1920s >> 1924 >> no-239-july-1924

Socialism and Religion

Bishop Montgomery Brown, the retired Bishop of Arkansas, U.S.A., a divine ot the Protestant Episcopal Church, has been expelled from the Church for heresy. He is the author of “Communism and Christianism,” and the wide sale of this book has made him known far beyond the little town of Galion, Ohio, where he resides.

The Bishop came to write the book through reading the pamphlet issued by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, entitled “Socialism and Religion.” Amidst all the sentimental and superstitious writings published on this question in America, our pamphlet stood out as a unique and scientific declaration and commanded wide attention. The interest was so great that the last order from the “Socialist Party of Michigan” was for 1,000 copies, and it was due to this latter body that the Bishop obtained the pamphlet.

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The best part of the Bishop’s book is the series of quotations from our party pamphlet. Nearly all the religious section of “Communism and Christianism” is unscientific, sentimental and confusing. Take the following : “Socialism is for me the one comprehensive term which is a synonym at once of morality, religion and Christianity” (p. 26). Then he says that Christianism “is a system of parasitism” (p. 31). He claims the same faith as Jesus, of whom he says, “his loyalty was to the truth and to the proletarian” (p. 25). Throughout the Bishop puts far-fetched meanings into Jesus’ words and makes a Christianity peculiar to himself. This is a quite common method amongst the “Christian Socialists” whom he condemns. He claims that Jesus taught that “it was the mission of Himself and disciples to establish a new heaven, that is, to remodel the Church, and new earth, that is to remodel the state; both remodellings being with reference to the service ot humanity by enlightening its darkness and alleviating its misery here and now, rather than teaching it to look for light and happiness elsewhere and elsewhen” (p. 23). This must be some other Jesus personally known to the Bishop. The Jesus of Christianity, the Jesus of the New Testament, certainly gives no teaching about remodelling the State and enlightening the darkness. Jesus gave no social teaching. “Take no thought for the morrow,” “Resist not evil,” “Blessed are ye poor,” “Love your enemies,” and similar anti-working class notions are not instructions to remodel the State. So far from seeking happiness here, Jesus starts out with the supernatural, and it runs right through the New Testament. “My Kingdom is not of this world,” and “I go to my Father in heaven” is the spirit of the Book; the Socialist finds no message for him in the gospel of Jesus, from the beginning to the end. The Bishop admits this later where he says the “Gospel of Jesus” is “exclusively concerned with a celestial world” (p. 32).

This “rebuilding” of Jesus by the Bishop is dangerous to the workers. It is calculated to keep the workers on the side of religion by the false picture of Jesus and his alleged “Socialist” character. It is quite easy to understand how Bishop Brown remained within the Church and’ fought against his expulsion. Although he is an associate of the Rationalist Press Association, and a professed Evolutionist and self-styled “Marxian,” he understands these matters so little that it was possible to reconcile them with a Bishop’s position in the Episcopal Church. His muddled attitude went further, for he defended his position at the trial by claiming that the clergy did not literally accept the Bible, and that they had given up many orthodox dogmas. To attempt to compare the “modernizing” of Christianity with the materialism he claimed to hold, is a joke. The “reconciling” of ordination vows of a Bishop with the scientific and revolutionary attitude of our pamphlet on Socialism and Religion is a farce.

We differ therefore from the Labour and Communist Press in America, whose papers are very bitter against the Church for its expulsion of Bishop Brown. We affirm that the materialist and revolutionary nature of Socialism involves opposition to the Church and to Christianity. One who accepts the Socialist position, and realises therefore, the implications of its scientific basis, has no place as a member of the “holy” Church of Christianity. The superstition and submission taught by religion is in direct opposition to the philosophy of Socialism.

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Our pamphlet was a bombshell to the professional politicians of the Social Reform parties. John M. Work, the secretary of the “S. P. of America,” tried to minimise its influence by saying the pamphlet was an irresponsible statement. The “Socialist Labour Party,” in reply to questions, continually answered in the words of De Leon that Religion was a private matter, and that a Socialist could hold any opinion he liked about the matter. And the I.W.W. in their leaflets repudiated being “anti-religious,” and said “members of the I.W.W. differ as much in their political and religious views as do members of any other organisation” (“The Labour Defender,” Dec. 1, 1918). The publication of dozens of pamphlets and books after the style of “Why a Christian should be a Socialist” and Bouck White’s “Call of the Carpenter” made our pamphlet a necessary antidote to this rubbish. The issues of an American edition by the Socialist Educational Society of New York a few months ago is therefore very welcome, being made more necessary than ever by the distorted edition issued by an enterprising orator who used its covers to advertise his spiritualist writings.
Mr. John Spargo, who until 1916 was a highly-paid lecturer for the “S.P. of America,” devoted a good deal of attention to our pamphlet in his book “Marxian Socialism and Religion.” He tries to answer us by saying that Marx was a deeply spiritual man, and that the materialist conception of history was not intended by Marx to be applied as we have done. He quotes part of F. Engels’ letters to attempt to show there are spiritual driving forces in history, but the publication of the complete letters in “The Socialist Standard” showed that Mr. Spargo was relying upon the awful ignorance of his dupes and followers in the alleged Socialist Party of America. Spargo knew better than he wrote, as can be seen from the columns ot “The Comrade” of New York, for the period in which he edited that paper. His statements of the conflict between Socialism and Religion have been quoted in all the American textbooks for anti-Socialist speakers.

In Great Britain to-day the Socialist Party of Great Britain is still the only party which declares the truth about Socialism and Religion. The parties which seek numbers at the expense of principle are busier than ever preaching all things to all men, and trying to repudiate the charge that Socialism is opposed to Religion. From the Protestant George Lansbury, M.P., to the Catholic, John Wheatley, M.P., the gospel of Jesus is used to swell the ranks of the so-called Labour Parties. The pandering to the ignorance of the masses in order to get votes can find no place in a party working for Socialism. Socialists must rid the workers’ minds of their superstitions, religious, economic and political, in order to develop that scientific and revolutionary outlook upon life without which Socialism is impossible. We are not disturbed, therefore, to see that the organ of the British Empire Union—the “Empire Record” (June, 1924)—devotes much space to our pamphlet as an exposure of Socialist hostility towards religion. We take our stand upon the scientific truths of Socialism, regardless of the opposition from fool or knave. The “Empire Record” says: “These Socialists scorn the view that any moral or spiritual reforms are first needed in man himself.” Spiritual reforms are then still required after 2000 years of Christianity ! His talk about moral reform by those who support a system which results in moral degradation is a joke. And moral reform talk by the Empire Builders who shouted in 1914 for “war to the knife” is not a joke. For the preachers of “hate” in 1914 it is evidently a personal question. No wonder the “Empire Record” heads the paragraph from which we quote, “The decalogue out of date.”

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“Communist” politicians anxious to “get in” are careful to dodge the question of religion. At Kelvingrove Bye-Election, where Ferguson ran under Labour Party auspices, a complaint was made that some orator attacked religion. The Communist paper “The Worker” (June 7th, 1924), says: “We cannot say we heard of any Communist orator attacking religion as mentioned by the special correspondent.” It further states that “it is absurd to suggest that Communist speakers generallv attacked religion.” The same dodging of the materialist nature of Socialism was made by the Catholic Francis Meynell when editor of the “Communist,” who answered an enquirer by stating that while the logical person must recognise the conflict between Socialism and Religion, logical people are as rare as white blackbirds. This is an evasion of the subject, and is typical of Jesuitical methods.

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In Ireland, where asylum attendants have been on strike some time, the strikers have issued leaflets using the Pope’s “message” in their support. This message is a quotation from the Encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII on “The Condition of the Working Classes” in 1891. The quotation opens thus:—

“Religion teaches the wealthy owner and employer that their workpeople are not to be accounted their bondsmen,” and it goes on to exhort the rich to give the workpeople “a fair wage.” The strikers follow the quotation with the slogan, “Labour demands justice.” These good Catholic strikers fail to see that the same letter of the Pope can be quoted with greater force by the employers. For Pope Leo says :

“Thus religion teaches the labouring man and artisan to carry out honestly and fairly all equitable agreements freely entered into; never to injure the property nor to outrage the person of an employer, never to resort to violence in defending their own cause nor to engage in riot or disorder.”

The employers could quite easily quote the Encyclical letter of the recent Pope Benedict XV (1914) entitled “Ad Beatissimi,” an extract, from which is the following :—-

“The second cause of the general unrest we declared to be the absence of respect for the authority of those who exercise ruling. Ever since the source of human powers has been sought apart from God the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, in the free will of men, the bonds of duty which should exist between superior and inferior have been so weakened as almost to have ceased to exist. The unrestricted striving after independence together with overweening pride has little by little found its way everywhere; it has not even spared the home although the natural origin of the ruling power is as clear as the noonday sun; nay, more deplorable still is has not stopped at the steps of the sanctuary. Hence comes contempt for laws, insubordination of the masses and wanton criticism of orders issued, hence innumerable cases of undermining authority. . . .
‘There is no power but from God and those that are, are ordained of God.’”

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The increasing indifference of the workers to religion is shown by the speech of the Rev. E. W. Sara, Director of the Bishop of London’s Sunday School Council. The Times reports his speech to the Church of Englands Men’s Society at Bradford

“Mr. Sara described the present-day drift away from organised religion as ‘an appalling leakage.’ It constituted a grave challenge to the Church. While Churchmen continued to think chiefly of the respectable few in the front pews, the young people were being lost. In the London diocese alone 16,000 boys and girls had been lost from Bible classes since the war, 16,000 from the Church Lads’ Brigade, nearly 4,000 from the Girls’ Friendly Society, and 8,000 from the senior Bands of Hope. Those figures were typical of the whole country. There were 3,000,000 lapsed communicants, of whom the London Diocese alone counted 300,000.”

The decay of religion amongst workers of the Hebrew race has caused much uneasiness to the clergy. Professor C. G. Montefiore in his “Judiasm and Democracy” states that:

“There is a considerable section of the Jewish proletariat. which is out of sympathy with the Jewish religion, or, indeed, with religion generally, and at all. This estrangement from religion is mainly true as regards one particular section of Jewish democracy, namely, the social democrats or socialists. . . . They are inclined to be opposed to everything which has been a comfort to, and has been held dear by, the upper class, the bourgeoisie.”

The Professor has to make this confession about religion :—

“It has bidden people be obedient to their rulers and their kings, obedient and subservient. The book of proverbs, for instance, encourages submission to, and fear of, the constituted authority. A King is the Lord’s Anointed. Religion has devised a sort of hierarchy from the authority of fallible and visible men to the authority of an infallible and invisible God. It has entered, as I have said, into an understanding with the great ones of the earth. In return for their support and acknowledgment it has buttered and buttressed them up in their greatness and their privileges.”

This lecturer of the Jewish Religious Union justifies all we say of the function of religion in the class struggle. It is the agent of class domination.


(Socialist Standard, July 1924)

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