Paul N. Siegel


The Meek and the Militant



Everyone knows that Marx wrote ‘religion is the opium of the people’, but all too frequently this aphorism is regarded as exhausting what he and Engels had to say on the subject. In fact, they presented a penetrating critique of religion that explains its origin and persistence. They showed also how religion has not only historically acted as a bulwark of the social order, but how some forms of religion under certain circumstances have been, at least for a time, a revolutionary force. Their comments on the role of religion in history, which illuminate the complexity of the phenomenon, have been borne out by the studies of modern historians.

It is also well known that Lenin, like Marx and Engels, was an ideological opponent of religion, but it is not so well known that he welcomed into the ranks of the Bolshevik Party religious believers and even priests who accepted its political programme. Nor is it generally known that the Bolsheviks in the years before Stalin’s rule guaranteed the freedom of religion, giving dissident religious sects rights which they did not have under the Czar, and that, although they deprived the Russian orthodox Church of the special privileges it enjoyed in Czarist Russia, they undid the ties which made it a servile creature of the state.

These seeming paradoxes are in actuality a logical consequence of the Marxist critique of religion. Marxists are uncompromising ideological opponents of religion, but this does not mean that they cannot work with religious believers for common political purposes. While, unlike bourgeois politicians, who seek to be all things to all people, they are honest and forthright about their views, they fight religion not primarily through abstract argumentation (although such theoretical propaganda has its place) but through the class struggle, which is the best educator.

If readers who are religious believers find the tone of my exposition of the Marxist critique of religion in Part I too sharp, I would reply that my sharpness in attacking what I deem to be intellectual error does not necessarily mean that I bear hostility to those who subscribe to it, certainly not to those of them who are seeking to build a just social order, with whom I have a sense of solidarity. Christians say that one must hate the sin but love the sinner; but intellectual error can be as pernicious as moral error and must be opposed as well. Marxists, however, are unlike the dwindling number of bourgeois atheists and agnostics in the tradition of Robert G. Ingersoll and Clarence Darrow who find the root of all evil to be religious obscurantism, not the social system from which religious obscurantism grows.

In subordinating the ideological struggle against religion to the class struggle, Marxists do not give up their principles. Their principled collaboration with religious believers engaged in class struggle is not at all the same as the flirtation of the Italian Communist Party leaders with the Vatican, in the course of which they have temporized on the issues of the separation of Church and state and of the liberalization of divorce and abortion. Such political practice is a perversion of Marxism, just as is the making of churches the creatures of the state in the Soviet Union and China.

It is time, therefore, to review the classical Marxist analysis of religion in order to understand what it says and what it does not say. Such a review will enlighten religious believers and others who are sincerely concerned with understanding the Marxist view of religion.

But the Marxist analysis of religion has more than an abstract theoretical purpose. In exhibiting religion’s social roots, it aids us in the understanding of past society and, through the understanding of past society, of present society, which has evolved from it, raising fundamental questions and indicating suggestive answers.

The great Indian, Chinese, and Arab civilizations were in their day far more powerful than the European civilizations of the time. India gave birth to Hinduism, which remained indigenous to it, and to Buddhism, which died in India but spread through Asia, including China. Arabia gave birth to Islam, which spread through the Middle East and parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. What do the rise and fall of these great civilizations and the development of their religions have to say to European and American civilization and its religions? Is there such a thing as exhausting the potentialities of a social system? On the other hand, can the dependent countries of the world today take the road of capitalist development? Is it religion that is blocking them from taking that road, or are there more underlying forces standing in the way?

R.H. Tawney’s famous Religion and the Rise of Capitalism showed the interrelationships between English Puritanism of the 16th and 17th centuries and burgeoning capitalism, the social system that was to spread from England to other parts of the world. Today world capitalism is in decline – which does not mean, of course, that it does not retain considerable strength and is not capable of doing considerable damage and indeed of even destroying the world before it suffers definitive defeat. At the peripheries of world capitalism, the weakest parts of the system, socialist revolutions have occurred, and in the last 70 years post-capitalist societies – despite immense difficulties and aberrations, which have created their own problems – have continued to grow in number and strength. How has religion been affected in the three main sectors of the world – the advanced capitalist countries, the dependent countries of the so-called Third World, and the post-capitalist countries – and how in turn is religion acting as an ideological force in the class struggle in these sectors?

An appreciation of religion’s roots in the past, of its growth and development, and of the change in its social soil enables us to arrive at the answers to many puzzling questions concerning present-day religion. Why has church membership long been in decline in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe but remains great and is indeed growing in the United States? What accounts for the strength of the evangelical and fundamentalist Religious Right in the United States?

Why, on the other hand, has an important part of the Catholic Church in the United States and other countries become liberalized politically and theologically? Are the present divisions in the Catholic Church the result of Vatican II, or did Vatican II occur as a result of changes in the Catholic Church that were creating divisions within it?

Why has Israel, which likes to call itself the only democracy in the Middle East, failed to effect the kind of separation between religion and the state that has been regarded as one of the hallmarks of bourgeois democracy? Why have liberal American-Jewish supporters of Israel, who have called for continued separation between Church and state in the United States, failed to call for such a separation in Israel?

What accounts for the ‘new face’ of Buddhism? How did Buddhist monks, who are supposed to be unconcerned with the things of this world and to regard all life as sacred, come to participate in the armed struggle against imperialism and to play an important role in the politics of Asia after World War II?

How did Hinduism, which talks of historical change as being of little significance, come to play a similar role in India? Why do Hindu communalists, members of a religion long said to be the most tolerant of religions, engage in pogroms against members of other religions?

What accounts for the ‘resurgence’ of Islam? What is the source of the differences between Muslims who say that it is necessary to ‘re-think Islam in modern terms’ and Muslim fundamentalists?

Why has the ‘theology of liberation’ grown so strong in Latin America? Why are nuns and priests killed in El Salvador, a country named after Jesus Christ, the Saviour, while there are four priests in the revolutionary government of Nicaragua?

The answers to these and other such questions will better enable us to understand our world. Understanding it will better enable us to change it.

This book, it will be seen, covers a vast field. In writing what is essentially a synthesis and popularization of work done in the many areas of this field, I have been indebted to the following, who have read those portions of the first draft dealing with their areas of scholarly expertise and given me the considerable benefit of their criticism: Ismail Hosseinzadeh, George Novack, Robert G. Olson, and Stuart Schaar.

I am also indebted for helpful aid and encouragement to George Breitman, Cliff Conner, Dianne Feeley, and Evan Siegel, who likewise read portions of the manuscript. Paul Le Blanc gave me useful bibliographical information. Robert Molteno, of Zed Books, in urging me to expand the scope of the book helped to improve it. I am grateful to all of them. The usual author’s absolution of his manuscript’s readers from responsibility for errors of fact and interpretation is more than ever necessary here, since in some instances I have not followed advice that was offered to me. But even where I have not followed it, that advice caused me to think about the problems involved.


Last updated on 2.2.2005