origionally publihed in red star 4 jan '05:
A Question of Faith.
As I write this article BBC radio news are reporting that a Birmingham theatre has cancelled a play, written by an Asian woman playwright, which includes scenes of sexual abuse and violence based in a Gurdwara (a Sikh temple), after a riot outside the opening night by Sikh protesters who claim that the play is blasphemous and should be banned.
Some people, who consider themselves socialists, may agree with the Sikh protesters arguing that a minority religious group should be protected from attacks on them.
I think that this position is absolutely wrong. What would these people say if a catholic crowd stormed a theatre that was showing a play about sexual abuse by a catholic priest?
Hopefully they would argue that Religious mobs should not have the right to prevent freedom of speech.
For socialists, in this country, much of the last century the question of religion has been largely an abstract issue. Necessary to understand in order to comprehend the strange antics of exotic foreigners, such as Iranians, or Americans or Irish people, but really not applicable to us modern civilised north Europeans. Even the Church of England seemed to agree with us, happily distilling out of its creed anything that might offend liberal sensibilities.
Now all that has changed. The God Botherers have risen up and bitten us on our somewhat complacent arses.
The role of the evangelical right in the re election of George Shrub; the demonisation of Islam and its identification as ‘The Enemy’ in The War Against Terror; the banning of the Hijab from French schools; the campaign against the war in Iraq; the central position of Fundamentalists in the resistance to the occupying forces; the attempt of the British government to introduce a law forbidding religious discrimination, and outlawing hatred on religious grounds even in the reliable old Cof E there has been a potential schism over attempts to stop a gay man becoming a bishop: All these have thrust the question of the relationship between socialists and religious believers a real and immediate problem. And, as usual, when the abstract becomes concrete, the left implodes, either scrambling for ‘Influence’, that is junking their principles in need to cobble up increasingly unstable ‘coalitions’, or retreating into a shrill anti clericalism that has learnt nothing from the last 200 years and imitates the rantings of the bourgeois newspaper columnists in their daily tirades against the ‘Dark Islamic Hordes’ (Trade Mark The Daily Mail, and all other newspapers).
The collapse of the left over the question of religion, although pretty much par for the course, is actually quite surprising when the amount of socialist thought which has been applied to this subject is taken into account.
Early socialists followed the example of the enlightenment thinkers in seeing the ideas of religion as the real problem All that would be necessary then, would be to disprove the bibles lies and distortions and the scales would fall from the eyes of the millions held in thrall by the priesthood.
Unfortunately this did not happen.
Marx started with, and agreed with, the critique of religion by thinkers like d’Holbach and Thomas Paine but asked the question, what causes people to turn to religion for answers? In ancient times when people were unable to account for the cause of various natural phenomena it was understandable to ascribe them to the actions of some supernatural deity. But now with all that human technology and science has shown us of the way in which our universe is ordered why is it that millions still cling to the skirts of the priests? Marx argued that the answer lay not in the hypnotic power of the catholic mass but rather in the social conditions created by class society. His most famous aphorism on the subject ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ when read in full makes this clear:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the _expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo…”
For Marx, humans turn to religion to give them that which society cannot, a Hope for a future without pain or want or suffering a reason for that suffering and the promise of a reward in an afterlife and to thus endure it without protest. It is only in the destruction of the conditions of class rule and the creation of a communist society that the attraction of religion will end. Marx and Engels also noted the way in which Religion not only soothed the masses into acceptance of the status quo but also could on occasion cause them to arise in religious fervour to shake the ruling order to its foundations; Engels studied Thomas Munster and the uprising of the Anabaptists in Germany in the 15th century. If religion was a drug it was one that could cause great euphoria as well as torpid quiescence.
The social conservative role of religion was not some major discovery of Marx, Napoleon Bonaparte on why he had invited the Catholic Church back into France after the revolution:
“What is it that makes poor man take it for granted that… on my table at each meal there is enough to sustain a family for a week? It is religion which says to him that in another life I shall be his equal, indeed that he has a better chance of being happy there than I have”
Revolutionaries therefore are uncompromising opponents of organised religion, powerful monolithic institutions committed to the maintenance of the existing order, in this we do not differ from the views of the philosophers who influenced the French revolution but recognise that the belief of individuals is a result of the alienating, soul destroying effects of class society and they can only be won away from those ideas when they gain belief in their own power to control their own futures.
What does this mean practically for socialists today? Firstly Lenin’s dictum that ‘Revolutionaries must be the tribunes of the oppressed’ is a good starting point. We recognise that the ruling class maintains its rule by creating false divisions between workers and scapegoating minority religious believers has been historically effective in dividing and thus disarming working class resistance. We also recognise that criticism of religious beliefs and practices have been used as a cover for racist attacks on Asian people (slurs against Moslems have replaced ‘paki’ as the insult of choice for today’s fascist thug). It is vital then that socialists should defend members of minority religious groups from these attacks. When the French newspapers attacked Dany Cohn Bendit, leader of the students in Paris, in 1968 as a ‘German Jew’ the students marched under the slogan ‘We are all German Jews!’
But whilst standing shoulder to shoulder with minority religious groups when they are under attack we must never forget that there is no homogenous community of the oppressed. The system rules by dividing us. This means there is no natural way by which one oppressed group identifies with another. The most racist extremists in the Southern States of America are the poor whites - not the rich whites.
In the same way blacks do not automatically support women and women do not automatically support blacks. Within oppressed communities themselves there are vast extremes of wealth and power and socialists must beware of regarding all Moslems, Catholics, or whatever as being some indivisible mass, instead we should seek to split religious workers away from the influence of their religious leaders. This can only be achieved by appealing to them by what unites us as fellow workers. Pandering to religious prejudices, calling on Moslems to vote ‘as Moslems’ only confirms the primacy of Religion and the role of priests and religious elders.
There are of course many socialists whose personal spiritual views have brought them into the struggle for socialism and see no separation between these and their conception of socialism. There is, in my opinion, no problem with this, socialists recognise the right of everyone to hold whatever personal spiritual beliefs they want. For socialists the problem comes when personal spirituality/faith is Institutionalised and transformed into a Religion, where an internal belief system and moral code becomes an external power structure and law.
Socialists fight to build a new world free of the horror and poverty that drives people into the hands of the priests. Our struggle does not exclude the religious but says that in the words of the old song:
No saviour from on high delivers
No trust have we in prince or peer
Our own right hands the chains must shiver
Chains of hatred, greed and fear
E'er the thieves will out with their booty
And to all give a happier lot
Each at the forge must do their duty
And strike the iron while it's hot