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Can a Socialist be a Christian?

Socialism, Atheism and Christianity. By C. Cohen. London. The Pioneer Press, 2 Newcastle St., E.C. 16 pp., 1d.

Mr Cohen does not take up the cudgels on behalf of Socialism. His position is simply that “Socialism is fundamentally Atheistic in the sense that it is without the belief in God”. That Socialism traces all the phenomena with which it concerns itself to natural causes, and relies on purely secular forces for its realisation; while “Christianity cannot combine with any system in which the belief in God does not rank as an essential feature”.

And there is good ground for this. If such a person as a consistent Christian ever existed, he could only regard this “vale of tears” as an essential part of God’s plan, to be accounted for only through God, and to be modified only through His pleasure. He could only regard those who sought the explanation of social conditions in purely natural causes, to the tacit exclusion of God, and also sought to take advantage of the natural development in order to turn this “vale of tears” into a pleasant garden, as men who denied by their acts the very basis of his faith.

Socialism is the application of science to the relations between men, and will infallibly drive superstition from this its last ditch. Socialism, as the science of Society, is an essential part of a scientific view of all phenomena regarded as an interdependent whole; and such a Monistic view of the universe, with each part in inseparable causal relation to the rest, can leave no nook or cranny for God.

The consistent Socialist, therefore, cannot be a Christian, and although (as Mr. Cohen justly complains) many “Socialists” keep their views on religion in the background in the belief that it is irrelevant to their propaganda, yet that Socialism implies the rejection of superstition cannot be disputed.

Our author, however, has come across the “Labour” politicians angling for middle-class votes, and uses his cudgels to some effect in belabouring such pandars to the cant and hypocrisy known as the “Nonconformist Conscience”. In this scramble for votes it has been said that Socialism is profoundly religious! And Mr. Cohen quotes Mr. Ramsay MacDonald’s statement that the Socialist finds in the Gospels “a marvellous support for his economic and political proposals”. This and other statements by the same shifty politician are effectively riddled in the pamphlet under review.

Nor has Mr. Cohen failed to indicate the material basis of the religious ardour that has infected many Labour M.P.s. Commenting upon a passage of a work by Mr. MacDonald, our authors says:

“The striking thing about this passage is its almost obtrusively party political character. At present the Parliamentary Labour Party is in a state of pseudo-alliance with a Liberal Government that relies on Nonconformists. Many Nonconformists are also – since the return of thirty Labour M.P.s – patronising “Socialism” and professing it from the pulpit. For these reasons Mr. MacDonald leaves the Bible – the Nonconformist fetish – alone, while attacking the Prayer Book . . . It is texts and quotations from the Prayer Book that were used - as though texts and quotations from the Bible were not used as frequently, and as though plenty of texts might not be quoted from the New Testament as to the blessings of poverty, the virtues of non-resistance, the lawfulness of slavery, and the duty of obeying constituted authority, with a threat of damnation against all in rebellion. In the same way, it is the Established Church parson who is singled out for attack, while the middle-class manufacturer, with his mouthpiece, the Nonconformist minister, escapes scot free. Yet all Socialists are aware that it is from this class that the greatest enemies of Socialism have been drawn.”

Nothing, indeed, is more typically middle class than Nonconformity, and the servile truckling to that section, characteristic of certain Labour candidates, has already been commented upon by other writers in these columns. No P.S.A. is nowadays complete without a Labour M.P. on show. And in the present connection, the mere fact that the falsely so-called “Socialism” of the Labour M.P.’s is acceptable to large sections of the reactionary Nonconformist middle class, is in itself sufficient to prove its incompatibility with working-class interests rightly understood.

The religious appeal betrays the shoddy politician. To attempt to stir the workers into an electoral activity by the disinterment of decomposing religious sentiment is to play the game of the enemy. Those whose standpoint is that of the welfare of the working class can make no appeal on the grounds of religion; for religion is an instrument of domination which cannot be used as an agent of emancipation at this stage of social development. The great theoretic weapon of the workers in their fight for emancipation is science, not religion; and religion and science are as incompatible as fire and water.

The working class, moreover, though not as yet hostile to religion, are nevertheless becoming increasingly indifferent to it. This is so partly because the workers never find religion, when put to the test, to be on their side. It is also and chiefly due to the fact that the workers are daily in contact with the hard realities of life; and, in spite of their lack of learning, the mass of them find little basis for belief in divine interference, and little reason for doubting that the inevitable warp and woof of cause and effect seen in all industrial processes extends unremittingly over the whole universe. The worker learns in the factory that the most awful natural forces are regular, explicable, and controllable; while the feelings of helplessness before natural forces, and the obscurity and incomprehensibility of these to man, recede before the lessons of man-made productive forces rivalling nature in their giant strength and rational complexity. In technical processes all is reduced to system based on belief in the uninterrupted sequence of cause and effect, and all mysteries are made to yield to persistent effort. Upon such a foundation religion cannot firmly stand. As Lafargue says: “the practice of a modern factory teaches scientific determinism to the wage-worker without him having to pass through the theoretic study of the sciences.” Nature, indeed, appears ruthless, inevitable, and cruelly precise to the workers, and their materialistic experience of life provides a less and less fertile soil for superstition.

And the worker who becomes a Socialist finds there also a belief in the supernatural logically excluded. He discovers that the study of man and Society is, in effect, a branch of natural history.

Nor is there hope for religion in the future. The matter has been put in a nutshell. In the deeply philosophical chapter on “Commodities” in Capital, Marx says: –

“The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellow men and to nature.
“The life process of Society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.
“This, however, demands for Society a certain material groundwork or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development.”

From this it becomes obvious that Mr. Cohen’s position is completely justified when he maintains, in opposition to Mr. J. R. MacDonald, that such a great social change as Socialism must profoundly affect religious beliefs.

The natural history of religion is a deeply interesting subject, for the association of certain phases of religion with certain political interests is by no means accidental. Doubtless this aspect of the matter did not come within the plan of the pamphlet, while the tail end of a review is no place for the discussion of so big a theme. The general principles of the religious reflex of social life are, however, easily grasped in the light of the Marx-Morgan conception of Society, while occasion may be had to revert in greater detail to this aspect of the subject at a later date.

As a belief, religion is a manifestation of man’s ignorance of Nature’s working, and of the mastery which the uncomprehended natural and social forces have over man. As rites and ceremonies it is a legacy of the relatively changeless forms of ancient society, and of the supreme importance of mysterious and venerable custom to the existence of the primitive community. By the inertia of the mind religion tends to live on through newer conditions in so far as it serves some interest. So the successive modifications of religion have been the reflexes of changed conditions and interests, although it has ever been attempted to pour the new wine into old bottles.

This evolution of religion, if such it may be called, is curious in that it is an evolution into thin air. Religious change has usually been more remarkable in what was abandoned than in what was added or retained; and religion from being inextricably bound up with the whole social life of a people, becomes a more and more insignificant reflex of the remaining dark corners of that life.

In primitive societies the non-observance of the ancient, sacred, and mysterious customs meant the break up of social life. What was old was tried, venerated and holy; what was new meant disorder and strife. The innovator was slain. In modern society the methods of producing the means of life are no longer invariable and upon ancient model and precedent, but are in the process of great and continued change. What is old is now often synonymous with antiquated, outworn and useless; what is new is hailed as advance and improvement, and novelty is always in demand. The inventor is less frequently slain. Following lamely after this change the old religious forms crumble slowly and tardily away in spite of the frantic efforts of the priestly interest at restoration or readaptation.

As Mr. Cohen points out vigorously and clearly in the concluding portion of his pamphlet, Christianity has ever been the tool of rapacity and tyranny. From the dawn of civilisation religion has been a weapon of political domination. But to continue to be so used, religion must retain a hold upon the people, and if the capitalist class institute secular education it will only be because the growing irreligion of the proletariat compels the master class to rely solely on their other instruments of domination over the workers. But that time is not yet.

To abolish religion is not to end exploitation. The workers have, above all, to dislodge the exploiting class from power, and all else is secondary to this. Not that it is sought to belittle the specifically anti-religious fight, for many a Socialist has received from the actively materialist propaganda of the secularists the spark that brightened later into an illuminating, scientific light upon Society and led him to Socialism.

The supreme aim of the workers, however, must be their emancipation from wage-slavery, and the fight against superstition is but one phase of this great fight. But it must never be forgotten that since religion is ever used as a weapon by the ruling class against the workers, no Socialist in the struggle for working class emancipation can honestly avoid the religious conflict.

F.C.W.
(Socialist Standard, March 1908)