Socialism vs. Religion: For Many Socialists, Marx Is a Prophet and Communism Is the Gospel. Literally

By Muravchik, Joshua | The American Enterprise, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Socialism vs. Religion: For Many Socialists, Marx Is a Prophet and Communism Is the Gospel. Literally


Muravchik, Joshua, The American Enterprise


The two central mysteries of socialism are these: How did an idea which, whenever put into practice, showed itself to be incongruent with human nature spread faster and further than any other political philosophy? And how did an idea that called on so many humane sentiments lend its name to the cruelest regimes in human history? The key to these riddles lies in socialism's role as a redemptive creed, a substitute religion--with a twist.

One of its most important founders was Moses Hess, the "father of German socialism" who played the major part in winning Marx and Engels to communism. After fleeing the cudgels of a benighted rabbinic teacher who tried to beat the Talmud into him, Hess had turned away from religion and immersed himself in the ideas of the Enlightenment. But his spirit was uneasy. He confided in his diary: "I worked without rest to rediscover my God, whom I had lost.... Nor could I remain a skeptic for the rest of my life. I had to have a God--and I did find him, after a long search, after a terrible fight--in my own heart."

The God he found was communism. In a catechism composed in 1846, he contrasted his new faith with the one that prevailed in the society around him. Christians invest their hopes "in the image of ... heavenly joy.... We, on the other hand, want this heaven on earth."

Hess was renowned for his "purity of character" and "saintly" ways. But the circle he joined in pursuit of his God consisted of men of a different sort, foremost among them, Karl Marx. Although he was Marx's senior by several years, and led him in the embrace of communism, Hess soon deferred to the younger man's superior polemical gifts, calling Marx his "idol" who "will give the final blow to all medieval religion and politics." Marx, however, was full of scorn for Hess's persistence in trying to ground socialism on an ethical basis rather than on historical inevitability. Hess, Marx wrote to Engels, was one of "those pieces of party excrement" that their chief socialist rival Ferdinand Lassalle "keeps on collecting for his manure factory." And Engels wrote Marx gleefully about having seduced Hess's wife.

Hess's socialism was of a piece with other new ideas flooding out of German universities in the early 1800s. A generation of intellectually restless youth was aiming "to find in art or science the path to individual or national salvation which the orthodox Christian churches seemed no longer capable of providing for critical minds," as Isaiah Berlin put it. Similar quests were pursued in England, Italy, and France--the nation that had done the most to create the vacuum that the new systems were designed to fill.

France was the capital of the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century intellectual movement spearheaded by writers relentlessly critical of the church and revealed religion. Their crusade was effective, especially among the ranks of the articulate and high-born. "Frank atheism was still comparatively rare, but among the enlightened scholars, writers, and gentlemen who set the intellectual fashions of the later eighteenth century, frank Christianity was even rarer," writes E. J. Hobsbawm.

During the French Revolution, the Christian calendar was temporarily replaced by one in which the days, months, and seasons were renamed for plants and animals and types of weather. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was renamed the Temple of Reason. Yet, Will and Ariel Durant note, "a thousand superstitions survived side by side with the rising enlightenment." Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress, had her portrait painted surrounded by scientific implements, but she frequented a fortune teller who read the future in coffee grounds.

The pursuit of a life liberated from the "superstition" of religion proved surprisingly difficult. Even Diderot, whose Encyclopedia was the flagship of the Enlightenment, confessed that he could not watch religious processions "without tears coming to my eyes. …

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