Anarchism and Atheism: An Ambivalent Relationship

Essay written by Professor Plum on Friday 29, March 2019

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A short historical look at the Young Hegelians and a few of the most influential anarchist thinkers of the late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth century with a focus on their religious beliefs and where they differ from Marxism.

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Although forms of anarchism have existed since the creation of coercive obedience in human history, it was not until the founding of the International Workingmen’s’ Association in 1864 and the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871 that anarchism came to be recognized in its modern political form. What emerged from these acts of social awakening were two competing forms of socialist theory. (For the sake of this essay, I will keep the complicated and nuanced discourse of Socialist theory to a bare minimum). Karl Marx and his followers pushed for a more Jacobin tradition established in the French Revolution. They believed, a socialist revolution could only occur in industrialized nations if the urban working-class seized the operation of the existing state apparatus. From there, a socialist republic or centralized state would control the means of production until the state would “wither away” into true communism (known as Authoritarian Socialism). Marx’s contemporary, Mikel Bakunin, outright rejected this notion. He also accused Marx of being too heavily focused on the industrial working class over rural workers. He and his followers believed that a true socialist revolution could only occur when the masses (both rural and urban) abolished all forms of the state apparatus, including institutional. For Bakunin, implementing the state apparatus into the revolution would only lead to a mimicking of the state’s oppressive diplomacies and tactics; the state had to be destroyed. For Bakunin, the core to a socialist society was one of a free federation of independent communes governed by “radical democracy” ( known as Libertarian Socialism). While both groups were rather atheistic in their philosophy, focusing on material issues over spiritual, Bakunin and his followers often did not just deny God, but attacked the concept openly. What seems to still separate the two groups is the place of individual freedom within a communist society. Many anarchist thinkers first denied God, and then denied the state, viewing God as nothing more than another form of the Hegelian “master and slave phenomenology.” Even though the influence of atheistic thought no doubt helped mold the modern ideals of anarchism, there are those who still identify as anarchists while still believing in religious doctrine. While not all anarchists are atheists, and not all atheists anarchists, the two philosophies are ambivalently linked in their fight against coerced authority in both its forms: material and spiritual. French thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first person to claim himself an anarchist in 1840 and a huge influence on not only anarchist thought, but Marxist thought as well. He was a mild revolutionary and an associate of Marx until a falling out occurred after Proudhon opposed Marx’s statist approach to economic management. Proudhon believed in a gradual and collective approach to social change and not revolution. Instead of a state owning the means of production, Proudhon saw it being controlled by a cooperative structure of workers themselves. There was no room for authoritarianism in socialism, nor for that of religious institutions in Proudhon’s economic philosophy. Proudhon saw the Calvinist Church and their concept of Providence as a monstrous tool of deception and betrayal as it gave people false hope and false information. What was new about Proudhon’s stance compared to Thomas Paine (a pioneer of freethought, free society, and an opponent of “priest-craft” and “king-craft”), was his combination of theological and social attributes he applied to his theory. Proudhon identified God as his enemy because God refuses to let Providence create a just social order while being a delusional character. Proudhon claimed:
If there is a being who, before ourselves and more than ourselves, is deserving of hell,--I am bound to name him,--it is God… God, if he exists, is essentially hostile to our nature, and we do not depend at all upon his authority. We arrive at knowledge in spite of him, at comfort in spite of him, at society in spite of him; every step we take in advance is a victory in which we crush Divinity. . . . God is stupid and cowardice; God is hypocrisy and falsehood; God is tyranny and misery; God is evil.
A prevailing thread in most anarchism tradition is an opposition towards religion. William Godwin wrote the first text on liberation politics in 1793 with his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Godwin was a dedicated Calvinist who trained to be a minister in his youth. During this time, he discovered that the God of the Old Testament acted like a political legislator in a theocratic state and had no right to be a tyrant over His own creation. This led Godwin to first rejecting Christianity, becoming a deist, and later an atheist. Max Stirner, who wrote the most extreme individual-anarchist thought of his time, The Individual and His Property (1885), was an atheist who rejected the “spooks” of religion along with the “spook” of humanity (political rule). Mikhail Bakunin, who has often been credited with being the main founder of the modern anarchist movement, attacked the Church as much as he did the state. In his work God and the State published after his death, Bakunin inverted Voltaire’s claim, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him," with his own, “If God really existed, he would have to be abolished.” Most Socialist thinkers of the mid to late nineteenth century belonged to the school of thought inspired by philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel known as the Young Hegelians (or, the Hegelian Left). This included--but was not limited to--Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Stirner, and Mikhail Bakunin. (For the sake of this essay, I give the most simplistic and short explanation of Hegel philosophy and the focus of the Young Hegelians. Hegel’s meaning behind his writing is still contested by philosophers to this day). What made the Young Hegelians philosophers unique to their counterparts was their transferring of philosophical discourse on human behavior and thought towards theology. It could be said that they “materialized” theology and philosophical thought. In other words, they combined social consciousness and theory with religious consciousness and theory. This in turn resulted in identifying that the critiques of religion could be used to critique humanity, and hopefully, remedy it of its ailments. Recently, Paul Breines interprets “Hegel’s idea of spirit as both subject and substance—removed philosophy from the sphere of mere thought and linked its destiny to the historical-political present.” The Young Hegelians took a critical stance towards Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit for its lack of the living being within its spiritual system. For Leftist thinkers, what became central is the ‘thinking human’ who feels and creates their own existence. They believed that in Hegel thought, the individual lacked a reason for their own existence. Young Hegelians rejected the notion of “mediation of the negation” where people die and the idea (spirit) lives on. Toted as the godfather of anarcho-communism theory, and one of its greatest philosophers, Mikel Bakunin’s views towards God were highly influenced by fellow Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach’s philosophy (whose main concern was the cause behind the creation of religion) did not encompass social issues within his work, yet, he laid the foundation for those who would follow his philosophy into the social realm. Feuerbach realized that “theology is anthropology” yet did not give any suggestions on how to free the individual from the counter abstraction. For an individual to truly be free, Bakunin saw that it was imperative to not only overthrow God, but to overthrow the state as well. Bakunin agreed with Feuerbach in the assertion that the essence and origins of religion alienated the human being. In Federalism, Socialism, and Anti-Theologism, Bakunin echoed Feuerbach when he stated,
The richer the heavens became the poorer the earth. When the cult of a divine being was created, it was naturally accepted that the divine being became the ruler, source and giver of all goods; the real world existed only thanks to it. Man, the unwitting creator of god, kneeled before him and pronounced himself to be his creation, his slave’’
This sounds very much Like Feuerbach’s thinking when he wrote, “In religion man sees himself as a divine object, as divine aim, that in religion he relates only to his own being, to himself… religion is only a matter of man… Faith introduces man into an imaginary world of religion; love shows that the mystery of theology is anthropology.” What this meant was that the study of God, was in fact, the study of “Man.” (Simplified for this essay) Feuerbach traced the evolution of Western religious thought with the evolution of the human race. Primitive humans worshiped that which brought them material substance: sun, rain, ext. After material needs were meant, humans looked to the essence of God to explain “Man” (Old Testament). Finally, moving onto the essence of humanity and understanding God as human (The New Testament). In short, “Man” was not created in God’s image, God was created in “Mans’” image. Bakunin took this one step further. While he agreed that religion was humanity’s own creation, he also saw this as humanity's heaviest oppressor. Not everyone in the Young Hegelians was convinced by Feuerbach’s take on God however. Anarcho-individualist Max Stirner agreed with Friedrich Nietzsche that with the death of God came the death of morals and values. Stirner accused Feuerbach of simply replacing the God beyond ourselves, with the God within ourselves. Nothing had really changed. In his view, Feuerbach just exchanged the faith of the old God into the faith of a new God—humanity. Stirner believed that the individual in Feuerbach’s thought loses its will under a subordinate community. Bakunin’s commune ideal of anarchism was also too collective for Stirner who believed that the individual would still only be oppressed by the communal morality. Historian Nikolai Berdyaev would later argue, ‘‘the basic weakness of [Bakunin’s] viewpoint is the lack whatsoever of any carefully thought-out idea of person. He rebels against the state and all power, but it is not a rebellion in the name of the human individual. The individual is subordinated to a collective and is lost in the populace.’’ Bakunin viewed the collective as a valuable asset in anarchism and began to transfer Feuerbach's approach to reasoning, structure, and form, to his own social theory. Bakunin saw the negation of God as only the first step to the liberation of man. As Wayne Price has asserted, “Atheism, in itself, is not the solution.” Feuerbach was accused by Stiner of being a pious atheist as he did not discard God entirely, but only exchanged God with that of man; keeping religious morals and transferring them to human morals. Stirner believed that In exposing religious alienation, Feuerbach did not fully reject religion or God, but only displaced certain elements of religion that held no place in a religion where man was God. Stiner, much like Nietzsche, viewed the death of God as the death of human morality and values as well. Although, Stiner’s ideas were respected by anarchist thinkers, they were also refuted, especially after the publication of Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid in 1902 (which will be discussed further down). The center stone of modern socialist thought has always been based on a foundation of understanding the workers rightful place and pay in an economic system. Even though a lucrative left-over artifact perpetuated by Cold War propaganda in the “West” is that socialism is a static concept, socialists are a far from harmonious group. While Karl Marx is often the figure credited with the movement, and is without doubt the most influential, he was not always agreed with by fellow “comrades.” Bakunin was the first in a long line of Leftists who were described as “post-Marxist” thinkers and Bakunin was the first socialist thinker to be critical of what is now known as Marxism. Bakunin took what he thought valuable from Marx’s work but did not feel the need to canonize it. Bakunin knew both Western and Eastern Europe and felt that Marxist theory was too limited to the conditions, developments, and locations of its creation (Brussels). Bakunin and Marx did agree on several things, but it was what they disagreed upon that would split the socialist left. Their agreements included: The primacy of the economic 'base' over the political 'superstructure', the overthrowing of capitalism and working as active revolutionists to this end, and both believed in socialism and collectivism opposed to bourgeois individualism. Both also held a high adoration for natural science and were bitterly at odds with religion. Their differences, however, were irreconcilable. Bakunin did not believe that the social revolution had to wait for the ripening of a capitalist industrial power. Marx relied on technology and science to overcome social scarcity and believed it would be the urban workers who would take up the revolutionary cause and down played the role of rural peasantry. Bakunin on the other hand did not see the future in industrialization and believed in small scale industry and collaborating groups rather than a hierarchy of large scale industrial centres controlled by a central power. Bakunin also saw the value in the peasant population for revolution and believed that traditional societies had better potential for revolutionary socialism, but also believed that both urban and rural workers would have to unite. Marx (and Engels) thought of socialism as carrying forward the best parts of bourgeois culture while Bakunin saw culture and education as a type of privilege and domination and the centre of a new exploitative class. Bakunin believed in the literal leveling of all cultural reminders to fully be absolved from oppressive society. The undeniable split between Marxism and anarchism is found in Marx’s concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that Bakunin and other anarchists saw as the opening for not a dictatorship ‘of’ the proletariat, but a dictatorship ‘over’ the proletariat. Bakunin thought the concept in itself ludicrous and believed that all Marxism would accomplish would be the culminating of state power in the hands of a new dominating class of bureaucrats and technocrats and not true socialism (Animal Farm, anyone?). Another difference between the two thinkers was the way they approached religion. Bakunin hated religions and called for all of them to be abolished along with the state. While Marx developed a materialist conception of the world which held no place for God, he did not advocate a focus on religion while opposing capitalism as Bakunin and other anarchist thinkers did. For Marx, religion was a private matter and was not an aim of his analysis. His views about religion were well known as can be seen in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right where he wrote,
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of a soulless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears whose halo is religion.
For Marx, religion was a necessity of people living under oppression, once this oppression was lifted, there would be no need for religion and it would simply fade away. V.I. Lenin who led the Bolsheviks to power during the Russian Revolution in 1917 claimed to be a staunch Marxist, yet adopted much anarchist philosophy to side step certain elements of the revolution (such as the need for capitalism before socialism and his promise to give all power and all land to the workers). Lenin also began a reign of militant atheism that is also not prevalent in Marxism yet is heavily prevalent in anarchism. Anarchists played a large role in the Russian revolution and during the first few years, Bakunin and Marx were celebrated equally with a number of statues being commemorated in their honour. However, once one-party rule was established, Lenin then went after all those who criticized the Bolsheviks and along with other groups, anarchists were either executed or imprisoned. Statues of Bakunin were taken down and the anarchist element of the revolution was written out of Soviet history until after the end of the Cold War. Early twentieth century Spain saw the largest anarchist movement in the world with the Spanish Revolution beginning in 1936. Even though it is often described as a quasi-religious phenomenon, it was in fact a profoundly naturalistic and secularist movement which was anti-Christian and anti-clerical. Francisco Ferrer, the well-known Spanish anarchist who was judicially murdered in 1909, was best known for founding the Modern School which tried to give secular education in a Catholic country. The leaders of the anarchist movements in Latin America during the twentieth century also began by rebelling against the Church before rebelling against the state. Nearly all militant anarchists have been staunch atheists as they are unwilling to yield to authority of government or God: “The Church has always been allied with the state in the subjugation of mankind.” For most anarchists, humanity will only be free when they can “throw off the double yoke of spiritual and temporal authority.” In the 1919 publication of the Atheist Manifesto, Russian anarchist Soiuz Ateistov believed that religion was in the depths of trying to preserve itself by compromises and the piling of absurdities upon one another while attempting to combine the un-compoundable. For Ateistov, God was Reason, Justice, Love and mercy. Religion was just another way to suppress feeling, thought, and will. All gods were just as equally repulsive because they were either bloodthirsty, envious, and/or vengeful. However, Ateistov hated gods for being as equally forgiving, kind, and/or human. It was not important what type of gods they were, what mattered was that they were gods, lords and saviors. Ateistov also scoffed at the notion that morality came from faith:
We fear not the reproach that by destroying the people’s faith we are pulling the moral foundation from under their feet, a reproach uttered by ‘lovers of the people’ who maintain that religion and morality are inseparable. We assert, rather, that morality can and must be free from any ties with religion, basing our conviction on the teachings of contemporary science about morality and society… So much do we love the human personality that we must therefore hate gods. And therefore we are atheists…We want to take responsibility for everything upon ourselves. We want to be free. We do not want to be marionettes or puppets.
Even the less militant, anti-intellectual anarchist movements at the time dismissed gods and echoed that of Feuerbach thought (even if they did not know it). The Russian anarchist brothers A.L. and V.L. Gordin were leading opponents of anti-intellectualism. Although, most anarchists have also seen a high value in education, the brothers saw intellectuals as just another form of authority. The brothers produced a steady stream of articles and founded the group Union of the Oppressed Five in 1917. Anti-intellectualism was at the heart of their new philosophy of pan-anarchism, in which they hoped to liberate the creative spirit of humanity from the chains of religious and scientific dogma. They saw science as just a new form of upper-class religion to dominate the unlearned masses. What is ironic about these anti-intellectuals is their views were quite similar to many intellectuals, including their Feuerbachian like views on God: “God and nature are made in man’s image, anthropomorphic,” [and] “there is only one god on the earth: it is you, the people, you, man.” While French revolutionaries in the late eighteenth-and-early-nineteenth-century were atheists because of the co-concentration of power within the church and the state, anarchists in the late nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century were able to place themselves in God’s shoes and show that the morality of god was really the morality of man. Authority was our own. Peter Kropotkin is likely the most celebrated of Russian anarchist thinkers who came at the question of morality from a natural science point of view. Before he became a political radicalistic, he spent five years in Siberia from 1862-1866, right after Charles Darwin had published his Origin of Species. Although he went to Siberia as a military officer, it gave him the chance to further study his interests of geology, geography, and zoology in the Russian interior. Influenced by Darwin, Kropotkin looked for the competition between species, but what he continually observed was the benefits of cooperation (mutual aid) by those belonging to the same species. What interested Kropotkin was the form of struggle that Darwin had called “metaphorical struggle” which pits an organism against the harshness of its surroundings not against members of its own species. When struggle is pitted against the environment the best option for survival is cooperation of the species. Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902 as a direct response to Thomas Huxley’s The Struggle for Existence in Human Society where Kropotkin argued that the struggle for existence usually leads to cooperation not combat and that human society should be built on our natural inclinations not built on reversing them like Huxley purposed. Kropotkin wrote,
Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature…Even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find – although I was eagerly looking for it – that bitter struggle for the means of existence among animals belonging to the same species.
Kropotkin’s social and religious theory was also pitted in his view of nature. He viewed religion as having two opposing principles. One being that it only expressed the human tendency towards mutual aid and cooperation which furthered social evolution. Doing unto others as you would do unto yourself, developed from the ethics infused by nature. Buddhism and Christianity were merely a translation of universal principles that were practiced in tribal religions in which the origin comes from the natural evolutionary value of mutual aid. On the other hand, he also saw religion as a manipulation of the oppressed. Jesus’ original message of social equality and love was deemphasised and undermined by scriptural interpreters and followers. For Kropotkin, the value of Jesus’ message was lost with the creation of the hierarchal Church. Roman Law and the Church were the forces that undermined the spirit of freedom in the teachings of Jesus and instilled within them authoritarianism in European culture. Kropotkin believed that religion would soon be replaced by science, and the Church (along with the state) abolished. According to Kropotkin, morals were not given by a higher power, but were an important aspect in human evolution that insured the survival of our own species. He believed he had found a system of ethics based on natural biology that would replace the ethics of supernatural theology. Kropotkin was unlike Bakunin in that he did not feel the need to outright attack religion or God. However, he was an atheist, who found God held no place in the view of science and therefore, was absurd and irrelevant. A French Encyclopedia in 1932 included an article on atheism by Gustave Brocher who declared that to be an anarchist, one had to also be an atheist, “An anarchist, who wants no all-powerful master on earth, no authoritarian government, must necessarily reject the idea of an omnipotent power to whom everything must be subjected; if he is consistent, he must declare himself an atheist.” In 1986 an article by Barbara Smoker (president of the National Secular Society) in the anarchist paper Freedom claimed that “Anarchism implies Atheism.” Historically, it is true that anarchists are generally not religious, and often anti-religious or even militant atheists, but there are some exceptions. Some like to argue that even though most anarchists are atheists, they still produce similar conceptions of what a true kingdom of God would be. Writer Hugh Rock claimed that for anarchists the Kingdom of God is identical to that of Christians. Capitalism takes the place of Satan as the government fills the world with misery, deceit, and violence. Christians believe that the Kingdom of God is coming and they will see it in the afterlife, while anarchists want to build that kingdom now, here on Earth. In the history of socialism there has been a small minority of religious socialists. In Latin America, there is the Catholic advocates for “Liberian theology” and the African American Protestant movement of “Black liberation theology” in the USA. Jacques Ellul, known for his critique of technology, was also a Christian anarchist who believed that biblical thought leads to anarchism and that it is the only political position in accordance to Christian thinking. The most wide-spread anarchist publication in North America is the Catholic Worker founded by Dorthey Day in 1933. Day was an advocate for Pacifism and anarchism while believing her faith in God made her a better rebel. She did not think is was contradictory to obey the authority of God because one chose to do so, unlike obeying the authority of the state that one is born into. The most well-known Christian anarchist is Leo Tolstoy who in 1877 had a profound religious experience that led him towards religious anarchism. Tolstoy believed Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to be the ultimate expression of ethical values and the essence of true Christianity. Tolstoy rejected the established church and its dogmas along with the rejection of government in all forms and modern society in general. While preaching pacifism and anarchism he believed art was universal and its purpose was to inspire good and condemn evil. Even though Tolstoy did not deny God, and was a firm believer in Christianity, he still denied the authority of organized religion and/or state. The Russian Doukhobors were the best example of this philosophy and lived in small cooperative communities where they rejected materialism, the exploitation of animals for labour or food, and the written word. Doukhobors did all their farming by hand and passed on scripture through oral tradition. Unfortunately, most Doukhobor communities have been forcibly assimilated into the state that surrounded them. Modern anarchism owes a great debt to the growth of atheist thinkers during the Enlightenment and especially those who belonged to the Hegelian Left a century later. Feuerbach’s explanation of God being the spiritual reconstruction of man was an important element in Bakunin philosophy which inspired many other anarchist thinkers. Realizing that we are our only God established humanity as the supreme authority over our own lives. However, not dislodging the values that came from religion, was central to most anarchist thinkers, even anti-intellectual anarchists. While other anarchists disagreed with this assertion such as Stirner, who hoped to achieve an individual freedom, most anarchists are very much community based. Kropotkin showed that values come from an evolutionary source based on the principles of cooperation for our own survival and not from religious dogma. Still, other anarchists see the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings as being the source of inspiration for their beliefs. What these different divisions do share is the longing to free themselves from imposed authority and live a life based on equality and radical democracy. Even though there is much disagreement between socialists, and whether they feel the need to believe in a higher power or not, their goals still lead to the same ends. Whether they are believers or not, they fight for a world where all people are free of coerced authority and economic oppression. For all types of anarchists, “Another World is Possible.”

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