1920s >> 1925 >> no-252-august-1925

Is the Socialist Attitude towards Religion Sound?

A Criticism by Mr. ARCHIE McARTHUR and our Reply.

Being on the Thames Embankment last May Day, I bought a copy of a pamphlet on “Socialism and Religion,” issued by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. If my memory serves me right, I encountered this same pamphlet some fourteen years ago in Winnipeg. The manifesto, for such it is, bases upon materialism. I submit that it is a mistake for Socialists any longer to found their propaganda upon such a questionable doctrine. To do so is but to invite attack and inevitable discomfiture.

Fifty years ago—which was an age of triumphant Science—it was widely believed that in matter and motion there had at last been placed in man’s hands the key to the interpretation of the universe and all its contents, including man himself. Fifty years ago that was ; but time in the interval has wrought many changes. Science, now wiser and less confident, recognises its limitations and confines itself to a description of things as they appear to us, being silent about them as in their ultimate nature they are. Materialism is no longer regarded as a truth of science.

Neither is materialism an established truth of philosophy. It amounts to no more than a philosophic speculation; and it is endorsed to-day by few thinkers of repute. The main reason for this, briefly expressed, is that the theory cannot reach its starting-point. Thought itself bars the way. You can never get to a position beyond thought where you are face to face with matter per se—where you have matter pure and simple—and then show thought evolving from it. Matter in its primordial form—the atom with its electrons—is always matter with an element of thought already present in it. Anyone who grasps the significance of this statement will at once see how precarious a basis materialism is for Socialism.

Materialism is in truth a philosophic issue, which must be settled upon philosophic principles. No apparent value of it for propaganda can avail against a position established in opposition to it—finally, as I think, and irrevocably—far from “the tumult and the shouting,” in the quiet and remote chambers of the thinkers.

Socialism—in essence the view that as production is now social, so also ought to be distribution, and that this can be secured only through the collective ownership and control of industry with its materials and implements—Socialism is strictly an ethico-economic doctrine, which may be held on various grounds. It is that which constitutes its strength and makes it a possible world-polity. The Socialist world of the future—infinitely rich it will be in human types and their contributions to the common stock—is not to be for a handful of doctrinaires, but for all the world’s inhabitants, whatever their opinions on matters irrelevant. The facts upon which the “materialist conception of history” founds, when not coloured and falsified beforehand by the “conception” itself, are susceptible of another and, as many think, a sounder and more inspiring interpretation ; and there is no warrant for using it as a test of orthodoxy. To discard the theory would detract nothing from the achievement of Marx. His genius and industry it was that brought the facts to light and forced them upon the attention of the world.

I speak of the “materialist conception” not without some acquaintance with it. Eighteen years ago I came to grips with it when a student under Morris Hillquit, the well-known Marxian and Internationalist, at the Rand School, New York, in the first year of its existence. Hillquit, I remember, was careful to exclude the “materialist conception” from his definition of Socialism. Socialism would do well, like science, to learn its limitations and refrain from dogmatising about the ultimate nature of reality, whether it is material or spiritual. Not as an enemy of the cause do I write, but as an old and deeply interested friend. I was one of the original members of the Independent Labour Party thirty-two years ago and, before that, was on the executive of the old Scottish Labour Party. Looking back over the past generation, I deeply regret the way in which Socialists have, unwarrantably and without profit to themselves, undermined morality and religion.

As to morality, there is the phrase “the morality of Socialism.” But how much, on a materialistic basis, does this come to? It comes to no more than self-interest. That is why the healthy moral consciousness revolts against it. Self-interest is not necessarily selfishness. Selfishness can exist only in one whose deeper nature it is not to be selfish. It is a quite legitimate element in the moral life. That the working-class itself has been so long blind to its own true self-interest has indeed been its bane. All the same, mere self-interest is not morality, and to proceed upon it would be no ethical advance upon capitalism.

The fatal objection thus to materialistic Socialism is, strange to say, that it is individualistic. It conceives of men as isolated units, each seeking ends that are purely his own, or at any rate ends that are only accidentally united with those of his fellows. Upon such a basis society would be impossible.

However imperfect society at present is, it expresses a principle qualitatively different from self-interest and incommensurably higher. That principle is the idea of the common good. The idea of the common good it is round which ethical controversy has moved throughout the ages—its nature and how it can be justified. It can be justified, as the greatest thinkers have taught and as I myself am profoundly convinced, only on the ground that there is in man a universal and non-material element which lifts him above a merely individual existence and makes him potentially one with his fellows and with the universe. It is, not a life of prudential calculation, but the ever richer and wider realisation of the common good thus conceived—our happy and ennobling privilege, our sacred duty even to the point of self-sacrifice—it is this that constitutes morality. And morality Socialists, by their alliance with materialism and its resulting determinism, have done much to weaken.

As to religion, I could say much, out of a full heart, of the damage done to it by Socialists, but space forbids. Theologically I belong myself to the extreme left, and when Socialists seek wisely to destroy the socially hurtful superstitions that still survive in outworn creeds, I am naturally with them. But religion itself—the apprehension with mind and heart of the Divine Perfection as He gradually unfolds Himself in the universe and in human life—that is another matter. It cannot be destroyed ; it is eternal.

For myself I glory in religion. It is, in this closing stage of my life, what it has been since first in far away years I got at my beloved mother’s knee my earliest glimpse of its secret and acquaintance with its power—it is life’s chief good.


The pamphlet under consideration traces religion from its origin, in savage fear and inexperience, to its modern forms; bringing forward a multitude of facts and reliable authorities in support of the view set forth. Our opponent makes no attempt to touch this historical statement, so that it evidently stands as a correct record, as far as he is concerned. His criticism consists in the main of a series of unsupported assertions ; these I will deal with as fully as space will allow. The pamphlet further points out the use to which religion has been put as an aid to the different ruling classes. This also our critic leaves severely alone.

He opens up with the assertion that materialism is an outworn philosophy which science has outgrown, and further on he says that materialism is endorsed by few thinkers of repute.

Let us hear what a “scientist” has to say in the matter :—

“This procedure has to be adopted not merely within the limits that are popularly assigned to the term science, but also in the realm of what is popularly termed philosophy. As a matter of fact there is no fundamental distinction between the two. Science is not the mere collection of facts. It has indeed to give a great part of its time to the ascertainment of facts, using all the resources of modern technique to secure accuracy in so doing; but the facts once ascertained are merely its raw material. Once they are obtained the real task of science begins—to find out exactly how the facts fit together in that wonderful edifice that we call the universe of nature. The working hypotheses of science are the provisional sketches of particular little bits of the edifice; in their final form and pieced together they would form the complete theory of nature.”— Professor J. Graham Kerr, “Manchester Guardian Weekly.” 29th February, 1924.

Here we have a scientist giving the opposite to our opponent’s contention. But, this apart, how can science achieve anything except by materialistic methods, whether scientists are conscious of the fact or not? Science can only deal with things, whether those things be tables or thoughts, and things exist. If they exist, then that fact itself demonstrates their material nature. Would our opponent suggest that a thought consists of nothing? If so, then let him get in touch with the woman who wears her brain out thinking how she can make ends meet. She will tell him that thinking is a tiring process in which much energy is used up and that food is required to replace this energy.

This brings me to his next assertion, that matter in its primordial form is always matter with an element of thought. (One is reminded of the mysterious attributes of capital !) He helps this assertion out by the previous contention that we can never get to a position beyond thought where we are face to face with matter pure and simple. And later he proves we cannot go beyond thought by doing so himself—and finding the “thing in itself” !

Does our opponent contend that “the atom with its electrons” thinks and consciously combines into stones and half bricks, and that during times of trouble these half bricks consciously fling themselves at our heads. If he does hold this view, then he rules out the cloud-pusher and divine scene-shifter. The brain is a combination of atoms and the brain thinks; feet are a like combination and they dance; snow is such a combination and it melts ; trees are such a combination and they sprout; which is the more wonderful? and which is non-material?

It is the material nature of thinking that is apparently denied. Perhaps an illustration will make the position clearer.

If an object be held up to a mirror a reflection appears. This reflection and reflecting process is just as material as the object reflected. The brain is like such a mirror, obtaining its images through the senses, but it is a living one that sorts out, combines and stores up images. The correctness of the sense perceptions and thought process is demonstrated by future action. For instance, you walk round a moving motor-bus, not under it. The living activity of the brain is just as material a process as walking, or cycling, or thundering, and no more wonderful.

The primordial form of matter contains in the embryo the volcano, dancing girls, the whirlwind, trees, growth, smoking, and so forth, each of which material manifestation is every bit as wonderful as the “element of thought.” Things only exist in their relation to each other. The brain learns of objects by their material manifestations, whether these manifestations take on a physical or a mental form. If our opponent is only going to call touchable things material, then the sound of thunder must be included in his mystical world. We can’t touch thunder, but we can hear it; we can’t touch thoughts, but we can feel them. All phenomena have the same general nature ; they exist and can be made the subject of scientific investigation. There is nothing mystical about thinking, briefly it is the faculty of deriving the general out of the particular, abstract conceptions out of concrete things—a material operation of the brain.

He next asserts that the facts of the materialist conception of history admit of another interpretation, but as he does not give any other interpretation, the statement is a waste of paper. Anyone who is not blinded by illusion must be able to see that all authoritative history is now written from the standpoint of the materialist concept. As epoch after epoch gets a more complete treatment so the economic roots of social development are made clearer and clearer. In the course of history, morality and religion are demonstrated to be changeable things. The moral and religious ideas prevailing at a given period are those favouring the maintenance of the method of production and distribution of that time. As production develops and new classes rise to supremacy the moral and religious ideas that hinder their development are discarded and new ones substituted. History, since the break-up of tribal communism, has been the record of the struggle of different classes for control of the productive forces and the wealth produced. These classes have arisen out of the economic soil and have pursued economic ends. As this point has been dealt with over and over again in these columns and as our opponent has deprived me of the opportunity of grappling with the alternative that he is keeping up his sleeve, there is no occasion to go further into the question at the moment.

The aim of the Socialist is to get all to work harmoniously together on a basis of equality, as only by doing so can each develop himself to the fullest degree and enjoy the best of life—”Man is a social animal.” This idea is no non-material element, it is the heritage of the herd. Hence the assertion that “materialist Socialism” is “individualistic” is foolish and futile.

Our opponent is blind to the practical facts of life and has lost his way in the maze of metaphysics and thus, instead of seeing the principle of the individualistic pursuit of profit and the robbery of the wage worker that faces him at every turn, has discovered somewhere in the byways a vague abstraction, the “principle of the common good.” In its essence he has again got hold of the wrong end of the stick—society should exist for the benefit of man and not man for the benefit of society.

Finally, in the oppression of one class by another, the control of the means of production by the few idlers and the enslavement and impoverishment of the many toilers, he sees “the Divine Perfection” gradually unfolding himself (he knows it is a “he”!). This is a slavist view as it involves resignation and, in the light of previous remarks, a denial of the class struggle. Hence, if the workers would be free they must throw off these religious shackles, and struggle until their class conquers economic freedom in order that the groans of the hungry, the cries of the outcasts, and the whines of the religious, shall alike take their places in the annals of the past. I have retrained, as far as possible, from touching upon points and arguments that are already fully dealt with in the pamphlet that is the subject of attack.


(Socialist Standard, August 1925)

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