel with his development of dialectics. The domination of German philosophy by his school reached its height in the 1830s.

After Hegel's death in 1831, his followers divided into two camps: the conservative and traditionalist Old Hegelians and the more radical Young Hegelians. Marx and Engels belonged to this latter group in the early 1840s, although they soon came into conflict with the mistaken and confused ideas of its leading figures as they developed their own distinctive positions. In this period, open political criticism of the regime was risky and the fight against absolutism took the safer form of a criticism of religion, which was a pillar of the established order.

Feuerbach's work was a crucial bridge enabling Marx and Engels' development from Hegel's dialectical — yet idealist — system to their mature dialectical materialist outlook. Feuerbach's 1841 work, The Essence of Christianity, was pivotal here.

With one blow it pulverised the contradiction, in that without circumlocutions it placed materialism on the throne again. Nature exists independently of all philosophy. It is the foundation upon which we human beings, ourselves products of nature, have grown up. Nothing exists outside nature and man, and the higher beings our religious fantasies have created are only the fantastic reflection of our own essence. The spell was broken; the "system" was exploded and cast aside, and the contradiction, shown to exist only in our imagination, was dissolved. One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians. How enthusiastically Marx greeted the new conception and how much — in spite of all critical reservations — he was influenced by it, one may read in The Holy Family.[1]

In that it was materialist, Feuerbach's philosophy was a great advance over Hegel but it also suffered from some serious deficiencies — as did his explanation of religion. Marx addresses these in summary form in his famous 11 theses of 1845, which are reproduced in this selection.

Feuerbach understood that human beings create religion but for him these human beings remain abstractions, separated from their historical and social context which alone makes them what they are:

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.[2]

And in his fourth thesis, Marx comments that it is not enough simply to explain the religious world as a reflection of the secular one, it is also necessary to understand this secular world — human society — as it is, with its social contradictions and class divisions. It is precisely the dismal reality of this real world which creates and sustains religion. Furthermore, Marx argues, this world has not only to be understood but then transformed. (The celebrated 11th thesis makes a similar point: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.")

In his slightly earlier "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law", Marx expands on these ideas.

… Man makes religion …But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a reversed world-consciousness, because they are a reversed world.[3]

The "struggle against religion" is necessarily the struggle against the social order "of which religion is the spiritual aroma". And: "The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion."

This work also contains the following famous passage:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.[4]

Other works included in this selection make similar assessments of the wellsprings of religion. In Socialism and Religion, Lenin puts it this way:

Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, overburdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation. Impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters just as inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death as impotence of the savage in his battle with nature gives rise to belief in gods, devils, miracles, and the like. Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward … Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.[5]

"Religion is a sort of imaginary knowledge of the world", says Trotsky in his speech "Leninism and Workers' Clubs".

The imaginary character of this knowledge flows from two sources: the weakness of human beings in the face of nature, and the absurd character of social relationships. Overawed by nature or ignoring it, and failing to analyse social relationships or ignoring them, social human beings attempted to tie the various ends together by creating fantastic images, assigning them an imaginary reality, and then going down on their knees before their own creations.[6]

Traditional religion and the church

In its 2000-year history, Christianity has undergone profound transformations. As Engels explains:

… religion, once formed, always contains traditional material, just as in all ideological domains tradition forms a great conservative force. But the transformations which this material undergoes spring from class relations, that is to say, out of the economic relations of the people who execute these transformations.[7]

Christianity began as the religion of the free poor and oppressed in the Roman empire. Some 250 years later, after enduring periods of savage persecution, it became the official religion of this very same empire. The church developed into a powerful institution, supported by the state and, in return, giving it legitimacy.

In the Middle Ages, the church adapted itself to the feudal order. It not only sanctified and justified this order but it was itself feudalised: it had its own feudal hierarchy with the pope at the summit, the cardinals and bishops below him, and further down the ordinary priests and at the very bottom, the laiety and the masses. Furthermore, it was also a great temporal power, with vast landholdings across Europe.

With the rise of the bourgeoisie, the Catholic Church split. The Reformation saw the emergence of Protestantism which, in various strains, became dominant in a number of countries. In England, for instance, a new state church was created by Henry VIII in the early 1500s, better suited to the needs of the bourgeoisie. In the ensuing Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church not only waged a ferocious struggle against the Protestant heresy in the lands it controlled, but carried out reforms to adapt itself to the needs of rising capitalism. The Jesuit order, founded in 1534 by Ignatius Loyola, played a leading role in this process.

Everywhere today, the mainstream churches and their leaders accept or justify and support the established capitalist social order, even if they lament particular aspects of it. At any event, they certainly do not denounce it and make common cause with the socialist left to mobilise support among the masses to overthrow it and establish a truly human society. In his 1847 polemic, "The Communism of the Rheinischer Beobachter", Marx makes a blistering denunciation of the "social principles of Christianity" which have always sought to reconcile the masses to their servitude to the ruling class.

In her work, Socialism and the Churches, written during the 1905 Russian revolution, which was also shaking her native Poland, Rosa Luxemburg asks the question: "How does it happen that the church plays the role of a defence of wealth and bloody oppression, instead of being the refuge of the exploited?"[8]

She points out that by its defence of privilege, the clergy "places itself in flagrant contradiction to the Christian doctrine". Luxemburg contrasts the humble, communistic origins of Christianity with the current opulence of the Catholic Church. Christianity began as the religion of the free poor in the Roman empire (it was not, she stresses, the religion of the slaves, who carried out the bulk of the backbreaking labour of society). For its first 200 years, it practised communism; its members placed all their belongings into the common store from which they were distributed as needed.

However, this was a communism of distribution, not a communism based on social ownership of the means of production, for which socialists are fighting. Gradually the early communism of the church was eroded and replaced by mere charity on the part of the wealthy and the enrichment of the church and its clergy at the expense of its aid to the poor and needy. Luxemburg points out that the modern socialist movement has a different agenda:

The communism which the social-democrats have in view does not consist of the dividing up, between beggars and rich and lazy, of the wealth produced by slaves and serfs, but in honest, common, united work and the honest enjoyment of the common fruits of that work. Socialism does not consist of generous gifts made by the rich to the poor, but in the total abolition of the very difference between rich and poor, by compelling all alike to work according to their capacity by the suppression of the exploitation of man by man.[9]

If any contemporary movement can lay claim to the best in the early Christian church, it is revolutionary socialism — for all that it is based, not on a religious view of the world, but on the scientific, materialist, atheistic doctrine of Marxism:

… the social-democrats everywhere lift up the people and strengthen those who lose hope, rally the weak into a powerful organisation. They open the eyes of the ignorant and show them the way of equality, of liberty and of love for our neighbours.

On the other hand, the servants of the church bring to the people only words of humiliation and discouragement. And, if Christ were to appear on Earth today, he would surely attack the priests, the bishops and archbishops who defend the rich and live by exploiting the unfortunate, as formerly he attacked the merchants whom he drove from the temple so that their ignoble presence should not defile the House of God …

Today it is you in your lies and your teachings, who are pagans, and it is we who bring to the poor, to the exploited the tidings of fraternity and equality. It is we who are marching to the conquest of the world as he did formerly who proclaimed that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.[10]

Of course, Luxemburg’s powerful polemic is aimed at precisely those church leaders who place themselves at the service of the ruling class in its struggle against the masses. She stresses repeatedly that socialism does not seek conflict with either the church or with religious believers; in fact the socialist movement stands for religious freedom under capitalism and, after the revolution, under socialism. Indeed, there is surely a strong objective basis for collaboration between socialists and those Christians who seek to work for a better life for the people in this world.

Religion and revolution

Included here is a chapter from Engels' work on the 1525 Peasant War in Germany, written in 1850. In writing his stirring and penetrating study, he had two aims.

With the defeat of the 1848-49 revolution fresh in his mind, he wanted to show that Germany did indeed have a great revolutionary tradition and that just as the bourgeoisie had betrayed the contemporary struggle, their burgher forbears some three centuries earlier had likewise betrayed the epic peasant-plebeian struggle for freedom.

Furthermore, his account sought to demonstrate that the religious conflicts of the Reformation were really class struggles. In a society saturated with religion, in which the Catholic Church was one of the fundamental props of the established order and was itself one of the greatest feudal powers, any challenge to the status quo necessarily had to clothe itself in religious garb and a key focus necessarily had to be an attack on the corrupt official church and its pretensions.

The revolutionary opposition to feudalism [writes Engels] was alive all down the Middle Ages. It took the shape of mysticism, open heresy, or armed insurrection, all depending on the conditions of the time.[11]

The two outstanding figures in Engels' account are Martin Luther and Thomas Münzer. Luther’s reforming activity touched off the conflict but as the struggle radicalised and the burghers of the towns retreated, he too showed his conservatism by abandoning the revolutionary peasants and plebeians and siding with the counter-revolution of the princes and the church. He issued a bloodthirsty denunciation of the insurgent masses, "the murderous and plundering peasant hordes":

"They must be knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, covertly and overtly, by everyone who can, just as one must kill a mad dog!" Luther cried. "Therefore, dear sirs, help here, save there, stab, knock, strangle them everyone who can, and should you lose your life, bless you, no better death can you ever attain … The peasants must have nothing but chaff. They do not hearken to the Word, and are foolish, so they must hearken to the rod and the gun, and that serves them right. We must pray for them that they obey. Where they do not there should not be much mercy. Let the guns roar among them, or else they will do it a thousand times worse."[12]

The real hero of Engels' account is Münzer, the revolutionary leader of the masses. While he had to formulate his platform in religious terms, he was really advancing a radical social program.

Münzer's political doctrine followed his revolutionary religious conceptions very closely, and just as his theology overstepped the current conceptions of his time, so his political doctrine overstepped the directly prevailing social and political conditions. Just as Münzer's religious philosophy approached atheism, so his political program approached communism … This program, no more of a compilation of the demands of the plebeians of that day than a visionary anticipation of the conditions for the emancipation of the proletarian element that had scarcely begun to develop among the plebeians — this program demanded the immediate establishment of the kingdom of God, of the prophesied millennium, by restoring the church to its original status and abolishing all the institutions that conflicted with this allegedly early-Christian, but in fact very novel church. By the kingdom of God Münzer meant a society without class differences, private property and a state authority independent of, and foreign to, the members of society. All the existing authorities, insofar as they refused to submit and join the revolution, were to be overthrown, all work and all property shared in common, and complete equality introduced. A union was to be established to realise all this, and not only throughout Germany, but throughout all Christendom. Princes and lords would be invited to join, and should they refuse, the union was to take up arms and overthrow or kill them at the first opportunity.[13]

Engels explains how, in his struggle, Münzer made use of the Anabaptist sect, so named because they believed that baptism should be a free choice of thinking adults, not forced on children. Although the Anabaptists were pacifists, they shared Münzer’s communist outlook. They survived the suppression of the peasant uprising, but an imperial edict of 1529 declared death by burning as the penalty for Anabaptism and all over Germany members of the sect were martyred. A section of the Anabaptists finally realised that only armed resistance offered them any hope of survival. They took over the town of Münster in north-west Germany; for 15 months they heroically resisted a siege by the imperial forces but eventually succumbed and were exterminated. As Franz Mehring put it: "What has today become a religious quirk was once a revolutionary program, before which the ruling classes trembled."[14]

In his "Ludwig Feuerbach", Engels explains how with the further development of capitalism over the centuries, the bourgeoisie no longer needed to cloak its aims in religious clothing. By the time of the French revolution of 1789, the bourgeoisie presented its struggle in purely political terms. "Christianity … had become incapable for the future of serving any progressive class as the ideological garb of its aspirations."[15] It was retained by the ruling classes purely as a means of control of the masses.

The socialist party and religion

The two articles by Lenin included here focus on several fundamental questions concerning socialism and religion.

In the first place, he stresses that socialists strongly support religious freedom and that this demand is a part of the overall struggle for political freedom:

Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable.[16]

On the other hand, the socialist party — "an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class" — cannot be indifferent to the lack of class consciousness which religion represents. However, the party does not have a point in its program demanding that atheism is a condition of membership, thereby automatically excluding religious believers.

While socialists do not hide their materialist, atheistic beliefs, we do not believe that religious obscurantism can be fought fundamentally by propaganda methods. Marxism teaches that the wellsprings of religious belief lie in weighty objective realities — in modern society, the exploitation, oppression and powerlessness of the masses. Only by their active involvement in the struggle to overthrow this oppressive social order and create a socialist society can the masses go beyond the conditions which promote religious belief:

It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.

Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.[17]

As Lenin explains, this does not mean that the socialist party should not make propaganda criticising religion from a Marxist viewpoint but, rather, that this work takes second place to the main task — drawing the masses into the class struggle against the exploiters and their system — and should only be done in a manner which does not impede it.

Lenin addresses the question: can religious believers be members of the socialist party? There is no hard and fast rule here: while there should be no automatic prohibition nor can the party be indifferent to the religious beliefs of its members:

It cannot be asserted once and for all that priests cannot be members of the Social-Democratic Party; but neither can the reverse rule be laid down. If a priest comes to us to take part in our common political work and conscientiously performs party duties, without opposing the program of the party, he may be allowed to join the ranks of the social-democrats; for the contradiction between the spirit and principles of our program and the religious convictions of the priest would in such circumstances be something that concerned him alone, his own private contradiction; and a political organisation cannot put its members through an examination to see if there is no contradiction between their views and the party program … And if, for example, a priest joined the Social-Democratic Party and made it his chief and almost sole work actively to propagate religious views in the party, it would unquestionably have to expel him from its ranks. We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social-Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our program, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it. We allow freedom of opinion within the party, but to certain limits, determined by freedom of grouping; we are not obliged to go hand in hand with active preachers of views that are repudiated by the majority of the party.[18]

After the revolution

The three pieces by Trotsky and the two appendices included in this volume deal with the question of the new Soviet regime and religion.

The extract from The ABC of Communism gives a picture of how intimate was the relation between the tsarist regime and the Russian Orthodox Church, the role it played in indoctrinating the people on behalf of the established order and the vast financial support it received in return. After the October Revolution, the church was disestablished. It lost its privileged, state-supported place in society; its official subsidies were abolished; its role in the education system was ended; and its huge estates were confiscated for the benefit of the people. On the other hand, freedom of religious belief was guaranteed.

Trotsky's defence of the 1922 decision of the Soviet government to confiscate from the churches precious objects that were not being used in services and put any funds raised to famine relief shows that this was not an attack on religion. Rather it was a legitimate measure in response to a desperate emergency which threatened the lives of millions of people.

The emphasis in these readings is on combating religion, not through any form of persecution, but most fundamentally through the process of widening people’s experience and increasing their control over their lives. As Trotsky puts it:

We are driving out mysticism through the use of materialism, above all by broadening the collective experience of the masses, increasing their active influence on society, expanding the framework of their positive knowledge, and it is on this general basis that where necessary, we also aim direct blows against religious superstitions.[19]

And further:

Religion will only cease to exist completely with the development of the socialist system, that is, when technology frees people from degrading forms of dependency on nature, and amid social relations that are no longer mysterious, which are completely transparent and do not oppress people … Only the ending of earthly chaos can do away forever with its religious reflection.[20]

This is the authentic Marxist attitude. However, under Stalin's bureaucratic rule, the practice of religion was made very difficult and many churches were demolished to make way for prestige projects. But in the extremity of the war against Hitlerite fascism, Stalin rehabilitated the Orthodox Church as part of a campaign to revive Great-Russian patriotism to bolster the people's fighting spirit — since an appeal to the revolutionary internationalist traditions of the October Revolution was excluded.

And today, in the new Russia, where a gang of predatory mafia-capitalists is ruthlessly looting the country and beggaring the mass of the people, the Orthodox Church is again being favoured by the authorities. As did the tsarist regime in earlier times, the new rulers realise that a desperate people needs spiritual consolation to divert it from turning to revolutionary politics and overthrowing the whole rotten system. New laws severely restrict the activities of non-Orthodox religions (Catholicism, Protestant sects, etc.). The current Russian national anthem now contains a reference to God.

Cuban Revolution

Much closer in time, the Cuban Revolution has demonstrated, in exemplary practice, how a genuine socialist regime relates to religion.

Although Christians participated in the struggle against the US-backed dictator Batista, the Catholic Church, led by Spanish priests, was extremely hostile and some Christians gave support to the US-backed counter-revolutionaries in the 1960s. Some of these priests were expelled from the country, but others were permitted to take their place. In November 1971, meeting with a group of priests during his visit to Chile, Fidel Castro remarked on this situation:

No one can say that the Christians were an obstacle. Some Christians participated in the struggle at the end; there were even some martyrs … There were some priests … who joined our ranks on their own … What happened at the beginning was a class problem. It didn't have anything to do with religion. It was the religion of the landowners and the wealthy. When the socioeconomic conflict erupted, they tried to pit religion against the revolution. That was what happened. The Spanish clergy was quite reactionary.[21]

Over time, relations between the Catholic Church and the revolution progressed from the initial state of antagonism to diplomatic normality. In January 1998, Pope John Paul II made an historic visit to Cuba. Under the scrutiny of several thousand personnel from the international news media, he addressed large gatherings across the island. He was treated with scrupulous courtesy and respect by the Cuban leadership and people, even when parts of his message were obviously at odds with the convictions of most of his audiences.

However, those reactionaries who hoped to see the pope denounce the revolution were definitely disappointed. While the pope expressed his disagreement with certain aspects of life in Cuba, he also called for an end to the crippling US-imposed blockade of the island and denounced neoliberalism and consumerism. Overall, the revolution only gained from his visit; it was widely recognised that the big loser was the United States.

One particularly vexed question which the Cuban Revolution had to confront early on concerned the participation of Christians in the party of the revolution. When the new Communist Party of Cuba was organised in the 1960s, Christians were prohibited from joining. In the situation of intense conflict with the United States, given the record of the church, there were doubts about the loyalty of Christians and it was felt that it was too big a risk to take — even if injustices were done in individual cases.

In fact, this ban also extended to religious believers of any persuasion. It thus excluded from party membership adherents of the African religions, which have long had a significant following among the Cuban masses.

At the party's fourth congress in late 1991, after vigorous debate, this policy was overturned and now, as long as they meet all the normal criteria, Christians and other believers can become party members. Fidel spoke strongly in favour of scrapping the ban:

It is a tremendous contradiction that there are millions of [believers] worldwide and in Latin America who defend the Cuban Revolution, who are actively in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, and yet, our only response to them is that we don't allow believers in the party. From a political viewpoint, I think that is a grave mistake. And it is unjust. If a believer deserves to become a party member, he or she shouldn't be shut out. (On the contrary.) Our principles, our concept of a party of all the people, of a united party, where no one is discriminated against, would certainly be strengthened. Because discrimination in the party also leads to discrimination in government, and people are kept from holding certain positions because of their religious beliefs. It is high time we rectified this situation.[22]

The philosophy guiding Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionaries is presented at length in the book Fidel and Religion, a series of conversations in 1985 between Fidel and the radical Brazilian priest, Frei Betto.

In his 1971 meeting with the Chilean priests, Fidel expressed his conviction that there are "10,000 times more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism". At the end of the meeting, Fidel called for a fundamental collaboration between Christians and revolutionary socialists in the struggle for social change: "We would like to be strategic allies, which means permanent allies."[23] As he later recalled:

They asked me if it was to be a tactical or a strategic alliance. I said it should be a strategic alliance between religion and socialism, between religion and revolution.[24]

Unite to save humanity

Today humanity faces a crisis without precedent in history, a combined social and environmental crisis, deriving from the ever-increasing rapacity of the world capitalist system. Neoliberal capitalism's insane drive for profit ahead of all other considerations has brought humanity to the brink of absolute catastrophe. The burning question is how to resist and overthrow this malignant system and replace it with a truly human social order — i.e., with socialism.

The political task is to mobilise and unite the broadest possible popular forces in this struggle. As the crisis deepens, resistance will intensify and draw ever-wider layers of people into action, including religious believers. It will find its reflection in the churches, as is already the case with a wide range of issues. One can expect that sections of the clergy will support the ruling class while others will participate in the mass movement; similarly with their congregations.

While the weight of the religious question varies in the different countries, in general it is an important task for Marxist socialists to be able to develop a real alliance with progressive sections of the religious communities in the fight to save our world and its people. A study of the historic positions and experience of the socialist movement is a prerequisite for meeting this challenge.

[Dave Holmes is a leader of the Melbourne branch of the Socialist Alliance. This is the Introduction to Marxism, Socialism & Religion (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2001) and is also reposted from Arguing for Socialism.]


  1. Marxism, Socialism & Religion Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2001, p. 53.
  2. Ibid., p. 22.
  3. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
  4. Ibid., p. 20.
  5. Ibid., pp. 83-84.
  6. Ibid., p. 129.
  7. Ibid., p. 81.
  8. Ibid., p. 101.
  9. Ibid., p. 115.
  10. Ibid., pp. 117-118.
  11. Ibid., p. 31.
  12. Ibid., pp. 36-37.
  13. Ibid., p. 39-40.
  14. Mehring, Absolutism and Revolution in Germany 1525-1848 (New Park Publications: London, 1975), p. 22. For the history of the Anabaptists and other heretical sects of the later Middle Ages, see Karl Kautsky’s 1897 work Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation (Augustus M. Kelley: New York, 1966).
  15. See this edition, p. 81.
  16. Ibid., p. 84.
  17. Ibid., p. 86.
  18. Ibid., pp. 93-94.
  19. Ibid., p. 129.
  20. Ibid., p. 133.
  21. Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto (Pathfinder Press/Pacific and Asia: Sydney, 1986), p. 14.
  22. Cited in Reed, Island in the Storm (Ocean Press: Melbourne, 1992), p. 83.
  23. Fidel and Religion, p. 14.
  24. Ibid., p. 14.