Can a religious person join the communist party?

One would expect that the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Is not Marxism a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or indeed for reactionary religious institutions? The catch is that communist parties around the world have actually permitted religious people to join and be members.

Let us go back to the First International. It was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist,[1] he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’[2] As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.[3]

Why did they take this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’.[4] The third reason is that they would simply be copying a bourgeois anti-religious program, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democrats: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’.[5] A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.[6]

Perhaps Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide us with a clear example of demanding atheism from party members. Here too we will be disappointed, for Lenin – as a good ‘Erfurtian’ – took the position of the Erfurt Program.[7] To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.[8]

Surely the Cuban Communist Party bans religion for its members. It did so initially, but even then many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ anyone who sought to become a member. Indeed, in the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.[9]

It is becoming difficult to find a communist party that requires atheism of its members – at least until we come to the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’.[10] At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and exercises them along officially recognised channels.

[1] ‘Record of Marx’s Interview with The World Correspondent’, 1871, MECW 22, p. 605.

[2] Marx, ‘Remarks on the Programme and Rules of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy’, 1868, MECW 21, p. 208.

[3] Engels, ’ Account of Engels’s Speech on Mazzini’s Attitude Towards the International’, 1871, MECW, p. 608.

[4] Engels, ‘Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, London, July 1884’. 1884, MECW 47, p. 173.

[5] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Erfurt Program. In German History in Documents and Images: Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890–1918. Available at

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Walters, New York: Pathfinder, 1970, p. 132.

[7] Lenin, ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion’, Collected Works 15, p. 404.

[8] Lenin, ‘Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party”?’ 1993, Collected Works 6, p. 331 fn.

[9] See


One of the more fascinating aspects of reading carefully through Stalin’s writings is what may be called the scriptural dynamic of spirit and letter. As 2 Corinthians 3:6 puts it, ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’. Stalin is clearly on the side of the spirit in interpreting the texts of Marx and Lenin. Thus, Marx’s thought applies to emerging capitalism, while Lenin’s thought is Marxism in the age of imperialism. To emphasise his approach, he tells a story provided by Swedish socialists:

It was at the time of the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt in the Crimea. Representatives of the navy and army came to the Social-Democrats and said: “For some years past you have been calling on us to revolt against tsarism. Well, we are now convinced that you are right, and we sailors and soldiers have made up our mints to revolt and now we have come to you for advice.” The Social-Democrats became flurried and replied that they couldn’t decide the question of a revolt without a special conference. The sailors intimated that there was no time to lose, that everything was ready, and that if they did not get a straight answer from the Social-Democrats, and if the Social-Democrats did not take over the direction of the revolt, the whole thing might collapse. The sailors and soldiers went away pending instructions, and the Social-Democrats called a conference to discuss the matter. They took the first volume of Capital, they took the second volume of Capital, and then they took the third volume of Capital, looking for some instruction about the Crimea, about Sevastopol, about a revolt in the Crimea. But they could not find a single, literally not a single instruction in all three volumes of Capital either about Sevastopol, or about the Crimea, or about a sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt. They turned over the pages of other works of Marx and Engels, looking for instructions—but not a single instruction could they find. What was to be done? Meanwhile the sailors had come expecting an answer. Well, the Social-Democrats had to confess that under the circumstances they were unable to give the sailors and soldiers any instructions. “And so the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt collapsed.” (Works, volume 9, pages 97-98)

A new church in Podgorica in Montenegro has a lovely fresco depicting our good friends, Marx, Engels and Tito, enjoying the warmth of hell (more here).

Marx, Engels and Tito in Hell

(ht cp)

The other day I suddenly realised that this is the first time in four years that I have been home for a full spring and summer. I’m thoroughly enjoying it: the days have that almost indescribable feel of the first heat of summer; the beaches are some of the best in the world in an unpretentious working town; swimming every day in the ocean; and reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s critique. What more could you possibly want? There’s no other place quite like it.

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2012 June 045 (Newcastle)b

Some more pictures from our hike yesterday on a section of the Great North Walk – the last part that runs along some of the beaches around here.

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I’m not sure about this one. It was made for a children’s program called ‘Histeria!’ which ran from 1998 to 2000. Are there comparable efforts out there for worthwhile children’s shows and picture books?

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A curious angle on my new project: Embalming our Leaders. This one is an under water museum of leaders in Olenevka, Crimea. It includes Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Zinovyev, Dzerzhinsky, Kirov, Voroshilov, Gorky, and others. Specific picture here and here.

(ht sk)

I arrived in Berlin, just in time for Fest der Linken, but this was prefaced by a sign in a railway station toilet:



Ah yes, the spirit of the DDR lives on. In Rosa Luxemburg Platz, Die Linke and many communist groups from other parts of Europe were present:


There was an old friend:


He eventually went home, to bed in a local left-wing terror nest:


But then, Germans will be Germans … I happened upon this in the next toilet I visited:


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