Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trotsky on religion (4): materialism, revolution, morality

Leon Trotsky, Between Red and White (1922), Chapter IV: The Period of Caution

We have a strong suspicion that Mrs. Snowden is burning with curiosity to know what we, who deny God and His commandments, understand by ‘honesty’. We even suspect that Mr. Henderson puts this question to us not without irony, that is if irony can be at all compatible with piety.

We confess that we are not acquainted with the Absolute Morality of the Popes, either of the Church or of the University, of the Vatican or of the PSA. The Categorical Imperative of Kant, the Transubstantiation of Christ, and the artistic virtues of a religious myth are as unknown to us as the old hard and cunning Moses who found the treasure of eternal morality on Mount Sinai. Morality is a function of living human society. There is nothing absolute in its character, for it changes with the progress of that society, and serves as an expression of the interests of its classes, and chiefly of the governing classes. Official morality is a bridle to restrain the oppressed. In the course of the struggle the working class has elaborated its own revolutionary morality, which began by dethroning God and all absolute standards. But we understand by honesty a conformity of words and deeds before the working class, checked by the supreme end of the movement and of our struggle: the liberation of humanity through the social revolution. For instance, we do not say that one must not deceive and be cunning, that one must love one’s enemies, etc., for such exalted morality is evidently only accessible to such deeply religious statesmen as Lord Curzon, Lord Northcliffe, and Mr. Henderson. We hate or despise our enemies, according to their deserts; we beat them and deceive according to circumstances, and, even when we come to an understanding with them, we are not swept off our feet by a wave of forgiving love. But we firmly believe that one must not lie to the masses and that one must not deceive them with regard to the aims and methods of their own struggle. The social revolution is entirely based upon the growth of proletarian consciousness and on the faith of the proletariat in its own strength and in the party which is leading it. One may play a double game with the enemies of the proletariat, but not with the proletariat itself. Our party has made mistakes, together with the masses which it was leading. We have always quite openly acknowledged these mistakes to the masses, and, together with them we have made the necessary changes. What the devotees of legality are pleased to call demagogy is merely truth, too plainly and too loudly expressed. This, Mrs. Snowden, is our conception of honesty.

Leon Trotsky, The Position of the Republic and the Tasks of Young Workers, Report to the 5th All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist League of Youth (1922). Published in the Bulletin of the Fifth All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist League of Youth (Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 1923). Translated by R. Chappel, published 1972.

Religion is a sop and a leash. Religion is a poison precisely during a revolutionary epoch and in a period of the extreme hardships which are succeeding the conquest of power. This was understood by such a counter-revolutionary in political sympathies, but such a deep psychologist, as Dostoevsky. He said: ‘Atheism is inconceivable without socialism and socialism without atheism. Religion denies not only atheism but socialism also.’ He had understood that the heavenly paradise and the earthly paradise negate one another. If man is promised a hereafter, a kingdom without end then is it worth shedding his own and his brothers’ and his children’s blood for the establishment of a kingdom just like this here in this world? That is the question. We must deepen a revolutionary world-outlook, we must fight the religious prejudices in the youth and approach the youth, including those having religious prejudicies, with the maximum pedagogical attentiveness of the more educated towards the less educated. We must go to them with the propaganda of atheism, for only this propaganda defines the place of man in the universe and draws out for him a circle of conscious activity here on earth.

I have already said that the revolution lays bare the rock strata of social existence, and the class and state structure and reveals the fraud and hypocrisy of bourgeois ideology. This relates not only to earthly but also to heavenly affairs.

The best example of this is the American Bishop Brown. Look at his pamphlet on communism and Christianity. The American bishop whose portrait is included in the pamphlet, is still in his episcopal vestments. I imagine that by now he has managed to take them off. On the front of the pamphlet there is the hammer and sickle and a rising sun. And this bishop says in a letter to another ecclesiastical figure the following: ‘A god who had played even the slightest role in the Anglo-German war, in the Versailles peace or in the blockade of Russia is for me not a god but a devil. If you say that the Christian god did not take any part in the war then I shall reply that these events represent the greatest sufferings that humanity has passed through over the last years and that if he, God, could not, or did not wish to avert them then why in that case should we turn to him?’

These are the tragic words of a bishop who had believed in his god and before whom the war and the revolution revealed the terrible ulcers of their disasters. And he asks: ‘Where is my god? He either did not know, did not wish to or did not know how. If he did not know then he is not a god. If he did not wish to then he is not a god. If he did not know how then he is not a god.’ And he becomes a materialist and an atheist and says that religion flows from the class nature of society.

And this is natural. Just these volcanic epochs of social explosions pose the question of a religious world-outlook at point-blank range and we, having the experience of our revolution, of our sufferings and disasters, must pose this question before the consciousness and before the theoretical conscience of the younger generation of the working class. The same bishop says further on: ‘If one were to place merely an average honest humane and intelligent man at the head of the universe then the order would be far better and there would be less brutalities and bloodshed than at present.’ This question is a question of the education of our young workers. The material for this is everywhere, from the workshop-cell where the process of our primitive socialist accumulation is taking place in still very brutal forms and for a long time yet will do so in painful forms, to the whole cosmos and to man’s place in the universe.

Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution; (1932) Volume Two: The Attempted Counter-Revolution; Chapter 27: The Month of the Great Slander
But why after all is political slander as such so poor and monotonous? Because the social mind is economical and conservative. It does not expend more efforts than are necessary for its goal. It prefers to borrow the old, when not compelled to create the new. But even when so compelled, it combines with it elements of the old. Each successive religion has created no new mythology, but has merely repersonified the superstitions of the past. In the same manner philosophical systems are created, and doctrines of law and morals. Separate individuals, even those possessed of genius, develop in the same inharmonious way as the society which nourishes them. A bold imagination lives in the same skull with a slavish adherence to trite images. Audacious flights reconcile themselves with crude prejudices. Shakespeare nourished his creative genius upon subjects handed down from the deep ages. Pascal used the theory of probability to demonstrate the existence of God. Newton discovered the law of gravitation and believed in the Apocalypse. After Marconi had established a wireless station in the residence of the pope, the vicar of Christ distributed his mystic blessing by radio. In ordinary times these contradictions do not rise above a condition of drowsiness, but in times of catastrophe they acquire explosive force. When it comes to a threat against their material interests, the educated classes set in motion all the prejudices and confusion which humanity is dragging in its wagon-train behind it. Can we too much blame the lords of old Russia, if they built the mythology of their fall out of indiscriminate borrowings from those classes which were overthrown before them?

Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (1936), Chapter 3: Socialism and the State
Marxism sets out from the development of technique as the fundamental spring of progress, and constructs the communist program upon the dynamic of the productive forces. If you conceive that some cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near future, then you must, of course, reject the communist perspective along with much else. Except for this as yet problematic danger, however, there is not the slightest scientific ground for setting any limit in advance to our technical productive and cultural possibilities. Marxism is saturated with the optimism of progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcilably opposed to religion.
Leon Trotsky, "Marxism in Our Time" (April 1939)
Having established science as cognition of the objective recurrences of nature, man has tried stubbornly and persistently to exclude himself from science, reserving for himself special privileges in the shape of alleged intercourse with supersensory forces (religion), or with timeless moral precepts (idealism). Marx deprived man of these odious privileges definitely and forever, looking upon him as a natural link in the evolutionary process of material nature; upon human society as the organisation of production and distribution; upon capitalism as a stage in the development of human society.
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For economic science the decisive significance is what and how people do, not what they themselves think about their actions. At the base of society is not religion and morality, but nature and labour. Marx’s method is materialistic, because it proceeds from existence to consciousness, not the other way around. Marx’s method is dialectic, because it regards both nature and society as they evolve, and evolution itself as the constant struggle of conflicting forces.

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