Books

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.

Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda by Roland Elliott Brown, FUEL, £24.95

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.

“Ave Maria, Slander to the USSR, Anti-Sovietism
and Our Father”

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.

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