Paul Lafargue

Clericalism and Socialism


Response to a questionnaire from the journal Le movement socialiste.
English translation in the Social Democrat, November 1903.
Transcribed by Adam Buick.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialists, who apply the method of historical materialism of Marx, seek the causes of social phenomena in the social milieu, and regret the intervention of supernatural beings and of metaphysical entities for the explanation of human events, though they do not deny the influence of religious and spiritual ideas on the progress of society. It is because they recognise this action that they criticise religious, and especially bourgeois idealism, whose goddesses and gods – Property, Order, Liberty, Justice, Country, Rights of Man, &c. – have a much stronger hold on the popular mind than the gods of the Trinity, the Virgin Mother, and the saints of Christendom.

A party is only revolutionary on condition of revolutionising the heads of women and men called to action, and of freeing them from the idealism of the dominating class. The Encyclopaedists showed us how to do it; they, with admirable wit and incomparable ardour, criticised and then demolished the ideals of the aristocrats.

But it is not necessary to begin again the Voltairean criticism of the myths and dogmas of Jewry and of Christianity. The most advanced party of the middle-class leaves this to the low class charlatans, like Leo Taxil, and are only interested in the history of religion. Socialists go further than the middle-class; they have to find the origins of religious and metaphysical ideas, and to show their connection with the phenomena of the social milieu, which has given rise to their birth, their development and their action on human beings. The religions of paganism were poetical and spontaneous manifestations of popular ignorance and imagination; their worship was local. No tie attached them to any particular worship. Each family and each city had its own particular divinity; the members of the family and the citizens of the town had alone the right of taking part in the ceremonies of worship. The identification of similar gods, created locally for similar ends, took place several centuries before the Christian era, because then in the basin of the Mediterranean the need for an international religion began to be felt. There was then formed, by a kind of religious distillation, supreme gods of which the worship became general. This movement towards the unification of the Divinity was greatly aided by the revival of old religions of the primitive and matriarchal communistic epoch – mysteries of Demeter, of Dionysos, of Orpheus, &c. Always, as if to spring farther, humanity begins to go back before springing forward. These religions admitted to their worship men of all nations and of all ranks. The Greek philosophers, who were elaborating the idea of a god, were initiated into these mysteries. This localisation of the creeds of paganism, made it inadequate for the new needs, and prevented pagan priests, as priests, exercising great social influence.

Christianity from its origin, from the quarrel between St. Peter and St. Paul on circumcision, declared itself to be an international religion. The internationalism of the worship and the hierarchy of the clergy made the new religion a formidable weapon against the power of the emperors of the East and the West, and later a terrible instrument of oppression in the hands of the ruling classes who have taken the priests into their service.

The middle class, which before its revolution had waged a pitiless warfare against Clericalism because the clergy was on the side of the aristocracy, has gone back to its vomit; since it is the ruling class, it hymns the moralising and civilising virtues of Christianity and endows its priests, either directly by taxation as in France, or indirectly by rich gifts as in the United States.

The English manufacturers of the first half of the last century have taught the art of making use of Protestantism for the oppression of the workers; they were in favour of their going to long sermons, so that they had no time on Sunday for thinking over their fate. John Bright who, with Cobden, was the champion of Free Trade, and the determined adversary of any legal shortening of the hours of labour, used to preach on Sundays. The Catholic Church, with its schools of Christian brothers, its ceremonies, its confessionals, its pilgrimages, and its other mummeries, is too well organised for this kind of thing; it does not want employers to preach or to comment on the Bible, but it is firmly established in the industrial districts of France and Belgium. It is ready to do all things; it brings up its nuns to be forewomen in female workshops, its priests are ready to act as agents for the masters, and under the name of charity are prepared to give back a trifle from the sums robbed of the poor. The priests dominate the workmen by the head and by the belly. They also supervise the tradesmen who sell to the rich. The hatred against the priests which prevails among the workers and among certain sections of the middle class is as legitimate as it is intense. French Socialists could not fail to make use of this for their own ends, and they did so.

On the other hand, monks and nuns have gone in for production, and have exploited labour as if they belonged to the middle class. Monks have done so well in the liqueur trade that the saying of the Trappists, “Brother, we must all die,” is now, in the revised version, “Brother, we must all distil.” The industrial competition of the convents has given rise to the anti-Clerical hate among many of the middle class, who see that religion is necessary for the moralisation of the worker – that is to say, in order to teach him to submit to his employer, and to be content with a low salary and with a long day’s work. They have been glad of the suppression of the religious orders because it has got rid of dangerous competitors, and especially because no political leader, neither Waldeck Rousseau nor Jaurès has demanded, as did the Socialists, the confiscation of the stolen millions. This would have been an outrage to the holy of holies – capitalist property – which is an accumulation of thefts from salaried wages.

The logic of events, therefore, compels the Socialist Party to fight the priests, both because they are exploiting the workers and because they are the servants of the capitalists. The Socialists of France have never hesitated to enter into the struggle. But the Socialist party wages its war against the priests at its own time and in its own way; it must not be confounded with the middle-class anti-Clericalism, which is only a mountebank’s trick to deceive the workers and to encourage them to enter the Radical circus. The anti-Clericalism of the Radical tricksters is only a copy of the Clericalism of the over-fed middle class. Both are means of deceiving the workers and of prolonging the power of capital.

But the war against the Christian priests is only a skirmish of the anti-religious war of Marxian Socialists. They direct their incessant attacks against middle-class idealism and its lay priests, the philosophers, the moralists, the economists and the politicians who render more important services to capitalists than monks and priests. Middle-class idealism is far more dangerous than Christianity; it is with its divinities – property, liberty, justice, order, country, &c., that all the middle-class freethinkers and Catholics, priest-eaters, Jew-baiters, republicans and monarchists, Radicals and Ministerial Socialists will stupefy the brains of the workers and turn them aside from the class struggle.


Paul Lafargue,
Member of the Central Council
of the Socialist Party of France


Last updated on 23.6.2004