“For me, there are no ideas beyond man: for me, man and only man is the miracle worker and the future master of all forces of nature. The most beautiful things in this world are the things made by labour, made by the skilled human hands, and all our ideas are born of the process of labour. And if it is thought necessary to speak of sacred things, then one sacred thing is the dissatisfaction of man with himself and his striving to be better than he is; sacred in his desire to do away with greed, envy, crime, disease, war and all enmity between men on earth; and sacred is his labour.” Maxim Gorky, Literature and Life
Ours in the Socialist Party of Great Britain is an enormous task, and the road ahead is long and
tortuous. Getting at our objective is neither inevitable nor predestined. We must vigilantly keep off any diversions on the way. We trust our collective wisdom to deal with the truth. Materialism denies us the ability to claim we know about anything that "happens" after death; there just isn't any evidence for either affirmatives or negatives. But we are atheists only in so far as it is necessary to combat capitalism and establish socialism. In 1904 the Party's attitude at its founding to religion and the Church was strongly political. The main churches endorsed the class structure, were hostile to social reform and were explicitly anti-working class with clergy ranting in the pulpit and bishops voting in the Lords against progressive legislation. Organised religion through its churches still influence the minds of it adherents but these days in this country the churches are certainly nothing like the political force they were 100 years ago. Nowadays, we don't feel the need to bother from a political point of view they are worth bothering much about. We are not the political wing of the National Secular Society.
One difficulty with socialism and religion is that we are criticising ideas that are constantly moving and changing. This creates problems of definition. But this should not surprise us; it is predicted from our theory. If ideas are social in origin, then we should expect that important social movements will impact on such ideas as religion. In particular, religion has had to yield to the influences of a rapidly developing scientific culture and our increasing understanding of the workings of nature.
People have constructed utopias for thousands of years, but they have never been realised. Why? Because turning political conjecture into social reality depends on it being concurrent, and thus effectively stemming from, current material conditions. The fact that these dreamers, over thousands of years of oppression, never secured a socialist utopia would seem at least to imply that what is required is more than an abstract yearning for release. Now New Age or Old Age dreamers may indeed find in socialism elements of a society they desire but by not being able to work out how this will actually happen, and why now when it hasn't happened throughout milenia the value of their contribution is limited. Religious people pray for guidance, for governments to be given wise counsel, they pray for victory in conflict, they even say god is a kindly god and looks after people (even when 10 year old children are murdered). We are a propaganda movement (at this fledgling stage of the revolution), so it is really critical that we all have a coherent case where it concerns broad assumptions. We do not differentiate between 'private' religious beliefs and 'organised' religious beliefs. Belief in some non-human 'divinity' means looking for solutions from outside human/political action and an abnegation of personal responsibility. It is not a private matter for firemen to believe petrol puts out fires. In the same way religion is not a private matter for revolutionaries carving out a history. Religion is the antithesis of our materialist position in my view.
It is not a private matter for firemen to think petrol puts out fires. In the same way religion is not a private matter for revolutionaries carving out a history for themselves from the real world rather than their fantasies and delusions. Just as Catholicism was rejected by the new capitalist class in favour of Protestantism, so we have to reject all religion and other failures of thinking in order to put the interests of our class. The fact that there are still so many confused people out there is not an invitation to us to offer invitations of membership of our party. We would not be helping the future political movement of our class by abandoning our "tradition" (rooted in the Material Conception of History and class struggle) and conducting an experiment in "tolerance" in a tiny socialist party such as our own. Although, we are not in the business of trying to create a socialist movement "in our own image", as it were, it doesn't mean we should necessarily ditch our principled criticism of religious faith in the hope of growing as a minority party in the short term.
"The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and the workers' socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery; Christianity places this salvation in a life beyond, after death, in heaven; socialism places it in this world, in a transformation of society." - Frederick Engels, 1894, On the History of Early Christianity
Christian Socialists whilst they agreed with our class view they had not come to their socialist ideas through a Marxian analysis. They came to socialism via a more moral route and saw the Party's object as the best political expression of Christian values. We should also note that Christian Socialism pre-dates Marxian Socialism by several hundred years and I believe can be traced back to some biblical references. In 14th Century Britain we had the peasant revolts with John Ball who is often referred to as the "first socialist." Also, there were similar Anabaptist/communistic movements in Germany and elsewhere. Gerard Winstanley and the Digger Movement expressd their ideas through bible radings. The Communistic communities in
America such as the Shakers and Amish were of the same religious tradition. It seems quite likely that 19th Century Utopians such as Owen, Saint Simone and Fourier drew some inspiration from early Christian Socialism. There can be no doubt therefore that such currents of revolutionary Christianity, though they may not have used the word, can lay first claim to the idea of socialism.
John Robinson, a former Bishop of Woolwich was a shrewd thinker whose first concern was the
preservation of the Church. He was concerned that a rigid adherence to a supernaturalist dogma would leave the Church intellectually and socially isolated. Ironically, in confronting this question he borrowed from a materialist method. He said, look, when thinking about God and creation and the whole structure of supernatural belief as set out in Genesis, etc., we have to understand those concepts and their language in the context of the society that produced them. But, he said it is not for us to take them literally, we have to understand them as symbolising the essence of the meaning of Christianity which we have to interpret in the light of our own modern society. He then went on to re-interpret the supernatural categories of Christian belief as more humanist, moral categories. For example he said that God should be understood as a force for good that is within all people whilst conversely, the Devil is a force for evil which is also present within us. This is not that dissimilar to our view that human behaviour is not fixed but is adaptable within a wide range of different behaviour and what we want is a society in which it is mutually beneficial (Good). He argued that Jesus the Christ was not literally the son of God but a man whose life exemplified all the Christian virtues. Eternal life was not literally living forever but a way of describing how one's life experiences become part of a total human experience which is passed on through succeeding generations. Again this is compatible with our view that through history, humans accumulate their experience socially.
Later on a former Bishop of Durham caused a lot of argument one Christmas by saying that Christians should no longer believe that Jesus was the actual son of God born to the Virgin Mary. Again he said these were the poetic symbols of Christian belief. There is now a huge and qualitative difference between what Christianity originally was and what it has become.
The rich man in his castle.
The poor man at his gate.
The owning class's property rights
Defended by the state.
The purple headed mountain,
The river running by,
All owned by the ruling class,
Even your labour, 'til you die.