Rosa Luxemburg

Socialism and The Churches


Written: 1905.
First Published: by the Polish Social Democratic Party in 1905.
Source: A Russian edition appeared in Moscow in 1920. A French edition was issued by the French Socialist Party in 1937. First English Edition published by Socialist Review, Birmingham. The text here is reproduced from the 1979 Colombo edition. Copyright free status is verified by a 1972 publication of the same translation, by Merlin Press, without Copyright notice.
Translated: from the French by Juan Punto.
Transcription/Markup: Youth for International Socialism/Brian Baggins.
Copyleft: Luxemburg Internet Archive ( 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Part One

From the moment when the workers of our country and of Russia began to struggle bravely against the Czarist Government and the capitalist exploiters, we notice more and more often that the priests, in their sermons, come out against the workers who are struggling. It is with extraordinary vigour that the clergy fight against the socialists and try by all means to belittle them in the eyes of the workers. The believers who go to church on Sundays and festivals are compelled, more and more often, to listen to a violent political speech, a real indictment of Socialism, instead of hearing a sermon and obtaining religious consolation there. Instead of comforting the people, who are full of cares and wearied by their hard lives, who go to church with faith in Christianity, the priests fulminate against the workers who are on strike, and against the opponents of the government; further, they exhort them to bear poverty and oppression with humility and patience. They turn the church and the pulpit into a place of political propaganda.

The workers can easily satisfy themselves that the struggle of the clergy against the Social-Democrats is in no way provoked by the latter. The Social-Democrats have placed themselves the objective of drawing together and organizing the workers in the struggle against capital, that is to say, against the exploiters who squeeze them down to the last drop of blood, and in the struggle against the Czarist government, which holds the people to ransom. But never do the Social-Democrats drive the workers to fight against clergy, or try to interfere with religious beliefs; not at all! The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience and personal opinions as being sacred. Every man may hold what faith and what opinions seem likely to him to ensure happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. That is what the socialists think. And it is for that reason, among others, that the socialists rally all the people to fight against the Czarist regime, which is continually violating men’s consciences, persecuting Catholics, Russian Catholics,[1] Jews, heretics and freethinkers. It is precisely the Social-Democrats who come out most strongly in favour of freedom of conscience. Therefore it would seem as if the clergy ought to lend their to the Social-Democrats who are trying to enlighten the toiling people. If we understand properly the teachings which the socialists bring to the working class, the hatred of clergy towards them becomes still less understandable.

The Social-Democrats propose to put an end to the exploitation of the toiling people by the rich. You would have that the servants of the Church would have been the first to make this task easier for the Social-Democrats. Did Jesus Christ (whose servants the priests are) teach that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven”?[2] The Social-Democrats try to bring about in all countries social regimes based on the equality, liberty and fraternity of all the citizens. If the clergy really desire that the principle “Love thy neighbour as thyself” be applied in real life why do they not welcome keenly the propaganda of the Social Democrats? The Social Democrats try, by a desperate struggle, by the education and organization of the people, to draw them out of the downtrodden state in which they now are and to offer a better future to their children. Everyone should admit, that at this point, the clergy should bless the Social-Democrats, for did not he whom they serve, Jesus Christ, say “That you do for the poor you do for me”?[3]

However we see the clergy on the one hand, excommunicating and persecuting the Social-Democrats, and, on the other hand, commanding the workers to suffer in patience, that is, to let themselves patiently be exploited by the capitalists. The clergy storm against the Social Democrats, exhort the workers not to “revolt” against the overlords, but to submit obediently to the oppression of this government which kills defenceless people, which sends to the monstrous butchery of the war millions of workers, which persecutes Catholics, Russian Catholics and “Old Believers”.[4] Thus, the clergy, which makes itself the spokesman of the rich, the defender of exploitation and oppression, places itself in flagrant contradiction to the Christian doctrine. The bishops and the priests are not the propagators of Christian teaching, but the worshippers of the Golden Calf[5] and of the Knout which whips the poor and defenceless.

Again, everyone knows how the priests themselves make profit from the worker, extract money out of him on the occasion of marriage, baptism or burial. How often has it happened that the priest, called to the bedside of a sick man to administer the last sacraments, refused to go there before he had been paid his “fee”? The worker goes away in despair, to sell or pawn his last possession, so as to be able to give religious consolation to his kindred.

It is true that we do meet churchmen of another kind. There exist some who are full of goodness and pity and who do not seek gain; these are always ready to help the poor. But we must admit these are indeed uncommon and that they can be regarded in the same way as white blackbirds. The majority of priests, with beaming faces, bow and scrape to the rich and powerful, silently pardoning them for every depravity, every iniquity. With the workers the clergy behave quite otherwise: they think only of squeezing them pity; in harsh sermons they condemn the “covetess” of the workers when these latter do no more than defend themselves against the wrongs of capitalism. The glaring contradiction between the actions of the clergy and teachings of Christianity must make everyone reflect. The workers wonder how it comes about that the working class in its struggle for emancipation, finds in the servants of the Church, enemies and not allies. How does it happen that the Church plays the role of a defence of wealth and bloody oppression, instead of being the refuge of the exploited? In order to understand this strange phenomenon, it is sufficicent to glance over the history of the Church and to examine the evolution through which it has passed in the course of the centuries.

Part Two

The Social-Democrats want to bring about the state of “communism”; that is chiefly what the clergy have against them. First of all, it is striking to notice that the priests of today who fight against “Communism” condemn in reality first Christian Apostles. For these latter were nothing else than ardent communists.

The Christian religion developed, as is well known, in ancient Rome, in the period of the decline of the Empire, which was formerly rich and powerful, comprising the countries which today are Italy and Spain, part of France, part of Turkey, Palestine and other territories. The state of Rome at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ much resembled that of Czarist Russia. On one side there lived a handful of rich people in idleness, enjoying luxury and every pleasure; on the other side was an enormous mass of people rotting in poverty; above all, a despotic government, resting on violence and corruption, exerted a vile oppression. The whole Roman Empire was plunged into complete disorder, ringed round by threatening external foes; the unbridled soldiery in power practised its cruelties on the wretched populace; the countryside was deserted, the land lay waste; the cities, and especially Rome, the capital, were filled with the poverty stricken who raised their eyes, full of hate, to the palaces of the rich; the people were without bread, without shelter, without clothing, without hope, and without the possibility of emerging from their poverty.

There is only one difference between Rome in her decadence and the Empire of the Czars; Rome knew nothing of capitalism; heavy industry did not exist there. At that time slavery was the accepted order of things in Rome. Noble families, the rich, the financiers, satisfied all their needs by putting to work the slaves with which war had supplied them. In the course of time these rich people had laid hands on nearly all the provinces of Italy by stripping the Roman peasantry of their land. As they appropriated cereals in all the conquered provinces as tribute without cost, they profited thereby to lay out on their own estates, magnificent plantations, vineyards, pastures, orchards, and rich gardens, cultivated by armies of slaves working under the whip of the overseer. The people of the country-side, robbed of land and bread, flowed from all the provinces into the capital. But there they were in no better a position to earn a livelihood, for all the trades were carried on by slaves. Thus there was formed in Rome a numerous army of those who possessed nothing – the proletariat[6] – having not even the possibility of selling their labour power. This proletariat, coming from the countryside, could not, therefore, be absorbed by industrial enterprises as is the case today; they became victims of hopeless poverty and were reduced to beggary. This numerous popular mass, starving without work, crowding the suburbs and open spaces and streets of Rome, conuted a permanent danger to the government and the possessing classes. Therefore, the government found itself compelled in its own interest to relieve the poverty. From time to time it distributed to the proletariat corn and other foodstuffs stored in the warehouses of the State. Further, to make the people forget their hardships it offered them free circus shows. Unlike the proletariat of our time, which maintains the whole of society by its labours, the enormous proletariat of Rome existed on charity.

It was the wretched slaves, treated like beasts, who worked for Roman society. In this chaos of poverty and degradation, the handful of Roman magnates spent their time in orgies and debauchery. There was no way out of these monstrous social conditions. The proletariat grumbled, and threatened from time to time to rise in revolt, but a class of beggars, living on crumbs thrown from the table of the lords, could not establish a new social order. Further, the slaves who maintained by their labour the whole of society were too down-trodden, too dispersed, too crushed under the yoke, treated as beasts and lived too isolated from the other classes to be able to transform society. They often revolted against their masters, tried to liberate themselves by bloody battles, every time the Roman army crushed these revolts, massacring the slaves in thousands and putting them to death on cross.

In this crumbling society, where there existed no way out of their tragic situation for the people, no hope of a better life, the wretched turned to Heaven to seek salvation there. The Christian religion appeared to these unhappy beings as a life-belt, a consolation and an encouragement, and became, right from the beginning, the religion of the Roman proletarians. In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common - communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success. However, this had nothing in common with the demand which the Social-Democrats put forward today with a view to making into common property the instruments of work, the means of production, in order that all humanity may work and live in harmonious unity.

We have been able to observe that the Roman proletarians did not live by working, but from the alms which the government doled out. So the demand of the Christians for collective property did not relate to the means of production, but the means of consumption. They did not demand that the land, the workshops and the instruments of work should become collective property, but only that everything should be divided up among them, houses, clothing, food and finished products most necessary to life. The Christian communists took good care not to enquire into the origin of these riches. The work of production always fell upon the slaves. The Christian people desired only that those who possessed the wealth should embrace the Christian religion and should make their riches common property, in order that all might enjoy these good things in equality and fraternity.

It was indeed in this way that the first Christian communities were organized. A contemporary wrote,

"“these do not believe in fortunes, but they preach collective property and no one among them possesses more than the others. He who wishes to enter their order is obliged to put his fortune into their common property. That is why there is amoung them neither poverty nor luxury – all possessing all in common like brothers. They do not live in a city apart, but in each they have houses for themselves. If any stangers belonging to their religion come there, they share their property with them, and they can benefit from it as if it their own. Those people, even if previously unknown to each other, welcome one another, and their relations are very friendly. When travelling they carry nothing but a weapon for defence against robbers. In each city they have their steward, who distributes clothing and food to the travellers. Trade does not exist among them. However, if one of the members offers to another some object which he needs, he receives some other objects in exchange. But each can demand what he needs even if he can give nothing in exchange.”

We read in the Acts of the Apostles (4:32, 34, 35) the following description of the first community at Jerusalem: “no-one regarded as being his what belonged to him; everything was in common. Those who possessed lands or houses, after having sold them, brought the proceeds and laid them at the feet of the Apostles. And to each was distributed according to his needs.”

In 1780, the German historian Vogel wrote nearly the same about the first Christians:

“According to the rule, every Christian had the right to the property of all the members of the community; in case of want, he could demand that the richer members should divide their fortune with him according to his needs. Every Christian could make use of the property of his brothers; the Christians who possessed anything had not the right to refuse that their brothers should use it. Thus, the Christian who had no house could demand from him who had two or three to take him in; the owner kept only his own house to himself. But because of the community of enjoyment of goods, housing accommodation had to be given to him who had none.”

Money was placed in a common chest and a member of the society, specially appointed for this purpose, divided the collective fortune among all. But this was not all. Among the early Christians, communism was pressed so far that they took their meals in common (see the Acts of the Apostles). Their family life was therefore done away with; all the Christian families in one city lived together, like one single large family.

To finish, let us add that certain priests attack the Social Democrats on the ground that we are for the community of women. Obviously, this is simply a huge lie, arising from the ignorance or the anger of the clergy. The Social-Democrats consider that as a shameful and bestial distortion of marriage. And yet this practice was usual among the first Christians.[7]

Part Three

Thus the Christians of the First and Second Centuries were fervent supporters of communism. But this communism was based on the consumption of finished products and not on work, and proved itself incapable of reforming society, of putting an end to the inequality between men and throwing down the barrier which separated rich from poor. For, exactly as before, the riches created by labour came back to a restricted group of possessors, because the means of production (especially the land) remained individual property, because the labour – for the whole society – was furnished by the slaves. The people, deprived of means of subsistence, only received only alms, according to the good pleasure of the rich.

While some, a handful (in proportion to the mass of the people), possess exclusively for their own use all the arable lands, forests and pastures, farm animals and farm buildings, all the workshops, tools and materials of production, and others, the immense majority, possess nothing at all that is indispensable in production, there can be no question whatever of equality between men. In such conditions society evidently finds itself divided into two classes, the rich and the poor, those of luxury and poverty. Suppose, for example, that the rich proprietors, influenced by the Christian doctrine, offered to share up between the people all the riches which they possessed in the form of money, cereals, fruit, clothing and animals, what would the result be? Poverty would disappear for several weeks and during this the time the populace would be able to feed and clothe themselves. But the finished products are quickly used up. After a short lapse of time, the people, having consumed the distributed riches, would once again have empty hands. The proprietors of the land and the instruments of production could produce more, thanks to the labour power provided by the slaves, so nothing would be changed. Well, here is why the Social-Democrats consider these things differently from the Christian communists. They say, “We do not want the rich to share with the poor: we do not want either charity or alms; neither being able to prevent the recurrence of inequality between men. It is by no means a sharing out between the rich and the poor which we demand, but the complete suppression of rich and poor”. This is possible on the condition that the source of all wealth, the land, in common with all other means of production and instruments of work, shall become the collective property of the working people which will produce for itself, according to the needs of each. The early Christians believed that they could remedy the poverty of the proletariat by means of the riches offered by the possessors. That would be to draw water in a sieve! Christian communism was not only incapable of changing or of improving the economic situation, and it did not last.

At the beginning, when the followers of the new Saviour constituted only a small group in Roman society, the sharing of the common stock, the meals in common and the living under the same roof were practicable. But as the number of Christians spread over the territory of the Empire, this communal life of its adherents became more difficult. Soon there disappeared the custom of common meals and the division of goods took on a different aspect. The Christians no longer lived like one family; each took charge of his own property, and they no longer offered the whole of their goods to the community, but only the superfluity. The gifts of the richer of them to the general body, losing their character of participation in a common life, soon became simple almsgiving, since the rich Christians no longer made any use of the common property, and put at the service of the others only a part of what they had, while this part might be greater or smaller according to the good will of the donor. Thus in the very heart of Christian communism appeared the difference between the rich and the poor, a difference analogous to that which reigned in the Roman Empire and against which the early Christians had fought. Soon it was only the poor Christians – and the proletarian ones – who took part in the communal meals; the rich having offered a part of their plenty, held themselves apart. The poor lived from the alms tossed to them by the rich, and society again became what it had been. The Christians had changed nothing.

The Fathers of the Church struggled for a long time, yet, with burning words, against this penetration of social inequality into the Christian community, scourging the rich and exhorting them to return to the communism of the early Apostles.

Saint Basil, in the fourth century after Christ, preached thus against the rich:

“Wretches, how will you justify yourselves before the Heavenly Judge? You say to me, ‘What is our fault, when we keep what belongs to us?’ I ask you, ‘How did you get that which you called your property? How do the possessors become rich, if not by taking possession of things belong to all? If everyone took only what he strictly needed leaving the rest to others, there would be neither rich nor poor’.”

It was St. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, (born at Antioch in 347, died in exile in Armenia in 407), who preached most ardently to the Christians the return to the first communism of the Apostles. This celebrated preacher, in his 11th Homily on the Acts of the Apostles, said:

“And there was a great charity among them (the Apostles): none was poor among them. None considered as being as being his what belonged to him, all their riches were in common ... a great charity was in all of them. This charity consisted in that there were no poor among them, so much did those who had possessions hasten to strip themselves of them. They not divide their fortunes into two parts, giving one and keeping the other back: they gave what they had. So there was no inequality between them; they all lived in great abundance. Everything was done with the greatest reverence. What they gave was not passed from the hand of the giver to that of the recipient; their gifts were without ostentation; they brought their goods to the feet of the apostles who became the controllers and masters of them and who used them from then on as the goods of the community and no longer as the property of individuals. By that means they cut short any attempt to get vain glory. Ah! Why have these traditions been lost? Rich and poor, we should all profit from these pious usages and we should both feel the same pleasure from conforming to them. The rich would not impoverish themselves when laying down their possessions, and the poor would be enriched…But let us try to give an exact idea of what should be done ...

“Now, let us suppose – and neither rich nor poor need be alarmed, for I am just supposing – let us suppose that we sell all that belongs to us to put the proceeds into a common pool. What sums of gold would be piled up! I cannot say exactly how much that would make: but if all among us, without distinction between the sexes were to bring here their treasures, if they were to sell their fields, their properties, their houses – I do not speak of slaves for there were none in the Christian community, and those who were there became free – perhaps, I say if everyone did the same, we would reach hundreds of thousands of pounds of gold, millions, enormous values.

“Well! How many people do you think there are living in this city? How many Christians? Would you agree that there are a hundred thousand? The rest being made up of Jews and Gentiles. How many should we not unite together? Now, if you count up the poor, what do you find? Fifty thousand needy people at the most. What would be needed to feed them each day? I estimate that the expense would not be excessive, if the supply and the eating of the food were organized in common.

“You will say, perhaps, ‘But what will become of us when these goods are used up?’ So what! Would that ever happen? Would not the grace of God be a thousand times abundant? Would we not be making a heaven on earth?”

If formerly this community of goods existed among three to five thousand faithful and had such good results and did away with poverty amidst them, what would not result in such a great multitude as this? And among the pagans themselves who would not hasten to increase the common treasure? Wealth which is owned by a number of people is much more easily and quickly spent; the diffusion of ownership is the cause of poverty. Let us take as an example a household composed of a husband, a wife and ten children, the wife being occupied in weaving wool, the husband in bringing in the wages of his work outside; tell me in which case this family would spend more; if they live together in common, or lived separately. Obviously, if they lived separately. Ten houses, ten tables, ten servants, and ten special allowances would be needed for the children if they were separated. What do you do, indeed if you have many slaves? Is it not true, that, in order to keep expenses down, you feed them at a common table? The division is a cause of impoverishment; concord and the unity of wills is a cause of riches.

In the monasteries, they still live as in the early Church. And who dies of hunger there? Who has not found enough to eat there? Yet the men of our times fear living that way more than they fear falling into the sea! Why have we not tried it? We would fear it less. What a good act that would be! If a few of the faithful, hardly eight thousand dared in the face of a whole world, where they have nothing but enemies, to make a courageous attempt to live in common, without any outside help, how much more could we do it today, now that there are Christians throughout the whole world? Would there remain one single Gentile? Not one. I believe. We would attract them all and win them to us.”[8]

These ardent sermons of St. John Chrysostom were in vain. Men no longer tried to establish communism either at Constantinople or anywhere else. At the same time as Christianity expanded and became, at Rome after the 4th Century, the dominant religion, the faithful went further and further away from the example of the first Apostles. Even within the Christian community itself, the inequality of goods between the faithful increased.

Again, in the 6th Century, Gregory the Great said:

“It is by no means enough not to steal the property of others; you are in error if you keep to yourself the wealth which God has created for all. He who does not give to others what he possesses is a murderer, a killer; when he keeps for his own use what would provide for the poor, one can say that he is slaying all those who could have lived from his plenty; when we share with those who are suffering, we do not give what belongs to us, but what belongs to them. This is not an act of pity, but the payment of a debt.”

These appeals remained fruitless. But the fault was by no means with the Christians of those days, who were indeed, more responsive to the words of the Fathers of the Church than are the Christians of today. This was not the first time in the history of humanity that economic conditions have shown themselves to be stronger than fine speeches.

The communism, this community of the consumption of goods, which the early Christians proclaimed, could not be brought into existence without the communal labour of the whole population, on the land, as common property, as well as in the communal workshops. At the period of the early Christians, it was impossible to inaugurate communal labour (with communal means of production) because as we have already stated, the labour rested, not upon free men, but upon the slaves, who lived on the edge of society. Christianity did not undertake to abolish the inequality between the labour of different men, nor between their property. And that is why its efforts to suppress the unequal distribution of consumption goods did not work. The voices of the Fathers of the Church proclaiming Communism found no echo: Besides, these voices soon became less and less frequent and finally fell silent altogether. The Fathers of the Church ceased to preach the community, and the dividing up of goods, because the growth of the Christian community, produced fundamental changes within the Church itself.

Part Four

In the beginning, when the number of Christians was small, the clergy did not exist in the proper sense of the word. The faithful, who formed an independent religious community, united together in each city. They elected a member responsible for conducting the service of God and carrying out the religious rites. Every Christian could become the bishop or prelate. These functions were elective, subject to recall, honorary and carried no power other than that which the community gave of its own free will.[9] In proportion as the number of the faithful increased and the communities became more numerous and richer, to run the business of the community and to hold office became an occupation which demanded a great deal of time and full concentration. As the office-bearers could not carry out these tasks at the same time as following their private employment, the custom grew up of electing from among the members of the community, an ecclesiastic who was exclusively entrusted with these functions. Therefore, these employees of the community had to be paid for their exclusive devotion to its affairs. Thus there formed within the Church a new order of employees of the Church, which separated itself from the main body of the faithful, the clergy. Parallel with the inequality between rich and poor, there arose another inequality, that between the clergy and the people. The ecclesiastics, at first elected among equals with a view to performing a temporary function raised themselves to form a caste which ruled over the people.

The more numerous the Christian communities became in the cities of the enormous Roman Empire, the more the Christians, persecuted by the government, felt the need to unite to gain strength. The communities, scattered over all the territory of the Empire, therefore organized themselves into one single Church. This unification was already a unification of the clergy and not of the people. From the 4th Century, the ecclesiastics of the communities met together in Councils. The first council took place at Nicaea in 325. In this way there was formed the clergy, an order apart and separated from the people. The bishops of the stronger and richer communities took the lead at the Councils. That is why the Bishop of Rome soon placed himself at the head of the whole of Christianity and became the Pope. Thus an abyss separated the clergy, divided up in the hierarchy, from the people.

At the same time, the economic relations between the people and the clergy underwent a great change. Before the formation of this order, all that the rich members of the Church offered to the common property belonged to the poor people. Afterwards, a great part of the funds was spent on paying the clergy and running the Church. When, in the 4th Century, Christianity was protected by the government and was recognized at Rome as being the dominant religion, the persecutions of the Christians ended, and the services were no longer carried on in catacombs, or in modest halls, but in Churches which began to be more and more magnificently built. These expenses thus reduced the funds intended for the poor. Already, in the 5th Century, the revenues of the Church were divided into four parts; the first for the bishop, the second for the minor clergy, the third for the upkeep of the Church, and it was only the fourth part which was distributed among the needy. The poor Christian population received therefore a sum equal to what the Bishop received for himself alone.

In course of time the habit was lost of giving to the poor a sum determined in advance. Moreover, as the higher clergy gained in importance, the faithful no longer had contol over the property of the Church. The Bishops gave to the poor according to their good pleasure. The people received alms from their own clergy. But that is not all. At the beginning of Christianity, the faithful made goodwill offerings to the common stock. As soon as the Christian religion became a State religion, the clergy demanded that gifts must be brought by the poor as well as by the rich. From the 6th century, the clergy imposed a special tax, the tithe (tenth part of the crops), which had to be paid to the Church. This tax crushed the people like a heavy burden; in the course of the Middle Ages it became a real scourge to the peasants oppressed by serfdom. The tithe was levied on every piece of land, on every property. But it was always the serf who paid it by his labour. Thus the poor people not only lost the help and support of the Church, but they saw the priests ally themselves with their other exploiters: princes, nobles, moneylenders. In the Middle Ages, while the working people sank into poverty through serfdom, the Church grew richer and richer. Beside the tithe and other taxes, the Church benefited at this period from great donations, legacies made by rich debauchees of both sexes who wished to make up, at the last moment, for their life of sin. They gave and made over to the Church, money, houses, entire villages with their serfs, and often ground-rents or customary labour dues (corvées).

In this way the Church acquired enormous wealth. At the same time, the clergy ceased to be the “administrator” of the wealth which the Church had entrusted it. It openly declared in the 12th Century, by formulating a law which it said came from Holy Scripture, that the wealth of the Church belongs not to the faithful but is the individual property of the clergy and of its chief the Pope, above all. Ecclesiastical positions therefore offered the best opportunities to obtain large revenue. Each ecclesiastic disposed of the property of the Church as if it were his own and largely endowed from it his relatives, sons and grandsons. By this means the goods of the Church were pillaged and disappeared into the hands of the families of the clergy. For that reason, the Popes declared themselves to be the sovereign proprietors of the fortunes of the Church and ordained the celibacy of the clergy, in order to keep it intact and to prevent their patrimony from being dispersed. Celibacy was decreed in the 11th Century, but it was not put into practice until the 13th Century, in view of the opposition of the clergy. Further to prevent the dispersal of the Church’s wealth, in 1297 Pope Boniface VIII forbade ecclesiastics to make a present of their incomes to laymen, without permission of the Pope. Thus the Church accumulated enormous wealth, especially in arable lands, and the clergy of all Christian countries became the most important landed proprietor. It often possessed a third, or more than a third of all the lands of the country!

The peasant people paid not only the labour dues (corvée) but the tithe as well and that not only on the lands of the princes and the nobles but on enormous tracts where they worked directly for the bishops, archbishops, parsons and convents. Among all the mighty lords of feudal times the Church appeared as the greatest exploiter of all. In France for example at the end of the 18th century before the Great Revolution the clergy possessed the fifth part of all the territory of the country with an annual income of about 100 million francs. The tithes paid by the proprietors amounted to 23 million. This sum went to fatten 2,800 prelates and bishops, 5,600 superiors and priors, 60,000 parsons and curates, and 24,000 monks and 26,000 nuns who filled the cloisters.

This army of priests was freed from taxation and from the requirement to perform military service. In times of “calamity” – war, bad harvest, epidemics – the Church paid to the State Treasury a “voluntary” tax which never exceeded 16 million francs.

The clergy, thus privileged, formed, with the nobility, a class living on the blood and sweat of the serfs. The high posts in the Church, and those which paid best, were distributed only to the nobles and remained within the hands of the nobility. Consequently, in the period of serfdom, the clergy was the faithful ally of the nobility, giving it support and helping it to oppress the people, to whom it offered nothing but sermons, according to which they should remain humble and resign themselves to their lot. When the country and town proletariat rose up against oppression and serfdom, it found in the clergy a ferocious opponent. It is also true even within the Church itself there existed two classes: the higher clergy who engulfed all the wealth and the great mass of the country parsons whose modest livings brought in no more than 500 francs to 2,000 francs a year. Therefore this unprivileged class revolted against the superior clergy and in 1789, during the Great Revolution, it joined up with the people to fight against the power of the lay and ecclesiastical nobility.

Part Five

Thus were the relations between the Church and the people modified with the passage of time. Christianity began as a message of consolation to the disinherited and the wretched. It brought a doctrine which combated social inequality and the antagonism between rich and poor; it taught the community of riches. Soon this temple of equality and fraternity became a new source of social antagonisms. Having given up the struggle against individual property which was formerly carried on by the early Apostles, the clergy itself gathered riches together, it allied itself with the possessing classes who lived by exploiting the labour of the toiling class. In feudal times the Church belonged to the nobility, the ruling class, and fiercely defended the power of the latter against revolution. At the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th Century, the people of Central Europe swept away serfdom and the privileges of the nobility. At that time, the Church allied itself afresh with the dominant classes – with the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie. Today, the situation has changed and the clergy no longer possess great estates, but they own capital which they try to make productive by the exploitation of the people through commerce and industry, as do the capitalists.

The Catholic Church in Austria possessed, according to its own statistics, a capital of more than 813 million crowns,[10] of which 300 million were in arable lands and in property, 387 million of debentures, and, further, it lent at interest the sum of 70 million to factory owners and businessmen. And that is how the Church, adapting itself to modern times, changed itself into an industrial and commercial capitalist from being a feudal overlord. As formerly, it continues to collaborate with the class which enriches itself at the expense of the rural proletariat.

This change is even more striking in the organisation of convents. In certain countries, such as Germany and Russia, the Catholic cloisters have been suppressed for a long time. But where they still exist, in France, Italy and Spain, all evidence points how enormous is the part played by the Church in the capitalist regime.

In the Middle Ages the convents were the refuge of the people. It was there that they sought shelter from the severity of lords and princes; it was there that they found food and protection in case of extreme poverty. The cloisters did not refuse bread and nourishment to the hungry. Let us not forget, especially, that the Middle Ages knew nothing of the commerce such as is usual in our days. Every farm, every convent produced in abundance for itself, thanks to the labour of the serfs and the craftsmen. Often the provisions in reserve found no outlet. When they had produced more corn, more vegetables, more wood than was needed for the consumption of the monks, the excess had no value. There was no buyer for it and not all products could be preserved. In these conditions, the convents freely looked after their poor, in any case offering them only a small part of what has been extracted from their serfs. (This was the usual custom in this period and nearly every farm belonging to the nobility acted similarly.) In fact the cloisters profited considerably from this benevolence; having the reputation of opening their doors to the poor, they received large gifts and legacies from the rich and powerful. With the appearance of capitalism and production for exchange, every object acquired a price and became exchangeable. At this moment the convents, the houses of the lords, and the ecclesiastics ceased their benefactions. The people found no refuge anywhere. Here is one reason, among others, why at the beginning of capitalism, in the 18th Century, when the workers were not yet organised to defend their interests, there appeared poverty so appalling that humanity seemed to have gone back to the days of the decades of the Roman Empire. But while the Catholic Church in former times undertook to bring help to the Roman proletariat by the preaching of communism, equality and fraternity, in the capitalist period it acted in a wholly different fashion. It sought above all to profit from the poverty of the people; to put cheap labour to work. The convents became literally hells of capitalist exploitation, all the worse because they took in the labour of women and children. The law case against the Convent of the Good Shepherd in France in 1903 gave a resounding example of these abuses. Little girls, 12, 10 and 9 years old were compelled to work in abominable conditions, without rest, ruining their eyes and their health, and were badly nourished and subjected to prison discipline.

At present the convents are almost entirely suppressed in France and the Church loses the opportunity of direct capitalist exploitation. The tithe, the scourge of the serfs, has likewise long since been abolished. This does not stop the clergy from extorting money from the working class by other methods and particularly through masses, marriages, burials and baptisms. And the governments which support the clergy compel the people to pay their tribute. Further, in all countries, except the USA and Switzerland, where religion is a personal matter, the Church draws from the State enormous sums which obviously come from the hard labour of the people. For instance, in France the expenditure of the clergy amounts to 40 million francs a year.[11]

To sum up, it is the labour of millions of exploited people, which assures the existence of the Church, the government, and the capitalist class. The statistics concerning the revenue of the Church in Austria give an idea of the considerable wealth of the Church, which was formerly the refuge of the poor. Five years ago (that is, in 1900) its annual revenues amounted to 60 million crowns, and its expenditure did not exceed 35 million. Thus, in the course of a single year, it “put aside” 25 million – at the cost of the sweat and blood shed by the workers. Here are a few details about that sum:

The Archbishopric of Vienna, with an annual revenue of 300,000 crowns and the expenses of which were not more than half of that sum, made 150,000 crowns of “savings” a year; the fixed capital of the Archbishopric amounts to about 7 million crowns. The Archbishopric of Prague enjoys an income of over half a million and has about 300,000 in expenses; its capital reaches nearly 11 million crowns. The Archbishopric of Olomouc (Olmutz) has over half a million in revenue and about 400,000 in expenses; its fortune exceeds 14 million. The subordinate clergy which so often pleads poverty exploits the population no less. The annual incomes of the parish priests of Austria reach more than 35 million crowns, the expenses 21 million only, with the result that the “savings” of the parsons yearly reach 14 million. The parish properties make up over 450 million. Finally, the convents of five years ago possessed, with all expenses deducted, a “net revenue” of 5 million a year. These riches grew every year, while the poverty of the toilers exploited by capitalism and by the state grew from year to year. In our country and everywhere else, the state of things is exactly as in Austria.

Part Six

After having briefly reviewed the history of the Church, we cannot be surprised that the clergy supports the Czarist government and the capitalists against the revolutionary workers who fight for a better future. The class-conscious workers organised in the Social-Democratic Party, fight to bring into reality the idea of social equality and of fraternity among men, the object which was formerly that of the Christian Church.

Nonetheless, equality cannot be realised either in a society based on slavery nor in a society based on serfdom; it becomes capable of being realised in our present period, that is, the regime of industrial capitalism. What the Christian Apostles could not accomplish by their ardent discourses against the egoism of the rich, the modern proletarians, workers conscious of their class-position, can start working in the near future, by the conquest of political power in all countries by tearing the factories, the land, and all the means of production from the capitalists to make them the communal property of the workers. The communism which the Social-Democrats have in view does not consist of the dividing up, between beggars and rich and lazy, of the wealth produced by slaves and serfs, but in honest, common, united work and the honest enjoyment of the common fruits of that work. Socialism does not consist of generous gifts made by the rich to the poor, but in the total abolition of the very difference between rich and poor, by compelling all alike to work according to their capacity by the suppression of the exploitation of man by man.

For the purpose of establishing the Socialist order, the workers organise themselves in the workers’ Social-Democratic Party which pursues this aim. And that is why the Social-Democracy and the workers’ movement meets with the ferocious hatred of the possessing classes which live at the expense of the workers.

The enormous riches piled up by the Church without any effort on its part, come from the exploitation and the poverty of the labouring people. The wealth of the archbishops and bishops, the convents and the parishes, the wealth of the factory-owners and the traders and the landed proprietors are bought at the price of the inhuman exertions of the workers of town and country. For what can be the only origin of the gifts and legacies which the very rich lords make to the Church? Obviously not the labour of their hands and the sweat of their brows, but the exploitation of the workers who toil for them; serfs yesterday and wage-workers today. Further, the allowance which the governments today make to the clergy come from the State Treasury, made up in the greater part from the taxes wrung from the popular masses. The clergy, no less than the capitalist class, lives on the backs of the people, profits from the degradation, the ignorance and the oppression of the people. The clergy and the parasitic capitalists hate the organised working-class, conscious of its rights, which fights for the conquest of its liberties. For the abolition of capitalist mix-rule and the establishment of equality between men would strike a mortal blow especially at the clergy which exists only thanks to exploitation and poverty. But above all, Socialism aims at assuring to humanity an honest and solid happiness here below, to give to the people the greatest possible education and the first place in Society. It is precisely this happiness here on earth which the servants of the Church fear like the plague.

The capitalists have shaped with hammer blows the bodies of the people in chains of poverty and slavery. Parallel to this the clergy, helping the capitalists and serving their own needs enchain the mind of the people, hold it down in crass ignorance, for they well understand that education would put an end to their power. Well, the clergy falsifying the early teaching of Christianity, which had as its object the earthly happiness of the lowly, tries today to persuade the toilers that the suffering and the degradation which they endure come not from a defective social structure, but from heaven, from the will of “Providence”. Thus the Church kills in the workers the strength, the hope, and the will for a better future, kills their faith in themselves and their self-respect. The priests of today, with their false and poisonous teachings, continually maintain the ignorance and degradation of the people. Here are some irrefutable proofs.

In the countries where the Catholic clergy enjoys great power over the minds of the people, in Spain and in Italy for instance, the people are held down in complete ignorance. Drunkenness and crime flourish there. For example, let us compare two provinces of Germany, Bavaria and Saxony. Bavaria is an agricultural state where the population is preponderantly under the influence of the Catholic clergy. Saxony is an industrialised state where the Social-Democrats play a large part in the life of the workers. They win the Parliamentary elections in nearly all the constituencies, a reason why the bourgeoisie shows its hatred for this “Red” Social-Democrat Province. And what do we see? The official statistics show that the number of crimes committed in ultra-Catholic Bavaria is relatively much higher than that in “Red Saxony”. We see that in 1898, out of every 100,000 inhabitants there were:

  Bavaria    Saxony 
Robbery with Violence 204 185
Assault and Battery 296   72
Perjury     4     1

A wholly similar situation is found when we compare the record of crime in priest-dominated Possen with that in Berlin, where the influence of Social-Democracy is greater. In the course of the year, we see for every 100,000 inhabitants in Possen, 232 cases of assault and battery, and in Berlin 172 only.

In the Papal City, in Rome during one single month of the year 1869 (the last year but one of the temporal power of the Popes), there were condemned: 279 for murder, 728 for assault and battery, 297 for robbery and 21 for arson. These are the results of clerical domination over the poverty-stricken people.

This does not mean to say that the clergy directly incite people to crime. Quite the contrary, in their sermons the priests often condemn theft, robbery, and drunkenness. But men do not steal, rob, or get drunk at all because they like to do so or insist upon it. It is poverty and ignorance that are the causes of it. Therefore, he who keeps alive the ignorance and poverty of the people, he who kills their will and energy to act out of this situation, he who puts all sorts of obstacles in the way of those who try to educate the proletariat, he is responsible for these crimes just as if he were an accomplice.

The situation in the mining areas of Catholic Belgium was similar until recently. The Social-Democrats went there. Their vigorous appeal to the unhappy and degraded workers sounded through the country: “Worker, lift yourself up! Do not rob, do not get drunk, do not lower your head in despair! Read, teach yourself! Join up with your class brothers in the organisation, fight against the exploiters who maltreat you! You will emerge from poverty, you will become a man!”

Thus the Social-Democrats everywhere lift up the people and strengthen those who lose hope, rally the weak into a powerful organisation. They open the eyes of the ignorant and show them the way of equality, of liberty and of love for our neighbours.

On the other hand, the servants of the Church bring to the people only words of humiliation and discouragement. And, if Christ were to appear on earth today, he would surely attack the priests, the bishops and archbishops who defend the rich and live by exploiting the unfortunate, as formerly he attacked the merchants whom he drove from the temple so that their ignoble presence should not defile the House of God.

That is why there has broken out a desperate struggle between the clergy, the supporters of oppression and the Social-Democrats, the spokesmen of liberation. Is this fight not to be compared with that of the dark night and the rising sun? Because the priests are not capable of combating socialism by means of intelligence or truth, they have recourse to violence and wickedness. Their Judas-talk calumniates those who rouse class-consciousness. By means of lies and slander, they try to besmirch all those who give up their lives for the workers’ cause. These servants and worshippers of the Golden Calf support and applaud the crimes of the Czarist Government and defend the throne of this latest despot who oppresses the people like Nero.

But it is in vain that you put yourselves about, you degenerate servants of Christianity who have become the servants of Nero. It is in vain that you help our murderers and our killers, in vain that you protect the exploiters of the proletariat under the sign of the cross. Your cruelties and your calumnies in former times could not prevent the victory of the Christian idea, the idea which you have sacrificed to the Golden Calf; today your efforts will raise no obstacle to the coming of Socialism. Today it is you, in your lies and your teachings, who are pagans, and it is we who bring to the poor, to the exploited the tidings of fraternity and equality. It is we who are marching to the conquest of the world as he did formerly who proclaimed that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Part Seven

A few final words.

The clergy has at its disposal two means to fight Social Democracy. Where the working class movement is beginning to win recognition, as is the case in our country (Poland), where the possessing classes still hope to crush it, the clergy fights the socialists by threatening sermons, slandering them and condemning the “covetousness” of the workers. But in the countries where political liberties are established and the workers’ party is powerful, as for example in Germany, France and Holland, there the clergy seeks other means. It hides its real purpose and does not face the workers any more as an open enemy, but as a false friend. Thus you will see the priests organising the workers and launching “Christian” Trade Unions. In this way they try to catch the fish in their net, to attract the workers into the trap of these false trade unions, where they teach humility, unlike the organisations of the Social-Democracy which have in view struggle and defence against maltreatment.

When the Czarist Government finally falls under the blows of the revolutionary proletariat of Poland and Russia, and when political liberty exists in our country, then we shall see the same Archbishop Popiel and the same ecclesiastics who today thunder against the militants, suddenly beginning to organise the workers into “Christian” and “National” associations in order to mislead them. Already we are at the beginning of this underground activity of the “National Democracy” which assures the future collaboration with the priests and today helps them to slander the Social-Democrats.

The workers must, therefore, be warned of the danger so that they will not let themselves be taken in, on the morrow of the victory of the revolution, by the honeyed words of those who today from the heights of the pulpit, dare to defend the Czarist Government, which kills the workers, and the repressive apparatus of capital, which is the principal cause of the poverty of the proletariat.

In order to defend themselves against the antagonism of the clergy at the present time, during the revolution, and against their false friendship tomorrow, after the revolution, it is necessary for the workers to organise themselves in the Social-Democratic Party.

And here is the answer to all the attacks of the clergy: the Social-Democracy in no way fights against religious beliefs. On the contrary, it demands complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest possible toleration for every faith and every opinion. But, from the moment when the priests use the pulpit as a means of political struggle against the working classes, the workers must fight against the enemies of their rights and their liberation. For he who defends the exploiters and who helps to prolong this present regime of misery, he is the mortal enemy of the proletariat, whether he be in a cassock or in the uniform of the police.


[1] Orthodox Christians who recognize the supremacy of the Pope.

[2] Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25; Matthew 19:25.

[3] Matthew 25:40.

[4] Otherwise known as “Raskilniki” (Splitters), a Russian religious sect which regarded as contrary to the true faith the revision of the texts of the Bible and the reform of the liturgy by Patriarch Nikon in 1654.

[5] See Exodus 32:1-8.

[6]Proles is the Latin for children, for offspring. Proletarians, therefore, constituted that class of citizens who owned nothing but the arms of their body and the children of their loins.” Communist Journal, No.1, September 1847 (London).

“The Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society whereas modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat.” Sismondi quoted by Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

See also: Engels: Principles or Communism (question 2)

[7] But see Tertullian (c. 160–230): “We are brethren in our property, which with you mostly dissolves brotherhood. We therefore, who are united in mind and soul, doubt not about having possessions in common. With us all things are shared promiscuously, except the wives. In that alone do we part fellowship, in which alone others (Greeks and Roman pagans) exercise it.” Acts 1:39.

[8] Abbé Barcille: Jean Chrycostome, Paris 1869, Vol.7, pages 599–603.

[9] Assuredly however the local ministries, as they appear in St. Paul’s Epistles and the Acts, appear as being under authority (I am inclined to use a vulgarism and say) “with a vengeance”. However they were elected, and this was often probably by the nomination of local prophets, the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas appointed them. In view of the evidence of Acts 6 and the pastoral Epistles, I think, with Harnock, that we cannot reasonably doubt that the appointment was by prayer with the laying-on of hands, and ranked as “Sacramental”. And when they were appointed during St. Paul’s life, they were certainly controlled from above.” Gore: Dr. Streeter and the Primitive Church, pages 12 and 13.

[10] In 1900, a crown was worth about the same as a franc or 10d (pence).

[11] It must not be forgotten that this was written in 1905. Since then France has shaken off the yoke of the Church, and the State no longer appoints the clergy, except in the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Moselle, where Republican France perpetuates, for some unknown reason, the traditions of Imperial Germany and the French Second Empire.

Last updated on: 30.11.2008