Appendix II

Emil Vandervelde

Socialism or the Catholic Church


By Emil Vandervelde in The People, March 19, 1904.


In the United States, where religion is a private matter, an affair of conscience, where no religious sect dominates, or pretends to dominate others, it must be difficult indeed to realise the bitterness of the contest that rages in most of the countries of Western Europe between the Roman Catholic Church and its opponents. It is not alone in France that this contest grows in intensity.

During the last few years throughout Western Europe there has been a marked reaction toward clericalism. The Catholics have organised themselves into powerful and well-disciplined parties. The covert authority of the convents which had been abolished by the Revolution, has been developed under new forms, and religious associations have attained a greater control over education, while the political influence of the Church since the beginning of the pontificate of Leo XIII has made itself felt on all sides.

In our little Belgium the Conservative party, made up in large part of the supporters of the Church, has been a power for the last nineteen years, In the Netherlands the majority in the States-General (the two legislative houses) belong to a truly extraordinary coalition of Catholics and Protestants – of disciples of Loyola and of Calvin. In Germany the Centre (the Catholic section of the Reichstag), though its declines in influence among the working class, appears more and more the hub of the Government majority, Protestant Conservatives pay their court to it; while the Lutheran Emperor betakes himself to Rome to bow before the Pope. In England, where frequent conversions to Catholicism are loudly advertised and where the Established Church reveals a growing disposition to imitate the Roman Church, Mr. Balfour's Ministry grants equal appropriations to all the religious sects in the Education bill and makes important concessions to Rome in order to conciliate the Irish Catholics.

In short, all the countries of Western Europe, in Germanic or Anglo-Saxon as well as in the Latin countries, clericalism gains, or at least seems to gain, ground. When in the minority its opposition becomes more aggressive; when in the majority, or holding the balance of power, its domination waxes heavier.

But, by a natural reaction, anti-clericalism, which had been relegated to the background on account of the pressure of socio-industrial issues, has again appeared, and is spreading in every direction. In France, in Italy, and even in Catholic Spain, the old cry of “A bas la calotte!” resounds on all sides. The veterans of former battles return to the ranks. The youth are divided again into Catholics and anti-Catholics.

But it would be an illusion to believe that nothing is changed, and that the reviving struggle between the clericals and the anti-clericals has the same meaning as had that of the epoch of Pius IX and his syllabus. First of all, it is clear that since the rise of Socialism the efforts of the Catholic Church are not directed against the same enemies as of old. From having defended the nobles and the kings of ‘l’Ancien Regime’ against the liberal, republican, revolutionary middle class, it turns to-day to defend the middle class, which has become conservative, and even reactionary, against the assaults of the Socialist proletariat.

Fifty years ago Catholics denounced Liberalism as ‘a pest and a frenzy!’ To-day clericals chant the Marseillaise, since it has become, through strange vicissitudes of things, the national hymn. Clericalism calls itself liberal when, as in France, it is the minority. It disdains, or, at most, uses the Liberals when, as in Belgium and Holland, it is in the majority. But always and everywhere it attacks Socialism, and by cunningly encouraging the fears which Socialism inspires in the classes which have property to lose, it succeeds in holding its old positions, and even advancing to further ones.

It would be a great mistake – and far-seeing Catholics have no illusions on this subject – to suppose that the present revival of clericalism means an awakening of religious faith, even among Catholics. Doubtless, a certain number of persons of conservative religious instincts, fearing the logical consequences of rationalism, return to the Church, and by interpreting symbolically the old articles of faith, construct a new creed, which contents them. But these are only superficial drifts; they are but eddies of the great tide that bears the people of Europe in a diametrically opposite direction.

One of the heads of the Belgian Catholic party, M. Woeste, acknowledged this in an article published some time ago. “The Roman Church in Europe may gain voters,” he says, “but it continues to lose souls”. Even in Belgium where the Church reigns through intermediaries; where the Government, in its complete subservience, chooses magistrates and functionaries, imposes a religious teaching in the schools and grants appropriations as authority and wealth command, there, is no doubt that the masses reveal a growing disaffection to the ecclesiastical power.

It is an indubitable fact that, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, Europe is decatholicizing herself. One might even go further with safety and say that she is dechristianizing herself. Slowly but surely, with the irresistible movement of a geological subsidence, faith is waning among the industrial workers, and even among the peasants. One can safely assert that about twenty years ago nearly every one held to some religious creed. Free-thinkers were few and to be found only in the middle class. Societies for promoting secular marriages and burials existed only in the larger cities. To-day we see them spreading and multiplying throughout the industrial centres, and wherever mining and manufacturing are carried on. In Belgium, in France, in Germany, the workmen who follow no particular creed number hundreds of thousands – yes, millions – and as their hopes of a heavenly kingdom dissolve other hopes assert themselves with a growing intensity. Wherever free-thought penetrates, Socialism enters also. We know, it is true, many workmen who become Socialists without relinquishing, or without totally abandoning, their religious convictions; but aside from –yellows’ and –blacklegs,’ act solely from mercenary motives, we neither know nor can conceive of any freethinking workman who is not at the same time a Socialist.

What wonder, then, that this conservative middle class, instinctively antagonistic to Socialism, should become more and more antagonistic to free thought! Just as the coming of spring in the mountains dissolves the glaciers and sends down floods of icy water, which cools the atmosphere of the lowlands, so under the sunshine of free thought the breaking up of the religious creeds of the proletariat chills the rationalistic tendencies of the middle class. Frightened by the socio-industrial consequences of free thought, an increasing section of the rich class leans toward the Church, and especially toward the Catholic Church, which is regarded by all as the strongest bulwark of the capitalists' interest. The terror of revolutionary ideas drives this section to at least the pretence of believing; and sometimes, thanks to the efforts of the Jesuits, it succeeds in inculcating belief in its children.

It is thus that the apparent clerical reaction is explained. Far from its corresponding to general awakening of religious faith, it is, in fact, a corollary of the decline of faith among the masses. But it is, nevertheless, true that the alliance of priest and capitalist, the coalition of spiritual and temporal power, against Socialism and free thought, furnishes the conservative and reactionary parties with formidable means of action and constitutes the most redoubtable threat against the immediate future of European civilisation. Progressists have not only clericalism to fight, but also, under different forms and labels, militarism, protectionist imperialism, and, in most countries, a marked tendency on the part of the sovereigns to enlarge their personal power to the detriment of the sovereignty of the people.

What else than proletarian power can we oppose to this reactionary power? Can we depend upon the middle class as a class, or on Liberalism as a party? Facts answer. In Belgium, in Holland, in Germany, the Liberals are terribly weakened; the fear of Socialism demoralises them. It is only too often that the reactionary majority in the election is due to their votes. In England the division and melting away of the Liberal opposition made possible the South African war, and rendered possible, if not probable, the success of Mr. Chamberlain’s fiscal plans.

Justice forbids, however, to reproach English Liberalism as a body with the reactionary complaisance of the right wing. In France, too, there is a distinction to be made. The Republican middle class and the radical democracy do hesitate to accept the help of the Social Democracy in the fight against the Catholic Church by enrolling Miller and in the Ministry and electing Jaures Vice-President of the Chambers of Deputies.

But we must not lose sight of the fact that France is, above all, a country of bourgeoise and small landholders. The industrial centres are far apart, except in the territory bordering on the Belgian and German frontiers. The organisation of the working class is, therefore, comparatively weak. Socialism itself is often in France, but the idealistic expression of an advanced radicalism. It thus seems natural enough that the middle class parties should not show it, but should be anticlerical rather than anti-Socialistic. But let industry develop on a large scale, let the antagonism of the classes accentuate itself, let the French proletariat strengthen and extend its organisation, and we shall see in France, as in the rest of Western Europe, the middle class facing about and asking pardon of the Church for the ills it has suffered through her.

Thus it is, in the Old World, that two gigantic coalitions are formed by the elimination of intermediaries – the Black International and the Red International. On the one hand are all those who hold that authority should descend from above and who find in the Catholic Church the most perfect expression of their ideal, the most inflexible guardian of their class privileges; on the other hand are those who insist that authority shall come from the people, and who, by the logic of circumstances, can found their hopes on nothing but Social Democracy.

Between these two extremes Protestantism hesitates and Liberalism shifts from place to place. One may see clearly the truth of the prediction that was made fifty years ago by the Catholic writer, Donose Cortes:

The Liberal school honours equally darkness and light. It has undertaken – extravagant and impossible undertakings – to govern without the people and without God. Its days are numbered. One sees already on the two opposite points of the horizon, the rising sun that proclaims God and the ominous cloud that announces the mad rage of the people. In the terrible day of battle, when the whole arena shall be filled with the Catholic and Socialist phalanxes, no one will know where to find the forces of liberalism.

One may welcome or deplore, the fact of this coming concentration of forces about the Catholic Church on the one side, the Social Democracy on the other. But none can deny that this concentration is inevitable, and that the future struggles will have to be fought out between these two armies. To those, therefore, who are interested in the social movement of Europe, we say: Observe, above all else, if you wish to consider only the essential factors, the political activities of the Roman Catholic Church and those of International Socialism.

Brussels, Belgium.


Last updated on 7.8.2003