The brutal purging of God
Giles Udy on Godless Utopia by Roland Elliott Brown
“Communism begins with atheism,” declared Karl Marx. Friedrich Engels, his co-author of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, agreed: “The Christian world order cannot be taken any further. It must collapse under its own weight and make way for a humane, rational order.” In 1917 it fell to their disciple Lenin to transform their doctrine of sociology and economics into one of political action. The project eventually failed, but not before it had cost thousands of lives.
Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda by Roland Elliott Brown traces the propaganda of that campaign by bringing together more than 100 examples of Soviet anti-religious cartoons and posters, covering the years 1922 to 1985. It is a disturbing collection.
The earliest drawings are blasphemous and designed to shock. Jehovah, Allah, the Christian God and Buddha are ridiculed as powerless fat buffoons. Priests and believers consume Christ’s body in an orgy of cannibalism: two gorge themselves on his spilled intestines. Both are from 1923. In others, older believers are shown as primitives from a past era holding the younger generation in bondage to superstition. In one, dated 1930, a hag-like babushka (granny) drags a child by her hair towards a church while the child struggles to go the opposite way, to school.
The USSR’s imperialist foes do not escape attention. A lynched black man hangs from the Statue of Liberty (1930), blessed by Christ, under the heading, “In the country of the Lord God”. On the cover of a 1928 edition of the leading anti-religious magazine Bezbozhnik (“Godless”) a white man sits on a camel, holding a crucifix and whip, lashing a line of African slaves, roped together at the neck. (Ironically, just a year later it was Stalin who consigned more than 1.5 million believers, intellectuals and peasants to slave labour in the gulag.) When the Vatican became outspoken in its condemnation of communism, one poster portrayed the Pope as a spider with a skull in a papal mitre for a body, directing the burning of books by Marx, Lenin and Darwin.
As the years progressed, the attacks changed. Some contrast the rationalism of modern science with the superstition of believers. Yuri Gagarin floats in space, above a caption reading “There is no God!”. A handsome young man arm wrestles with a decrepit old priest to the slogan “Reason against religion” (1977). In another (1981), a priest pumps a cross and roubles tumble out of its spout.
As the system began to collapse, the lure of Western culture came under fire. In a 1984 poster headed “Cultural Exchange”, a shifty young man, “Ivan Lowlife”, swaps an icon with a tourist for a pair of jeans; a snake with the name “anti-Sovietism” crawls out of a smuggled bible which a tourist is selling to a Russian; a “weasel” hippy streetseller (blue jeans, long hair, shaded glasses) sells crosses and icons from a suitcase. The impact of Western radio broadcasts is reflected in a 1977 poster portraying old women and a hippy kneeling before prayers broadcast from a transistor radio. The caption decries “gullible sectarian(s)” who hear “prayers from ‘over there’” as “Ave Maria, Slander of the USSR, Anti-Sovietism (and) Our Father” issue from the speaker.
History is a battleground for chroniclers of Soviet communism. As the horrors of the Stalin terror became known, Lenin’s apologists tried to uncouple the two, absolving Lenin of the psychopath’s later “distortions”. Faced by subsequent revelations of Lenin’s own merciless brutality, Marx’s defenders have tried to do likewise.
Such a whitewash is either ignorant or mendacious.
Marx had famously likened religion to a drug used by the ruling classes to stupefy the working class and keep it in slavery: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of man is a requisite for their real happiness.” But that happiness, he insisted, could only come about by revolution. That revolution would, in turn, only succeed if accompanied by unbridled terror. It was an idea from which he did not waver. “No great movement has ever been inaugurated without bloodshed,” Marx told one interviewer 30 years later when asked if socialists advocated assassination and violence.
In 1917 the Bolsheviks’ contempt for the church became tangible in a succession of acts of unprecedented savagery
But for this to happen it was, yet again, religion, with its moral code set supposedly set by God, that was an obstacle. It had to be torn down. “Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality,” trumpeted the Communist Manifesto. To the question “Who is God?”, Engels declared: “God is man … We reject any attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever, (which is) eternal, alternate and for ever immutable.”
Lenin believed that the fight against religion was a fight for the fundamentals of Marxism: “Marxism is materialism. As such, it is mercilessly hostile to religion … We have to struggle with religion. This is the ABC of all materialism and, consequently, of all Marxism.” Marx’s atheism was not an abstract rejection — a bitter hatred of religion lay at the heart, not the periphery, of his philosophy. It was a contempt that Lenin shared, albeit expressed in more extreme, obscene terms: “Every religious idea, every idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness,” he wrote to Maxim Gorky. “All pursuit of little (pathetic, puny) God is akin to having sex with a corpse.”
In 1917 the Bolsheviks’ contempt for the church became tangible in a succession of acts of unprecedented savagery. During the revolution and the subsequent civil war, thousands of bishops, clergy, monks and nuns were tortured and slaughtered — mutilated, raped, disembowelled, buried alive, crucified, forced to take communion with boiling lead, castrated or, in mid-winter, drenched with water and frozen to death as macabre statues.
Under Stalin the onslaught only increased. And it was not just the Orthodox Church which was under attack. Protestant churches and seminaries were closed and their pastors arrested or shot as counter-revolutionaries. By 1930, 10,000 of 12,000 mosques had been shut down, their imams persecuted as ruthlessly as Christian clergy. It is estimated that between 1917 and the mid-1960s, 50,000-100,000 religious leaders were executed. Thousands more were imprisoned.
The physical attacks against believers and churches were accompanied by relentless propaganda. Under slogans such as “Let us deal a crushing blow to religion!” the new League of the Militant Godless (LMG) was chosen to lead the propaganda assault. “We ought to wage pitiless war against religion, not only in our schools, but in the bosom of the family,” said its leader Yemelyan Yaroslavsky. Education minister Anatoly Lunacharsky described religious belief as an “evil syphilitic disease”.
Many of the illustrations in Godless Utopia are taken from the LMG’s paper Bezbozhnik and its sister paper Bezbozhnik u Stanka (“Godless at the Machine”). “With all my heart I wish (it) every success in the fight against the repugnant spectre of God,” declared Lunacharsky on its launch.
Marx cannot be uncoupled from the consequences of his ideas
Roland Elliott Brown’s accompanying commentary is intelligent and thorough, but it is unfortunately overshadowed by the bizarre choice of Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson to write the foreword. Rowson is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a “distinguished supporter” and board member of Humanists UK. Both are active campaigners to extinguish faith from the public square.
His insistence that “throughout history, atheism has been an insult hurled by those in power at any dissident who dares question their assertion that their power is bestowed by higher, non-human factors and is therefore unquestionable” is very close to a statement of sympathy for Marx and Lenin’s aims, while not endorsing their methods. Rowson’s cartoons for New Humanist include disparaging portrayals of God and even a Russian Orthodox priest which would not look out of place in a modern version of Bezbozhnik. He may not be a card-carrying Marxist but he is the author of a graphic version of the Communist Manifesto and his article introducing the book in the Guardian makes it clear that he is at least a Marxist sympathiser.
He tells us that Western Cold War opponents of Soviet communism were men who, possessing a mindset “bequeathed to the men who own and rule England by nearly two millennia of Christianity”, would have preferred to destroy the world in a nuclear fireball rather than allow communism to win. These are typical sentiments for a left-wing cartoonist but do they really have a place in a book such as this?
Marxists have now taken over the Labour Party and stand poised to enter Downing Street. In an unguarded interview, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, admitted that his chief influences were Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, the architects of the communist holocaust. He later backtracked and said instead his politics were those of the mid-twentieth-century Labour theorist G.D.H. Cole.
Millions died in the gulag or as a result of the Revolution and its aftermath. Twenty million more were sent into slave labour. Marx cannot be uncoupled from the consequences of his ideas. While he can be considered a writer on economics and sociology, violence, hatred and the abandonment of all moral constraints were integral to his philosophy, not a corruption of it developed by Lenin and Stalin. Many of his modern followers are either ignorant of this, declare their Marxism to be benign or insist that it is peripheral. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn and many others who have lived under Soviet Communism insist, these features are inseparably at its core.
This review has resulted in a correspondence between Giles Udy, Martin Rowson and Roland Brown:
No Muhammad cartoons
Giles Udy’s review of my book Godless Utopia; Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda (Books, December) says that it contains cartoons of Muhammad, along with its Soviet-era caricatures of other religious figures. In fact, there aren’t any Muhammad cartoons in the book.
All of the images pertaining to Islam are either of mullahs, foolish believers, or, in some early instances, of a figure wearing a halo labelled “Allah”, who is depicted along with others wearing halos labelled “Jehovah” or “God the Father”. In one 1922 advertisement for the magazine Godless, similar halos are shown hanging on a wall, suggesting that they are really components of the holy disguises worn by the agents of capital.
While I can’t say categorically that there is no such thing as a Soviet Muhammad cartoon, I never encountered any in my many weeks scouring decades’ worth of anti-religious magazines in Russian libraries. It seems to me that not depicting Muhammad could well have been a Soviet policy.
If I had found any cartoons of Muhammad, I’d have had to have a heavy discussion with my collaborators at FUEL Publishing as to the pros and potentially-terrifying cons of including them.
Roland Elliott Brown
I’m sorry that, in his review of Roland Elliott Brown’s Godless Utopia, Giles Udy is so dismayed by the publishers’ decision to invite me to write the foreword. A lot of this seems to arise from the fact that I’m a cartoonist for the Guardian and a fairly public atheist. In 2018 I also produced a comic book adaptation of The Communist Manifesto which features a visual appendix clearly denouncing Leninist Sovietism (though maybe Udy has only read the article I wrote about it in — forgive me — the Guardian rather than the book itself).
He can, however, claw back some comfort if he reflects that I wrote the foreword not as a Guardian cartoonist but as a cartoonist on The Critic. Likewise, I learned most of my atheism (and was proposed as an honorary associate of the National Secular Society) by The Critic’s star atheist columnist Jonathan Meades.
Rowson is a Marx-sympathising cartoonist and a leading member of two organisations, the National Secular Society and Humanists UK, which campaign to eradicate the influence of religion. He is at liberty to hold such views. But the publishers, by asking him to write a piece which he then uses to sneer at “creepy, paedo” priests and defend militant secularism, display an extraordinary indifference to the gravity of the book’s subject.
Godless Utopia is not primarily, and cannot be, an “art” book, a study of one genre or the technical competence of its illustrators. It is a collection of the visual propaganda of a terrible, if lesser-known, twentieth-century crime against humanity, the Soviet persecution of religious believers.
In acts of extreme savagery during the 1917 revolution and the subsequent civil war, thousands of bishops, clergy, monks and nuns were tortured and slaughtered — mutilated, raped, disembowelled, buried alive, crucified, forced to take communion with boiling lead, castrated or, in mid-winter, drenched with water and frozen to death. Under Stalin, the terror continued. The Soviets closed 10,000 of Russia’s 12,000 mosques, their imams imprisoned or shot. Of 60,000 churches open in 1917, barely 100 were functioning by 1939.
By the time of Stalin’s death, at least 50,000 religious leaders had perished and four times that number of believers sent to the gulag.
British left-wing secularist campaigners, Rowson’s philosophical forebears, looked on with approval, denying or downplaying the bloodshed. “It is ridiculous to describe the present state of affairs in Russia as ‘almost the worst record of religious persecution that the world has seen’,” declared the eminent scientist and Communist Party member J.B.S. Haldane. Graham Wallas, co-founder of the London School of Economics, wrote that there was no reason “why any Rationalists in this country should weep over … the million wasted candles once burning before wooden images”. Rowson now draws cartoons for New Humanist, which is published by the organisation Wallas once led, the Rationalist Association. When, in aside, he downplays the Spanish left’s murder of 7,000 Catholic clergy and nuns as “anarchists (who) put religious statues in front of firing squads”, it is hard not to see the parallels.
Rowson may have less time for Soviet communists than he has for Marx, but he is clearly sympathetic to their aim to eradicate religion, which he insists is only “a brutal tool of public control”. It would be unthinkable to invite a leading antisemite to write the foreword to a book on Nazi anti-Jewish cartoons and posters. This is little different. The bones of those who perished for their faith in Russia are still being uncovered. Let them rest in peace, without tainting their memory with the same contempt that took them to their graves.
Beware of Propaganda
Giles Udy’s article, “The Brutal Purging of God” in the December issue of The Critic was ostensibly a review of Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda, but Mr. Udy barely managed a single sentence about my text. His article was really a review of Marx’s and Engels’s writings against religion, the Soviet anti-religious propaganda pictures I gathered in collaboration with FUEL Publishing, and Martin Rowson’s secular-spirited foreword, the inclusion of which Mr. Udy found “bizarre” and which he has since implicitly, insultingly, and misleadingly likened to inviting a leading antisemite to write the foreword to a book of Nazi antisemitic caricatures.
Any reader of the main text of Godless Utopia could be counted upon to notice that the book begins and ends with discussions of George Orwell’s inclusion of an element of anti-religious satire in his anti-Soviet satire Animal Farm. This came in the form of Moses the Raven, a “spy and a tale-bearer” who dupes the hard-working, long-suffering animals with promises of heaven. Orwell, it seems, considered atheism a revolutionary force for all times, even as he got to grips with the cruel and mendacious “Soviet myth”. This was a nuance many Cold War-era propagandists couldn’t bear. The Russian émigré press Posev bowdlerised the first Russian-language edition of Animal Farm to remove Moses, as did a CIA-funded British animated film based on the book.
It seems to me that it is in the same spirit that Mr. Udy cannot bear Martin Rowson’s foreword. He objects that Martin is the author of a comic book adaptation of the Communist Manifesto (readers of this comic will notice that Martin comments critically on Marx’s authoritarian disposition in his introduction), and that Martin is involved with the National Secular Society and Humanists UK. In Mr. Udy’s worldview, it seems, all secularists oppress the faithful, even if great democracies—not least the United States and France—have integrated secular principles into their civic lives. (I would invite Mr. Udy to identify anything in the programmes of either organisation that would violate article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which upholds freedom of religion, and which the Soviet Union refused to sign when it was drafted in 1948).
A large part of my youth falls roughly between the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 and the 2008 financial crash, and as such, Marx has meant relatively little to me. He figures rather larger in Martin’s political imagination, as is the case with many influential people of his generation (I am thinking here of Christopher Hitchens, who ridiculed Soviet anti-religious propaganda in his popular tract, God is Not Great). For what it’s worth, I do believe that Marx, in his ressentiment, intellectual vanity, and appetite for bloodshed, bears some responsibility for the horrors of the Soviet “experiment”, along with the men and women who appointed themselves his interpreters.
Did secular critics of the Soviet system like Orwell underrate the centrality of atheism to its cruelty? Some Soviet dissidents—notably Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—thought so. I have set out to revive this semi-subterranean 20th century debate for contemporary readers. If there is “friction” between Martin’s foreword and my text, and even some resemblance between Martin’s satirical draughtsmanship and that of the Soviet propagandists (there is), I am glad of it. The provocation is intentional. I count upon readers to welcome the philosophical challenge, much as, I hope, Martin did when he sat down to write his foreword. The alternative might have been to invite someone already familiar with my topic to reiterate their own conclusions, and perhaps to insult the reader’s intelligence with something like a “trigger warning” about the oppression I describe.
Roland Elliott Brown
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe