E. Belfort Bax

Clericalism and Socialism [1]

(September 1903)

From Social Democrat, Vol.7 no.9, 15 September 1903, pp.556-557.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The opposition between Socialism and Clericalism exists in spite of the efforts of certain Christian bodies who, in different countries, try to establish a sort of Socialism on a Christian basis. Christianity is, in its essence and in its origin, an essentially individualistic system, based above all on the relations of the individual soul with an imaginary divinity, whilst Socialism rests on the mutual duties of human society as such, without taking any account of a divine sanction.

As for myself, personally I have never been able entirely to accept the position taken up in this question by the orthodox programme of Socialism. The theory that religion is a private matter may appear very fine, but if it is carried to its logical conclusion it becomes dangerous from more than one point of view. It means (if it means anything) that the Socialist Party, as such, must never attack willingly any religious dogma. Fortunately, that principle is not strictly observed, for we find in most Socialist organs more or less open attacks on Christianity. The principle has for its excuse the fact that if Socialism assumed an anti-religious attitude, it would turn against it many people who otherwise agree with it. But is this so? I doubt it very much. The number of persons who would be turned away from Socialism by its hostile attitude to current religion must be remarkably small.

Those who are ready to accept the principles of Socialism are generally already emancipated from the tyranny of Clerical dogmas. It is said, “Why should you meddle with the religious beliefs of a people? Is it not sufficient to protest against the encroachment of priests? We are opposed to Clericalism, but matters of belief, of faith, should not be interfered with?”

This seems to me not a clear way of treating the question. Whence comes the power of priests if not from the power of theological dogma over certain sections of the community? May not one say – “Dogma is more important than the priest?” People who defend the principle of neutrality as far as religion is concerned, though attacking Clericalism, seem to me to attack results while ignoring their cause. If one does not protest against Christian dogmas, or at all events if one does not admit as one of the elements of the party propaganda the explanation of the historic origin of Christianity and the refutation o£ Christian pretensions, how can one be astonished at the ascendancy of Clericalism? Nothing can be more; certain than that it is not only Clericalism but also dogma which forms the great obstacle to the progress of Socialism. These remarks apply less to you in France, where there is nothing to be feared from an open attack on Christian dogmas, than to other countries, as recent events have shown in the debates at the German Congress of Munich.

But what should be the attitude of the Socialist Party in relation to the law and Clericalism? Convinced as I am, that the strength of Clericalism is in its dogmas and that free discussion is fatal to belief, I hold that the ideal of legislation, so far as religious questions are concerned, would be to compel free discussion to take place in churches after each sermon. This is what Socialists do all over the world, when after every lecture they allow free discussion. The strength of Christian dogma consists in the ex-cathedra method of its utterance. As soon as the Christian priest, like the Socialist agitator, has to submit to free discussion, then the reign of Christian dogma and a fortiori of Clericalism will cease. But it is evident, Clericals will fight to the last against such a measure, which would compel them to play fair in the full light of day.




1. The following piece was published in 1903 in the Social Democrat, organ of the British Social Democratic Federation where leading Socialists in all countries were asked their views about the conflict between religion and socialism with the main focus on the Roman Catholic Church. This symposium on Religion and Politics, which ran for several months is somewhat unbalanced. There are often, short, half a page, and not particularly interesting pieces such as those by Iglesias and Quelch (the latter a leading member of the British SDF) but there is long article of over 13,000 words by Kautsky which is continued in five parts, in successive issues of the magazine. Other important contributors on Religion included August Bebel and Paul Lafargue. (Note by transcriber Ted Crawford)


Last updated on 29.2.2004