Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


James Connolly

F.A. Ridley
Socialism and Religion
Rationalist Socialist League, Amersham 1997, pp. 39, £1.50

FRANK Ridley (1897–1994) was well qualified to write this short pamphlet, which serves as an introduction to a fascinating subject. Ridley was the author of a number of books on the place of religion in history, such as, for example, The Assassins (1938, republished by Socialist Platform in 1988), The Evolution of the Papacy (1938), The Jesuits (1938) and The Papacy and Fascism (1937). These have not, in my opinion, received the attention they deserve; if this pamphlet tempts readers to explore these writings, so much the better.

As Ridley says, religion involves a belief in a god or gods, from whom humans may derive benefits. He traces its roots back at least as far as the neolithic period of human history, if not earlier. In primitive societies, the gods appear either as personifications of mysterious natural forces, such as the sun, moon, thunder and so on, or else as the ghosts of great ancestors whose memory lives on. Later, with the growth of the division of labour and the emergence of ‘civilisation’, religion develops in the direction of greater abstraction. Hence Ridley draws a (useful) distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ religion (under which heading we may find Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and presumably also Hinduism, although the latter supposedly retains many features of the prior form of religion). He then goes on to outline ways in which established religion has served to support the status quo in numerous class-divided societies, from ancient Egypt onwards. Understandably, most of the remainder of the pamphlet deals with Christianity, most space being taken up by observations on Roman Catholicism, although there is some mention of the Church of England and of the ‘special case’ of the Russian Orthodox Church, which Stalin re-established in the Second World War. (The pamphlet was originally published in 1948.) Ridley’s conclusion is that established religion in all its forms is irreconcilably opposed to Marxian Socialism: were the latter to triumph on a scale sufficient to realise its programme, it would inevitably undermine the social bases of religion – namely, ignorance and fear. Hence ‘the gods form a united front against the revolution, for the revolution digs a common grave for all the gods’.

Despite this, however, Socialist regimes will, if they remain true to the ideals of the revolution, refrain from religious persecution, ‘which would be offensive to the humanitarian ethic that is an integral part of international Socialism’. Even so, Ridley regards ‘scientific Socialist propaganda’ as being inevitably directed against religion, and sees the revolutionary party as obliged to combat ‘all manifestations of capitalism, including those which belong to the sphere of religion’ (p. 34).

Ridley indeed includes a brief note in which he sets out some arguments against the notion of the existence of a god:

‘Historically, in the pre-capitalist days of such sects as the Lollards and the Anabaptists, there were undoubtedly heretical churches that can accurately be called revolutionary, having regard for the circumstances of the time, but this is all ancient history. It is a far cry from the revolutionary Anabaptists of the sixteenth century to the smug Baptists of the twentieth; from Jan of Leiden to Spurgeon’s Tabernacle.’ (p. 30)

Most of this analysis seems to me sound, but Ridley could perhaps have allowed himself a little more space in which to develop certain points. For example, he could have mentioned the early Greek philosopher Xenophanes in connection with his ‘natural-supernatural’ distinction. Xenophanes criticised the ancient Greek polytheism of his day in the name of a single non-anthropomorphic deity; in the course of this criticism he advances propositions which are not inconsistent with the view that it is humans who make the gods in their own image, and not vice versa:

‘Mortals consider that the gods are born, and that they have clothes and speech and bodies like their own. The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair. But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.’ (See G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, 1957, pp. 168–9)

Similarly, Ridley’s discussion of religious movements opposed to the status quo could well have been extended. True, he does acknowledge the possibility that ‘as is not at all unlikely, Christianity itself started as a revolutionary mass-movement against Roman society’, but adds that ‘it was soon effectively captured by the ruling classes of the day’ (p. 24).

Here it would appear that the key rôle was played by St Paul, the Hellenistic Jew of Tarsus in Asia Minor, who correctly saw that any movement marked by Jewish revolutionary nationalism stood no chance of gaining mass support among the gentile populations of the Roman Empire (see Hyam Maccoby, The Myth Maker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1986). In this connection, Ridley praises Karl Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity as ‘probably the best single book ever written by a Marxist on a religious theme’ (p. 9), but Kautsky’s book was written in 1908, and there has been a wealth of scholarly commentary since then on the topic. Kautsky found it hard to accept the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical person – see Part One of his book – but the alternative, that the Christians invented some fictitious Messiah, raises even greater difficulties, and must be discarded. The most important recent development has been the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, writings which contain in places concepts that find their parallels in the so-called ‘synoptic’ gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke), and which require consideration in any complete analysis of early Jewish Christianity. Here the work of Geza Vermes – Jesus the Jew, Jesus and the World of Judaism and The Religion of Jesus the Jew, plus his edition of the Scrolls in English translation, is of paramount importance. Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise’s book The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (Element Books, 1992) is also worth consulting. Kautsky’s work of 1908 is indeed of high quality, but it is certainly not the final word on the subject.

It is perhaps also regrettable that when Frank Ridley and Ellis Hillman were preparing the pamphlet for republication in 1986, they did not include anything on the so-called ‘Liberation Theology’, which appeared amongst supporters of the Catholic Church in Latin America. This was a movement which tried to incorporate certain elements of Marxism into Christian thought, and which exerted an influence in, for example, the Brazilian labour movement, with the Partido dos Trabalhadores. Ridley would no doubt have been able to make some interesting observations on this.

Ridley’s anti-theological arguments are also somewhat unsatisfactory. Epicurus’ contention that God must be either all-powerful or all-good or neither is open to the objection that the ‘gift’ of free will for humans is of supreme importance, enabling them to establish themselves as co-workers in God’s scheme of things; also if the soul has a beginning, there is no a priori reason why it should have an end – although on materialist grounds this seems an acceptable conclusion to draw. Finally, by the term ‘cause’ we do not necessarily understand something that is also an effect of a previous cause; hence a ‘first cause’ is a distinct possibility. However, this first cause does not have to be ‘God’ or ‘the gods’; it might just as possibly be matter in some form. In the European middle ages, David of Dinant proposed something of this kind when he argued that God was in fact ‘prima materia’. He was roundly condemned for this by St Thomas Aquinas, but Aquinas’ difficulty sprang here from the prevalent notion that matter was essentially passive and inert. According to modern physics, this is by no means the case, and accordingly active matter can play the rôle of a non-theological first cause, if necessary.

So much for the criticism of religious metaphysics, which is, of course, not the sole possible criticism of organised religion. Space prevents any further remarks on this: I would only like to mention in this respect the entertaining and (hopefully) thought-provoking observations on the subject made by the comedian Dave Allen.

One final cavil: Ridley quotes Marx’s dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ without giving the full quotation, which runs:

‘Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.’ (Introduction to Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

Ridley quotes only part of the next paragraph of Marx’s text on page 8 of his pamphlet; the paragraph in full runs:

‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion.’

The passage is worth quoting in full, I think, because it shows amongst other things that Marx was more aware of the appeal of religion than many religious people are of the appeal of Marxism, and also that Marx did not demand that religious believers should simply give up their past beliefs, merely that they should work for real happiness achievable on earth.

I have indicated where I think Ridley could have expanded his analysis, but, in conclusion, I wish to stress one of the points he makes. He writes on page 21:

‘Under capitalism, and in particular under monopoly capital, the most advanced form of capitalism which brings all its contradictions to a head, the first natural root of religion – man’s awe of natural phenomena – becomes extremely weak, and indeed, in the most advanced countries, almost disappears with these societies’ growing mastery of natural forces due to the machine age. However, the second, social root in insecurity and in social disharmony acquires a terrible and altogether unprecedented power due to the previously unheard-of intensity of prevailing social contradictions, expressed in war, crisis, and universal instability. Hence, in our dealing with current religion, it is its second, social root that almost exclusively concerns us, as Lenin specifically insisted.’

The tasks for Socialists is to identify the insecurities and social disharmonies, and outline measures for their elimination.

The pamphlet includes an introduction by Terry Liddle, who also contributes a useful list of books. Socialism and Religion can be obtained from the publishers at 70 Chestnut Lane, Amersham, Buckinghamshire HP6 6EH, for £1.50 plus postage, cheques payable to Colin Mills.

Chris Gray

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011