The Religion of Communism


IN one of the many Russian films which picture the advance of industrialism in that country and which spread the naïve faith that collectivization plus industrialization will create a new paradise, a group of peasants is pictured, seeking deliverance from a drouth by fervent prayers and elaborate religious processions. Their prayers remain unanswered, whereupon they turn to the Soviet authorities, who provide water through irrigation canals, ploughs for the fields, and cream separators for the dairy. As the machinery is unpacked, not to say unveiled, a posture of religious awe and reverence is assumed by all who have gathered to witness the advent of these wonders of modern civilization.

The picture is a perfect illustration of the spirit which dominates modern Russia. Communism is ostensibly a highly scientific and irreligious social philosophy. In reality it is a new religion. Its virtues and its vices are the virtues and vices of religion. The philosophy of communism, which it characterizes as historical materialism, is already developing metaphysical pretensions among its most ardent devotees which go beyond the realm of pure science and partake of the attributes of religious world views. Furthermore, even where these pretensions are lacking, the allegedly scientific and historical conclusions at which communism arrives are held with such tenacity, and issue so unfailingly in dogma which must not be questioned, that they are out of the realm of science, where tentativity must remain a virtue and experimentalism is basic to all method.

The religious character of communism goes far to explain its hatred of the traditional religion of the Russian peasant. It hates this religion partly because of the historic association with the oppressions of the past; but if it were as scientific as it imagines itself to be it would be more careful in its distinctions and more tentative in its conclusions concerning religion. It is because it is a religion, which rests ultimately not in reason but upon an act of faith, that it expresses itself so violently against a competing religion.

Religion in minimum terms is devotion to a cause which goes beyond the warrant of pure rationality, and in maximum terms it is the confidence that the success of the cause and of the values associated with it is guaranteed by the character of the universe itself. Obviously communism falls within the terms of the definition of minimum religion, and it may on close analysis prove to have characteristics which go beyond these minimum terms. The degree of ardor, not to say fanaticism, with which it spreads its doctrines in the world, and, where it is in power, makes facts conform to them, could never be achieved by a scientific world view. It is a question whether any scientific world view, or view of history, could be made the basis of social action; and it certainly could not become the basis for the kind of robust energy which communism unfolds. The facts of history are multifarious and infinite in variety. They do not lend themselves easily to precise conclusions, and certainly not to the kind of conclusions which base political action upon certain hopes and confident prophecies about future history. Pure science discovers many detailed facts about life, and these facts are not in obvious harmony with each other. The philosophies which attempt to harmonize the recalcitrant facts, whatever their scientific pretensions, always have an element of religion in them — that is, they harmonize the facts from a particular point of view which is determined not so much by the nature of the facts themselves as by the way in which a generation or an individual feels about the meaning of life and by what he regards as ultimate and important. Thus the eighteenth century’s faith in progress was in its essence a religious dogma. Like all dogmas, it was partially supported and partially negated by the facts of history; but, like all religion, the faith enshrined in the dogma was oblivious of the facts which failed to harmonize with it.

The faith of communism is more realistic because it is less optimistic than the faith of the enlightenment. It does not regard progress as automatic, but it does believe it to be inevitable. It believes in the dialectic of history, and it therefore has a formula which explains the agony through which men must go before they achieve the promised paradise. It has utopian tendencies as certainly as had the eighteenth century, but it is catastrophic and apocalyptic rather than evolutionary in its view of history. Far from believing that history is proceeding automatically toward a millennium, it holds that history is drifting toward disaster. Its saving faith is that somehow the new world will spring out of the disaster. The deus ex machina which it trusts is not the God of religious devotion, but a law imbedded in the processes of history. This kind of apocalypticism, which expects progress and salvation only through disaster, is a difficult credo for a sophisticated ago or people. The early Christian church had it and the later church lost it. It is less rational because more paradoxical than faith in evolution; but, since reason is usually frustrated by ultimate paradoxes, it may not be so irrational in the end.

Whatever the quality of its rationality, it is a powerful incentive to social action. Its potency derives from its combination of optimistic and pessimistic determinism. Pure optimism enervates action because it makes what is desirable inevitable, and thereby it destroys the inclination to support hope by action. Pure pessimism is equally destructive of moral vigor because men find it difficult to sacrifice themselves for goals which seem impossible of achievement. A world view which is at the same time pessimistic and optimistic is alone pregnant with moral incentive. Its pessimism lifts the individual above the processes of history so that he may judge contemporary facts in the light of his ideal, while its optimism saves him from enervating despair, by promising that somehow victory will be snatched out of defeat. There always remains the possibility, of course, that any determinism, whether pessimistic or optimistic, will destroy the nerve of social and political enthusiasm by reducing human effort to irrelevance. Lenin, the creative spirit of Russian communism, had considerable difficulty with a group in his party which could not conceive of a revolution until Russian society had become ripe for it according to Marxian formula. All the logic was on the side of Lenin’s opponents, but Lenin, statesman that he was, did not bother about logic and compensated himself for his practical heresy by a more frantic theoretic devotion to the tenets of Marxism. In this he did not differ widely from the apocalypticists of other ages and religions who were not less zealous in their efforts to spread salvation because they believed that salvation was a gift of grace. It is only in the later stages of decline in the history of religions that their innate determinism becomes logical and destroys social vigor. So it was in the history of Calvinism, which reveals more than one parallel to communistic thought.


In all other countries but Russia, Marxian socialism has become, in its main stream, evolutionary, and therefore parliamentary. That is partly due to the fact that, contrary to Marxian prophecy, developed industrialism has created a large middle class and semi-bourgeois elements in the working class which may be won for the political goals of socialism, but which are not sufficiently, or at least not obviously enough, disinherited either culturally or economically to be absolutely pessimistic in their expectation of catastrophe, and not sufficiently divorced from historic ethical points of view to sacrifice all values for the one value of class loyalty in class warfare.

In Russia alone the Marxian dogma of the class war is carried through with rigorous consistency. Historically this was made possible by the complete collapse of Russian society in the World War, a collapse which fitted more perfectly into the Marxian prophecies of doom than any fate likely to befall any modern nation. Economically it may be due to the almost complete absence of a middle class in Russia. Here a non-industrial society happened by its backwardness to answer to the Marxian description of a developed industrial society in which there would be only exploiters and proletarians. But the real explanation for the purity of the Marxian dogma and the energy of the Marxian programme in Russia must be found in psychological rather than economic and political causes. Communist zeal, springing from a pure and unrelativized faith, has its real roots in the Russian soul, with its bent for religion. It is the soul of an Asiatic rather than European nation, and one which is able, for the very lack of intellectual sophistication, to raise the tentative conclusions of a certain social philosophy to the dignity of articles in a religious creed.

In the European and Western world communism is, and will probably remain, the religion of a comparatively small class of industrial helots who have, by the blindness and the cruelty of their fellow men, been excluded from the cultural as well as the economic privileges of our civilization. The exclusion from the cultural privileges makes a primitive and powerful thrust of an emotional religion possible; and the realities of the situation make it inevitable that this powerful emotion should be a mixture of hatred and loyalty — hatred of a world which must seem thoroughly bad from the perspective of these disinherited, and loyalty to a class which suffers most from that world’s limitations. In Russia this religion of a class became the religion of a nation. Here was a whole nation so primitive in its culture that it could give birth to a religion in which robust emotions and high ideals were unreflectively united and not yet subjected to the qualifying and relativizing influences of intellectualism. In Russia a whole nation was still in a state of civilization in which pessimistic and apocalyptic ideas about the future were quite plausible, in which class hatred had more obvious historic justification than in any other country, and in which only the slightest achievements of a communistic régime in eliminating poverty could be hailed as a justification and validation of everything which communism had promised.

The closest parallel to communism is Mohammedanism. It has, or it had, the same consistent determinism; it developed the same fierce ardor; it manifested similar egalitarian ideals because it sprang from an essentially similar simple society in which social complexity had not yet made social distinctions inevitable; it possessed the same ambition to conquer the world, and its warlike instincts were as little qualified as those of communism with ethical considerations which develop in a softer world. It might be added that both religions sprang from what might be called the Near Eastern world, in which the Orient’s disregard of the individual life is dangerously united with a brutal vitality which belongs to the West rather than to the more or less pacifistic East.

Communism differs from Mohammedanism in the fact that it was imported to the Near Eastern world, while the Moslem religion is indigenous. Communism is a product of Europe. Its disillusioned realism was the natural fruit of Europe’s nineteenth century, which saw the eighteenth century’s dreams of progress issue in the horrors of the new industrialism. But, since there was faith as well as disillusion in this new social philosophy, the religious spirit of the East appropriated it for a new religion. So what was to the disinherited classes of Europe avowed irreligion was transmuted by the spirit of the Orient into a naive religion. As Christianity was born a religion in the Near East and became a theology in the West, so communism was born a theology, of a kind, in the West and became a religion in the East.

The ambitions of communism toward world dominion will probably come no nearer to full realization than did those of Mohammedanism, which may mean that they will be partially realized. Some of the nations in which the anarchy of capitalistic industrialism is not checked by a higher social intelligence and conscience than now seem available may conceivably fall prey to communistic dogma and power. Furthermore communism may, as the French Revolution and again as Mohammedanism, claim by the sword what it could not win by its logic. The dogma of communism regarding the inevitability of conflict between capitalism and itself sanctifies a militaristic spirit, and the vitality of its imagination makes rather fantastic dreams of world dominion seem plausible to it. Only a sentimentalist could be oblivious of the possibilities of Napoleonic ventures in the forces which are seething in Russia. Historians allege that economic wars have replaced religious wars in modern life, but it is not inconceivable that communism will conduct warfare in which the realistic goals of the latter will be supported by the fervor of the former.


Ethically communism holds at least one characteristic in common with all religion: it tends to oversimplify morals. A rational and scientific view of life attempts to construct a balance of all values which the good life requires. At its best that method leads to constructive restraint upon all expansive desires, and at its worst it issues in ethical dilettantism. Religion, on the other hand, usually exalts one social and moral value and makes all other values subservient to it. Thus Puritanism made the prudential virtues of the rising middle classes absolute, an oversimplification of the moral problem of which the prohibition movement in America represents a vestigial remnant. Pure Christianity makes the v rtue of love an absolute, a pearl of great price for which all else must be sold. The ethic of communism is just as simple. Loyalty to the working class is conceived as an absolute good; and any means which serves the end of ultimate proletarian victory in society is justified. This end justifies the use not only of force, but of violence, and of what, under ordinary canons, is regarded as dishonesty.

From the perspective of Western morals such an ethic must be regarded as exceedingly dangerous, and recent history in China shows how dangerous it really is. But it must be admitted that there is more than a touch of hypocrisy in most of the criticisms which Western Christendom levels at communism. The manners and mores of the Western world have been fashioned in part by Christianity, but the democratic and the pacifistic elements in a truly Christian ethic have been more of a facade than a foundation for Western Christianity. Behind it has been hid, only slightly obscured, a world in which greed, the lust for power, and, whenever necessary, violence have operated. While it professed brotherhood, Christianity became the handmaiden of feudal slaveholders, and, more lately, of industrial overlords who, for all their ethical and religious pretensions, did not abate any of their claims to privilege and to power. The Christian religion has, furthermore, blessed international conflicts as brutal as any which communism contemplates, and, in many respects, more meaningless. Very frequently it has made loyalty to the national group as much a summum bonum as loyalty to the class group is for communism. Communism is more frank both in its vices and in its virtues than Western Christianity. It wants an egalitarian society and it proposes to construct it by force. The Christian world has also professed the democratic ideal, but has not been very passionate about it and has frequently used force to maintain inequalities in the economic and the social structure.

From this perspective the conflict between communism and the Christian world is one between brutality and hypocrisy, the Christian world being really less brutal than communism but more brutal than it is willing to admit, and less willing to change the inequalities of power and privilege than would be necessary to create a democratic world without violence. But, whatever the moral limitations and pretensions of our world, there are ethical values maintained in the complexities of its cultural and social life which the naïve simplicities of communism would ruthlessly destroy and which only a primitive world can regard as dispensable. Our devotion to liberty may not be as unqualified as we pretend, but it is more real than communism believes when to every indictment of its tyranny it answers with no more than a tu quoque. Perhaps it is impossible to make a really rational estimate or comparison of the differences between the virtues and vices of our world and those of communism. What seems important is that the religion of communism belongs to a world so different from that which has developed in Western Europe and America that even our disinherited groups will try slower and seemingly more ineffectual methods of socializing our society rather than run the risks of a communistic revolution or a communistic tyranny.

It is interesting to note that communism as a religion has the same difficulty which all religion faces in maintaining its simple certainties. Every religion, born in naïve faith and drawing its robust social strength from the unqualified character of the faith which animates its devotees, must ultimately face the problem of preserving the power of its faith against the relativizing tendencies of intelligence. Nothing is ever as true as it must seem to be to compel action; and time always tends to destroy these illusions of certainty. A faith which is born in feeling must therefore seek the security of dogma against the foe of intellectual relativizing; and dogma must be defined and defended by a church. Russian communism has both its creed and its church. Marx is its Bible and the writings of Lenin have achieved a dogmatic significance for it comparable to that which the thought of Thomas Aquinas had for the mediæval church.

Like all churches which rest upon dogma and live to enforce it, communism makes short shrift of the heretic. In one sense the Communist Party is not only a church, but a sect or a monastic order within the church. It is a small, periodically purged group within the church of proletarianism which devotes itself to the maintenance of pure dogma and strict discipline. There are some striking similarities between it and the Jesuit order, for instance. Since the party dispenses a desideratum, power, which most men desire greatly and some men hold more valuable than any other possession, it is obvious that the Communist Party will have even greater difficulty than ancient religious orders in preserving and guaranteeing the sincerity of its members. Party members make truly great sacrifices in Russia; but in return these million men are the rulers of the destiny of one hundred and sixty million. Communism may have divorced privilege from power, but there are signs in Russia that when strong men sacrifice the physical symbols of eminence which have been traditionally associated with social position they are the more avid for power itself.

A church which permits complete liberty in dogma runs the risk of losing its unique function and message, on the one hand, and of sinking into anarchy, on the other. Protestantism in religion and liberalism in politics show striking examples of the reality of both perils. But the rigorous discipline which is necessary to preserve the authority of dogma has its own weaknesses. Invariably it is used not only against the heretic but against every creative thinker within the household of faith, and leads therefore to intellectual stagnation. If consistently applied, dogmatic discipline destroys democracy in the community of believers as well as between the community and the world. All decisions democratically arrived at tend, by the debate which must precede them, to sharpen distinctions and multiply problems. A religion which has chosen to go the way of consistent dogmatism must therefore become increasingly autocratic in its church discipline. There was a measure of democracy within the Communist Party in Lenin’s day, according to the opinion of competent observers, but Stalin has destroyed most of it. The ascendancy of Stalin is ascribed to his unprincipled shrewdness by his foes and to a statesmanlike penchant for the middle course by his friends; but there probably would have been a Stalin even if Stalin had not been. The logic of the communist scheme of things demanded it. His policy of appropriating at least part of the policy of the foes whom he has previously excommunicated may save the party for a time from a lack of versatility in policy; but it demands too many sacrifices from those who can think to guarantee honest thought upon important problems within his church.

Meanwhile communism may rule a good portion of the world for years to come. In politics energy is more important, at least from the standpoint of perpetuating a régime, than scientific thought. The world is still looking for workable combinations of the certainty which encourages action and the scientific tentativeness which passes all social programmes under review but issues in no action on its own account. A highly intellectualized world will not long suffer either dogmatism in faith or autocracy in discipline. But it probably overestimates the virtues of its scientific and democratic techniques. Every political, social, and religious ideal waits upon the future for its justification, and must therefore depend for its support upon faith rather than knowledge. Some kind of religion is the basis of every potent social programme. Those who fear too much the fanaticism which is the inevitable by-product of religiously created energy are consigned to social impotence by the multitude of their scruples. Communism is a religion of mixed ethical values, but its energy proves that it is a religion. There is little rational choice between the fanaticism of unreflective religion and the moral enervation which follows in the wake of intellectual sophistication. An intelligent society will try to avoid both perils, but if its social problems are not too urgent it will be inclined to court the dangers of the latter rather than the former. Only a desperate situation and a primitive culture can create the energies and justify the perils of unreflective and unrelativized religious passion.


In spite of the many obvious similarities between communism and other historic religious movements, many observers will remain disinclined to regard communism as a religion, because they miss in it what they believe to be most basic in religion — faith in a higher power which is interested in man’s historic tasks, and works somehow to complete and to perfect what man designs. It is just this faith which historic materialism ostensibly disavows. The question is how seriously one ought to take this disavowal. Marxian thought rests upon an inversion of Hegelian philosophy in which economic circumstance is substituted for the eternal idea as the determining factor in history. But confidence in the unfailing potency of the dialectic of history is so great that it may be said to rest, not upon the conclusions of an historical science, but upon a metaphysical and therefore upon a religious world view. Max Eastman, in his brilliant book, Marx and Lenin, has gone to great pains to reveal the metaphysical rather than scientific elements in Marx’s thought, a limitation from which, according to Mr. Eastman, it must be redeemed lest this doctrinal impurity finally destroy revolutionary vigor. Mr. Eastman is right in his analysis of Marxian thought, but wrong in the conclusions which he draws from it. Metaphysical determinism, organically related to the confidence of religion that the universe will finally support the values of its devotion, may be logically inimical to social vigor; but in the early and vigorous periods of a religious movement such deterministic elements in its thought have usually strengthened rather than enervated enthusiasm for a cause.

Ostensibly communism makes no metaphysical pretensions, but in reality its confidence in the ultimate triumph of the proletarian cause is supported, not only by an analysis of history, but by a mystic and ultra-rational faith that something in the character of reality itself is the guarantee of this triumph. For the communists, no less than for the devotees of other religions, the stars in their courses are on the side of the cause to which they are pledged. In Trotsky’s interesting autobiography, My Life, he brings his reminiscences to a close by the following significant quotation from Proudhon: —

The movement [of history] is no doubt irregular and crooked, but the tendency is constant. What every government does in turn in favor of revolution becomes inviolable; what is done against it passes over like a cloud. I enjoy watching this spectacle, in which I enjoy every single picture. I observe these changes in the life of the world as if I had received their explanation from above; what oppresses others elevates me more and more, inspires and fortifies me; how can you want me to accuse destiny or to complain about people or curse them? Destiny — I laugh at it; and as for men, they are too ignorant and too enslaved for me to be annoyed by them.

Trotsky’s comment upon this quotation is: ‘In spite of their slight savor of ecclesiastical eloquence, these are fine words. I subscribe to them.’ It is interesting that the religious overtones in Proudhon’s credo are not lost on Trotsky.

Intellectualized people and ages have difficulty in accepting the assurance of religion that the highest values of their devotion have some cosmic validity and support. Their difficulty arises from the fact that pure rationality can never justify this final assumption of robust faith. It is, moreover, filled with moral peril, for it easily raises the relativities of history into the eminence of cosmic absolutes and reënforces the devotion of those who live by and for them. A very bad system of morals may thus become entrenched in the imagination by the authority of religion. But that means merely that religion is dangerous because it is potent as a source of vigor and inevitable as a fruit of robust social enterprise. Just as certainly as generations which observe life rather than live it lose every confidence in any relationship between cosmic forces and human enterprise, do generations which give themselves passionately to a great task come ultimately to the conclusion that their cause is supported by more than their feeble efforts. To make the world rational by its irrationalities, to unite what seem hopelessly irrelevant to each other, human effort and cosmic immensity — that is religion’s task and virtue.

Communism will never ascribe personal character to cosmic reality, nor relate an individual believer to God in a sense of intimate dependence. It does not have sufficient concern for individual personality to do this. Its aversion to the individual is inspired, not only by a reaction to the moribund individualism of the bourgeois world, but by the general depreciation of individual personality in the Oriental world. Buddhism, it will be remembered, is also without faith in a personal God. Unlike Buddhism, however, communism is totally oblivious of the profundities of feeling and aspiration, of hope and of fear, which the individual man experiences when he faces the total problem of life. It is out of insights which men achieve when they face this problem that the most spiritual religions are fashioned. Communism can therefore never be a religion of individuals, but only of groups and classes who are so busy with a social or historic task that they have not had time or inclination to feel the problem of life itself profoundly.

The insinuation of communism, that traditional religion is a preoccupation of leisured people, is not without merit. It is a preoccupation either of the poor who are content with their poverty or of the comfortable who have no pressing bread-and-butter problem and who are therefore enabled and forced to raise ultimate problems about the character of man, his destiny in the universe, and the significance of his tragic eminence and impotence within it. When communistic Russia has fulfilled its dreams of an industrialized and collectivized world from which poverty has been abolished, it will realize how many problems of life still remain unsolved, and how inevitably the individual as well as society makes his claims upon life, suffers from its frustrations, and hopes for redemption from its limitations.