Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Lenin on God-concepts, liberalized religion, & political orientation

Even with the near-instantaneous accessibility of information thanks to the digitization of information, finding a specific piece of information you know exists can be time-consuming. In this case, there are two factors involved: (1) inaccuracy in memories of information acquired decades ago, (2) variations in translations from foreign languages. Hence it took me a long time to track down the source of a quote in this letter:

V. I. Lenin to Maxim Gorky, written on November 13 or 14, 1913 [translated by Andrew Rothstein], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), Volume 35, pp. 121-124 [#55]. First published in Pravda No. 51, March 2, 1924. Sent from Cracow to Capri. (Text also available on From Marx to Mao site.)

Here Lenin reads Gorky the riot act for indulgence of the "god-building" tendency among the Russian intelligentsia. Here is the key phrase, in this translation:
Just because any religious idea, any idea of any god at all, any flirtation even with a god, is the most inexpressible foulness, particularly tolerantly (and often even favourably) accepted by the democratic bourgeoisie—for that very reason it is the most dangerous foulness, the most shameful “infection”. A million physical sins, dirty tricks, acts of violence and infections are much more easily discovered by the crowd, and therefore are much less dangerous, than the nubile, spiritual idea of god, dressed up in the most attractive “ideological” costumes.
The force of the first sentence is diluted by the choice of words. As it turns out, this phrase is quoted constantly by right-wing Christians, translated thusly (source of translation unknown):
Every religious idea, every idea of god, every flirtation with the idea of God is unutterable vileness. . . . vileness of the most dangerous kind, 'contagion' of the most abominable kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions . . . are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of a God . . .
Usually the quote cuts off at the first ellipsis. Now isn't this a much more forceful translation?

The full argument should be read. The gist is that the insinuation of watered-down, feelgood notions of God are much more subtly insidious than the gross abuses perpetrated by religionists.

Lenin elaborates his thinking in a subsequent letter:

V. I. Lenin to Maxim Gorky, written in the second half of November 1913 [translated by Andrew Rothstein], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), Volume 35, pp. 127-129 [#58]. First published in 1924 in Lenin Miscellany I. Sent from Cracow to Capri. (Text also available on From Marx to Mao site.)

On the masking effects of liberalized religion:
Like the Christian socialists (the worst variety of “socialism”, and its worst distortion), yon make use of a method which (despite your best intentions) repeals the hocus-pocus of the priests: you eliminate from the idea of God everything about it that is historical and drawn from real life (filth, prejudices, sanctified ignorance and degradation, on the one hand, serfdom and monarchy, on the other), and instead of the reality of history and life (here is substituted in the idea of God a gentle petty-bourgeois phrase (God=“ideas which awaken and organise social feelings”).

Your wish in so doing is to say something “good and kind”, to point out “truth and justice” and the like. But your good wish remains your personal affair, a subjective “innocent desire”. Once you have written it down, it goes out among the masses, and its significance is determined not by your good wishes, but by the relationship of social forces, the objective relationship of classes.
Lenin goes on to clarify why. . .
Your entire definition is reactionary and bourgeois, through and through. God=the complex of ideas which “awaken and organise social feelings, having as their object to link the individual with society and to bridle zoological individualism.
As for the political handling of religion, this may be Lenin's most important statement:

"The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion" [translated by Andrew Rothstein and Bernard Issacs], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), Volume 15, pp. 402-413. From Proletary, No. 45, May 13 (26), 1909. (Also available on the From Marx to Mao site.)

Lenin's dialectical position rejects both the doctrinaire anti-religious politics of anarchists and the waffling timorousness of liberals:
To people with a slapdash attitude towards Marxism, to people who cannot or will not think, this history is a skein of meaningless Marxist contradictions and waverings, a hodge-podge of “consistent” atheism and “sops” to religion, “unprincipled” wavering between a r-r-revolutionary war on God and a cowardly desire to “play up to” religious workers, a fear of scaring them away, etc., etc.
. . . We must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion.
Critics who see Marxist policy as inconsistent on the question of anti-religious agitation fail to see:
The contradiction which perplexes these objectors is a real contradiction in real life, i. e., a dialectical contradiction, and not a verbal or invented one. To draw a hard-and-fast line between the theoretical propaganda of atheism, i. e., the destruction of religious beliefs among certain sections of the proletariat, and the success, the progress and the conditions of the class struggle of these sections, is to reason undialectically, to transform a shifting and relative boundary into an absolute boundary; it is forcibly to disconnect what is indissolubly connected in real life.
As for the (in)appropriateness of religious expressions:
Another example. Should members of the Social-Democratic Party be censured all alike under all circumstances for declaring “socialism is my religion”, and for advocating views in keeping with this declaration? No! The deviation from Marxism (and consequently from socialism) is here indisputable; but the significance of the deviation, its relative importance, so to speak, may vary with circumstances. It is one thing when an agitator or a person addressing the workers speaks in this way in order to make himself better understood, as an introduction to his subject, in order to present his views more vividly in terms to which the backward masses are most accustomed. It is another thing when a writer begins to preach “god-building”, or god-building socialism (in the spirit, for example, of our Lunacharsky and Co.). While in the first case censure would be mere carping, or even inappropriate restriction of the freedom of the agitator, of his freedom in choosing “pedagogical” methods, in the second case party censure is necessary and essential. For some the statement “socialism is a religion” is a form of transition from religion to socialism; for others, it is a form of transition from socialism to religion.
As for the policy of party (which was a voluntary association before the revolution) and state on religion:
The party of the proletariat demands that the state should declare religion a private matter, but does not regard the fight against the opium of the people, the fight against religious superstitions, etc., as a “private matter”.
All the aforementioned writings originated prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Once the Bolsheviks fight the brutal civil war and retain command of the state, there is a whole new set of circumstances to evaluate historically. Here is a key statement on communist ethics from the Soviet Union's earliest years:

"The Tasks of the Youth Leagues", Speech Delivered At The Third All-Russia Congress of The Russian Young Communist League, in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), Vol. 31, pp. 283-99. Speech written and.or delivered on October 2, 1920, published in Pravda, Nos. 221, 222 and 223, October 5, 6 and 7, 1920. (Also available on the From Marx to Mao site.)

Lenin asserts that communists do indeed have an ethics, in spite of accusations to the contrary. To wit:

In what sense do we reject ethics, reject morality?

In the sense given to it by the bourgeoisie, who based ethics on God's commandments. On this point we, of course, say that we do not believe in God, and that we know perfectly well that the clergy, the landowners and the bourgeoisie invoked the name of God so as to further their own interests as exploiters. Or, instead of basing ethics on the commandments of morality, on the commandments of God, they based it on idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to God's commandments.

We reject any morality based on extra-human and extra-class concepts. We say that this is deception, dupery, stultification of the workers and peasants in the interests of the landowners and capitalists.

We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat's class struggle. Our morality stems from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.

The old society was based on the oppression of all the workers and peasants by the landowners and capitalists. We had to destroy all that, and overthrow them but to do that we had to create unity. That is something that God cannot create.

This notion of morality has been contested in light of the subsequent history of the Soviet Union and other regimes citing Marxism-Leninism as their authority. Nonetheless, there is much good sense in Lenin's philosophical viewpoint that remains worth considering, though today's circumstances and politics are fundamentally quite different.

1 comment:

Samuel Skinner said...

I think the present would give Lenin a stroke. The most recent Pew survey found 20% of atheists believing in God and 70% of theist with this wishy washy beliefs at their extreme- other religions are perfectly okay with them and will alos get you to heaven.