Religion—its social roots and role
EDITOR’S NOTE : The article which appears below was originally delivered in 1932 as a lecture before the League at Professional Groups. It was among the papers that Felix Morrow planned for publication, in particular against the trend of the Kremlin and the Stalinists openly to embrace religion and the Church—and this, in the name of Marxism ! The projected publication of this essay was prevented at the time by Morrow’s being railroaded to jail together with the other Trotskyist leaders.
Definitions of religion, like definitions of the state, generally tell us more about the social and political allegiances of the author of a given definition than about the true nature of religion or the state. Loyalties—that is, class interests and class outlook—are transferred into definitions ; especially is this true of religion. Typical of such definitions is a theologian’s formula for Christianity as ‘the synthesis of the highest aspirations of man’. The fact that definitions are declarations of class allegiance and class programmes does not at all mean—as empiricists and pragmatists pretend—that all definitions are therefore of equal validity. On the contrary. Just as Marxists, in controverting ‘classless’ and other fraudulent theories of the state can point to historical and contemporary class functions of the state as a class organ used by the dominant class ; so, too, Marxists are able to confront all apologetic definitions of religion with the actual social function of religion.
What are the roots of religion ? The most favourite trick of the obscurantists and their allies is to pretend that religion is rooted in the mind. That is how the perpetuation of religious prejudices, creeds, etc, is usually explained. Exposing this falsehood Lenin wrote :
Why does religion retain its hold in the backward layers of the urban proletariat, in the broad layers of semi-proletarians and also in the mass peasantry ? Because of the ignorance of the people—replies a bourgeois progressive, a radical, or a bourgeois materialist ... The Marxist says : Not true ! Such a view is superficial ; it is narrow bourgeois “culture-spreading”. Such a view does not probe deeply enough into the roots of religion. In modern capitalist countries these roots are primarily social. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, First Russian Edition, vol.XI, Book 1, pp.253-254.)
It is precisely because of this social role of religion—teaching submissiveness, summoning all to suffer in silence in return for rewards in the ‘hereafter’ etc, and in this way seeking to dampen the class struggle of workers against capitalists, of peasants against landlords—it is precisely for this reason that Marx designated religion as the ‘opium of the people’, and Lenin branded it as ‘a kind of spiritual corn-whisky’.
To lay bare the social roots and social function of religion is to expose it for what it really is. Which is precisely what the apologists of capitalism and all its institutions seek in every way to avoid. It is hardly surprising therefore that one of the most significant gaps in apologetic definitions of religion is the omission of the fact that religion is an institution ; the fact that a religion, if it plays any role in a given society, is an organised religion. One scarcely need point out, as against this omission of the fact of institutionalisation, that a religion which remains unorganised would not perpetuate itself.
What would an unorganised religion be ? It might be enunciated by some individuals and communicated to others. But if these did not organise together, acquire property and funds, endow churches and subsidiary institutions, carry on extensive propaganda, raise up a professional paid class of ministers and administrators, how would the religion be communicated to great numbers ? The blood of the martyrs may be the seed of the church, but that the seed sprouts and is perpetuated is due to union with Rome, to the riches garnered by the church, to its position as the greatest of feudal landholders. This is indeed a commonplace, except that it has been so obscured by the English Dissenting tradition which is the main source of American religious thinking.
This tradition of a lower class, once so suspicious of established church and state, and therefore appealing to the direct inspiration of the Word of God, with a lay ministry and tiny meeting-houses, is still reiterated by the descendants of the Dissenters, who are now the ruling class of America, with powerful, enormously wealthy churches, with a clergy whose administrative duties make them as much businessmen as priests, with the fusion of different sects, and the centralisation of church control growing every day more pronounced. The hypocrisy of John D. Rockefeller’s Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick sermonising that the church is not so important as the pure heart is only too transparent—provided one is not wearing blinkers.
This institutional character of religion, glossed over by religious apologists as somehow irrelevant to the religious core of the church, is highly relevant to any serious description and analysis of the function of religion.
In every epoch of history, the existing institutions are bound up with the social relations of production. As the Catholic church was the bulwark of feudalism, so today all churches are part of the arsenal of capitalism, share in its privileges and fortunes. In the class struggles which arise from the antagonisms implicit in the mode of production, the dominant institutions, including the churches, support the ruling classes.
In the epochs before the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the differences between classes were expressed also in different religions ; that is, the new classes struggling against the ruling class have also given birth to new religions which wage parallel struggles with the dominant religion. The struggles against feudalism became struggles also against the then greatest feudal landowner, the Catholic church. The peasant wars against the clergy and nobility, in the 15th and 16th centuries, took the form of the Anabaptist, Albigensian, Hussite, Lollard, heresies : In defence of its domains and privileges, the church demands submission to it as the only channel of grace ; the peasants counter by proclaiming the central authority of the gospels.
So, too, the revolt of the middle classes of Germany under Luther, which, as Engels has pointed out, takes the form of a demand for a cheap church similar to the later bourgeois and petty-bourgeois demand for cheap government, is also a religious heresy. In the same way, the revolt of the rising bourgeoisie of England against irresponsible monarchy and feudal landowners takes the form of a Puritan and Sectarian struggle against the established church.
It is interesting to note that, as the meaning of the bourgeois revolutions grows clearer to the plebeian revolutionists, the fight against the church grows less and less a fight of one religion against another. Thus, the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848 no longer obscure their tasks with religious ideology ; the class fighting its way upward has no need of seeing its struggle as a religious one. The mists of religion, obscuring the real contending forces, become a hindrance to the class fighting an uphill fight. If this is true of the later bourgeois revolutions, revolutions which serve only to transfer power from one minority ruling class to another, how much more true must this be of the proletarian revolution, which is to do away with all classes, and whose success, whose very programme of action, is based on the scientific analysis of the nature of social life free of all fetishisms.
Since the Puritan revolt there has been no important example of a class struggle also taking the form of religion. All later religious movements have been reactionary in character. The religious movements among the lower classes, such as the evangelistic sects, like the Baptists and Methodists, were a substitute for secular protest, combining with their wails of anguish explicit submission to the powers that be. The other religious substitute for secular protest, the religious communist colonies, belongs to the history of utopian socialism and comes at a time when the role of utopian socialism has become a reactionary one.
What happened to bourgeois anti-clericalism ? Once the bourgeoisie triumph, they, too, find like the ruling class which preceded them that religion is useful to the state, and freethinking and atheism become in their eyes identified with ‘immorality’ etc, i.e., hatred of the established order. The realistic rationalism of the epoch of bourgeois revolution passes ; no American politician who announced the beliefs of Jefferson and Patrick Henry, or even the indifferent churchgoing of Washington, would be run nowadays for office.
Tom Paine, the propagandist of the American revolution, became, for Theodore Roosevelt, ‘that filthy little atheist’. In France, its classic home, anti-clericalism remained longest, owing to the political usefulness of the traditions of the Revolution, and continual conflicts over property with the Catholic church. But despite any manifest unfriendliness, the church of Rome laboured to find favour in the eyes of French capital, and at long last, it has not laboured in vain. When a flare-up between the church and the Chamber of Deputies occurred in 1924, the Journal des Debats, organ of the most important French imperialists, sharply warned the government against breaking with the Holy See, ‘because of the large number of French Catholic institutions abroad’. ‘French influence,’ the journal said, ‘in Asia Minor and North Africa is largely maintained through these [Catholic] institutions.’ The rush of the formerly anti-clerical bourgeoisie into the arms of the church became so precipitous and for such obvious reasons that the church itself felt embarrassed. Here is how Abbé Ernest Dimnet commented on this sudden influx of converts :
Today it is remarkable that the French upper middle classes are the main support of religion and go to great expense in order to support the schools in which their children are educated in a religious atmosphere totally different from that in which the previous generations grew up. The majority in the French Chamber may still be Masonic... French governments in consequence cannot but feel the influence of the lodges and might be expected to be anti-clerical. Yet they are not. Monks and nuns have returned to their schools and teach in their costumes. The Archbishop of Paris is on the best terms with the Prime Minister and a recent legal case has shown that the government regards the Papal Nuncio as a valuable ally.
‘What does this mean ?’ asks the reverend father. It is true, he sadly goes on, ‘that the bourgeoisie and the politicians representing it have opened their eyes to the social utility of religion. A mean notion of religion, this utilitarianism in the land of Saint Louis and Joan of Arc ! ... But in France as in the rest of the world there is, working for a return to religion, something higher than opportunism’. And so forth and so on.
Thus passed the last stronghold of anti-clericalism. The Catholic church has adjusted itself to its capitalistic successors, and serves them as loyally as she once served feudalism. Once she completes the process of adjusting herself, with some necessary losses of estates, to the new capitalist regime of Spain, the Catholic church will have finally completed her transition from feudalism to capitalism. Her losses will be little enough in the process, if she can help herself. On the same day that the Pope by radio condemned ‘men for fixing their eyes on earthly goods’, he demanded cash reparations of thirty million dollars from the Spanish government for church property destroyed by the revolution.
In America, once the Civil War decided that capitalism was to be master of the continent, the churches proceeded to become capitalist with a brazenness which no established church has ever outdone. The example of the Baptist church is a good one, since it had always been known as a poor man’s church. As I have said, these evangelical movements were once substitutes for social protest ; however, as they prospered, they ceased to be substitutes for social protest and became glorifiers of the social order. Baptist ministers indignantly repudiated the idea that the Baptist churches are composed of the poor of the world. A prominent Baptist divine has declared :
God has so blessed [us], temporally, as well as spiritually, that we could demonstrate that the aggregate of wealth among [us] is far greater than of some ecclesiastical fraternities whose members not infrequently put on lordly airs and affect to despise the Baptists for their poverty.
The concept of the sanctification of wealth became a creed of the churches. Dollars and godliness were pronounced to go together. Capitalists were ‘God’s stewards’. Baptist conventions passed resolutions saying that they ‘thankfully recognised the rich blessing of the Great Head of the Church, in the recent gift of Brother John D. Rockefeller’ (or other millionaire Brothers Vassar, Bishop, Colgate, Deane, etc, etc). The Christian Standard urged businessmen to take over the administration of church affairs, for who, it asked, was ‘so qualified to do business as a businessman, and who to spend God’s money as his legitimate stewards ?’
It ought to be noted that the developing control of the churches by capitalism was more than an obviously direct control. While the Protestant churches have been directly controlled by the businessmen—who generally control property, funds and ministers—this kind of control is not at all indispensable to the general support of capitalism by the churches. As a matter of fact, the most effective supporters of capitalism are not the obvious hirelings but the apparent volunteers. The short-sighted businessmen who directly control the Protestant churches may prevent at crucial moments a flexibility which is much more valuable to capitalism. In this, the Catholic church has proved superior to Protestant. In Spain the ally of the feudal nobles, in Italy of Fascism, in Germany of the Social Democracy, all at the same time. Thus, the Catholic church has been the saviour of capitalism in ways impossible for the less flexible Protestants. Her union with German socialists helped bring forth the Weimar constitution, saving capitalism, while the Protestant churches, in the hands of Junkers and industrialists, were unable to manoeuvre. The Catholic church knows how to yield the husk to save the kernel. Today [This was written in 1932—Ed.] she is unwilling, in America, officially to recognise the principle of trade unionism (though she exercises considerable influence in the AFL.) Tomorrow, if it is necessary to hold the masses from rushing forward, the Catholic church will organise trade unions. This flexibility, plus the fact that so far as the working masses in large numbers go to church, they are Catholics, bids fair to give the Catholic church an increasingly important role in American capitalist struggle against the workers.
In general, when the underdog struggles, it is high time for the top dog to call down to him in the name of brotherhood. In particular, this has been the role of the Social Gospel. To bring the worker into the church or at least to persuade him that the church is not his enemy ; offering either religious techniques for solving the social problems or paper programmes, which mean nothing and which, even on paper, go no further than the mildest of liberalisms. This, and an occasional gesture. The high water mark of the Social Gospel in this country was the Interchurch World Movement’s report on the steel strike after it failed ; the result was the collapse of the Interchurch organisation. I once asked a secretary of the Federated Council of Churches why his organisation did not do things like the steel strike report. He looked hurt. Why, he said, ‘that steel strike report put us in a fix which we have just about dragged ourselves out of now. Do you want to ruin us ?’
The measure of direct control of the churches, therefore, is not a sufficient index to their capitalist loyalty. Nor is their relation to the state. The political privileges of the churches, their freedom from taxation, their right to conduct religious schools or teach religion in the public schools, blasphemy and Sunday laws, religious propaganda in the armed forces and legislatures, etc, are also not the most significant revelations of the capitalist role of the churches. The fact is that formal separation of church and state, like the formal appearance of impartiality assumed by capitalist ‘democracy’, is the most efficient form under which the churches can function in the interests of capitalism. An established church is suspect even by scarcely class-conscious workers. Under the slogan of freedom from state domination, the church performs its best work for capitalism.
The mechanics of deception
The ministers and administrators of the churches are by income or social status part of the capitalist class, move in it and have their being in it. They simply express the capitalist ideology of their class. The principles of capitalism become, as by a process of osmosis, the principles of religion under capitalism. When the pillar of the Baptist church, John D. Rockefeller, declared, as he fought the Ludlow strikers, that the great principle at stake was that American workmen should not be deprived of their ‘right’ to work for whom they please, the Baptist pulpits echoed him. The clergy howled for the blood of the Haymarket martyrs, as did the capitalists. When Theodore Roosevelt pronounced Debs an ‘undesirable citizen’ he was but repeating the gist of thousands of sermons. The history of the development of the American working class is mirrored in the capitalist propaganda of the churches, their calling the workers to submission, their outright strikebreaking, their regimentation of the workers for the capitalist parties, etc, etc.
As a matter of fact, the churches, in their inculcation of the standards which are also inculcated by school, press, radio and state, have an immeasurable advantage over other institutions. What the others teach to be correct as a matter of expediency, advisability or judiciousness, the church teaches as the word of God or connects with religious significance or translates into archaic, sonorous language far more effective than the language of school and press and state. The world war of 1914-1918 proved this to the hilt. They turned the war of capitalism into a holy war, and God’s habitations became the most effective recruiting stations. In this capacity of the churches to make religious principles out of practical politics lies their greatest service to capitalism.
Bourgeois thinkers occasionally blurt out this fact. I quote, as an example, the following unguarded soliloquy of James Bryce. That philistine becomes thoughtful as, in his survey of the American Commonwealth, he is struck by the important role of the churches :
No one is so thoughtless as not sometimes to ask himself what would befall mankind if the solid fabric of [religious] belief on which their morality has hitherto rested, or at least been deemed by them to rest, were suddenly to break up and vanish... Morality with religion for its sanction has hitherto been the basis of social polity, except under military despotisms... So sometimes, standing in the midst of a great American city, and watching the throngs of eager figures streaming hither and thither, marking the sharp contrasts of poverty and wealth, an increasing mass of wretchedness and an increasing display of luxury... one is startled by the thought of what might befall this huge yet delicate fabric of laws and commerce and social institutions were the foundation it has rested on to crumble away... History cannot answer this question. The most she can tell us is that hitherto civilised society has rested on religion, and that free government has prospered best among religious people.
No wonder, then, that no Commencement address in schools and universities is complete without a tribute to religion ; and no Chamber of Commerce banquet ended without someone sounding the religious note. No wonder that in dedicating a statue of Francis Asbury, that Methodist pioneer, Coolidge should have declared :
Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberty, and for the rights of mankind.
In the midst of the imperialist war of 1914-1918, Lenin wrote :
Feuerbach was right when in reply to those who defended religion on the ground that it consoles the people, he pointed out the reactionary meaning of consolation : ‘Whoever consoles the slave instead of arousing him to revolt against slavery, aids the slaveholder.’ All oppressing classes of every description need two social functions to safeguard their domination : the function of a hangman, and the function of a priest. The hangman is to quell the protest and rebellion of the oppressed, the priest is to paint before them a perspective of mitigated sufferings and sacrifice under the same class rule (which it is particularly easy to do without guaranteeing the ‘possibility of their realisation’...). Thereby he reconciles them to class domination, weans them away from revolutionary actions, undermines their revolutionary spirit, destroys their revolutionary determination. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, English Edition, vol.XVIII, pp.295-296.)
Whoever grasps and assimilates this Leninist-Marxist analysis of religion has learned the truth about the social function of religion. He who denies it, in the words of Feuerbach—aids the slaveholder.
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