Classes and Parties in Their Attitude to Religion and the Church

Published: Sotsial-Demokrat, No. 6, June (4) 17, 1909. Taken from Marxists Internet Archive.

The debates in the Duma on the Synod estimates, then on the restoration of rights to persons who have left holy orders and, finally, on the Old-Believer communities, have provided very instructive material characterising the attitude of the Russian political parties towards religion and the Church. Let us make a general survey of this material, dwelling mainly on the debates on the Synod estimates (we have not yet received the verbatim reports of the debates on the other questions mentioned above).

The first and most obvious conclusion that emerges from the Duma debates is that militant clericalism in Russia not only exists, but is clearly gaining ground and becoming more organised. On April 16, Bishop Metrophanes stated: “The first steps in our Duma activities pursued the explicit end that we who have been honoured by the votes of the people, should here in the Duma stand above party divisions, and form a single group of the clergy, which should throw light on all sides from its ethical point of view…. What is the reason why we have failed to achieve this ideal situation? … The fault for this lies with those who are sharing these benches with you [i. e., with the Cadets and the "Left"], namely, those clerical deputies who belong to the opposition. They were the first to lift their voice and say that this was neither more nor less than the emergence of a clerical party, and that this was extremely undesirable. Of course, there is no such thing as clericalism among the Russian Orthodox clergy–we never had a tendency of that kind, and in seeking to form a separate group we were pursuing purely ethical and moral ends. But now, gentlemen, when, as a result of this discord introduced in our brotherly midst by the Left deputies, there followed disunity and division, now you [i. e., the Cadets] blame it on us.”

Bishop Metrophanes in his illiterate speech let the cat out of the bag: the Left, don’t you see, are guilty of having dissuaded some of the Duma priests from forming a special “moral” (this term is obviously more suitable for hoodwinking the people than the word “clerical”) group!

Almost a month later, on May 13, Bishop Eulogius read in the Duma “the resolution of the Duma clergy”: “The overwhelming majority of the Duma Orthodox clergy considers”… that in the interests of the “leading and dominant position of the Orthodox Church” neither freedom of preaching for the Old-Believers, nor the unauthorised functioning of Old- Believer communities, nor the using of the title of priest by Old-Believer clergymen, are permissible. “The purely moral point of view” of the Russian priests stands fully revealed as clericalism pure and simple. “The overwhelming majority” of the Duma clergy, in whose name Bishop Eulogius spoke, probably consisted of 29 Right and moderately Right priests in the Third Duma, and possibly also included 8 priests belonging to the Octobrists. The opposition had probably been joined by 4 priests belonging to the Progressist and Peaceful Renovation groups and one belonging to the Polish-Lithuanian group.

What is then the “purely moral and ethical point of view of the overwhelming majority of the clergy in the Duma” (the June-the-Third Duma, one should add)? Here are a few excerpts from the speeches: “All I say is that the initiative for these [i.e., Church] reforms must come from within the Church, not from without, not from the state and, of course, not from the Budget Commission. After all, the Church is a divine and eternal institution, its laws are immutable, whereas the ideals of state life, as we know, are subject to constant modifications” (Bishop Eulogius, April 14). The orator recalled “a disturbing historical parallel”: the secularisation of Church property under Catherine II. “Who can vouch that the Budget Commission, which this year expressed the desire to put them [the Church funds] under state control, will not express next year the desire to deposit them in the State Treasury, and then fully to transfer their management from the Church authorities to the civil or state authorities?… The Church statutes say that since a bishop is entrusted with Christian souls, then all the more should Church property be entrusted to him…. Today before you [deputies of the Duma] stands your spiritual mother, the holy Orthodox Church, not merely as before representatives of the people, but also as before its spiritual children” (ibid.).

This is pure clericalism. The Church is above the state as the eternal and divine is above the temporal and earthly. The Church cannot forgive the state for secularising Church property. The Church demands a leading and dominant position. In its eyes the Duma deputies are not only–or rather not so much–representatives of the people as “spiritual children”.

These are not officials in cassocks, as the Social-Democrat Surkov called them, but feudalists in cassocks. Defence of the Church’s feudal privileges, outspoken support of medievalism–that is the essence of the policy pursued by the majority of the Third Duma clergy. Bishop Eulogius is by no means an exception. Gepetsky also vociferates against “secularisation” which he calls an intolerable “wrong” (April 14). The priest Mashkevich fulminates against the Octobrist report for seeking “to undermine the historic and canonical foundations on which our Church life has rested and must rest … to push the life and activities of the Russian Orthodox Church off the canonical path on to the path where … the true princes of the Church–the bishops–will be obliged to give up almost all their rights, inherited from the apostles, to secular princes…. This is nothing but … an encroachment on somebody else’s property and on the rights and possessions of the Church…. The speaker is leading us towards the destruction of the canonical order of Church life; he seeks to subordinate the Orthodox Church and all its economic functions to the Duma, an institution composed of the most diverse elements in our country, of religious creeds both tolerated and not tolerated” (April 14).

The Russian Narodniks and liberals have long been comforting themselves, or rather deceiving themselves, with the “theory” that in Russia there is no basis for militant clericalism, for a struggle of “the princes of the Church” with the temporal power, and so forth. Our revolution has dispelled this illusion, as it did a number of other Narodnik and liberal illusions. Clericalism existed in a hidden form, so long as autocracy existed intact and inviolate. The all- powerful police and bureaucracy concealed from the gaze of “society” and the people the class struggle in general, and the struggle waged by the “feudalists in cassocks” against the “base rabble” in particular. But the first breach which the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry made in the feudalist autocratic regime laid bare what had been hidden. As soon as the proletariat and the advanced elements of the democratic bourgeoisie began to make use of the political liberty, the freedom to organise the masses, which they had won at the end of 1905, the reactionary classes, too, reached out for independent and open organisations. Under absolute autocracy they did not organise, and did not come out too much in the open, not because they were weak, but be cause they were strong; not because they were incapable of organisation and political struggle, but because at that time they did not yet feel any real need for independent class organisation. They did not believe in the possibility of a mass movement against the autocracy and the feudalists in Russia. They fully relied on the knout being sufficient to keep the rabble down. But the first wounds inflicted on autocracy compelled the social elements which supported it and needed it to come out into the open. It was no longer possible to use only the old knout in fighting masses that had been capable of causing the events of January 9, the strike movement in 1905, and the October-December revolution. It became necessary to build up independent political organisations; it became necessary for the Council of the United Nobility to organise Black Hundreds and engage in the most irresponsible demagogy; it became necessary for “the princes of the Church–the bishops”–to organise the reactionary clergy into an independent force.

A typical feature of the Third Duma, and of the Third Duma period of the Russian counter-revolution is, indeed, that this organisation of the reactionary forces has come out into the open, has begun to develop on a nation-wide scale, and has demanded a special Black-Hundred bourgeois “parliament”. Militant clericalism has shown its true colours; and from now on Russian Social-Democracy will have to act again and again as an observer of, and participant in, the clashes between the clerical and the anti-clerical bourgeoisie. If our general task is to assist the proletariat to unite into a special class, capable of separating from bourgeois democracy, one component of this task is the use of every means of propaganda and agitation, including the rostrum of the Duma, to explain to the masses the distinctions between socialist and bourgeois anti-clericalism.

The Octobrists and Cadets who have come out in the Third Duma against the extreme Right, the clericals, and the government, have eased this task for us immensely by providing an object-lesson of the attitude of the bourgeoisie to wards the Church and religion. The legal press of the Cadets and the so-called Progressists is at present devoting special attention to the question of the Old-Believers, to the fact that the Octobrists as well as the Cadets have taken a stand against the government, and to the fact that they have, albeit in a small way, “adopted the course of reform” promised on October 17. What interests us most is the principle involved in this question, i.e., the attitude of the bourgeoisie in general, including the elements who claim the title of Democratic Cadets, towards religion and the Church. We must not allow a relatively minor question–the Old-Believers’ conflict with the dominant Church, and the conduct of the Octobrists who are tied up with the Old-Believers, and are partly even dependent on them financially (Golos Moskvy [2] is said to be financed by the Old-Believers)–make us lose sight of the root question, that of the interests and policy of the bourgeoisie as a class.

Take a look at the speech delivered by Count Uvarov, an Octobrist in his general views, but who has left the Octobrist group. Speaking after the Social-Democrat Surkov, he started by refusing to deal with this question from the standpoint of principle, as the workers’ deputy had done. Uvarov merely attacks the Synod and the Procurator-General for their unwillingness to give the Duma any information on certain Church revenues and on the expenditure of parish funds. Kamensky, the official spokesman of the Octobrists, approaches the question” from the same stand point (April 16), and demands that parishes should be revived “for the purpose of strengthening the Orthodox faith”. Kapustin, the so-called “Left-wing Octobrist”, elaborates on this idea. “If we turn to the life of the people,” he ex claims, “to the life of the rural population, we observe today, here and now, a sad fact: religious life is tottering, the greatest and sole foundation of the people’s moral principles is tottering…. What can replace the concept of sin, what can replace the dictates of conscience? Surely, they cannot be replaced by the concept of class struggle and the rights of this or that class. That is a tragic concept which has taken root in our everyday life. Therefore, if religion is to survive as a foundation of morality, if it is to be within reach of the whole population, it is necessary that the bearers of this religion should enjoy the proper authority….”

The spokesman of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie wishes to strengthen religion, he wishes to enhance the influence of religion on the masses, realising that it is inadequate and out of date, realising even the harm caused to the ruling classes by “officials in cassocks”, who are lowering the authority of the Church. The Octobrist is fighting against the excesses of clericalism and of police tutelage in order to strengthen the influence of the Church on the masses, in order to replace at least some means of addling the wits of the people, which are too crude, too out of date, too threadbare to achieve their object, by more refined and improved means. Police religion is no longer adequate for be fuddling the masses: give us a more cultured, more up-to- date, more skilful religion, one that will be effective in a self-governing parish–that is what capital is demanding of the autocracy.

And the Cadet Karaulov fully subscribes to this same point of view. This “liberal” renegade (who gradually “evolved” from the Narodnaya Volya [1] to the Right-wing Cadets) screams his protest against the “denationalisation of the Church, understanding this to mean the exclusion of the masses of the people, of the laity, from the building of the Church”. He finds it “shocking” (literally so!) that the masses are “losing faith”. He raises an outcry, quite in the style of Menshikov [3], because the “immense intrinsic value of the Church is being depreciated … to the great detriment not only of the cause of the Church, but of that of the state as well”. He qualifies as “words of gold” the loathsome hypocrisy of the zealot Eulogius on the theme that “the task of the Church is eternal, immutable, hence, it is not possible to link up the Church with politics”. He protests against the alliance of the Church with the Black Hundreds for the sole reason that the Church may, “with greater might and glory than today, fulfil its grand and holy mission in a Christian spirit of love and freedom”.

Comrade Belousov did well to have a good laugh at these “lyrical words” of Karaulov’s from the Duma rostrum. How ever, such ridicule is very far from being adequate. It had to be made clear–and at the first convenient opportunity this should be done from the Duma rostrum–that the stand point of the Cadets is absolutely identical with that of the Octobrists, and merely expresses the efforts of “cultured” capital to bamboozle the people with religious narcotics by more refined methods of Church deception than the ones now practised by the rank-and-file Russian priests who are still living in the past.

To keep the people in spiritual bondage, there must be the closest possible alliance of the Church and the Black Hundreds, said the “wild landlord” and the old Derzhimorda [4] through their spokesman Purishkevich. You are wrong, gentlemen, retorts the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie through their spokesman Karaulov: with such methods you will only make the people turn away from religion for good. Now let us go about it in a more clever, more artful, more ingenious way: let us remove the too stupid and crude agent of the Black Hundreds, declare war on “denationalisation of the Church”, and inscribe on our banner Bishop Eulogius’s “words of gold” to the effect that the Church is above politics. Only in this way shall we be able to fool at least some of the backward workers, and especially of the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, and be able to help the renovated Church to fulfil its “grand and holy mission” of retaining the masses of the people in spiritual bondage.

Our liberal press, not excluding the newspaper Rech, has concentrated of late on censuring Struve and Co. for their authorship of the symposium Vekhi. But Karaulov, the official spokesman of the Cadets in the Duma, has done a superlative job of exposing all the vile hypocrisy of these remonstrances, and these repudiations of Struve and Co. What Karaulov and Milyukov conceal, Struve reveals. The liberals blame Struve only for having imprudently blurted out the truth, for showing his hand too openly. The liberals, who censureVekhi and go on supporting the Cadet Party, are most shamelessly deceiving the people–condemning imprudently outspoken words, and going on doing the very things that go with those words.

There is little to say about the conduct of the Trudoviks in the Duma during the debate on the questions under re view. As always, a noticeable difference was revealed between the peasant Trudoviks and the intellectual Trudoviks to the disadvantage of the latter, because of their excessive readiness to follow the Cadets. True, Rozhkov, a peasant, revealed in his speech his complete lack of political consciousness; he, too, repeated the Cadet platitudes about the Union of the Russian People helping not to reinforce but to destroy faith. He was unable to suggest any programme. On the other hand, when he began in his artless manner to tell the naked, unvarnished truth about the levies collected by the clergy, about the extortions of the priests, about how, in addition to charging money for conducting a marriage ceremony, they demand “a bottle of vodka, snacks, and a pound of tea, and sometimes things that I am even afraid to talk about from this rostrum” (April 16, verbatim report, p. 2259)–this was more than the Black-Hundred Duma could stand. A wild howl arose from the benches of the right. “This is scandalous, this is outrageous!” shouted the Black Hundreds, realising that this simple peasant’s speech about extortions, listing the scale of “fees” charged for religious rites, was more likely to revolutionise the masses than any amount of theoretical or tactical anti-religious and anti-Church declarations. Thereupon the band of diehard defenders of autocracy in the Third Duma intimidated their flunkey–the Duma Chairman Meyendorff–and compelled him to rule that Rozhkov must sit down (the Social-Democrats, joined by some Trudoviks, Cadets and others, handed in a protest against this action of the Chairman).

Although the speech delivered by the peasant Trudovik Rozhkov was extremely unsophisticated, it provided an excellent demonstration of the abyss dividing the hypocritical, deliberately reactionary defence of religion by the Cadets, and the primitive, unconscious, matter-of-fact religiousness of the peasant, whose living conditions give rise–against his will and unconsciously–to a truly revolutionary resentment against extortions, and to readiness for a resolute fight against medievalism. The Cadets are the representatives of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, which is intent on renovating and strengthening religion against the people. The Rozhkovs are the representatives of revolutionary bourgeois democracy, a democracy that is undeveloped, lacking political consciousness, downtrodden, lacking independence, disunited–yet frought with an all but inexhaustible reservoir of revolutionary energy in the fight against the landlords, the priests, and the autocracy.

Rozanov, a Trudovik intellectual, came close to the Cadets far less unconsciously than Rozhkov. Rozanov could mention disestablishment of the Church as a demand of the “Left”, but could not refrain from reactionary, petty-bourgeois phrases about “amending the electoral law in the sense that the clergy should be excluded from participation in the political struggle”. The revolutionary spirit, which finds a spontaneous outlet in a typical, average peasant when he begins to tell the truth about how he lives, vanishes in the case of a Trudovik intellectual, to be replaced by hazy and sometimes actually vile phrases. For the hundredth and thousandth time we see the truth confirmed that only if they follow the proletariat’s lead will the Russian peasant masses be able to overthrow the oppressive and killing yoke of the feudal-minded landlords, the feudalists in cassocks, the feudal-minded supporters of the autocracy.

The Social-Democrat Surkov, representing the workers’ party and the working class, was the only person in the Duma to raise the debates to the truly high level of principle, and said without beating about the bush what the attitude of the proletariat is towards the Church and religion, and what should be the attitude in this matter of all consistent and vigorous democrats. “Religion is the opium of the people…. Not a farthing of the people’s money to these murderous enemies of the people who are drugging the people’s minds”–this straightforward, bold and outspoken battle-cry of a socialist resounded like a challenge to the Black- Hundred Duma, and met with the response of millions of proletarians, who will spread it among the masses and who will know how to translate it into revolutionary action when the time comes.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


[1] See Note 99.–Ed.

[2] Golos Moskvy (Voice of Moscow)–a daily newspaper, organ of the Octobrists– a counter-revolutionary party of the big industrial bourgeoisie and big landlords. Published in Moscow from 1905 to 1915.

[3] Menshikov, M. 0. (1859-1919)–a reactionary journalist, one of the editors of the Black-Hundred newspaper Novoye Vremya (New Times).–Ed.

[4] Derzhimorda–the name of a policeman in Gogol’s comedy The Inspector-General typifying an insolent, brutal bully and oppressor.

Socialism and Religion

Published: Novaya Zhizn, No. 28, December 3, 1905. Taken from Marxists Internet Archive

Present-day society is wholly based on the exploitation of the vast masses of the working class by a tiny minority of the population, the class of the landowners and that of the capitalists. It is a slave society, since the “free” workers, who all their life work for the capitalists, are “entitled” only to such means of subsistence as are essential for the maintenance of slaves who produce profit, for the safeguarding and perpetuation of capitalist slavery.

The economic oppression of the workers inevitably calls forth and engenders every kind of political oppression and social humiliation, the coarsening and darkening of the spiritual and moral life of the masses. The workers may secure a greater or lesser degree of political liberty to fight for their economic emancipation, but no amount of liberty will rid them of poverty, unemployment, and oppression until the power of capital is overthrown. Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened 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. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. 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.

But a slave who has become conscious of his slavery and has risen to struggle for his emancipation has already half ceased to be a slave. The modern class-conscious worker, reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois bigots, and tries to win a better life for himself here on earth. The proletariat of today takes the side of socialism, which enlists science in the battle against the fog of religion, and frees the workers from their belief in life after death by welding them together to fight in the present for a better life on earth.

Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. 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. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state. Only the complete fulfilment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute-books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cosy government jobs and government-derived incomes with the dispensation of this or that dope by the established church. Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church.

The Russian revolution must put this demand into effect as a necessary component of political freedom. In this respect, the Russian revolution is in a particularly favourable position, since the revolting officialism of the police-ridden feudal autocracy has called forth discontent, unrest and indignation even among the clergy. However abject, however ignorant Russian Orthodox clergymen may have been, even they have now been awakened by the thunder of the downfall of the old, medieval order in Russia. Even they are joining in the demand for freedom, are protesting against bureaucratic practices and officialism, against the spying for the police imposed on the “servants of God”. We socialists must lend this movement our support, carrying the demands of honest and sincere members of the clergy to their conclusion, making them stick to their words about freedom, demanding that they should resolutely break all ties between religion and the police. Either you are sincere, in which case you must stand for the complete separation of Church and State and of School and Church, for religion to be declared wholly and absolutely a private affair. Or you do not accept these consistent demands for freedom, in which case you evidently are still held captive by the traditions of the inquisition, in which case you evidently still cling to your cosy government jobs and government-derived incomes, in which case you evidently do not believe in the spiritual power of your weapon and continue to take bribes from the state. And in that case the class-conscious workers of all Russia declare merciless war on you.

So far as the party of the socialist proletariat is concerned, religion is not a private affair. Our Party is an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs. We demand complete disestablishment of the Church so as to be able to combat the religious fog with purely ideo logical and solely ideological weapons, by means of our press and by word of mouth. But we founded our association, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, precisely for such a struggle against every religious bamboozling of the workers. And to us the ideological struggle is not a private affair, but the affair of the whole Party, of the whole proletariat.

If that is so, why do we not declare in our Programme that we are atheists? Why do we not forbid Christians and other believers in God to join our Party?

The answer to this question will serve to explain the very important difference in the way the question of religion is presented by the bourgeois democrats and the Social-Democrats.

Our Programme is based entirely on the scientific, and moreover the materialist, world-outlook. An explanation of our Programme, therefore, necessarily includes an explanation of the true historical and economic roots of the religious fog. Our propaganda necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism; the publication of the appropriate scientific literature, which the autocratic feudal government has hitherto strictly forbidden and persecuted, must now form one of the fields of our Party work. We shall now probably have to follow the advice Engels once gave to the German Socialists: to translate and widely disseminate the literature of the eighteenth-century French Enlighteners and atheists.[1]

But under no circumstances ought we to fall into the error of posing the religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an “intellectual” question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie. 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.

That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in our Programme; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating themselves with our Party. We shall always preach the scientific world-outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various “Christians”. But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development.

Everywhere the reactionary bourgeoisie has concerned itself, and is now beginning to concern itself in Russia, with the fomenting of religious strife–in order thereby to divert the attention of the masses from the really important and fundamental economic and political problems, now being solved in practice by the all-Russian proletariat uniting in revolutionary struggle. This reactionary policy of splitting up the proletarian forces, which today manifests itself mainly in Black-Hundred pogroms, may tomorrow conceive some more subtle forms. We, at any rate, shall oppose it by calmly, consistently and patiently preaching proletarian solidarity and the scientific world-outlook–a preaching alien to any stirring up of secondary differences.

The revolutionary proletariat will succeed in making religion a really private affair, so far as the state is concerned. And in this political system, cleansed of medieval mildew, the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


[1] See Frederick Engels, “Flüchtlings-Literatur”, Volksstaat, Nr, 73 vom 22.6.1874.

The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion

Published: Proletary, No. 45, May 13 (26), 1909. Taken from Marxists Internet Archive.

Deputy Surkov’s speech in the Duma during the debate on the Synod estimates, and the discussion that arose within our Duma group when it considered the draft of this speech (both printed in this issue) have raised a question which is of extreme importance and urgency at this particular moment. An interest in everything connected with religion is undoubtedly being shown today by wide circles of “society”, and has penetrated into the ranks of intellectuals standing close to the working-class movement, as well as into certain circles of the workers. It is the absolute duty of Social-Democrats to make a public statement of their attitude towards religion.

Social-Democracy bases its whole world-outlook on scientific socialism, i. e., Marxism. The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism, which has fully taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century materialism in France and of Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany–a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion. Let us recall that the whole of Engels’s Anti-Dühring, which Marx read in manuscript, is an indictment of the materialist and atheist Dühring for not being a consistent materialist and for leaving loopholes for religion and religious philosophy. Let us recall that in his essay on Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels reproaches Feuerbach for combating religion not in order to destroy it, but in order to renovate it, to invent a new, “exalted” religion, and so forth. Religion is the opium of the people–this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion [1]. Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.

At the same time Engels frequently condemned the efforts of people who desired to be “more left” or “more revolutionary” than the Social-Democrats, to introduce into the programme of the workers’ party an explicit proclamation of atheism, in the sense of declaring war on religion. Commenting in 1874 on the famous manifesto of the Blanquist fugitive Communards who were living in exile in London, Engels called their vociferous proclamation of war on religion a piece of stupidity, and stated that such a declaration of war was the best way to revive interest in religion and to prevent it from really dying out. Engels blamed the Blanquists for being unable to understand that only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion, whereas to proclaim that war on religion was a political task of the workers’ party was just anarchistic phrase-mongering [2]. And in 1877, too, in his Anti-Dühring, while ruthlessly attacking the slightest concessions made by Dühring the philosopher to idealism and religion, Engels no less resolutely condemns Dühring’s pseudo-revolutionary idea that religion should be prohibited in socialist society. To declare such a war on religion, Engels says, is to “out-Bismarck Bismarck”, i. e., to repeat the folly of Bismarck’s struggle against the clericals (the notorious “Struggle for Culture”, Kulturkampf, i.e., the struggle Bismarck waged in the 1870s against the German Catholic party, the “Centre” party, by means of a police persecution of Catholicism). By this struggle Bismarck only stimulated the militant clericalism of the Catholics, and only injured the work of real culture, because he gave prominence to religious divisions rather than political divisions, and diverted the attention of some sections of the working class and of the other democratic elements away from the urgent tasks of the class and revolutionary struggle to the most superficial and false bourgeois anti-clericalism. Accusing the would-be ultra-revolutionary Dühring of wanting to repeat Bismarck’s folly in another form, Engels insisted that the workers’ party should have the ability to work patiently at the task of organising and educating the proletariat, which would lead to the dying out of religion, and not throw itself into the gamble of a political war on religion [3]. This view has become part of the very essence of German Social-Democracy, which, for example, advocated freedom for the Jesuits, their admission into Germany, and the complete abandonment of police methods of combating any particular religion. “Religion is a private matter”: this celebrated point in the Erfurt Programme (1891) summed up these political tactics of Social-Democracy.

These tactics have by now become a matter of routine; they have managed to give rise to a new distortion of Marxism in the opposite direction, in the direction of opportunism. This point in the Erfurt Programme has come to be interpreted as meaning that we Social-Democrats, our Party, consider religion to be a private matter, that religion is a private matter for us as Social-Democrats, for us as a party. Without entering into a direct controversy with this opportunist view, Engels in the nineties deemed it necessary to oppose it resolutely in a positive, and not a polemical form. To wit: Engels did this in the form of a statement, which he deliberately underlined, that Social-Democrats regard religion as a private matter in relation to the state, but not in relation to themselves, not in relation to Marxism, and not in relation to the workers’ party [4].

Such is the external history of the utterances of Marx and Engels on the question of religion. To people with a slapdash attitude towards Marxism, to people who cannot or will not think, this history is a skein of meaningless Marxist contradictions and waverings, a hodge-podge of “consistent” atheism and “sops” to religion, “unprincipled” wavering between a r-r-revolutionary war on God and a cowardly desire to “play up to” religious workers, a fear of scaring them away, etc., etc. The literature of the anarchist phrase-mongers contains plenty of attacks on Marxism in this vein.

But anybody who is able to treat Marxism at all seriously, to ponder over its philosophical principles and the experience of international Social-Democracy, will readily see that the Marxist tactics in regard to religion are thoroughly consistent, and were carefully thought out by Marx and Engels; and that what dilettantes or ignoramuses regard as wavering is but a direct and inevitable deduction from dialectical materialism. It would be a profound mistake to think that the seeming “moderation” of Marxism in regard to religion is due to supposed “tactical” considerations, the desire “not to scare away” anybody, and so forth. On the contrary, in this question, too, the political line of Marxism is inseparably bound up with its philosophical principles.

Marxism is materialism. As such, it is as relentlessly hostile to religion as was the materialism of the eighteenth-century Encyclopaedists or the materialism of Feuerbach. This is beyond doubt. But the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels goes further than the Encyclopaedists and Feuerbach, for it applies the materialist philosophy to the domain of history, to the domain of the social sciences. We must combat religion–that is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently of Marxism. But Marxism is not a materialism which has stopped at the ABC. Marxism goes further. It says: We must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion. Why does religion retain its hold on the backward sections of the town proletariat, on broad sections of the semi-proletariat, and on the mass of the peasantry? Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view, the view of narrow bourgeois uplifters. It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way. In modern capitalist countries these roots are mainly social. The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extra-ordinary events, such as wars, earthquakes, etc. “Fear made the gods.” Fear of the blind force of capital–blind because it cannot be foreseen by the masses of the people–a force which at every step in the life of the proletarian and small proprietor threatens to inflict, and does inflict “sudden”, “unexpected”, “accidental” ruin, destruction, pauperism, prostitution, death from starvation–such is the root of modern religion which the materialist must bear in mind first and foremost, if he does not want to remain an infant-school materialist. No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of masses who are crushed by capitalist hard labour, and who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way.

Does this mean that educational books against religion are harmful or unnecessary? No, nothing of the kind. It means that Social-Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task–the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.

This proposition may not be understood (or at least not immediately understood) by one who has not pondered over the principles of dialectical materialism, i. e., the philosophy of Marx and Engels. How is that?–he will say. Is ideological propaganda, the preaching of definite ideas, the struggle against that enemy of culture and progress which has persisted for thousands of years (i. e., religion) to be subordinated to the class struggle, i. e., the struggle for definite practical aims in the economic and political field?

This is one of those current objections to Marxism which testify to a complete misunderstanding of Marxian dialectics. The contradiction which perplexes these objectors is a real contradiction in real life, i. e., a dialectical contradiction, and not a verbal or invented one. To draw a hard-and-fast line between the theoretical propaganda of atheism, i. e., the destruction of religious beliefs among certain sections of the proletariat, and the success, the progress and the conditions of the class struggle of these sections, is to reason undialectically, to transform a shifting and relative boundary into an absolute boundary; it is forcibly to disconnect what is indissolubly connected in real life. Let us take an example. The proletariat in a particular region and in a particular industry is divided, let us assume, into an advanced section of fairly class-conscious Social-Democrats, who are of course atheists, and rather backward workers who are still connected with the countryside and with the peasantry, and who believe in God, go to church, or are even under the direct influence of the local priest–who, let us suppose, is organising a Christian labour union. Let us assume furthermore that the economic struggle in this locality has resulted in a strike. It is the duty of a Marxist to place the success of the strike movement above everything else, vigorously to counteract the division of the workers in this struggle into atheists and Christians, vigorously to oppose any such division. Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be both unnecessary and harmful–not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle, which in the conditions of modern capitalist society will convert Christian workers to Social-Democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda. To preach atheism at such a moment and in such circumstances would only be playing into the hands of the priest and the priests, who desire nothing better than that the division of the workers according to their participation in the strike movement should be replaced by their division according to their belief in God. An anarchist who preached war against God at all costs would in effect be helping the priests and the bourgeoisie (as the anarchists always do help the bourgeoisie in practice). A Marxist must be a materialist, i. e., an enemy of religion, but a dialectical materialist, i. e., one who treats the struggle against religion not in an abstract way, not on the basis of remote, purely theoretical, never varying preaching, but in a concrete way, on the basis of the class struggle which is going on in practice and is educating the masses more and better than anything else could. A Marxist must be able to view the concrete situation as a whole, he must always be able to find the boundary between anarchism and opportunism (this boundary is relative, shifting and changeable, but it exists). And he must not succumb either to the abstract, verbal, but in reality empty “revolutionism” of the anarchist, or to the philistinism and opportunism of the petty bourgeois or liberal intellectual, who boggles at the struggle against religion, forgets that this is his duty, reconciles himself to belief in God, and is guided not by the interests of the class struggle but by the petty and mean consideration of offending nobody, repelling nobody and scaring nobody–by the sage rule: “live and let live”, etc., etc.

It is from this angle that all side issues bearing on the attitude of Social-Democrats to religion should be dealt with. For example, the question is often brought up whether a priest can be a member of the Social-Democratic Party or not, and this question is usually answered in an unqualified affirmative, the experience of the European Social-Democratic parties being cited as evidence. But this experience was the result, not only of the application of the Marxist doctrine to the workers’ movement, but also of the special historical conditions in Western Europe which are absent in Russia (we will say more about these conditions later), so that an unqualified affirmative answer in this case is incorrect. 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 programme 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 programme 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 programme. But, of course, such a case might be a rare exception even in Western Europe, while in Russia it is altogether improbable. 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 programme, 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.

Another example. Should members of the Social-Democratic Party be censured all alike under all circumstances for declaring “socialism is my religion”, and for advocating views in keeping with this declaration? No! The deviation from Marxism (and consequently from socialism) is here indisputable; but the significance of the deviation, its relative importance, so to speak, may vary with circumstances. It is one thing when an agitator or a person addressing the workers speaks in this way in order to make himself better understood, as an introduction to his subject, in order to present his views more vividly in terms to which the backward masses are most accustomed. It is another thing when a writer begins to preach “god-building”, or god-building socialism (in the spirit, for example, of our Lunacharsky and Co.). While in the first case censure would be mere carping, or even inappropriate restriction of the freedom of the agitator, of his freedom in choosing “pedagogical” methods, in the second case party censure is necessary and essential. For some the statement “socialism is a religion” is a form of transition from religion to socialism; for others, it is a form of transition from socialism to religion.

Let us now pass to the conditions which in the West gave rise to the opportunist interpretation of the thesis: “religion is a private matter”. Of course, a contributing influence are those general factors which give rise to opportunism as a whole, like sacrificing the fundamental interests of the working-class movement for the sake of momentary advantages. The party of the proletariat demands that the state should declare religion a private matter, but does not regard the fight against the opium of the people, the fight against religious superstitions, etc., as a “private matter”. The opportunists distort the question to mean that the Social-Democratic Party regards religion as a private matter!

But in addition to the usual opportunist distortion (which was not made clear at all in the discussion within our Duma group when it was considering the speech on religion), there are special historical conditions which have given rise to the present-day, and, if one may so express it, excessive, indifference on the part of the European Social-Democrats to the question of religion. These conditions are of a twofold nature. First, the task of combating religion is historically the task of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and in the West this task was to a large extent performed (or tackled) by bourgeois democracy, in the epoch of its revolutions or its assaults upon feudalism and medievalism. Both in France and in Germany there is a tradition of bourgeois war on religion, and it began long before socialism (the Encyclopaedists, Feuerbach). In Russia, because of the conditions of our bourgeois-democratic revolution, this task too falls almost entirely on the shoulders of the working class. Petty-bourgeois (Narodnik) democracy in our country has not done too much in this respect (as the new-fledged Black-Hundred Cadets, or Cadet Black Hundreds, of  Vekhi[5] think), but rather too little, in comparison with what has been done in Europe.

On the other hand, the tradition of bourgeois war on religion has given rise in Europe to a specifically bourgeois distortion of this war by anarchism–which, as the Marxists have long explained time and again, takes its stand on the bourgeois world-outlook, in spite of all the “fury” of its attacks on the bourgeoisie. The anarchists and Blanquists in the Latin countries, Most (who, incidentally, was a pupil of Dühring) and his ilk in Germany, the anarchists in Austria in the eighties, all carried revolutionary phrase-mongering in the struggle against religion to a nec plus ultra. It is not surprising that, compared with the anarchists, the European Social-Democrats now go to the other extreme. This is quite understandable and to a certain extent legitimate, but it would be wrong for us Russian Social-Democrats to forget the special historical conditions of the West.

Secondly, in the West, after the national bourgeois revolutions were over, after more or less complete religious liberty had been introduced, the problem of the democratic struggle against religion had been pushed, historically, so far into the background by the struggle of bourgeois democracy against socialism that the bourgeois governments deliberately tried to draw the attention of the masses away from socialism by organising a quasi-liberal “offensive” against clericalism. Such was the character of the Kulturkampf in Germany and of the struggle of the bourgeois republicans against clericalism in France. Bourgeois anti-clericalism, as a means of drawing the attention of the working-class masses away from socialism–this is what preceded the spread of the modern spirit of “indifference” to the struggle against religion among the Social-Democrats in the West. And this again is quite understandable and legitimate, because Social-Democrats had to counteract bourgeois and Bismarckian anti-clericalism by subordinating the struggle against religion to the struggle for socialism.

In Russia conditions are quite different. The proletariat is the leader of our bourgeois-democratic revolution. Its party must be the ideological leader in the struggle against all attributes of medievalism, including the old official religion and every attempt to refurbish it or make out a new or different case for it, etc. Therefore, while Engels was comparatively mild in correcting the opportunism of the German Social-Democrats who were substituting, for the demand of the workers’ party that the state should declare religion a private matter, the declaration that religion is a private matter for the Social-Democrats themselves, and for the Social-Democratic Party, it is clear that the importation of this German distortion by the Russian opportunists would have merited a rebuke a hundred times more severe by Engels.

By declaring from the Duma rostrum that religion is the opium of the people, our Duma group acted quite correctly, and thus created a precedent which should serve as a basis for all utterances by Russian Social-Democrats on the question of religion. Should they have gone further and developed the atheist argument in greater detail? We think not. This might have brought the risk of the political party of the proletariat exaggerating the struggle against religion; it might have resulted in obliterating the distinction between the bourgeois and the socialist struggle against religion. The first duty of the Social-Democratic group in the Black-Hundred Duma has been discharged with honour.

The second duty–and perhaps the most important for Social-Democrats–namely, to explain the class role of the church and the clergy in supporting the Black-Hundred government and the bourgeoisie in its fight against the working class, has also been discharged with honour. Of course, very much more might be said on this subject, and the Social-Democrats in their future utterances will know how to amplify Comrade Surkov’s speech; but still his speech was excellent, and its circulation by all Party organisations is the direct duty of our Party.

The third duty was to explain in full detail the correct meaning of the proposition, so often distorted by the German opportunists, that “religion is a private matter”. This, unfortunately, Comrade Surkov did not do. It is all the more regrettable because in the earlier activity of the Duma group a mistake had been committed on this question by Comrade Belousov, and was pointed out at the time by Proletary. The discussion in the Duma group shows that the dispute about atheism has screened from it the question of the proper interpretation of the celebrated demand that religion should be proclaimed a private matter. We shall not blame Comrade Surkov alone for this error of the entire Duma group. More, we shall frankly admit that the whole Party is at fault here, for not having sufficiently elucidated this question and not having sufficiently prepared the minds of Social-Democrats to understand Engels’s remark levelled against the German opportunists. The discussion in the Duma group proves that there was in fact a confused understanding of the question, and not at all any desire to ignore the teachings of Marx; and we are sure that the error will be corrected in future utterances of the group.

We repeat that on the whole Comrade Surkov’s speech was excellent, and should be circulated by all the organisations. In its discussion of this speech the Duma group demonstrated that it is fulfilling its Social-Democratic duty conscientiously. It remains to express the wish that reports on discussions within the Duma group should appear more often in the Party press so as to bring the group and the Party closer together, to acquaint the Party with the difficult work being done within the group, and to establish ideological unity in the work of the Party and the Duma group.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


[1] See K. Marx, Contribution to the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right. Introduction. (K. Marx and F. Engels, On Religion, Moscow, 1957, p. 42.)

[2] See F. Engels, “Flüchtlings-Literatur. II. Das Programme der Blanquisten”.

[3] See F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, Moscow, 1959, pp. 434-37.

[4] This refers to F. Engels’s preface to K. Marx’s pamphlet The Civil War in France (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, Moscow, 1958, p. 479).

[5] Vekhi (Landmarks)–a Cadet collection of articles by N. Berdayev, S. Bulgakov, P. Struve, M. Herschensohn and other representatives of the counter-revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie, published in Moscow in 1909. In their articles on the Russian intelligentsia these writers tried to discredit the revolutionary-democratic traditions of the best representatives of the Russian people, including Belinsky and Chernyshevsky; they vilified the revolutionary movement of 1905 and thanked the tsarist government for having, “with its bayonets and jails”, saved the bourgeoisie from “the popular wrath”. The writers called upon the intelligentsia to serve the autocracy. Lenin compared the programme of the Vekhi symposium in point of both philosophy and journalism with that of the Black-Hundred newspaper Moskovskiye Vedomosti, calling the symposium “an encyclopaedia of liberal renegacy”, “nothing but a flood of reactionary mud poured on democracy”.