E. Belfort Bax

Socialism and Religion

(June 1884)

From Justice, 21st June 1884, p.2.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Religion of Socialism, 1886, pp.48-53.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

It is sometimes said that Socialism is neither religious nor irreligious. This does not or should not mean that Socialism fails to come into contact with the views of the world and of life which the current religions furnish, or that at a particular stage in its progress it may not take up a position even of active hostility to those religions. What it means is that Socialism implies a state of society out and away beyond the barren speculative polemics of the hour.

Socialism is essentially, neither religions nor irreligious, inasmuch as it re-affirms the unity of human life, abolishing the dualism which has lain at the foundation of all the great ethical religions. By this dualism I mean the antithesis of politics and religion, of the profane and the sacred, of matter and spirit, of this world and the “other world,” and the various subordinate antagonisms to which these have given rise, or which they implicitly contain. Hitherto the whole tendency of our society and thought has been to make of aspects of things, distinguishable if you will, but not legitimately separable, separate and more or less opposed principles. We will take only the instance which most concerns the subject-matter of these remarks. The feelings, aspirations, emotions, (as we chose to call them), after the ideal, which constitute the “religious sentiment,” are very easily distinguishable from the impulses of kindliness, friendship, duty, &c., to individuals which ought to animate our daily life. They are distinguishable but not separable. Yet the current religions erect them into distinct principles, severing the “religious sentiment” from all connection with the world and human society and transferring it to an imagined supernatural “world” which is nothing but a grotesque travesty of the relations of this world.

It is curious to trace how this came about. In the most ancient civilisations there is no distinction between the political or social and the religious, simply because religion was then nothing more than the propitiation of dead ancestors, powers of nature, fetiches or other supposed supernatural agents (whose existence passed unquestioned to the human mind in its then stage) in the interests of the society. These ancestral ghosts, personified powers, or animated fetiches were as often immoral as not, in fact it would be more correct to say that for them morality and immorality had no existence. The worshipper possibly cared not one jot for them or they for him – his worship was a social duty. The only way in which they possessed any human interest was as embodying certain powers, which might be noxious or beneficient to the State. We have spoken of them as being “propitiated” and “worshipped” but it is doubtful if those terms can he applied with regard to the ancient religious cults more than very partially. The practices they embodied were rather those of compulsory invocation or regulation by means of magical spells and incantations than prayers and “services” such as are understood to-day. The social festivals were as much religious as they were political. Political and religious functions were necessarily united in the same persons since every religions act was political, every political act also religious.

The forgoing remarks apply in all essentials, to every primitive civilisation, to ancient India, Egypt, China, Syria, Palestine. Even in later classical times, religion was still a social and political matter, a thing of this world only or mainly. The most sacred forms of the Greek and Roman cults were those identified with the preservation of the city, of the tribe and of the gens. Undoubting as was men’s belief in the existence of the supernatural, it only interested them in so far as they conceived it to affect the community of which they were a part. The supernatural too, was as yet imperfectly distinguished from the natural. There was no religion of the supernatural as such. But with the decay of the old civic morality and the absorption of the small free States into centralised monarchies and finally into the Roman Empire, men came to care less and less for the body politic and fell back more and more upon themselves as individuals. At first this individualism took the form of a search among the leisured and educated class for the higher life of wisdom. The Stoic, the Epicurean and the Cynic had each his special receipt for slipping through life as comfortably as possible. But this, though satisfactory for a time, palled in the long run. The Roman Empire got ever more corrupt, its corruption ramifying through all its branches; public life became more and more vapid; the old religions, once instinctive with meaning, were but empty forms; the newer panaceas of the philosophers failed to afford satisfaction. The utmost they promised was to make the best of the doubtful bargain – life.

But the sense of individualism was too strong for this merely negative creed. Men sought in vain for an object in life collective or individual. In this state of mind they are confronted by a new Asiatic sect. They become initiated. At once the scene changes. This life is indeed pronounced hopelessly worthless. There is no citizenship here, no happiness for the individual, not even the apathy of the “wise man.” But as this life crumbles into nothingness, there rises the fair vision of the “city of God,” joys beyond imagination, not the “apathy” of “wisdom,” but the “peace” of the blest. Hic Rhodus hic salta! Religion is henceforth separated from life, the religious sphere of another world is set over against the irreligious sphere of this world. Earth is drained of its ideal to feed Heaven. Society established on this basis involves the antagonisms of temporal and spiritual powers, of “world” and church, of religious and profane, &c., &c. What is said applies not only to Christianity, but more or less to all the so-called ethical or universal religions, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Mohommedanism, &c.. They are the expression of the decay of the old life, and hence they one and all centre in the individual and in another world, their concern with this world being purely incidental.

We daily see around us the result of 1,600 years of “other-worldliness” on character and conduct. Men and women upon whom the mere greed for gain palls, are driven to the one ideal resource their education has given them, or they can comprehend, the hope of a glorified immortality for themselves. Those only who know from bitter experience the smile of honest contempt with which such people greet the idea of the sacrifice of personal or class privileges, or anything, else for a social object, can appreciate the depth to which the canker has eaten into their souls. Yet it would be unjust to say that these people are bad. They are religious and anti-social just as there are many others irreligious and anti-social.

In what sense Socialism is not religious will be now clear. It utterly despises the “other world” with all its stage properties – that is, the present objects of religion. In what sense it is not irreligious will be also I think tolerably clear. It brings back religion from heaven to earth, which as we have sought to show was its original sphere. It looks beyond the present moment or the present individual life indeed, though not to another world, but to another and higher social life in this world. It is in the hope and the struggle for this higher social life, ever-widening, ever-intensifying, whose ultimate possibilities are beyond the poorer of language to express or thought to conceive, that the Socialist finds his ideal, his religion. He sees in the reconstruction of society in the interest of all the rehabilitation, in a higher form and without its limitations, of the old communal life – the proximate end of all present endeavour. We take up the thread of Aryan tradition, but not where it was dropped. The state or city of the ancient world was one-sided, its freedom was political merely, based on the slavery of the many; that of the future will be democratic and social. It was exclusive, the union within implied disunion without; the life of the future will be international, cosmopolitan in its scope. Finally the devotion of its members was connected with the existent supernatural belief and involved a cultus; the devotion of the member of the socialised community, like the devotion of all true Socialists today, will be based on science and involve no cultus. In this last point the religion of the Socialist differs from the Positivist. The Positivist seeks to retain the forms after the beliefs of which they are the expression have lost all meaning to him. The Socialist whose social creed is his only religion, requires no travesty of Christian rites to aid him in keeping his ideal before him.

In Socialism the current antagonisms are abolished, the separation between politics and religion has ceased to be, since their object-matter is the same. The highest feelings of devotion to the Ideal are not conceived as different in kind, much less as concerned with a different sphere; to the commoner human emotions, but merely as a diverse aspect of the same fact. The stimulus of personal interest no longer able to poison at its source all beauty all affection, all heroism, in short all that is highest in us; the sphere of government merged in that of industrial direction; the limit of the purely industrial itself ever receding as the applied powers of Nature lessen the amount of human drudgery required; Art and the pursuit of beauty and of truth ever covering the ground left free by the “necessary work of the world” – such is the goal lying immediately before us, such the unity of human interest and of human life which Socialism would evolve out of the clashing antagonisms, the anarchical individualism, religious and irreligious, exhibited in the rotting world of to-day – and what current religion can offer a higher ideal or a nobler incentive than this essentially human one.



Last updated on 4.7.2006