E. Belfort Bax

Socialism and Dogma

(26 August 1899)

Paper read at the annual Conference of the Social Democratic Federation, held at Manchester August 8 and 7, 1899.
Socialism and Dogma, Justice, 26th August, 1899, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

You have just heard the dangers of priestcraft and ecclesiasticism laid before you by comrade Herbert, Burrows. It is my task to briefly discuss another aspect of the same question – that of the relation of Socialism to Religion, or, rather, to Dogma. Now, I contend that Sacerdotalism is not one whit more dangerous to the cause of Social Democratic progress than is another aspect of theological domination, to wit, Dogma, which is often found dissociated from what is usually termed sacerdotalism, though, of course, Sacerdotalism is never dissociated from Dogma. I need scarcely remind you that in the various sects of Protestant nonconformity in this country, while we have dogma enough and to spare, we have little Sacerdotalism as such. Yet it is Dogma which in this country, at least, has barred the way of progress during the present century more than any sacerdotalism has done. Great Britain has been and is, even today, not so much priest-ridden as dogma-ridden.

It is commonly said that Socialism is neither religious nor anti-religious, neither theological nor anti-theological. This statement, while it represents a truth, may very easily be pressed till it becomes a fallacy. Whether we accept the Marxian or any theory of history, it is obvious that a doctrine based on logical and historical analysis, and so far-reaching a doctrine as Socialism, must touch at some point or other the general problem of the universe. This it certainly does, but I admit that to press for any positive agreement on these questions would be at present absurd. On the other hand I contend that consistency demands on the part of the socialist a surrender of the traditional creed into which he has been born, be it Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Parsee, or what not. Each may truly have his own view on questions of metaphysics, the constitution of the universe, etc. Thus no Social-Democrat has the right to quarrel with his colleague on speculative grounds. He may be materialist, he may be spiritualist, atheist or theist, he may believe in “spooks,” he may believe in none. This may not make him any the less a good Socialist, because all those beliefs he may have arrived at by the exercise of his reason, rightly or wrongly. The acceptance, however, of a definite system of dogmas, or in other words, of a mass of crystallised opinion or beliefs which has arisen under totally different conditions of human knowledge and of human society than the present, such as the traditional religions, no modern man can arrive at by the exercise of his reason. His acceptance of these dogmas is either a mere pretence, a demoralising lie, or it is a piece of self-deceit attained by a juggling with conscience. In either case it is demoralising, and, as such, inconsistent with the Socialist position in its broader aspect, which claims of a “comrade” above all things that he shall act honestly and above-board in all his dealings, and which professes to despise the hypocrisy bred by class-society and the capitalist system.

The man who accepts any set of dogmas, to this extent surrenders his reason. He allows to be imposed upon him a theory coming from without. This theory the traditional religious system, Christian or other, declares it his duty to believe in. And this is the crucial point which, as I insist, renders it impossible for any Socialist to be consistently a member of any Christian Church or to call himself a Christian, or, for that matter, a Moslem or a Jew (in the religious sense). To the Socialist the only duty in connection with belief is to follow, honestly, openly and without reserve, the dictates of reason. It is this which has led him to Socialism. If he had been bulldozed into believing it a duty to accept the orthodox middle-class economy of thirty years ago, he would never have become a Socialist. Yet economy is by no means the only way the dominant class have of bulldozing the proletariat. All I insist upon is, that the party man, who has refused to be hoodwinked in economics, should also refuse to be hoodwinked in theology.

Theological dogma, i.e., a crystallised theory of the universe received from tradition and authority, and believed in, or pretended to be believed in, as a duty, is, ipso facto, inconsistent with the whole tenour of that scientific attitude of mind (using the word in its widest sense) of which modern Socialism is the outcome, and without which the Socialist is at the mercy of every passing fad in the way of social reform. It is impossible for anyone with a trace of logic in his composition to accept a supernatural theory of the universe at large and the natural in history. The two things are totally incompatible. But the fundamental vice in dogmatic religion is the pretension to take a special theory out of the domain of reason and place it in that of morals, in other words the belief in the duty of accepting a dogma even against reason. Socialism, I repeat, has nothing to do with any man’s speculative opinions, provided they are his opinions, derived from a fairly independent investigation of facts and evidence, and. the reasonable use of his intellectual faculties. He may be quite wrong. This does not matter. For example, a man may believe he has evidence which justifies him in accepting the theories of modern spiritism. Most of us will think he is utterly mistaken in his estimation of the evidence and utterly in error in his conclusions. I say again this does not matter. All this is opinion and not dogma. There is no conscious surrender of the reason in this case; there is no affirmation of the duty of believing, or the sin of disbelieving. When, however, a man proclaims his belief in the “immaculate conception,” or that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,” he is proclaiming his belief in a dogma forming part of a traditional dogmatic system which has grown up and been completed ages ago, and into the acceptance of which reason does not enter at all. He believes it even without giving it a thought, and often without professing to understand what he is believing. He believes it, or says he does, because he has been taught as a child to believe it, or because his neighbours profess to believe it. Such a kind of belief or pseudo-belief, I say, cannot fail to be demoralising on those who pretend to give their adhesion to it. There is no assumed moral obligation to accept an opinion, there is to accept a dogma.

But what has all this to do with the transformation of the means of production, etc., someone may say. A great deal, I answer. (1) The man who is clogged by a dogmatic system will not unreservedly accept a doctrine based on reason. You are always in presence of the possibility of a conflict between his theological faith and his Socialist reason. You have an element of weakness in your midst. The Christian may at any moment come to the conclusion that his Socialism is inconsistent with his Christianity; and you have no guarantee in that case which will go by the board – Socialism or Christianity. This from the narrower economic standpoint. From the broader social standpoint I call attention to the fact that the communisation of the means of production – though from one point of view an end is, from a larger and a higher point of view, itself only a means to an end – a higher and a better social life for all – and that, in working for the immediate economic end, we cannot afford to neglect protesting against those elements in the existing social order tending to weaken the moral backbone by encouraging a hypocritical and insincere way of living;. The SDF has never been a body which, like, e.g., the Fabian Society, has been prepared to sacrifice principle for the sake of acquiring an increase of immediate support. We justly, I think, pride ourselves on being not even as those Publicans in this respect. Therefore, while not wishing that speculative matters should be unduly emphasised, I maintain that it is especially incumbent upon the SDF not to shirk this question, but where necessary to face it boldly. A London comrade was extolling to me yesterday the steadfastness and energy of a Salford comrade. After telling me that he had been an equally ardent Secularist in his time, he said, at first when he joined our movement he cased to give a Secularist speech flavoured with Socialism, but now he gives a Socialist speech flavoured with Secularism.

Now this is, I think, as it should be. And I may add this has been the course pursued by the Socialist parties of the Continent. The main thing, the economic transformation, should be always the backbone of all we say and do, but the work of destroying the poisonous infection of superstition amongst the masses is, unfortunately, not yet a work of supererogation in this country. The secretary of one of the “new unions” stated to me only a few days ago that the political value of his union was being destroyed by proselytising City missionaries. No, I am convinced the fight with dogma among the masses will have to come. The only question is, when it comes. If you ask what is my proposal in this connection, I say candidly, I hope to see some future SDF conference pass a similar resolution to one passed by the German party many years ago, which was a recommendation to members of the party that, in view of the fact that their acceptance of the theory of historical evolution involved in modern Socialism practically and logically means a breach with the theory underlying all traditional religious dogma, they should indicate their true position by no longer pretending an adhesion to dogmatic systems inconsistent with their Socialist position.

One point more and I have done. I was recently asked what Socialists in the present day would do with the places of worship if they obtained possession of the executive power. Would they, like the Paris Commune, close the churches? I replied, speaking for myself, that I would be quite content to let the Christian gospel be freely preached, provided one thing, i.e., a compulsory regulation that after the service, following the example of our own meetings, the parson’s sermon should be thrown open to questions and discussion. I think if this principle were to ally adopted and carried out, there would be no further danger, either from Sacerdotalism or from Dogma, and that the buildings themselves would soon peacefully fall to other uses than those for which they at present serve.

In conclusion, I trust and believe that the day is not far distant when all Socialists will consciously proclaim their social creed to be their only religion because their highest ideal.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 25.5.2004