Saturday, July 2, 2016

Atheism, Religion and Socialism (1932)

From the February 1932 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr. Chapman Cohen, the Editor of the Freethinker, is an "advanced” thinker who described Communism as the religion of Russia. He builds up his argument on the insistence on certain kinds of teaching in Russia, to the exclusion of any other ideas whatever.

Mr. Chapman Cohen, however, has no ground for calling this Communism, and uses this term as loosely as any Christian could do.

The limited point of view of Freethought was indicated by him in the Freethinker (November 1st, 1931).

He says that Conservatism, Liberalism, and Capitalism are equally atheistic with Socialism.

Atheism, or Freethought, then, is limited to. the opposition to religion. Freedom of thought and freedom of expression, however, cover a wider field than a negation of religion. Any Freethinker who applied his free thinking to social life would find that the basis of freedom is economic. Those who control our livelihood are in a position to repress our activities and to compel us either to keep quiet or lose "our” jobs. This brings the Freethinker up against the question of material conditions.

At a lecture at Great Alie Street Forum, London, on December 12th, Mr. Cohen vigorously denied that the workers were struggling to-day for bread and butter. The struggle to-day, he said, was psychological. All the efforts of workers to get better things or to make their livelihood secure were not material, but a product of higher mental states. Reason, not economics, was the guide, according to the Apostle of Atheism.

The driving force of history was not material conditions, but mind. Mary Baker Eddy, the Christian Scientist, and Chapman Cohen, the Freethinker, find a common ground in their ideas. In fact, all believers in religion ridicule the materialist conception of history on the same grounds as the "Freethinker"; they all say that the material conditions of wealth production and distribution are not the cause of social change. They argue that changing mental concepts are the fundamental cause of social change. In reply to questions, Mr. Cohen asserted that he was putting forward good Socialist arguments in describing all ideas as social in origin. The cause of mental changes, according to him, was to be found in social, not material, conditions.

He was faced by the argument that if the struggle for better things to-day was psychological, then we could get the things we wanted by leaving it to psychological effort.

Actually, every student of social affairs knows that the changed conditions and social freedom we want depend upon control of material things—wealth, money, food, clothing and shelter—that is, access to the means of living.

Social conditions are the cause of mental change. True. But what are social conditions? According to the Editor of the Freethinker, they are the ideas, religions, politics, institutions, newspapers, churches, property, in fact everything in society. The dominant force in social conditions among men is mind, he said. Among animals it was food, clothing and shelter. Men are different; they have got beyond the animal stage. Men are idealists; animals are not.

Typical of the superstition of the Freethinker, as such, the lecturer idolised reason, but failed to see that material conditions determine, in the long run, the things we reason about and the success or otherwise of ideals held by men. The reasoners before the French Revolution idolised liberty, freedom of contract, absence of authority, and equality. The conditions of French feudalism repressed capitalism and gave rise to these ideas. The nature of the material conditions made the victory of the Revolution limit the liberty and fraternity to the bourgeois virtues of freedom for the capitalist and repression for the worker.

Those who apply their Freethought and evolutionary ideas to social life find that the basis of all social conditions is material. The conditions of wealth production and distribution form the foundation of modern society. From this foundation the class divisions and struggles arise and develop. The class struggle is never mentioned by the Atheist, who is too busy with abstractions and abstract ideas to deal concretely with social life.

The class struggle is a product of the material conditions and becomes the greatest driving force in social evolution. Atheist or theist, rationalist or materialist —it they belong to the working class—are compelled to accept the terms of the owning class in order to live. Their daily life is limited by their economic position as a class without property, compelled to struggle for a bare “living wage.” Their ideals, their hopes and ambitions are denied expression if these conflict with the interests of the property-owning class.

Whether we like it or not, “sordid” materialists or aesthetic idealists though we may be, we are compelled to occupy our lives with the first, the essential thing in life—the securing of the wherewithal to live. That brings us up against the owning class. When we understand the struggle as well as take part in it, our object will be to get control of the material means of production. Only then will freedom of thought become a reality instead of the present sham.

The Rationalist lecturer, Mr. S. K. Ratcliffe (of the Manchester Guardian) has recently returned from Russia and lectured on a recent Sunday at Conway Hall on “The Religion of Communism.” The Monthly Record of the institute gives a summary of his lecture, from which the following is an extract:—
To consider the differences between Communism and Christianity, the Communists believe the universe to be without a God and man to be without a soul; they believe in class-hate, in the class-war, in dictatorship as a means to an end, and in the subjection of the individual. Marxism stands for a negation of the quintessence of the old religions—charity, compassion, forgiveness, the contrite spirit, the elevation of the humble and the meek. It is important to realise the width of the chasm that separates Marxism from the spirit of Buddha or of Christ. One may see this in the manner in which the Russians have set themselves to liquidate prostitution, for their object is not the redemption of the individual but the elimination of a social evil.
Mr. Ratcliffe has for many years been prominent on the lecture platform, especially in his yearly tour of American cities. The quotation given here shows that little knowledge is required to be a lecturer to Liberals and Rationalists.

He takes his Marxism from the present situation in Russia and labels the struggle there, the “Communist Religion.” Charity, forgiveness, etc., are foreign to Marxism, according to this supporter of the Great War.

Marxism is a word used to mean the teachings of Marx. Is there anything in Marx opposed to human kindness and the other elements of developed social life? On the contrary, the essential idea of Marx is to teach the workers to end this class-riven society which makes for cruelty, servility and repression. Marx taught that economic necessity demands a co-operative commonwealth. Then the social feelings would be liberated instead of being crushed in the struggle for existence.

Mr. Ratcliffe finds that under the powerful State-controlled machine of Russia the individual is subjected. He does not understand that the economic and mental development of Russia to-day does not allow Socialism to be established, apart altogether from the fact that there can be no such thing as National Socialism. The subjection in Russia under dictatorship can only be judged by an examination of the rise of Bolshevism to power and the conditions which gave it birth. If Mr. Ratcliffe knew anything about Marxism or Socialism, he would not expect Communism to rise “ in a night ” out of the nightmare that was Czarism.

He does not even realise that prostitution is an economic question. He evidently thinks that women sell themselves for money because their hearts are wicked or that they are born in sin. The Russians should “redeem the individual” women by inviting the Salvation Army or the Ethical Society to save their souls. Perhaps Mr. Ratcliife explained to Stalin how prostitution is “liquidated” in democratic Britain and America.

In a later lecture at the Conway Hall on the “Clash of Systems,” Mr. Ratcliffe criticised Russia’s lack of freedom of speech. He claimed it was inherent in Socialism. The fundamental difference between State Capitalism in Russia and Socialism as advocated by Marx is evidently quite unknown to him.
Adolph Kohn

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