In order to be viable, a left-wing secular humanism must recognize the complicated dynamics associated with organized religion and its influence on political parties and social movements. Crucial questions emerge that must be addressed. How much should religion influence the development of new parties? What should a left political party’s stance toward religion be, especially in regards to individual members? How can we advocate for atheism or materialism, in any form, while allying with those who are ideologically different? One of the most insightful, and definitely controversial, political theorists who reckoned with these questions was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. A deeply influential figure of 20th century world history, Lenin led the intellectual and political transformation of rural, peasant eastern Europe into the first sustained socialist government of the world, the Soviet Union. His revolutionary Marxism influenced movements around the globe, from Cuba and China to the Pan-African socialists of the 1960s and 1970s. His books Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and State and Revolution are still required reading for those interested in radical, left politics generally and Marxism in particular.*
In this analysis, we will delve into two of Lenin’s essays: “Socialism and Religion”, published in the Bolshevik newspaper Novaya Zhizn (New Life) on December 3, 1905, and “On the Significance of Militant Materialism,” published in the philosophical journal Pod Znamenem Marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism) on March 12, 1922. Each shows both the consistency of Lenin’s thought on the religious question as well as his evolution as a political theorist before the revolution and after. In these short but incisive pieces, Lenin defended traditional secularist values, such as the separation of church and state, liberty of conscience, and free religious association, while also calling for the political separation of religion from political parties and strategically advocating for the atheist/materialist worldview. While it would be too much to say that Lenin was a “humanist” in the general sense of the term, he was nevertheless a secularist whose insights on religion provide left humanists with clear, tactical advice on the interrelationship between faith and politics in the public sphere.
As a historical materialist, Lenin outlined in “Socialism and Religion” how capitalism as a mode of production creates the economic and cultural conditions of the society it constructs. “Present-day society is wholly based on the exploitation of the vast masses of the working class by a tiny minority of the population, the class of the landowners and that of the capitalists,” he wrote. In effect, the capitalist society “is a slave society, since the ‘free’ workers, who all their life work for the capitalists, are ‘entitled’ only to such means of subsistence as are essential for the maintenance of slaves who produce profit, for the safeguarding and perpetuation of capitalist slavery.” These conditions create what Marx called “alienation,” or a separation from ourselves, our work, and even life itself. Lenin echoed this notion when he declared, “the economic oppression of the workers inevitably calls forth and engenders every kind of political oppression and social humiliation, the coarsening and darkening of the spiritual and moral life of the masses.”
This “coarsening and darkening” manifests itself most starkly in the form of religion, which Lenin further elucidated. “Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation,” he penned. As the conditions of life continually degrade under the forces of capitalism, a reversion to spiritual concerns courses through the working class. By contrast, leaders of such a society, organized around the principle of exploitation, use religion as a tool for laundering their guilt. Thus, religion becomes a palliative for not only those at the bottom but for those at the top. Recalling Marx’s famous line from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Lenin said, “Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.”
Lenin countered this view by stressing the importance of class consciousness, whereby the working class acknowledges its lot in life, begins to actively critique capitalist society, and strives to change it. The “modern class-conscious worker,” Lenin expounded, “reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois bigots, and tries to win a better life for himself here on earth.” Lenin again echoed Marx and Engels’ foundational work, The German Ideology, wherein they wrote, “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven.” As such, the “modern class-conscious worker” discovers the indispensable connection between socialism and science, as it “frees the workers from their belief in life after death by welding them together to fight in the present for a better life on earth.” Lenin’s socialism was one rooted in materialism, historical analysis, class consciousness, and scientific discovery.
With this understanding in mind, what is a socialist’s proper attitude towards religion? Lenin broke it down into two major components: the private (relating to the individual) and the political (relating to the party). He summed up this distinction well in a brief passage: “We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our party is concerned.”
In relation to the private, Lenin struck a chord reminiscent of the eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire and John Locke, demonstrating that Marxism (and Leninism) is not a rejection of the Enlightenment, but a manifestation of its better aspects. Lenin believed that “everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule.” Lenin advocated for liberty of conscience, wherein every person can believe or not believe without the fear of government intrusion. Additionally, Lenin declared that “complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church.” Religions, in effect, should be “absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state.” The lesson here for us in the 21st century is that a viable socialist project is one that defends individual rights while fighting for the common cause of the working class, i.e. emancipation from the capitalist mode of production.
Where Lenin stepped beyond the eighteenth century conception of religious liberty is his view that socialists are, “as a rule,” atheists. While many socialists in history have been atheists of one stripe or another (Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman), there is a Christian socialist tradition that he dismisses. It’s not out of malice, but rather ideology. Marxism, traditionally, has largely been an atheistic worldview. Marx himself rejected religion on materialist grounds, arguing that if societies developed beyond scarcity, religious feelings would dissipate and organized religion itself would wither. Lenin saw his conception of atheism as an extension of Marx’s, hence his pronouncement that socialists are generally atheists. It should be emphasized here that, like science, there is no “royal road” to socialism. Socialists come from many different backgrounds and belief systems, so it is important for us as left humanists to understand and embrace these differences.
Lenin, grasping the importance of movement building and solidarity, grasped the value in supporting religious movements whose interests align with the socialists. In 1905, within the tumult of an emerging revolution, the “police-ridden feudal autocracy” of Russia forced Russian Orthodox members to spy on citizens. They protested the move and Lenin enthusiastically supported their actions. “We socialists must lend this movement our support,” he said, “carrying the demands of honest and sincere members of the clergy to their conclusions, making them stick to their words about freedom, demanding that they should resolutely break all ties between religion and the police.” Like Lenin in 1905, the socialists of today must support religious groups who yearn for their freedoms in an open society, especially when it involves fighting the police state.
In contrast with the private view of religion, Lenin maintained that the role of the party is to support not only the separation of church and state, but use its influence to rid society of malevolent religious beliefs and practices. Since a “party is an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class,” he writes, “such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance, or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs.” The party acts as an institution of critical thinking, wherein members use their position to educate others on the harmful absurdities of superstitious thinking, what Lenin calls the “struggle against every religious bamboozling of the workers.” It also acts as a disseminator of knowledge. Since a party’s outlook should be materialist, according to Lenin, its party programme “necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism,” namely “the publication of the appropriate scientific literature.” Taking a cue from Engels, Lenin advocates for a party “to translate and disseminate the literature of the eighteenth-century French Enlighteners and atheists.” (He returns to this idea in “On the Significance of Militant Materialism.”)
However, Lenin acknowledged the limits of propaganda with regards to the religious question. While education is vital, the material conditions of a society must also change in order for secularism to thrive, precisely because those conditions created the religious impulse in the first place. “It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness,” Lenin wrote, “to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.” This passage reinforces Lenin’s view that religion is a product of material forces, and as such, will only wither away when those material forces are restructured by a united working class for the benefit of all.
Lenin, who valued working class solidarity, understood dividing the proletariat along religious lines for party purity as impractical and disastrous. Admitting to a party some of the working class whose religious beliefs coincide with a commitment to science and class struggle was a necessity. Additionally, he stressed that the religious question should only be addressed when appropriate, specifically when it relates to material forces and class struggle. He deemed it foolish to split the burgeoning proletariat “on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development” and that only in unity “the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.” The secular humanist left, therefore, should be direct about its lack of religious beliefs and commitment to a naturalist, materialist view of the world. Yet, we should not use our convictions as a cudgel with which to harm those of religious beliefs, nor do they preclude us from working with religious organizations on raising class consciousness and advocating for a post-capitalist world.
The 1917 “October Revolution'', which overthrew the bourgeois government instituted after the fall of the Tsars, brought Lenin to the center of political power. “On the Significance of Militant Materialism,” written five years after the revolution, continued Lenin’s exploration of religion amidst the Bolshevik party’s attempt to build “actually existing socialism.” Pod Znamenem Marksizma, or Under the Banner of Marxism, was a journal established in 1922 with the goal of “popularizing militant materialism and atheism,” as mentioned in the notes of Lenin’s selected works. Lenin’s essay was a rejoinder to one written by fellow revolutionary Leon Trotsky, published in the journal’s inaugural issue. “In such a deeply fractured, critical, and unstable era as ours,” Trotsky wrote, “education of the proletarian vanguard requires serious and reliable theoretical foundations.” Those theoretical foundations must be materialist, “so that the greatest events, the powerful tides, rapidly changing tasks, and methods of the party and state do not disorganize his consciousness and do not break down his will before the threshold of his independent responsible work.” Like Lenin, Trotsky insisted that education, of both Marxist and non-Marxist texts, led to the development of a flourishing, socialist society.
Lenin began his article praising Trotsky’s remarks and reiterating the importance of a broad education in materialism. Communists and non-Communists, who are nevertheless committed to materialism, should align to advance their educational goals. This partnership represented a forward move in revolutionary actions, specifically in relation to Lenin’s concept of the “vanguard.” As Paul D’Amato wrote in Socialist Worker, “Lenin's concept of the ‘vanguard’ party is the simple idea that working-class militants and other activists who have come to the conclusion that the whole system must be dismantled must come together into a single organization in order to centralize and coordinate their efforts against the system.” However, the vanguard would itself be democratic and open to outside influences. Lenin reaffirmed this position when discussing alliances with non-Communists:
A vanguard performs its task as vanguard when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward. Without an alliance with non-Communists in the most diverse spheres of activity there can be no question of any successful communist construction.
This is especially true on the issue of education. Lenin defended the rich history of materialist thinking in Russia and declared, “it is our absolute duty to enlist all adherents of consistent and militant materialism in the joint work of combating philosophical reaction and the philosophical prejudices of so-called educated society.” The lesson for us today is that secular humanists must align and support those who defend the materialist view of reality and history, to fight against the forces of idealism and ahistoricism, what Lenin (quoting Joseph Dietzgen) named the “graduated flunkeys of clericalism.”
Another indispensable element of Lenin’s framework regarding materialism and education is “militancy,” which refers to “the sense of unflinchingly exposing and indicting all modern ‘graduated flunkeys of clericalism’, irrespective of whether they act as representatives of official science or as freelances calling themselves ‘democratic Left or ideologically socialist’ publicists.” Publications dedicated to materialism should not pull punches when it comes to critiquing ideas, those who propagate them, and their relationship to society. In that vein, militancy has two components: militant materialism and militant atheism. Militant materialism emphasizes the “connection between the class interests and the class position of the bourgeoisie and its support of all forms of religion on the one hand, and the ideological content of the fashionable trends on the other.” In other words, it grounds philosophical, literary, and scientific currents in material conditions and class structures. Militant atheism is just what it sounds like: clearly and unapologetically defending a non-theistic worldview.
Lenin’s militancy might sound like something akin to the “New Atheism” of intellectuals like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, but it is nothing of the sort. Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and many others of this camp critique religion almost exclusively on ideological grounds, ripping it from the contexts of history and political economy. It’s also expressed in a way that resorts to racism, xenophobia, and imperialism, things Lenin stood strongly against. Lenin’s militant atheism, on the other hand, arises from Marxism and probes the material forces that developed and inculcated religions. He also doesn’t use atheism as a pretext to defend bourgeois political projects, like imperialism or colonialism. It’s a left atheism, rooted in the materialist process and completely different from the ahistorical, anti-materialist bromides of the New Atheists.
Alas, atheism is challenging for many to adopt, especially in the working class. This is why broad literacy in the materialist thinkers of the past holds such a large place in Lenin’s conception of revolutionary politics. Like in “Socialism and Religion,” Lenin advocated in “Militant Materialism” for the translation and dissemination of “the militant atheist literature of the late eighteenth century for mass distribution among the people.” As these writers were clearly not Marxists, Lenin acknowledges their limitations and advocates for annotated editions that contextualize these thinkers; doing so provides the public with “most varied atheist propaganda material...from the most diverse spheres of life” Thus, militant materialism is only developed via Marxist and non-Marxist thought working in tandem to educate modern society, providing readers with incisive critiques of religion. It would be to the detriment of the working class and its development to ignore these valuable readings.
In contrast to the classic writings of atheism, Lenin decried the “modern scientific critics of religion” who “almost invariably ‘supplement’ their own refutations of religious superstitions with arguments which immediately expose them as ideological slaves to the bourgeoisie.” He provided two examples demonstrating this trend. The first is Professor Robert Y. Wipper, who, in his book, The Origin of Christianity, relayed the relevant science refuting archaic superstitions while refusing to take a position on said mysticism. He claimed to be “above both ‘extremes— the idealist and the materialist.” Lenin, cutting through the cant, called this waffling on religious matters “toadying to the ruling bourgeoisie, which all over the world devotes to the support of religion hundreds of millions of rubles from the profits squeezed out of the working people.” Marxists should be consummate materialists, Lenin asserted, and ideological fence-sitting of this kind was not to be tolerated.
The second example cited by Lenin comes from German intellectual Arthur Drews and his book, The Christ Myth.** Drews argued in this work that Jesus Christ, as a historical figure, never existed, yet advocated for a “renovated, purified and more subtle religion” that would withstand “the daily growing naturalist torrent.” Like with Wipper, Lenin lacked patience with this viewpoint, as it only reinforced traditional religious structures and existing class dynamics. “Here we have an outspoken and deliberate reactionary,” Lenin quipped, “who is openly helping the exploiters to replace the old, decayed religious superstitions by new, more odious and vile superstitions.” Nevertheless, Lenin encouraged translating and disseminating works from Drews and others like him, as they were vital to the struggle against even more reactionary forces of religious belief.
On a practical level, Lenin still actively encouraged Marxists to ally with “the progressive section of the bourgeoisie” in the “struggle against the predominating religious obscurantists.” He sees Drews’ mistakes as akin to those of the eighteenth-century writers, and to reject the value of Drews’ work would be denying the worth of the enlightenment thinkers. This is an interesting point to linger on. Lenin, the ur-example of militant materialism and Marxism, still saw the work of non-Marxists as vital to the struggle for better conditions, both intellectually and materially. Despite flaws, their views still provided immense worth to the movement. It is the role of Marxists to expose these errors while also championing their better ideas. Lenin presented a crucial lesson for left humanists: despite our own misgivings about some religious ideas, we shouldn’t reject collaborating with religionists who share our goals. Whether we’re encouraging people to leave religious fundamentalism or uniting on a common cause like universal healthcare, humanists and religionists can cooperate for the improvement of society. Lenin’s mixture of ideological orthodoxy and practical policy is a superb example of the dialectical thinking vital to a conception of left-wing secular humanism.
Alongside considerations of non-Marxist philosophy or history informing the working class on materialism, Lenin maintained that the advancements of modern science and its practitioners should also play a role. Militant materialism, in his estimation, should forge an “alliance with those modern natural scientists who incline towards materialism and are not afraid to defend and preach it as against the modish philosophical wanderings into idealism and scepticism which are prevalent in so-called educated society.” Additionally, modern scientists should be educated in dialectical materialism, the philosophical framework developed by Marx and Engels (following Hegel) that emphasizes the complex interactions of materials forces that create our real, lived experience. Thus, scientists engaged in research should review the dialectical writings of Hegel, Marx, and Engels and apply them systematically, which, as Lenin pointed out, would inoculate them against “intellectual admirers of bourgeois fashion” who “‘stumble’ into reaction.” Much like Marxist philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar argued decades later, Lenin recoginzed the integrative power of dialectical philosophy as indispensable, since “natural science is progressing so fast and is undergoing such a profound revolutionary upheaval in all spheres that it cannot possibly dispense with philosophical deductions.”
V. I. Lenin’s “militant materialism”, while contentious, provides essential lessons to left secular humanists on the variegated interaction between religion and socialism. As a theorist of the political party, Lenin advocated for the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, and political participation with religionists, while defending atheism and materialism as core value propositions of the Marxist left. In regards to mass education, Lenin encouraged the dissemination of materialist and atheist writers, Marxist and non-Marxist, as a means of growing the working class’s conception of secularism. In true dialectical fashion, Lenin’s ideas are a study in contrasts. He’s an ideologue dedicated to a steadfast conception of materialism and a pragmatist when it comes to movement building and consciousness raising. With this, he’s following Marx and Engels, who advocated the same thing in the Communist Manifesto. While not everything he champions might translate to our struggles today, Lenin’s secularism, materialism, and atheism nevertheless leaves a clear and influential example for us to learn from.
* It is not the place of this essay to litigate the horrors that emerged from the Stalinist period. For a Marxist analysis of Lenin and the period after his death, see Rob Sewell’s excellent essay, “In Defense of Lenin” (2014).
** Mythicism, or the belief that Jesus Christ was not a historical person, is a hotly-debated subject within the broader secular community, though not within traditional historical scholarship. The fact that Lenin may have entertained this idea is intriguing, to say the least. To learn more about mythicism and its issues, see Bart Erhman’s book, Did Jesus Exist? (2012).
Justin Clark is a Marxist public historian and activist. He holds a B.S. in History/Political Science from Indiana University Kokomo and a M.A. in Public History from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His graduate research focused on orator Robert Ingersoll and his contributions to Midwestern freethought. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Instagram at @justinclarkph.
This article was first published by Justin Clark's Blog.