G.K.’s Weekly, March 5, 1927
Intelligent people got very tired of the Capitalist scare about the Communist peril; especially of the sham picturesqueness which insists on calling it The Red Peril—for all the world as if it were really a peril of poppies, pillar-boxes, flamingoes, red pepper and red ink. As a fact, the most dangerous Socialism in England has precious little that is gory about it, it comes from officials of the Snowden type who desire in every sense to keep the peace. There is very little red about them, except red tape. And they are not at all sorry that their quiet permeation should be covered by this ridiculous beating of tom-toms to prevent a red dragon from swallowing the moon. In a word (to continue the figure) that particular monster is, in reality, not so much a red dragon as a red herring. But we most of us get so bored with this blatant alarm that we tend to forget that there really are such people as Communists and that they really are sophists; that is, false teachers doing definite harm to those they manage to teach. And it is a good thing every now and then to turn from the obtrusive Capitalist papers to the obscure Communist papers; and note what the Communists really do say.
For instance, in an American Bolshevist paper called The Worker’s Monthly, I find an interesting (and even amusing) article called “The Relation of the Workers’ Party to Religion,” by N. Lenin, presumably a relative of the dead Dictator. It is amusing because of all those affections corresponding to what is called in the nursery “showing off”; such as carefully spelling God with a small “g” and always using the longest possible words, so as to produce on the Communist congregation something of that soothing effect produced by Latin or any hieratic and mysterious language. But it is interesting because it illustrates the intense and almost inconceivable narrowness of this sect, in its concentration on the economic or (as it is proudly called) the “materialistic” issue. The writer very truly says that Marxism is always materialism; and I may add equally truly that materialism is always mysticism. It involves an idea transcending our imagination more completely than that of God making everything out of nothing; the idea of the identity of our own thoughts with certain objective mechanical things only perceived by our thoughts. It means no more to us to say that an anecdote or an argument is a crumbling of brain cells than to say that a tune is a wooden leg or the multiplication table is a kangaroo.
Starting with this mystical creed, however, the Marxian here considers what ought to be done with religion and the large poor populations which are still so unreasonably attached to it. I need not follow him through the somewhat tortuous course of opportunism which he calls being “a strategic materialist”; which concerns only his own party squabbles. I am concerned only with the narrowness of the economic test, which concerns our own party. Of course he suggests that religion is a Capitalist affair; our great millionaires who finance films, newspapers and political parties being famous for their saintly devotion to purity and their horror famous of indecency and divorce. But he then proceeds to argue that poor people who still believe in a religion must not be frightened away by premature denunciations of their delusion; but must have their economic condition regularised first, that the delusion may drop off them afterwards. And this he explained in a fascinating fashion by telling us what it is that makes the poor religious. He says (plausibly enough in my opinion) that “the blind forces of Capitalism daily and hourly inflict upon ordinary working men and women sufferings and atrocious tortures a thousand times more frightful than all the extraordinary happenings such as war, earthquakes, etc.”; and I hope the admission will be remembered when we hear again of the intolerable infamy of all war; a condition in which masses of poor people are at least reasonably and responsibly fed and clothed and are often as comfortable a set of slaves as most of those in a Socialist Utopia. But anyhow he goes on to say that this insecurity, the fear “that hangs like a menace over every step of the proletarian and the small-owner, and can ‘suddenly,’ ‘unexpectedly,’ by ‘accident’ inflict upon him poverty, etc…here is the root of the present day religion.” “Fear has created the gods.” What interests me about all this sort of thing is its obvious insufficiency. I cannot see on the face of it why the failure of everything should in itself be a cause of faith. But if faith does come through such failure, why does it also come to those who have all the success? And without agreeing that our millionaires are commonly martyrs, or even crusaders, it will be admitted by all (and especially by Mr. Lenin) that the ordinary materialist will probably say they are religious because their faith has never been shaken by trouble. And then he must go on to say that the poor are religious, because their faith has been shaken by trouble. Religion seems a remarkable thing in any case; since it is a result of being secure and also a result of being insecure. And the programme of the Marxian is first to make the rich insecure, when they will presumably become as pious as the poor; and then to make the poor secure; when they will presumably be as bent on spreading religion as the rich. It seems a little mixed; but it is not my fault.
The truth is, of course, that all this explanation of poverty and piety are nonsensical; and it is nonsensical because it is narrow; because it is restricted by this Marxian-mania for finding a materialist explanation. The reason for religion, apart from revelation, is in the nature of a man’s life; and the reason the Marxian cannot find it is because he must limit a man’s life to a man’s living. An absolute answer is another matter; and those of us who believe in one do not pretend that it is self-evident. But the question to which religion is an answer, the mood in which men wonder about religion or wish they had a religion, is something quite unconnected with any economic condition whatever. It may come to a man starving and speculating about death. It may equally come to a man drinking an expensive liqueur and merely speculating about life. The mystery and attraction of it is in the mere existence of existence; this strange vision floating before us and called the world; this strange story of which we cannot remember the beginning or understand the end. This larger outlook on life is always flooding in at odd moments upon all men, rich or poor. It does not refer to the machinery that sustains life, for that only moves at certain times. If the materialist only thinks of that machinery, he will often have nothing to think about. The Marxian seems to be a man who only exists at meal times.
Now this narrowness is of some concern to us; because property, though not directly part of religion, is really part of this sort of larger philosophy. It is part of a general view of the human lot; and that is why the Communist of this school cannot make head or tail of it. The Marxian talks as if the only object of saving people from sufferings inflicted by “the blind forces of capitalism” was that those people should have material consumption and material security. It is not; it is that they should have life, and that they should have it more abundantly. It is not only that a man should be secure of eating the turnip; it is that he should have authority over the turnip and liberty with the turnip and the right to choose his own way of cooking the turnip. For that sense of dignity makes all the difference to his general view of life; and of that heaven which fills the empty spaces and the idle hours.