Plekhanov 1904

Synopsis of Lecture ‘Scientific Socialism and Religion’

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 56-63.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘The lecture “Scientific Socialism and Religion” was delivered by Plekhanov in Zurich in 1904. Only the synopsis, some points of which were developed by Plekhanov in his later articles on religion, is extant”

First Hour

The theme. It may appear to be somewhat abstract. It does not touch on even one of the urgent issues around which there is so much heated argument, so many swords are being broken and so much ink is flowing in the disputes between the various revolutionary parties, and, within these, between the various shades of one and the same trend: neither the question of the proletariat and the peasantry, nor the attitude of the ‘Bund’ [1] to the party, nor the organisational question.

But I thought it worthwhile sometimes to dwell on abstract questions. Each of us will find it useful to pay attention to them; this will help each of us to become a whole man (Heine). Heine (Romantische Schule) says that Lessing was a whole man (ein ganzer Mann). Like another German writer, he compared him to those pious Jews who, while building the second temple of Jerusalem, repulsed their enemies with one hand and continued erecting the temple with the other. As far as we can, we must act in the same way; with one hand fight incessantly and tirelessly against our numerous enemies, beginning with those who arrest and imprison us, exile and shoot us (Yakutsk) [2] and ending with those who more or less intentionally, more or less consciously, more or less systematically, distort our ideas – and with the other hand we must try to bring together at least a few stones for the construction of our theoretical edifice. He who cannot extend it, must at least keep it in order. ‘Wissen ist Macht, Macht ist Wissen.’ This thought has encouraged me not to fear the abstract character of the theme. Besides, the question is not without practical significance.

In the year 1902, the editors of the journal Mouvement socialiste produced a whole enquête on the question of the attitude of the socialist parties of the various countries to clericalism. [3] This question is now becoming an important practical one for international socialism. And this practical question has an obvious and close connection with that theoretical question which you and I will examine this evening. This practical question is not yet on the order of the day for us in Russia; we still cannot influence legislation directly; but we have another practical question – the dissenters and sectarians. Religion means very much to them.

Terms: Scientific Socialism, Religion.

1. Scientific socialism I define as that socialism whose adherents are convinced of the future triumph of their ideal, not because it seems great and beautiful to them, but because the realisation of this ideal – which they undoubtedly consider both great and beautiful and react to with the greatest enthusiasm, as is recognised even by their enemies – because they are of the opinion that its realisation is being determined and prepared by the whole course of the internal development of contemporary, that is to say, capitalist society. Examples: a) communism, b) international peace. (Stammler. Eclipse of the moon.) [4]

In explaining the course of social development, the adherents of scientific socialism adopt the standpoint of the materialist explanation of history. The materialist explanation of history is its essential foundation. What must we bear in mind of the principles of the materialist explanation of history? Not consciousness determines being, but being consciousness. The mode of thought is determined by the mode of life. The mode of life – by the economy.

All ideologies are, in the last analysis, the fruits of economic development. So too is religion. Example from the history of art: bourgeois drama in Britain and France. Religion. We shall see shortly how to understand this in its application to religion. Marx: Der Mensch macht die Religion, nicht die Religion den Menschen. [5]

2. What is religion? Derivation. Religiobond. Some contest this derivation. In my opinion, it is very probable. Historically, religion can be considered as having arisen only when a bond between social man and certain powers is established: with spirits whose existence he acknowledges and who, in his opinion, can influence his destiny. Religion distinguishes man from animal. Yes, as the ability to make mistakes.

Animism. At the first stage of his development man imagined that the whole of nature was peopled by spirits. He personified individual phenomena and forces of nature. Why? Because he judged these phenomena and forces by analogy with himself; the world appeared to him to be animated; he conceived phenomena to be the result of the activity of living creatures like himself, that is, endowed with consciousness, will, needs, desires and passions. These living creatures are spirits. What is a spirit? Where did this conception come from? Dreams; fainting fits; death.

The world as perceived by primitive man is a realm of spirits. Spiritualism – primitive philosophy, the savage’s conception of the world. Evaluation of the spirits: equal to him, lower, higher. He is afraid of the latter. He tries to win their favour by bribes, gifts of sacrifice.

Lucretius: Primus in orbe deos fecit timor. This is indisputable, although not every frightening spirit is a god; the devil is terrifying to the Russian peasant (the devil was terrifying even to Luther), but the devil is not a god. What then is a god? A god is the spirit with whom the savage has established relations of moral dependence (religio), I would say goodwill relations. The savage reveres the god; the god bestows patronage on the savage (The Old Testament – Abraham’s Covenant with Jehovah). When such a covenant has been established, then there is a god. But – you ask – what has the economy to do with it? Well, listen. The fact is that every stage of economic development has its own distinct conception of the role of the god. Example: Jupiter. Primitive communist society – mutual guarantee; individualistic society – punishment after death. The conception of immortality as understood by contemporary Christians is the outcome of prolonged historical development. Another example: Jupiter (Zeus), daylight, clear skies; with the development of cattle-breeding and agriculture his god is the giver of fertility and abundance (Liber) (in his honour, feasts of the gathering of the grapes), the patron of agriculture; with the development of intercourse, protector of covenants – Deus Fidius. He becomes the guardian of frontiers, property (Juppiter Terminus) and so forth.

In the measure that social relations develop, these relations and the abstract concepts arising from them are deified: Fides, Concordia, Virtus and so on.

Now we know that there are two elements in religion: 1) a conception of the world, 2) social morality. This conception of the world is the conception of the ignoramus. It is founded upon ignorance. But the boundaries of the unknown shrink with the broadening out of experience, with the increase of man’s power over nature; when man is able to influence nature without prayer, by technical influence, he ceases to pray. Auguste Compte’s remark about the god of gravity. Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry. Here are two elements: God and Self. The Australian Bishop refusing to pray for rain: no trust in God here, only keep your powder dry. But does the Bishop also believe? Of course: 1) there is much in nature he still does not know; 2) the social relations themselves are mysterious and obscure to him.

When will the need for religion disappear? When man feels himself master of nature and his own social relations.

Conclusions from the Ramayana. A holy and wise anchorite – one of those who inhabit the deserts of India in great numbers – once prayed to the god Indra. But the capricious god would not listen to him; the prayer, ascending to heaven from the pure heart of the pious man, returned without having achieved the desired results. The holy man then became angry with Indra and rebelled against him. He brought to bear all the holiness he had ‘accumulated by his innumerable sacrifices and prolonged self-tortures’, and felt himself stronger than Indra. He in turn began to command the heavens. At his command, new stars were born. He himself became a creator. He wished even to create new and better gods. Indra took fright, granted the will of the holy man and peace was restored. The history of mankind is partly similar to this from the religious aspect. But only partly. First of all, it is not holiness that men have accumulated, but now knowledge, power over nature and – with time – over their own social relations. And the time will come when this knowledge will be sufficient for there to be no need of Indra. Mankind will manage without God. But no matter how much God takes fright, man will not conclude peace with him; poor Indra will be irrevocably doomed to die. There are no better gods, they are all bad, there are only some less bad than others (Schopenhauer), Engels: [6]

We want to sweep away everything that claims to be supernatural and superhuman... For that reason we have once and for all declared war on religion and religious ideas... [7]

But morality?

We have no need, in order... to recognise the development of the human species through history, its irresistible progress, its ever-certain victory over the unreason of the individual..., its hard but successful struggle against nature until the final achievement of free, human self-consciousness, the discernment of the unity of man and nature, and the independent creation – voluntarily and by its own effort – of a new world based on purely human and moral social relationships – in order to recognise all that in its greatness, we have no need first to summon up the abstraction of a ‘God’ and to attribute to it everything beautiful, great, sublime and truly human; we do not need to follow this roundabout path, we do not need first to imprint the stamp of the ‘divine’ on what is truly human, in order to be sure of its greatness and splendour. On the contrary, the ‘more divine’, in other words, the more inhuman, something is, the less we shall be able to admire it... The more ‘godly’ they are, the more inhuman... [8]

Second Hour

The primitive religious notion has two elements: 1) a philosophical element, a conception of the world, 2) a social-moral element. There is no doubt that experience ousts the first element of religion. As an explanation of phenomena, reference to God is untenable. But some people, believing in religion, or desiring to live at peace with it, have allotted the other sphere to it. Spencer, Kant, our neo-Kantians.

1. The unknowable. We do not know that which is inaccessible to our senses. There will always be an unknown. But why shall we deify it? It will be a subject of hypotheses but not of religious worship. Spencer calls religious thought that which studies what is inaccessible to our senses. But this is partly science, or, if you will, philosophy. The moon, etc.

Man, says Spencer, will always feel himself to be in the presence of infinite and eternal energy, the source of all being. Of course, but why must man endow this infinite energy, this source of all being, with personality? On what basis will he isolate it from nature and place it above nature? But only on this condition can it become an object of religious worship.

Kant. Religion – die Erkenntnis aller unserer Pflichten als göttlicher Gebote. Die Moral in Beziehung auf Gott als Gesetzgeber (K d Urth § 89). But morality is not identical with religion. Historical reference: Morality united with religion; it will also separate from religion. Lastly, morality is a question of social estates, of classes, of mankind, but not of the world. It is a question of humanity rather than of the universe. Bulgakov [9] and Smerdyakov. [10] To Bulgakov: you feel the need for God because your ghosts are inordinately strong, as the witch Wittichen says in Hauptmann’s play. [11] This is lack of moral development. ‘Marxism will not prove that I must serve the working class.’ No. And it is not necessary. Feeling does not require proof. Sonate, que me veux tu?’ [12] Ni dieu, ni maître. [13]

Psychology of Religion: Here Feuerbach’s analysis remains true to the present day. Religion deprives man and nature of their best properties and attributes these to God.


Religion by its very essence drains man and nature of substance, and transfers this substance to the phantom of the otherworldly God, who in turn then graciously permits man and nature to receive some of his superfluity. [14]

Once we have understood the secret of this draining we cannot conscientiously abandon ourselves to it.


The Church is one of the pillars of capitalism and the true function of the clergy is to chloroform the workers to make them docile wage-slaves, patient and contented with their lot in this world while expecting a glorious reward in the next. As long as the Church holds the minds of the workers in its grip, there will be little hope of freeing their bodies from capitalist domination.

The way out: Rückkehr, nicht zu Gott, sondern zu sich selbst. [15]

Marx: the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. See quotations. [16]

Marx [I]:

The criticism of religion is... in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.

Criticism has torn up the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man shall wear the unadorned, bleak chain but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower.

Marx [II]:

The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve round himself and therefore round his true sun.

Religion is a private affair.’ There can be no peace with religion, as there can be no peace with error. Schopenhauer. Our attitude to the dissenters: religion is a private matter. But we retain the right to struggle against the religious idea and supplant it with the scientific.

Social-Democracy must, to use a well-known expression, snatch from tyrants their sceptres and from heaven its fire.

Notes During the Discussion of the Report

Kharazov: Formulation of the question.

1) G Kharazov’s bewilderment. My definition. If we are to agree with him, we must admit that the question of religion is finished. The existence of God cannot be proved. He considers my ideas common to all people. Very glad!

The religious question is not reduced to the existence of a deity. The concept of god had its own evolution. Many people use the word god while not sharing the superstitious idea of god as a personality.

Remark. The origin of religion. Allegedly I began from the etymological definition of the word religion. That again is Cicero. False. I said and proved that it is right. I pointed to the development of religious conceptions. Then I indicated Spencer, Kant, for whom religion is a moral world system. Deity is not God. And what is it? A pity you did not say. Historical remarks. Mutual guarantee before God. My idea is original but not proved. The story of Alcibiades. Allegedly I said that Alcibiades, etc. Where did I get it from, etc.

History of Egypt. Personal responsibility there. Yes, but what of that? Probably it can be explained by theocratic organisation.

Abraham and Sarah – head of tribe.

Kant. He is surprised at comparing of Kant and Berdyaev. Not Berdyaev, but Bulgakov. Kant: the idea of God is a regulative idea. With Kant, God is not a personality but an idea. I am supposed to have distorted Kant’s argument. No, I indicated his two Critiques, [17] quoting almost his own words. I am supposed to have said that the Westphalian miners are Kantians. Never said anything of the kind. How does that follow?

Volsky: [18] Social-Democracy will not be able to combat concealed religious aspirations. But the examination of religion in concealed form is beyond the scope of scientific socialism. Religious people penetrate the ranks of Social-Democracy. I said too little about religion being founded on the conservative aspirations of the ruling classes. Good; I shall repeat: Social-Democracy cannot protect the proletariat from the intrigues of the ruling classes. For scientific socialism itself is not rid of religious conceptions. Proof. First of May. The workers’ assembly on First of May is a religious event. Why? We think of the time when there will be neither rich nor poor. No, it is not so. There is no religion here.

Bourgeois property cannot be attacked today. Only our descendants can do this. And you? Why don’t you attack? The business of socialism is to propagate the future system and not to attack the present one. If we follow up, etc, at first the time of the socialist revolution seems very near, but later it has to be postponed further and further. The ‘real acquisition’ of scientific socialism – the masses convinced of the triumph of socialism. The working class already values bourgeois progress. Changes in the matter of attacking bourgeois property and religion appear with special clarity in Russia. There the working class is accomplishing the bourgeois revolution. This means that it is strengthening and not demolishing the house of bondage. We see the same in Poland. The question arises: where is there even a trace of a religious basis in scientific socialism? The religious basis is found in scientific socialism itself.

What is the basis of religious sentiments? The fact that in the contemporary system of human bondage, mankind will unite and strive towards a common goal. The same in the bourgeoisie. It is absolutely essential to unite the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for the attack on the autocracy. No, we are not uniting. Apparently, Mr Volsky calls anything that does not please him religion. But that is too sweeping.

First work of creating religious fiction – point to the economy. We conceive society as a united whole. No, we speak of the struggle of classes.

Collaboration and slavery. What is our altitude to this? Providence, creating slavery as a step towards socialism.

In place of scientific socialism? Social-Democracy did nothing but refashion the revolutionary movement of the working class into collaboration with other classes. Antagonism of the working masses to scientific socialism will manifest itself. I make so bold as to pronounce this a religious prophecy. Religious prediction which is based on no one knows what.

Not enough to attack only the class of capitalists but all society. Rupture with the intelligentsia. Expropriation of all bourgeois society. Family right, according to which some are born with property and others propertyless.

Akimov: My position. Akimov differs from me on the formulation of the question. Social-Democracy for me is something unitary. I spoke not about Social-Democracy but about Marxism, about scientific socialism. According to Akimov, Marx and Engels do not exhaust the whole of scientific socialism. Let’s assume that. But show me what exactly. Opinions of Vandervelde as a representative of scientific socialism. Is Vandervelde a Marxist? He has said so himself more than once.

Typical feature of my views. I did not give a solution for the problems facing us. That is exactly what Bulgakov said. I do not give one either. But why did you not name the problems that apparently face us?

Windelband, and not only primitive man, takes his stand on religion.

What motive compels us to act thus and not otherwise? This...


Notes are by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’.

1. In 1904, on the eve of the first Russian revolution, a sharp struggle was going on within the RSDLP on the attitude of the proletariat towards the peasantry and against the nationalism of the Bund and others. The Bund (the General Jewish Workers Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia) was organised in 1897; in 1898 it joined the RSDLP ‘as an autonomous organisation, independent only in respect to issues specifically concerning the Jewish proletariat’. After the Second Congress of the RSDLP (1903), which rejected a demand to recognise the Bund as the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat, the latter left the party. Bundists had continuously supported the opportunists within the RSDLP (Mensheviks, ‘economists’, etc) – Editor.

2. Plekhanov is here referring to the ‘Yakutsk protest’ of 18 February 1904 against the arduous conditions of life in exile and arbitrariness of the authorities, when fifty-seven exiles barricaded themselves in the house of Romanov, a local inhabitant. During the firing the exile Matlakhov was killed. On 7 March the ‘Romanovists’ surrendered – Editor.

3. This questionnaire was circulated by the socialist journal Le Mouvement socialiste (published from 1899 and edited by Lagardelle) in connection with the bitter struggle between the French republican government and the Catholic church which ended in separation of the church from the state. Replies to the questionnaire were received from socialists in various countries and printed in nos 107-110 of the journal for 1902 – Editor.

4. The reference is to a statement by Rudolf Stammler in his work Wirtschaft und Recht nach der materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung (Economy and Law from the Standpoint of the Materialist Understanding of History) concerning the contradiction into which the Social-Democrats allegedly fall, on the one hand, by considering the proletarian revolution to be inevitable and, on the other, by calling for action to bring it about. To Stammler this seemed just as strange as organising a group to assist lunar eclipses – Editor.

5. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1975), p 175 – Editor.

6. Below in the text there are two excerpts from Engels’ article ‘The Condition of England: Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, London, 1843’, used by Plekhanov in his lecture – Editor.

7. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1975), p 463 – Editor.

8. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1975), p 464 – Editor.

9. The Russian philosopher and economist Bulgakov considered socialism not as a necessary phase in social development, nor as a result of the class struggle, but merely as the moral ideal of human free will – Editor.

10. Smerdyakov – a character from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers, who commits murder under the influence of ideas suggested to him by Ivan Karamazov. Bulgakov writes about Ivan Karamazov: ‘Ivan speaks indecisively and conditionally about morality: he says: “If there is no God and no immortality of the soul, then all is permissible."’ – Editor.

11. Plekhanov rephrases a line from Hauptmann’s play Die Versunkene Glocke (The Sunken Bell) – Editor.

12. ‘Sonate, que me veux-tu?’ (’sonata, what do you want of me?’) – an expression used by the French writer and scientist Fontenelle. The meaning of Plekhanov’s comparison is apparently as follows: Fontenelle, who had no musical ear, demands that the sonata prove its value to him, so Bulgakov, who is hostile to the working-class movement and socialism, demands that the workers prove to him something that cannot be proved – Editor.

13. Ni dieu, ni maître! (Neither God, nor Master!) – the revolutionary slogan that the French revolutionary Blanqui used as the heading for his newspaper – Editor.

14. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1975), p 461 – Editor.

15. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1975), p 465 – Editor.

16. The two quotations cited below are taken from Marx’s article: ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Introduction’, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1975), p 176 – Editor.

17. The reference is to Kant’s books Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason) and Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (Critique of Practical Reason) – Editor.

18. In the notes on the discussion with Volsky (Makhaisky) the latter’s points are intermingled with Plekhanov’s objections. A Volsky – an ideologist of Makhayevism – a petty-bourgeois anarchist trend which was hostile to the intelligentsia – Editor.