Workers Hammer No. 207
Australian Socialist Alternative: God-deluded opportunists
On Marxism and religion
We reprint below, in slightly edited form, an article from Australasian Spartacist no 204 (Autumn 2009), newspaper of the Spartacist League of Australia, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Interna-tionalist).
For youth repelled by the exploitative capitalist system and beginning to explore socialist ideas, organisations claiming the mantle of Marxism might seem a bewildering assortment. Reading an article in Socialist Alternative (Oct-Nov 2008) titled “The real story of what Marxists think of religion”, you could forgive such potential revolutionaries their confusion. Eulogising religion as having the potential to be a “platform for resistance to oppression”, Socialist Alternative (SAlt) contend that Marxism isn’t opposed to religion at all! “What!?” such youth might exclaim, “What happened to Marxism being scientific and atheist?”
Perhaps it was one such individual who wrote to Socialist Alternative (November 2008), calling on SAlt to stop sugar-coating religion and observing that “Islam like Judaism and Christianity are tools of the oppressors”. The letter provoked a venomous response. Three replies, including from SAlt cadre, published in the “Dec 08-Jan 09” issue denounced the correspondent as on the “elitist, atheist ‘God Delusion’ bandwagon” and “filled with Islamophobic shit” having “sucked up...the anti-Muslim mind poison, sugar-coated in leftism fed to you by the ruling class”. While we are not uncritical of the original (edited) letter and have no way of knowing fully what the writer stands for, SAlt’s unhinged response, like their article penned by Patrick Weiniger, is a bald-faced repudiation of Marxism.
As Marxist revolutionaries who want to change this world and end human exploitation and oppression, we’re firmly on the side of science, which studies the natural world and validates theories by observation and experiment, as opposed to religion which asserts blind faith in an unreal, supernatural power controlling events. We are, in the words of Russian revolutionary leader VI Lenin, “absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion”. At the same time we oppose all forms of religious persecution and oppression. Thus our comrades in the US have opposed the arrest of Mormons for practising polygamy (see Workers Vanguard no 916, 6 June 2008). Comrades in France and elsewhere have protested government moves to ban the Islamic hijab or headscarf in schools, noting that such persecution can only reinforce the grip of religion by driving women out of secular society.
We stand opposed to the imperialist impoverishment and exploitation of the masses of the neocolonial world, but this does not mean that we are cultural relativists who prettify the horrible status quo in such countries. Thus we oppose hideous “customs” such as female genital mutilation or the head-to-toe veil. While recognising that people should be able to hold their religious beliefs without interference from the state, we oppose religion dictating the policy of the state.
Upholding the liberating ideals of the Enlightenment and Marxism, we revolutionaries fight for the complete separation of religion and state! In fact, the full separation of religion and state has nowhere been fully realised by the bourgeoisie for the simple reason that religion has great value for the ruling class in its struggle against the proletariat. With its deep social roots, religion serves to buttress the institution of the family, the main source of women’s oppression, and ruling-class authority. All modern religion acts as an instrument of capitalist reaction that defends exploitation and befuddles the working people.
Our goal is to build a revolutionary party that can lead the working class in its historic task of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with socialism. Only then will religion, which enforces mindless subordination to “higher authority” and is responsible for so much guilt and misery, quickly wither through education once its state props are kicked away.
Down with anti-Muslim racism!
We Marxists have been forthright in our opposition to the racist “war on terror”, opposing the bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan abroad and the vile racist scapegoating of Muslims at home. Struggling in the interests of the whole working class, and against Laborite nationalism, we are for a class-struggle fight to defend the rights of Muslims and all immigrants and minorities. As for SAlt, for all their “militant anti-racist” posturing, come election day they fall into line behind the Labor Party [ALP] and racist capitalist rule. For example, in the 2001 elections SAlt advocated to “grit our teeth” and vote for the ALP, even as the ALP was demanding “security abroad, security at home” and trying to outdo the then-Howard government in support for the war on Afghanistan and the war on refugees.
In fact SAlt’s “socialist alternative” has never extended beyond trying to pressure the pro-imperialist Labor Party. Thus, in the 2007 elections they championed a vote for the bourgeois Greens (an act of class treachery) as a means to apply pressure on Rudd’s Labor Party. For our part we Spartacists declared the elections a bipartisan war on workers and minorities, and called for “No vote to ALP! No vote to bourgeois Greens!”
Under the cover of fighting against the “war on terror”, SAlt poisonously insinuate that any criticism of Islam equals support for racist anti-Muslim persecution. In fact, from their written repudiation of the Marxist attitude towards religion to braying about their attendance at Muslim prayer meetings, SAlt foster backward consciousness among the masses, conciliating both religion and religious leaders such as the Muslim clerics involved in recent protests against Israel’s murderous attacks on Gaza. This is no surprise as they and their forebears have long portrayed Muslim fundamentalism as “anti-imperialist” and even “revolutionary”. Their outlook is both a product of their liberal opportunism and a direct outgrowth of their anti-communist hostility to the former Soviet Union and other societies where capitalism has been overthrown. It has led them to politically embrace such vile reactionary forces as the Vatican-backed Polish Solidarność (Solidarity) and the Islamic fundamentalist Afghan mujahedin.
To the extent that SAlt have influence, their programme has actually helped create today’s post-Soviet reactionary political climate marked by all-sided capitalist brutality and heightened religious obscurantism. In August 1991 when Boris Yeltsin’s imperialist-backed forces of counterrevolution staged a countercoup in Moscow, every capitalist ruling class around the world celebrated. Then part of the International Socialists, SAlt cadre joined in the jubilation declaring that “‘Communism is dead’.... It’s a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (The Socialist, September 1991).
SAlt: Haunted by the spectre of Marx
As if to justify their anti-Marxist conciliation of religion, SAlt quote Karl Marx, who explained:
“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.”
SAlt piously claim, “Those who wish to present Marx as anti-religious trot out only the last sentence.” One only need quote Marx’s very next lines to expose this self-serving lie:
“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.”
— “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844)
Declaring “Marx was a democrat before he became a socialist”, SAlt do their best, through selective quoting, to devolve him into a “harmless” modern-day bourgeois-liberal democrat.
To expunge the taint of atheism from their fake brand of “Marxism”, under the heading “Islamophobia” SAlt pick on two prominent authors who are self-identified atheists. First they cite reactionary journalist Christopher Hitchens as “living proof that being an atheist does not make you more left-wing”. In fact Hitchens’ pro-imperialist warmongering over Iraq owes more to the classless pontificating about “tyranny” versus “democracy” fundamental to SAlt’s worldview than to his non-Marxist critique of religion. Hitchens, once a member of SAlt’s forebear, the anti-communist Cliffite International Socialists, long ago took the logical step to bourgeois reaction.
The other target of SAlt’s anti-atheist vitriol is Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and writer of popular science. SAlt quote from The God Delusion where Dawkins gives a straightforward list of atrocities committed in the name of religion, including the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. SAlt assert, “Dawkins argues that religion is to blame for war. This patently false idea provides a cover for imperialism.” Never mind the fact that Dawkins protested Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. False consciousness like religion and nationalism certainly is a powerful tool to inspire division in the working and oppressed masses, and in this epoch of imperialist reaction often provides the trip wire for the bloodiest conflicts.
Indonesia 1965-66 is but one chilling illustration. More than a million Communists, workers, peasants and ethnic Chinese were massacred when the Indonesian generals unleashed Islamic fundamentalist reactionaries to crush the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In the face of this terror, the workers and peasants of Indonesia were politically, organisationally and militarily disarmed by the PKI programme of “national unity”, a popular-frontist alliance of bourgeois nationalists, Islamic groups and the PKI (see “Lessons of Indonesia 1965”, Spartacist [English-language edition] no 55, Autumn 1999). The Australian and US imperialists were up to their necks in these atrocities, promoting the mobilisation of Islamic reactionaries against “godless communism” and providing the Indonesian generals with a hit list of some 5000 Communists to exterminate. In helping to orchestrate this massacre the imperialists were applying an imperative noted in 1950 by then-US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: “The religions of the East are deeply rooted and have many precious values. Their spiritual beliefs cannot be reconciled with Communist atheism and materialism. That creates a common bond between us, and our task is to find it and develop it” (cited in Paul A Baran, The Political Economy of Growth).
Hostile to the lessons of Indonesia 1965, the anti-communist opportunists of SAlt criminally encourage workers down the same blood-drenched popular-frontist path. A letter by Weiniger and Colleen Bolger published in Socialist Alternative (Dec 08-Jan 09) excitedly reported on the “Socialism and Islam” session they attended at a Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM)-hosted conference last November. Enthusing that “we got to debate how the Left should relate to Islamic parties in a largely Muslim country”, they lauded the PSM for “eschewing sectarian dismissal of Muslim political forces”. No doubt they also support the PSM standing in the Malaysian elections last year under the banner of the main bourgeois opposition, which includes Islamic fundamentalists.
SAlt slander the Bolsheviks
SAlt would have us believe that their chasing of religious “allies” has the endorsement of the Bolshevik party that led the October 1917 Russian Revolution establishing the world’s first workers state. In a September 2006 article, “Why Socialists Fight for Religious Freedom”, cadre Diane Fieldes writes: “In some of the southern republics of the USSR in the early 1920s as many as 15 per cent of party members were believers in Islam” and declares, “Muslims were encouraged to join the Communist Party.”
Far from conciliating religion, Soviet policy in Central Asia recognised that the path to overthrowing the entrenched power of religion, in lands almost entirely devoid of a working class, mandated admitting a fraction of the most conscious members of society, outside the Europeanised elite, into the Communist parties. As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained:
“We will admit into our ranks those comrades who have yet to break from religion not in order to reconcile Marxism with Islam, but rather tactfully but persistently to free the backward members’ consciousness of superstition, which in its very essence is the mortal enemy of communism.”
— “Tasks of Communist Education” (1923) in Problems of Everyday Life
SAlt lyingly infer that the Bolsheviks abandoned the bourgeois-democratic separation of church and state by claiming the young Soviet state accommodated sharia law, the 1300-year-old body of Muslim canon law regulating every aspect of life including enforcing capital punishment for homosexuality and “honour killings” of women and girls accused of “improper” relations with men. According to Fieldes: “A parallel court system was created in 1921, with Islamic courts administering justice in accordance with sharia law alongside the soviet system. Thousands of Muslim schools were set up with government encouragement.” In truth, as we wrote in “Early Bolshevik Work Among Women of the Soviet East” (Women and Revolution no 12, Summer 1976):
the Soviet government waged a campaign to build the authority of the Soviet legal system and civil courts as an alternative to the traditional Muslim kadi courts and legal codes. Although the kadi courts were permitted to function, their powers were circumscribed in that they were forbidden to handle political cases or any cases in which both parties to the dispute had not agreed to use the kadi rather than the parallel Soviet court system. As the Soviet courts became more accepted, criminal cases were eliminated from the kadis’ sphere. Next, the government invited dissatisfied parties to appeal the kadis’ decisions to a Soviet court. In this manner the Soviets earned the reputation of being partisans of the oppressed, while the kadis were exposed as defenders of the status quo.”
After only a few years the kadis were forbidden to enforce any Muslim law which contradicted Soviet law. Soviet representatives attended all kadi proceedings and their approval was required for all court decisions. In the mid-1920s, when the wafks (endowment properties), which had supported the kadis, were expropriated and redistributed among the peasantry, the kadis disappeared completely.
Scandalously, in 2005 SAlt’s political cothinkers in Canada, the International Socialists, supported government proposals to establish sharia tribunals for family law, as part of the capitalist state. Our comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste actively protested against these moves. Such courts could only deepen the isolation and oppression of Muslim women (see Spartacist Canada no 147, Winter 2005/2006).
Support to counterrevolution = support to anti-woman reaction
Despite the Soviet Union’s degeneration under a nationalist parasitic bureaucratic caste, which usurped political power from the Soviet proletariat in a political counterrevolution beginning in 1923-24, the proletarian collectivised property forms created by the 1917 October Revolution remained until capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. It was the elementary duty of revolutionaries to defend the gains of the revolution by fighting for the unconditional military defence of the Soviet degenerated workers state and for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist misleaders who paved the way for capitalist restoration. We apply the same programme to the deformed workers states of China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba today.
SAlt’s political origins go back to the late Tony Cliff and his followers who bowed to the pressure of anti-communist Cold War hysteria during the Korean War. Capitulating to the British bourgeoisie and the then-ruling British Labour Party, they refused to defend the Soviet Union, China and North Korea against imperialist attack and broke from Trotsky’s Fourth International, reneging on their revolutionary duty.
Motivated by hostility towards the Soviet Union, throughout the 1980s, as then-members of the Cliffite International Socialist Organisation, SAlt cadre supported the CIA-bankrolled Islamic Afghan mujahedin cut-throats against the Soviet Red Army, alongside Washington and its union-busting Hawke/ Keating Labor government ally in Canberra. This was a war directly over the status of women — the tribal chiefs and mullahs went to war when the Afghan government attempted to open up education for girls and to reduce the bride price. Standing upon our unconditional military defence of the USSR, the Spartacist League took the side of social progress. We said: “Hail Red Army! Extend social gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples!”
Driven by their hostility to the Soviet Union, SAlt also hailed Polish clerical-reactionary, anti-woman, anti-Semitic “union” Solidarność , backed to the hilt by the CIA and the Catholic Church, throughout its rise in the 1980s. When in September 1981 Solidarność came out for capitalist restoration we said: “Stop Solidarity’s Counterrevolution!” Later Solidarność’s programme triumphed in the form of the devastating 1989 capitalist counterrevolution in Poland, which ushered in mass unemployment and the brutal rollback of women’s rights, particularly abortion rights.
Weiniger’s article concludes by denouncing a July 2008 Sydney demo protesting homophobia and opposition to effective birth control by the Catholic Church. This demonstration, which we Spartacists attended, was called by the reformist Democratic Socialist Perspective in response to the visit of Pope Benedict during “World Youth Day”, which saw hundreds of thousands of “pilgrims” descend on the city in a “celebration” of religious obscurantism. Unable to utter a word of protest against the reactionary, anti-woman Catholic Church, SAlt instead are outraged that some protesters “thrust” condoms at pilgrims en route to pray at the Pope’s feet, lamenting that this could only serve to “isolate” the left from these “potential allies”. While SAlt wring their hands about the sensibilities of Catholic pilgrims, we Marxists say: Free contraception and abortion on demand for all! For the separation of church and state!
For a multiracial Leninist vanguard party!
Religion at best serves to propagate and enshrine mind-numbing delusions, to lessen the pain of existence. Religious institutions help enforce the worst prejudices, oppression of women, and subjugation of youth and, along with the institution of the family, serve as a prop for the capitalist system of private property. Often, where material want is greatest, such as societies based on subsistence agriculture, organised religion exercises a monopoly over social welfare. For example, Catholic medical centres throughout regions of Africa, Asia and South America are often the sole provider of healthcare services, but they use their resources to implement the Vatican’s prohibition of the use of condoms, an elementary public health measure in societies ravaged by AIDS. The historic task of the international working class is to make the productive resources of the world available to all, based on need, not profit. Only worldwide proletarian revolution can lay the basis for the end of material want, the foundation of religious superstition.
The Marxist programme aims at the eradication of religion, not by force of arms or law, but scientific mastery of nature. This is not a recipe to tolerate ignorance or superstition, but on the contrary an obligation to actively expose and refute religion as an obstacle to the satisfaction of human needs. As Lenin wrote:
“The dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels...applies the materialist philosophy to the domain of history.... We must combat religion — that is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently of Marxism. But Marxism is not a materialism which has stopped at the ABC. Marxism goes further. It says: 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 Attitude of the Workers Party to Religion” (1909)
It will take a proletarian revolution to smash the power of capital and open the road to the egalitarian socialist society based on the material abundance needed to sweep away the basis of religion. This requires the building of a Leninist vanguard party which can lead the working class at the head of all the oppressed. Its cadres will be the most advanced fighters, including in defence of science and in opposition to religious superstition. Lenin explained:
“So far as the Party of the socialist proletariat is concerned, religion is not a private affair. Our Party is an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs.”
— “Socialism and Religion” (1905)
This Leninist perspective stands diametrically opposed to SAlt’s accommodation to organised religious movements as allies-in-waiting.
Addressing the French public in 1767, Voltaire wrote, “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” SAlt oppose Marx’s programme, not out of ignorance, but as a consequence of their anti-communist programme, which rejects the Marxist principle that only the working class has both the interest and the social power to overthrow capitalism and build a classless society.
The Spartacist League and Spartacus Youth Club are dedicated to freeing the oppressed from religion’s yoke. As we say in the article “Marxism and Religion”, reprinted in our pamphlet Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism:
“In order to win over a new generation to the struggle for socialism, based on a materialist conception of society, socialists must ceaselessly combat religion and other forms of idealism which look to the supernatural, explaining that freedom from oppression lies in this world, not another.”