On religion and the left: Does socialism have to mean atheism?

A Soviet poster. Translation: “There is no God!”

Between 1890 and 1920, more than 2 million Jewish immigrants left Eastern Europe for the United States. In escaping the oppression and poverty of their autocratic governments, this population brought with them a bubbling desire for revolution that would ultimately blossom into a full-fledged anarchist movement led almost exclusively by women. Names both recognizable and oft-forgotten — Emma Goldman, Rose Pesotta, Mollie Steimer, and others — stood firmly at the forefront of organizing labor unions, leftist cultural groups, and media dissemination.

The force and energy behind this movement can be felt in the highly reactionary, U.S.-government-lead efforts to tear it out by the roots. Yet, while the work of these women may be honored in leftist circles, their Judaism is strikingly — and perhaps unfortunately — absent from the conversation. While there is much to be said about unspoken undercurrents of anti-semitism in today’s leftists, it is also the concept of spirituality as a whole that is met with a shrugging of the shoulders, as though it were all but irrelevant to today’s organizing work. Despite this, the role of religious organizations within communities often operate in parallel to leftist organizations, and collaboration and coordination between the two offers the potential for revelation.

The origin of contemporary socialism’s complicated relationship with religion is easily traceable to Marx, who (in the frequently paraphrased quote) dubbed it “the opium of the masses.” While Engels held a slightly more nuanced view, the collective opinion remained that faith has little other purpose than to act a smokescreen for the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the working class and, in the reverse, serve as a meager substance on which those living on the fringes of society may hope to subsist.

Later, Lenin extended this relationship between socialism and religion, tacking on the notion that atheist convictions are quite necessary in a socialist society, but that they should not be preached as if to indoctrinate. He believed that such encouragement would have the unintended effect of propping up bourgeoise beliefs in defense. Instead, Lenin and his ilk encouraged a socialist first, atheist second approach.

A Soviet poster. Translation: “Priest, sectarian preacher, mullah, rabbi — all of them preach the ‘doctrine,’ which is alien to communism. Do not be deceived — get rid of the religious drug!”

The reasons for these rejections of religion are clear, at least in the theoretical practice of the men listed above. It is difficult, if not impossible, to recall a time in global history when the church as a spiritual and communal center did not overlap with the church as a political state apparatus. Repression and oppression of those upholding leftist ideologies is commonplace in the powerful upper echelons of organized religion, as it has been for centuries.

With this laid out and acknowledged, one can simultaneously explore the role of a religious group within a community, and the ability for a church to operate, on the basis of community effort, outside of the trappings of a capitalist framework. Additionally, there is the potency of faith as its own entity to inspire radical belief; it is a type of faith that operates much in the same capacity that a socialist must believe in the possibility of a “better tomorrow.” When these sensations align, the power is evident: Returning to the work of Goldman and company, it would be impossible to deny that organizing around the shared Jewish identity, and operating in the goodwill of a religious space, was essential to the successes of the period.

In Goldman’s political moment, Judaism was more than a means for people to come together and relate to one another on a fundamental level. Rather, it was an active element of one’s praxis, perhaps best exemplified by the annual Anarchist Yom Kippur balls held in New York City, and around the world during the late 1800s. These festivities involved singing, dancing, and large buffets that intentionally included ham and other non-kosher foods.

So, too, was the popular anarchist and labor-focused newspaper of the period, Di Fraye Arbeter Shtime, a function of Judaism. Though published in Yiddish, the paper had a circulation of more than 30,000 at its peak. For a period, its editor was a man named Rudolf Rocker, who had converted to Judaism for a woman he loved.

A flyer for an Anarchist Yom Kippur Ball

One could argue that today, to be a member of a religious organization, or even a person of faith, has diverged from what it once was. The structures of and interactions between Abrahamic religions in particular have been drastically altered by globalization and 20th century capitalism. Yet, on the local stage, centers of faith remain relatively unchanged. Temples, mosques, and churches continue to operate in service of the communities in which they exist. This comes in many secular forms including financial charity, community labor (i.e. gardening, cleaning litter), educational and artistic programming, free or low-cost childcare services, shelter, meals, and more. Many of theses spaces operate using councils or community-based decision-making that determines budget, leadership, and other allocation of time and resources. Though functioning independently from one another, religious centers have the backing of faith around which to organize and carve out their mission.

A newspaper clipping reporting on the anarchist’s Yom Kippur Ball

The leftist radicalism possible in a religious setting can be seen not only in the work of turn-of-the-century anarchist Jews, but in mid-century Islamic and Christian communities, in the cases of Malcolm X and Dr. King. Ministry was combined with political agenda and religious and political organization overlapped to achieve tangible goals in society and deepen the connection between and individual and their convictions.

Such successes in the past beg the question of why today’s left has not formed a stronger bond with religious communities. Surely there are (valid) doubts that religion can be easily twisted, and used as slick justification for the state of affairs, or a convenient obstruction to the truths of science. Many of today’s most prominent religious groups operate under a right-wing ideology, and even your more “liberal” churches with LGBTQ flags hanging from their porticos are content to tow the line of the mainstream Democratic party. Still, the function of the church as a community organization remains firmly in line with leftist theory and practice, and one can only fathom the potential in combined political efforts.

Yet while the left and the structure of the religious space may act as natural complements, it begs the question of whether the precious time and energy utilized for organizing is worth stoking the passions of these spaces. And, in the reverse, questioning whether the intermingling of radical and religious thought is too dangerous a game to play in today’s highly polarized age. Or, maybe the truth is that reality itself is more terrifying than fire and brimstone. Can faith even drive purpose in an age where pragmatic, utilitarian action appears the sole route to change — and a rocky one, at that?

Perhaps at the very least, religious spaces may serve as an inspiration and practical guide to creating the types of leftist spaces that could serve to offer up the movement in our communities in a more tangible, more accessible, and less virtual setting. Perhaps, the ever-skeptical left could recognize the power that faith holds in the lives of millions and see in it an opportunity to organize, to strategize, and to connect. Faith is a source of beauty as much as it is a source of terror, and if we were to allow ourselves to reach out and touch that beauty on a more frequent basis, who knows what such a cross-pollination may yield. If anything, it may help provide a critical breakdown of the intellectual and class elitism that any leftist movement is at risk of becoming dangerously proud of, and serve as a reminder that our work is meant to create a better world for all, and not just for some.