August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


2 - Religion II

In the last chapter we dealt with the nature and sources of religion, and subsequently with the roots of religion in early society. We came to the conclusion that even in primitive society there existed two basic roots of the religious viewpoint: one, the dependence of society upon nature; the other, social life itself. Now we shall go further, and I shall try to point out the connection between the development of religion on the one hand and the development of the mode of production and the form of society on the other. I cannot, of course, go into great detail on this question. Its history is indeed very interesting and very full, but I can give only the very general fundamentals.

I should like first of all to point out the extremely close relation in ancient times between the development of ideas concerning the gods and the development of social forms, social organization. Let us take a very wide-spread phenomenon, such as the community of the various local and tribal gods. Just as individual families in primitive times are joined to tribes and the individual tribes are themselves joined to to coups of tribes and peoples, so also we see that the primitive village and familial gods are joined to the tribal gods, from whose number is chosen the highest god or a given tribe. When the different tribes are then joined into a nation, into a people, a national god emerges. Finally, when we get a still greater entity, an empire, which consists of different nations, we find that above the level of the national gods an imperial god is created. This is especially evident in ancient China, where the organization of gods, demons, spirits, etc., corresponds exactly to the social organization. First we have the family and clan spirits, the ancestors. In a wider sphere we have the village and local spirits or deities. Then we have the deities of cities and of provinces. Finally, as China developed from various small feudal states into a centralized monarchy we likewise get a centralization of gods. "Heaven" emerges as the highest divine power, and the high priest of heaven is, of course, the emperor. Correspondingly in the western world, in the Roman empire, we see how Christianity develops as a world religion out of the primitive tribal and national religions. The starting point for the Christian world religion was the national religion of a small nation of Palestine, the Jews. The Jewish national god expanded into a world god. This Jewish national god was highly suited to be the starting point for an international world god of ancient times since he was the god of an oppressed national people, and the oppressed classes and peoples of the Roman empire naturally became the first bearers of this new world religion.

A few more words concerning Christianity and its introduction. Not only is the connection of Christianity with the structure of society manifested in the character of god as the world god, but the connection is evident in still another very significant respect. Christianity first appeared as the religion of slaves. The slaves, as the most harshly exploited and oppressed class of the population, had the greatest need for deliverance. The slaves were brought to Rome from all over the world. The common oppression and the common life they shared effaced their national differences. They were predisposed to an international religion of deliverance, to a world religion. One may ask why this religious need became especially marked among the slaves and why they did not become materialists or atheists? In order to understand this, we must realize that a class can only shake off religion completely when it has the power and the capacity to construct a new world, a higher economic and social order, when, in short, it can deliver itself. This was not the case among the slaves of antiquity. From slavery there lies no direct path to a higher economic and social order. Slavery led to the decline of the ancient world, the world of Greek and Roman culture. A new development did not set in until the German tribes invaded the Roman empire, destroyed the old social order and culture, and built up feudalism. The slave system, as such, offers no historical way out.

Thus the ideology of the slaves rebelling against their destiny was bound to become a religion, Christianity. The emancipation was bound to assume a fantastic form, an empire ruled by a world savior with a communistic consumption-economy. This empire was first located in this world, then in the next, in "heaven. "I should like to add that among modern slaves there exists, naturally and necessarily, an especially strong Christian religious feeling, for example, in the cotton plantations of the southern states of the United States. This is a reaction against the terrible oppression which they suffered, from which they saw no way out through their own powers.

The same connection between the social order and religious ideas we see again in the feudal Middle Ages. The religion of the feudal Middle Ages is only apparently the same as the religion of declining antiquity. But actually Christianity changed in the Middle Ages just as social relations changed. In place of the Roman world empire there appears in the Middle Ages a system of feudal states. The forerunners of modern European national states are developed. Local economic ties become closer. We are immediately struck by the fact that, whereas Christianity expressly recognized only one divinity in the form of three beings, the medieval picture becomes much more complicated and heavenly beings are arranged like feudal society itself. In the Middle Ages we have an organization of divinities which corresponds exactly to the organization of ruling classes on earth. The organization of the feudal order is about as follows: There is first the single feudal landholder, who is the vassal of an earl or a duke. These dukes are further organized under a sovereign. Over the sovereign princes, dukes, kings or whatever they may be called, is a supreme ruler, the emperor. The gods and saints in the Middle Ages are organized in the same way. First we have the village with its village saints; then the individual provinces with their special saints; and individual nations, Germany, France, England, with their national saints. The organization extends to heaven itself. There we have the angels in various ranks, the archangels and the holy trinity constituting the all-highest. We have exactly the same feudal organization in hell, in the underworld. This feudal conception of Christianity has been portrayed by a great poet of the European Middle Ages, the Italian poet Dante, who lived in the thirteenth century. He portrayed the hierarchy of heaven and of hell in classic fashion. We further see that in the feudal Middle Ages even the most primitive religious ideas have not died out. Ideas dating from pagan times about ghosts, dwarfs and giants, still persist. All these different demons, spirits, etc., populate the world of Christianity. They too have their roots in the vital relations of medieval society.

Now to turn to the sources and role of religion in modern capitalistic society. One might at first believe that religion today no longer has any basis in capitalistic society, since this society's relation to nature is entirely different from that of all previous societies. Whereas primitive man found himself in extreme dependence upon nature, and whereas such was still the case to a great degree even in the Middle Ages, in modern capitalistic society we have a technology and natural science which enable man to master nature and which contain the possibility of immeasurably extending this mastery. No modern natural scientist believes in magic formulas. The technologist who wants to produce some machine will not go about it like an Australian magician or a Siberian Shaman, but he will attend to the known qualities and behavior of his material and then produce a machine accordingly. It thus seems strange that under such conditions religious ideas can still be present in modern capitalistic society. But the source of these ideas in modern capitalistic society is not nature; it is society itself. The significant fact here is that the ruling class knows well enough the methods of mastering nature, but knows no methods of planfully mastering society. As you know from our reading in political economy, the capitalist social order is throughout characterized by the fact that it does not produce planfully as a whole, but that in it blind anarchy reigns. Capitalistic society does not control its own economic and social life; rather, every individual and society as a whole is controlled by that life. Thus capitalist society copes with its own economy not otherwise than the Australian savage copes with lightning, thunder or rain. This characteristic of capitalist society is brought into sharpest relief in times of economic crises, in times of war and revolution. In an economic crisis hundreds of thousands of livelihoods are extinguished without the individual being able to defend himself against it, without his being able to escape this fate. Capitalist economy runs its course from depression to extreme prosperity, from prosperity to crisis, without being able to influence this development, without being able to foresee the occurrence of the crisis, without being able to avert it. Ever more extensive become these catastrophes which sweep over capitalist society in times of war, when millions of men are killed, when millions in goods are destroyed - and capitalist society is unable to do anything about it. No one wants millions of men to be killed, no one wants millions in goods to be destroyed, and yet capitalist society is powerless to protect itself against this. Indeed, it is capitalist competition itself which leads to such crises, and to the solution of these crises through wars and through revolutions.

These facts completely explain why religious ideas have not expired even in modern capitalist society, why they have social roots here, and also why they continue to exist and why they will continue to exist as long as this social base exists. It is significant that religious currents in their cruder or more refined forms surge up most strongly in the ruling class in times of such crises, wars, or revolutions. You all know - or perhaps you do not, but it is a fact - that a new religious movement sprang up among the European bourgeoisie during the World War. New religions currents also appeared in conjunction with the revolutions which marked the close of the World War. We have an extraordinarily strong revival and spread of spiritualism or occultism that calls for belief in spirits or ghosts. This is a belief which is no different from the belief of the Bushmen. And besides these crude forms of religion there are refined forms which are not recognizable at first glance; forms which are more or less related to the primitive beliefs of early man that the souls of the dead exist independently of their bodies and that they can influence human life. In such times as the present when the development of the European bourgeoisie is on the downward path, when they perceive opposed to them the proletarian revolution, religion becomes for them too a means of consolation and invigoration, a prop on which they support themselves when the ground begins to slip from under their feet.

There have, however, been times when the bourgeoisie fought against religion. These were times when the Church formed a part of those classes against which the bourgeoisie had to organize their revolution, when the Church was bound together with feudalism and with absolute monarchy. At such periods, although they were only very brief, the bourgeoisie became anti-religious and called upon the people to combat religion and the church. But as soon as the bourgeoisie had conquered power with the help of the people and was seated in authority, it always reversed its stand, for it discovered that religion was also an excellent support for its political and economic authority. We shall speak later of the period when the bourgeoisie prepared its revolution and waged war on the church and religion. By and large, however, such periods were of short duration. As soon as they found it to their interests to keep the great masses in a state of oppression, they transformed religion into a means of authority, a spiritual means of oppression against the great mass of the people.

I shall now turn to the role which religion plays in another great class in modern society, namely, the farmers. In modern society, a farmer, and particularly the small farmer, is distinguished by a very special social and economic position, and he has a special relation to nature. The small farmer is not in possession of modern techniques as is the great capitalist entrepreneur. He works with relatively primitive, simple tools, since his enterprise is not great enough for the full employment of modern science and technology. Accordingly, the farmer is found in much greater dependence upon natural events than is the capitalist entrepreneur. The farmer is dependent upon rain and sunshine, on the condition of the soil, and on incalculable natural events which he cannot master, can only slightly influence, and which confront him as a superior force. Thus, we see in the case of the small farmer that religion has its roots in his relation to nature. But also in his social relations, in his class position. The farmer, in so far as he does not carry on a simple nature economy, is a producer of commodities. He raises grain and cattle and offers them as commodities on the market. What becomes of this grain and cattle and how his income is determined depends on the market. For the individual farmer the market determines whether he has worked for nothing, whether he receives the full value of his labor or only a part. It is not the farmer himself who determines the price, but ultimately his destiny is dependent upon this economic force, upon these market relationships. Let us take a farmer who grows rice in China. When he is about to sell the rice, the price does not simply depend on the amount of the labor which he has put in while producing it. It depends on the market prices which are determined on the exchanges in London or New York, and all too often the farmer finds himself in a situation where he is destroyed through laws of the market which he does not know, or which, even when he does know them, he can neither control nor influence. Another example: there are hundreds of thousands or millions of farmers in India who produce the blue dye material, indigo. After chemistry succeeded in producing artificial indigo, all of this production, and, therefore, untold numbers of farm households, were destroyed. Such being the position of the farmer, with his extraordinarily close dependence on natural events on the one hand, and his dependence on the capitalist market, on the laws of capitalist society, on the other, it is clear that here again we are confronted with quite obvious sources of religious ideas.

That class of modern society which because of its position is most predisposed to break with religious ideas is the modern corking class, the proletariat. The basis for this is clear: the working class. by virtue of its position, is the most revolutionary class in modern society. As such it sees that religious ideas are the means by which it is consoled by the ruling class for its poverty on earth through promises of joy in heaven. The working class also sees that the bourgeoisie itself is not content with heavenly goods, but strives to snap up as many earthly goods as possible. It therefore sees that its promises are not sincere. In addition, Christianity, as the erstwhile religion of slaves, also preaches the sentiment of resignation. This is a valuable aspect of Christianity for the ruling class, but an attitude which every worker must repudiate. This also explains why the European bourgeoisie is so extraordinarily intent upon exporting the religion of contentment to the colonial countries - to India, China, Africa, etc. It is a situation convenient and agreeable to English imperialism when the missionary preaches to the Chinese that he should place his hope in heaven, that he should be content and submissive, whereas the capitalist may go to church on Sunday, but on weekdays strives to appropriate China's earthly goods. This explains why, wherever European capitalists penetrate, they send, alone with whiskey, the Bible and the missionary. There are other motives too which impel the modern worker to throw religion overboard, to construct for himself a modern world-view. The modern worker does not have the same relation to nature as the farmer. The worker is in contact with the machine. He understands technology. It does not occur to him to give supernatural meanings to natural occurrences. By virtue of his place in the labor-process the worker has a natural and not a fantastic attitude toward natural events. In accordance with its position in the social hierarchy, the proletariat is the one class which has insight into the nature of capitalist economy. It is the historical task of this class to overthrow this society which is abandoned to the mercy of blind chance, and to replace it with a socialist society in which man systematically molds not only nature, but economic life as well. As a result of his position the modern worker can most easily and fully loosen the grip of the fantastic ideas of religions Thus today in all modern capitalist countries we see that it is actually only the working class which makes a complete break with religious ideas. Of course, there are still workers who are religious. It would be false to deny this, but this is in the last analysis due to the fact that the working class is subjected to the stultifying influence of the church and bourgeois education. And only through its own study and observation can it free itself from this influence. Under capitalist relations it will always be only a minority of the working class which will be able to achieve this complete intellectual freedom. Not until capitalist authority has been overthrown are the conditions created for the complete uprooting of religion in the working class.