Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Communism’s Christian roots

I’ve lately been reading Robert Service’s excellent Comrades!: Communism – A World History, a book which aims to deliver a “general account of communism around the world.”  Like many works so grand in scope, Comrades starts at the beginning: the origins of communism.  Service does a superb job describing these origins, enumerating the many influences on the ideology throughout history.  Two facts stand out: 1) as a vision of the ideal society, types of communism existed long before Marx and Engels in the 19th century; 2) a significant number of those influences were Christian thinkers, taking from Christian doctrines.  This latter fact is something I wish to explore further here.

Before I get into that, it might be useful to define what we mean by “communism”.  Service correctly notes how stubbornly it has defied definition.  “One communist’s communism is another communist’s anti-communism,” he writes.  Still, there are at least two core elements virtually all communisms (with a small “c”) have built upon: 

  • Common, as opposed to private, ownership of property and the means of production
  • “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

What those who identify themselves as communist or socialist have never agreed on is the means to achieve this vision.  Marx and Engels, members of a long line of communist theorists, by no means settled the debate, but they were the first to thoroughly elaborate an allegedly scientific analysis of why capitalism would inevitably collapse and lead ultimately to communism.  They drew inspiration from wide-ranging array of philosophers, economists, historians, and scientists, both classic and contemporary.   

While today’s Christians tirelessly strive to promote atheism as the genesis of communism, a claim I’ve refuted many times on this blog (see right sidebar), they’ve never explained why no atheist thinker mentions anything like it until the 19th century.  In contrast, communist principles are found at the very birth of Christianity:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:44-45, NIV)

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37, NIV).

 These passages excited the imaginations of later Christians, inspiring real and theoretical applications.  One of the most influential was Catholic Saint Thomas More’s Utopia.  Published in the early 16th century, it described a society free of private ownership and unemployment, where communal living is the norm, and worship of all forms is tolerated, except forms of non-worship like atheism. Other similar works by fellow Christian thinkers followed, including The City of the Sun and Description of the Republic of Christianopolis.  Christian sects such as the Anabaptists, the True Levellers, the Plymouth colonists, and the Mormons made attempts to put communist principles into practice.  They weren’t successful, to put it mildly.

The industrial revolution begun in the 18th century resulted in some severe side-effects, such as social dislocations and abysmal working conditions, which in turn provided fertile ground for the rapid growth of leveling ideologies like communism. Christians were among the vanguard in the “social justice” movements that emerged in the 19th century, both as leaders and ideologists.  A roundly influential tract was written by Joseph Proudhon titled What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government, the famous conclusion of which was “property is theft.”  Proudhon cited the Bible as the primary influence on his beliefs.

Another popular figure in the early 19th century proto-communist movement was Wilhelm Weitling, who wrote Gospel of Poor Sinners, a book which traced communism back to early Christianity.  Weitling produced another work, Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom, which was praised my Marx. It was influential among the founders of the League of the Just, whose goal was “the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, based on the ideals of love of one’s neighbour, equality and justice”.  The League of the Just would later become the Communist League.  Marx and Engels were members, and they were commissioned to draw up a manifesto for the organization.  They did just that, and so came into existence The Communist Manifesto.

Although Christians were prominent in founding and promoting communism, it would be a mistake to view communism as primarily a Christian ideology until Marxism.  Indeed, many Christians going back centuries defended private property, and they opposed communism in both word and deed (but sometimes not for the most noble of reasons…), particularly Marx’s religiously-unfriendly brand of communism.  Yet it would also be a mistake to deny communism’s indebtedness to Christian scriptures and thinkers, a rich legacy from which a sizable number Christians draw even up to the present time.  Liberation theology is the most notable species of Christian communism that remains alive and well, albeit in an evolved form.

Needless to say, most Christians have not taken it kindly when confronted with communism’s kinship to their religion.  They primarily object that the social order described in works like Acts was a voluntary arrangement, not one to be imposed by force as attempted by the Marxist-Leninist brand of communists, or that it was applicable only to that time period.  The objections are peculiar in that Christians have never denied themselves the right to be guided by scripture in questions about how the social order should be arranged; abortion and gay marriage being two notable, contemporary examples.  Moreover, if indeed it’s the case that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then it would imply the Christian god has sanctioned the communist ethos described in Acts as his desired state for everyone, or at least for his followers.  Even if Christians blanche at imposing it on unwilling participants, either democratically or dictatorially, that doesn’t prevent them from imposing it on themselves.  That all Christian attempts at doing so have failed cannot indicate a problem in the principles themselves, since they were “God-breathed” and thus infallible.  Christians, why are you running from your communist heritage, rather than embracing it?

Dr. David Aikman defends his views, and my reply

It seems I have a knack for provoking a response from major Christian apologists who’ve promulgated the idea that atheism and the atrocities committed by the 20th centuries’ totalitarian regimes are indelibly linked.  Dinesh D’Souza has previously responded, though in a perfunctory and inadequate manner, and now Dr. David Aikman does too, but not much better.  In his email to me, which can be read in full as the first reply to this post, Dr. Aikman claims he doesn’t have time to craft a full rebuttal to my comments right now, though that doesn’t stop him from searching my blog (I had included a link to the blog version in my email to him) to try to find out who I am, chide me for some comments I made about myself, bizarrely imply that I’m a sexual predator, and cry foul over the tone of my missive.

A couple words on that last charge, which is the only one worth dignifying with an answer.  This blog has several regular Christian readers, at least one of whom has commented on its relatively acrid-free atmosphere.  Nonetheless, there are times when I take a more belittling approach, as I did with Dr. Aikman.  The reason for it in his case is that I feel he is being purposely deceitful, at least in the work of his I read, which I strongly object to and believe is unprofessional.  It is one thing to have a difference of opinion on matters, but quite another to deliberately skew, make materially false claims, and ignore evidence in order to make one’s case.  I cannot be polite to individuals who do this. 

With that said, here are my comments on the substantive points he raises in reply.

Aikman: I can only say that if you hadn’t heard of any reputable scholar supporting the notion that Communist tyranny was directly related to atheist thought, you certainly didn’t spend much time in the library or worse, your professors were uniformly unwilling to reveal that quite a lot of scholars — yes, including Jesuits — have made the connection.  Ever read any Dostoyevsky, Robert?… I don’t know what your definition of “objective” is in your phrase “objective scholars,” but if you looked up my Ph.D. dissertation you’d find quite a lot of objective scholars who have connected the threads between atheist thought and terror.  Ever heard of Nechayev?  Or don’t they like to mention him in your version of Russian history 101?

Despite all these scholars Aikman claims supports him, he gives only one name: Dostoevsky – a 19th century novelist and Russian Orthodox sectarian, who was not just anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, holding a special hatred of Jesuits in particular, but a radical slavophile. Does Aikman endorse these views too?  Dostoevsky was assuredly a brilliant writer, but when he claims without intentional hyperbole that “The demons are ideas,” (that came to Russian from the West), “that legion of isms: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, and, underlying them all, atheism”, one can safely doubt his objectivity.  Though Dostoevsky is clearly one of Aikman’s key intellectual influences, cannot he reach outside the echo chamber of militant theists to support his views?  (Nechayev, one of many of the 19th century’s radical communist revolutionaries, was a sort of proto-Stalin, i.e., an individual who believed that the ends justified the means when birthing the new communist existence).

When I say objective scholars, I mean those individuals who have no horse in the race, whose professional careers depend on their ability and renown to make the most sense out of history in the most non-prejudicial manner as possible.  Scholars like Hannah Arendt, Richard Pipes, Moshe Lewin, Stephen Cohen, Robert Conquest — historians who’ve examined the evidence with a bird’s eye view and come to different conclusions than his.  In a sentiment echoed by atheist Sam Harris, Conquest writes in his classic Harvest of Sorrow (pg. 6-7):

For the events we recount here were the result not simply of an urge to power, an insistence on suppressing all autonomous forces in the country, but also of a set of doctrines about the social and economic results achievable by terror and falsehood…it is at least clear that, at more than one level, the sort of rationality sometimes allowed even by critics opposed to the programme was not really much in evidence, or only at a shallow level inappropriate to the complexities of reality.

When I scoff at the Christian apologists’ attempts to lay communist and Nazi atrocity at atheism’s door, I’m merely echoing the implied or stated views of these historians and experts.  One such expert, Dr. Rudolph Rummel, who has extensively examined the sources of mass political murder, which he calls “democide,” has specifically repudiated the link:

Q: Is atheism the principal factor in democide, such as that committed by the “Big Three,” Stalin, Mao, and Hitler?

A: No. I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

Not only must Dr. Aikman explain the absence of support among his contemporaries for his claims, he must rebut their own arguments.  An authentic scholarly treatment of a question typically does this, but his failure to reflects the fact that he’s writing propaganda for the Christian masses, where objectivity and a balanced consideration of the evidence are studiously avoided.

Aikman: It is absurd to complain that I don’t go into the private property issue. If I’d been writing a comprehensive account of Communist tyranny, I would obviously have discussed it. I wasn’t; I was dealing with the dangerous consequences of the coerced suppression of religion.

When your need is to establish that the Marxist-Leninist program consisted primarily of the forced eradication of religion, of course it’s “absurd” to go into the issue of private property.  But what those of us without theological blinders know abundantly well, the religious question was but a sideshow to this program.  As Lenin wrote in Socialism and Religion,

It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.

Daniel Peris explains why religion wasn’t really a huge concern until late in the game:

Revolutionaries inspired by Marxism were not supposed to have to contend with religion after a proletarian revolution. Bolshevik policy makers were operating within an ideological framework theorized for an industrialized nation with an already secularized working class.  The Revolution, however, took place in the still largely rural, agrarian, and Holy Russia.  While political aspects of Marxism had been modified (if not fully reversed) by Lenin to justify a takeover in Russia, the revisionary process had not extended to cultural transformation, and certainly not to the dissemination of atheism.  Direct antireligious propaganda, however framed, amounted to ideological voluntarism, and Bolshevik leaders repeatedly stated that the ultimate “liquidation of religion” would require the completed construction of socialism (Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless, pg. 24).

So Dr. Aikman is simply being disingenuous.  He’s alleged in his work that the basis of 20th century tyranny is atheism.  But as I pointed out to him, the disregard for private property as a key basis for tyranny is a notion that’s been recognized for centuries, even by his fellow Christians.  In other words, there’s long existed a rival hypothesis to his, which he simply ignores in order to bolster his own.  I suggest there’s another reason for this: communist antipathy toward private property has a direct lineage to the Bible.  For Dr. Aikman to acknowledge this would open up a Pandora’s Box of difficult questions that would fatally undermine his claims.

Aikman: If you knew anything about Lenin’s furious tirades against Bolsheviks who were interested in religious ideas, you’d have known that his antipathy for both Christian belief and the Orthodox Church far predated the Russian civil war.  You seem to think that Lenin smacked the back of his wrist on his forehead and said, “Gosh, those Orthodox priests, that’s why they’re so horrible.  They’re supporting the Whites!”  Oh, and speaking of canards, it’s quite silly to say that Lenin was an atheist because Orthodox priests were so corrupt and — as you do rightly say — had supported the worst of tsarist autocracy.  People can make quite a variety of different choices when they encounter corrupt priests.  They can become Protestants, for example.  Luther did.

 “Furious tirades” like this one?

Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. 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. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state. Only the complete fulfillment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute-books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cozy government (Socialism and Religion, 1905)

I never claimed that Lenin was an atheist because of corrupt Orthodox priests.  Rather, I objected strongly to Dr. Aikman’s failure to note the Russian Orthodox Church’s corrupting influence and reactionary role in Russian history, instead giving the impression it was some innocent persecuted bystander.  Lenin’s attitude toward religion and Christianity was informed not just by Marx, and not just by Orthodoxy, but also by the mundane observation they were destructive for much of their existence.  But as we know, Lenin, like many communists, believed religion would ultimately fade away on its own accord, so he could afford to be ambivalent, as the above quote demonstrates.  When it proved far more reactionary, dangerous, and persistent than his ideology allowed, Lenin turned antagonistic (for a time).  It’s simply false that “religious opposition in no way posed any kind of threat to [Lenin’s] regime,” and Aikman knows it.

It’s curious that Aikman cites Luther as an example of an alternative path that could be followed.  Is he suggesting that it’s appropriate to become a raving anti-Semite as well?

Aikman: Yes, Robespierre was a deist, but he hated Christianity and the Terror was a continuation of the de-Christianization period of the French Revolution.  Hitler wasn’t an atheist, but he hated Christianity was well.  Jefferson liked to call himself a Christian, though he clearly wasn’t a believer and he despised every Christian he knew except John Adams.

I’m heartened to see that Dr. Aikman is not completely blind to the patently obvious.  Despite his chapter header, “The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot,” he now acknowledges that “Hitler wasn’t an atheist.”  He also acknowledges the primary role deists played in the Reign of Terror.  The hole in his argument should thus be blazingly obvious.  If atheism is not a necessary component of totalitarian terror in general or of religious persecution in particular, then, logically, it’s quite possibly not a component at all.  Is the real problem “de-Christianization,” as he seems to suggest?  If so, then the hole in his argument is now large enough to fly a 747 through, because it’s a policy that even his fellow theists have pursued.  The truth of the matter is that anyone can be irreligious, or simply anti-Christian, for reasons wholly unrelated to atheism.  Since that is so, his argument collapses.  The problem is not atheism, but of state-directed illiberalism and the centralization of power.  I invite Dr. Aikman to read the works of Lord Acton, whose observations, while meant for a different set of tyrannical dictators (namely, the Popes in Rome), remain relevant.

I found it odd that Aikman spared not a single comment or a defense of his claim that, “The Soviet experience thoroughly demonstrates that if God is eliminated from public life, a much worse deity inevitably is erected in his [sic] place”, since it’s so central to his case.  And yet, how could he? When sociologists have found that such irreligious societies as Sweden and Denmark to be “moral, stable, humane, and deeply good,” it is simply an untenable position.

Aikman: You seem to have a profound rage against Christianity  Are you recovering from unpleasant childhood experiences of religion?  It always amazes me that secular humanists, who claim either that there is no god or that it doesn’t really matter whether there is one or not, get so angry when people suggest — terribile dictu — that God might exist and might have something to say about our world.

Goodness, not this canard again.  I suspect Christians love to believe it because it helps relieve the massive cognitive dissonance they must deal with on a daily basis.  Fortunately, I’ve already addressed it.

Christian apologist and historian David Aikman, debunked

In a recent discussion, Arizona Atheist pointed me to one Dr. David Aikman, a Christian author and Russian history expert.  Dr. Aikman has written probably the most extensive case why atheism is to be blamed for all the nasty deeds of the 20th century’s murderous dictators.  Since I’ve never come across any such expert during my Russia studies – or the years after – I was eager to read what Dr. Aikman had to say.

I was not impressed.  In fact, I think Dr. Aikman is purposely misleading.  Incensed at his (ab)use of history for apologetic ends, I’ve decided to write and let him know exactly why his case is so bad, if not fraudulent.  And because my posts on the topic of atheism, communism and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century remain the most popular by far here, I’m posting my letter below for all to read.


Dear Dr. Aikman,

Because I have a background in Russian studies (Master of Arts, Georgetown University, 1996) and have written on the alleged link between atheism and the atrocities committed by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, your work has been pointed out to me as establishing such a link.  During my studies at Georgetown, the notion that atheism was the basis of it all was never brought up, even within the scholarly literature, like  Hannah Arendt’s classic, Totalitarianism, and I only encountered it from Christians such as yourself some years later.  But unlike your theological counterparts, you have the distinction as someone who has a scholarly background in the field of Russian studies, so I was very interested in your arguments.  Though I know you’re a committed Christian, which would certainly color your writings, I expected a respectable treatment of the question.

The only place I can find where you lay out your arguments in some depth is in your book The Delusion of Disbelief, particularly the chapter entitled, “The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot”.  After reading it, I was so disappointed that I can only ponder your credentials as a scholar.  It seems to me, Dr. Aikman, that your work is simply a continuation of that hoary age-old Christian known as pious fraud.

While your arguments may contain a facade of credibility to the layman, to one with any degree of knowledge of Russian history and communist ideology, it’s abundantly clear it is nothing more than a Potemkin Village.  Specifically, you cherry-pick bit and pieces of history to build your case, ignoring vast other swathes of evidence which fatally weaken it.  It can be readily debunked by pointing out a few arguments and facts which you conveniently leave out.  While such is to be expected from someone who possesses only the barest knowledge of Russian history, like Dinesh D’Souza, it simply boggles the mind that you, as a purported expert in this subject, would pass this effort off as a serious treatment.

Your key error is to conflate irreligious sentiment and atheism.  Indeed, this is a linkage that undergirds your entire chapter.  “[T]he greatest totalitarian evils, communism and Nazism, both grew out of a sustained philosophical rebellion against religious faith-in essence, atheism.” (pg. 101)  This is ridiculous. As you acknowledge, even deists were irreligious.  And while you-falsely–attempt to portray the Reign of Terror as aimed chiefly at believers, you fail to inform the reader that its chief instigator was a committed deist, Maximillian Robespierre.  Whenever a communist or Nazi says something bad about religion, you reflexively categorize it as an atheist sentiment (e.g., p. 109).  By that logic, Thomas Jefferson was an atheist for observing that, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

In support of this canard, you do what many other Christians do: focus on the persecution of believers.  For shame!  You know full well that believers were but a subset of the entire category of the murdered and oppressed.  The civil war?  The Ukrainian famine? The purges? Collectivization?  Is your memory beginning to recollect now, Dr. Aikman?  Or were these merely irrelevant sideshows?  Atheists killing other atheists;  rather difficult to explain under your narrative of atheism=irreligion.

Emblematic of your myopia is your kid-gloves treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church, which you portray as some innocent whipping boy of the Bolsheviks. Again, the full truth is inconvenient to your tale.  You’re undoubtedly aware that the Church was a practical subsidiary of the tsars, supporting the regime in its every reaction against modernity. And then there is the little matter of the Church’s support for the Whites during the Russian civil war (1917-1921).  A little relevant to the Bolshevik’s animosity toward the Church, don’t you think?  Apparently not, for you baldly state “Lenin would not let up on religion, even when it was quite obvious that religious opposition in no way posed any kind of threat to his regime.” (emphasis mine)  Perhaps it’s time to re-take Russian History 101.

Your treatment of the origins of Marxian communism suffers from the same amnesia.  It stuns me that you, an expert on Marxism, spare nary a word on the central organizing idea behind communism: the elimination of private property.  As Engels wrote, “In fact, the abolition of private property is, doubtless, the shortest and most significant way to characterize the revolution in the whole social order which has been made necessary by the development of industry – and for this reason it is rightly advanced by communists as their main demand.”  Actually, once we begin to uncover the basis of this “main demand,” the mystery of your amnesia is revealed.  Remember Pierre-Joseph Proudhon?  He’s the guy who wrote What is Property?, a tremendously influential work not just on Marx and Engels but on the whole communist movement.  You don’t discuss him in your chapter, and for good reason, for his belief that “property is theft” comes from a familiar source.  As he wrote, “My real masters, those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.” (emphasis mine)

Many of the world’s most renowned political theorists, economists, and philosophers-even our own Founding Fathers–have remarked on the indelible link between private property and freedom.  To completely ignore the topic in any discussion on totalitarian tyranny strongly suggests you disagree with their sentiments, like the one expressed by John Adams, who said,

The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet” and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.

Who is right?  Proudhon or Adams?  Never mind; we need not know the answer.  Agreeing with either fatally destroys your case.

If there remains a doubt in anyone’s mind how foolish your case actually is, allow me to erase it with one final quote (pg. 114):  “The Soviet experience thoroughly demonstrates that if God is eliminated from public life, a much worse deity inevitably is erected in his [sic] place.”  What is this “worse deity” you speak of in Sweden?  Japan?  Denmark?  Perhaps this is true on whatever planet you inhabit, but on planet Earth, reality is far different.

Dr. Aikman, your case is built on a tendentious recollection of history, one made worse by the fact it was purposely done, in full awareness of facts which contradict your argument.  That objective scholars have never supported your view is a glaring silence you must address.  “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” Dr. Aikman.  It seems there are some things you need remind yourself beyond just history.

Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?

A printer-friendly PDF version of this document is available here.

Introduction

It is a frequent rejoinder and polemic hurled about by religious apologists.  Yes, certain murderous excesses like crusades, inquisitions, and witch hunts may have been committed by the religious, but they pale in comparison to those done in the cause of atheism.  Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot-strident atheists all whose famines, wars, genocides, and purges created magnitudes more dead.  Consider, for example, these words from militant Christian cheerleader, Dinesh D’Souza:

These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.

Continue reading Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?