In his book on the German Peasants’ War, Friedrich Engels observed that in a religious epoch, even revolutionary ideas have to be expressed in a religious rhetoric: the very thoughts which anticipate the future assume old forms. I was reminded of Engels’s remark when, last December, I attended a conference of Marxist sociologists of religion in Prague. The participants, nearly all of them from Eastern Europe, were troubled by the persistence of religion among the populations of the Communist countries. A few reacted dogmatically: as the case was put by one scholar from the German Democratic Republic who held to a rather narrow version of Marxism, if religion did not decline under socialism, then the Marxist theory would have to be considered false. Other participants who took a much more subtle, comprehensive, and comprehending view of religion in history (including their own recent history) did so in different Marxist terms. I believe that their utilization of Marxism to explore the social and spiritual realities around them may anticipate new developments in Eastern Europe.

Engels was writing, in fact, about the great Reformation theologian and Christian Communist, Thomas Muenzer, who died a horrible death at the hands of vengeful German (Protestant) princes for having taken seriously the doctrine of the Imminence of the Kingdom in early Protestant theology. My colleagues at Prague were sociologists and philosophers, not theologians, and none spoke directly against his own princes. Yet some of the things they said in the course of the meeting reflected deep changes in Eastern Europe, and these may very well portend new developments in other spheres—not least in politics.

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Ever since the end of Stalinism, the Communist parties of Eastern Europe have been seeking a modus vivendi with the populations they rule. Janos Kadar’s bon mot, “all who are not against us are with us,” typifies one prevalent attitude. The peoples of Eastern Europe cannot yet be described as enthusiastic about socialism in its Eastern European version. A less hostile and more sophisticated view of the religious beliefs and communities to which these peoples remain attached is a consequence of the new Communist awareness of this fact. It is true that the Communists (or some of them) remain most hostile to religion where the churches have been strongest: above all, in Poland, where the Primate is about as stubborn as the General Secretary of the Communist party, both being old men who grew up in a different world; and in Germany, where the Protestant Church has been the one functioning all-German institution. In general, however, Eastern European regimes have now learned to distinguish between the political views of certain ecclesiastical leaders and the religious convictions of their peoples—if only the better to split the two. Indeed, the regimes have found some politically compliant churchmen, and there are groups of theologians (the most distinguished of whom are at the Comenius Faculty of Protestant Theology at Prague) who see no scriptural warrant for depicting Communism as the work of the devil.

In addition to setting off a general attempt at discussion between Christians and Marxists, the demise of Stalinism has also entailed the development of empirical social research in the Eastern European Communist countries. Instead of deducing the contours of reality from a few exceedingly primitive political postulates, Communist parties and governments have begun to rely on social inquiries and occasionally on broader sociological analyses. In some countries, such inquiries and analyses were first undertaken by politically courageous thinkers (like Djilas and others) who had a clear revisionist intent—to demonstrate that the official picture of reality was grotesquely untrue. There seems, however, to be a law at work in both East and West by which ideas and techniques originally meant to create new social possibilities serve only to consolidate old ones. Empirical social inquiry in our own societies was devised as an instrument of social reform; it has become very largely another piece of administrative technology. The same thing seems to be happening, in a much more compressed period of time, in Eastern Europe. Ten years ago, “sociology” was a politically dubious term in much of Eastern Europe: it evoked fears of the penetration of “bourgeois science.” (We may define “bourgeois science” as science done by bourgeois professors who are not Marxists.) Today, Communist parties and governments alike look with great favor on sociology. As for “bourgeois science”—speaking of the intense interest shown by his colleagues in sociology in the work of Talcott Parsons, a “revisionist” Czech philospher told me with some feeling that “if this goes on, Marxism in eighteen months will become a revolutionary doctrine again.”

At any rate, the scholars who met in Prague were interested in developing an empirically grounded sociology of religion from a Marxist point of view. They had met together once before, at Jena in Germany, the university which gave Karl Marx his doctorate. I have termed them scholars, and the description is exact: most were teachers at universities or research workers at the Academies of Science in their respective countries. There was a professor of the sociology of religion from the German Democratic Republic, Olaf Klohr, even if his chair was designated as the “Lehrstuhl für wissenschaftlicher Atheismus” (Chair of Scientific Atheism). There were also two or three publicists from party institutes for the struggle against religion; even they acknowledged the necessity for an empirically founded approach to religion, and indeed the institute attached to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party has actually conducted sociological research on a large scale. My own presence was accounted for by my position as secretary of the International Sociological Association’s Committee on the Sociology of Religion. Actually, there had been certain hesitations about inviting me, but these probably had less to do with my status as a “bourgeois” scholar than with the fact that I was known in some Eastern European countries as a “neo-Marxist.” What, precisely, this may mean, and whether or not it is true, in parts of Eastern Europe the accusation is a grave one.

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The conference, and particularly the lively spontaneous discussions of the prepared papers, made national differences among the participants very evident—differences which resulted from local intellectual traditions, the particular shape of the problem of religion in the various countries, and the degree of intellectual freedom permitted by the individual regimes.

The Bulgarians, for example, were quite rigid intellectually, and I must confess that I did not always sense that they followed the contributions of some of the others with sympathy, or even with total comprehension. The Czechs, our hosts, were there in large numbers (some fifteen, whereas there were only three or four from, each of the other countries). Czechoslovakia at the moment enjoys a considerable amount of intellectual freedom, and the Czech contributions showed this: they were direct, even blunt, and did not circumvent real problems with empty formulations. The East Germans were solid and thorough, precisely like scholars from the other German state. They came, however, from working-class families in a society in which workers’ children had rarely gone to the universities in ages past. Not surprisingly, their Marxism coincided almost exactly with the Marxism of the German Social Democratic party in the Wilhelminian Empire. It was a doctrine of the sovereignty of applied science, in which socialism was reason triumphant. By contrast, the Hungarians evinced great imagination and subtlety: their group included Ivan Varga, who is a pupil of Georg Lukacs and has inherited the critical humanism which is the best side of his teacher. The Polish group was divided between scholars from the Academy of Sciences and anti-religious publicists.

The Soviet participants were extraordinary. Fully in possession of their own intellectual tradition, they seemed also to have recaptured the long Russian tradition of mastery of Western thought. About the Yugoslavs, finally, little need be said. In that country, Marxism is not obligatory in the universities: one of the Yugoslavs present struck me as a positivist and rationalist. When the Yugoslavs do work with Marxism, they often make something interesting of it.

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The conference went on for three days, in what was once the chapel of a Franciscan cloister, now converted into the headquarters of the municipal Communist party. (The building is next to the old Opera House, where Mozart himself conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni.) There were Baroque religious paintings on the ceiling, and stern busts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Gottwald stared fixedly at us from the front of the room. The discussion returned to a number of central themes which were systematically—I am inclined to say dialectically—interrelated. The findings of a number of research projects pointed to the difficulties of a Marxist interpretation of religion under Marxist regimes. Discussion of such difficulties soon enough turned into a reexamination of the moral experience of these societies.

The sessions began, straightforwardly enough, with a lucid exposition by our chairwoman, Dr. Kadlecova of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. She had studied the religious consciousness of a group of her compatriots, in a locality in which religious affiliation was still rather strong. Among those who said that they were religious, nominal adherence to the Church and traditional ritual participation far outweighed deep inner conviction; the belief in immortality, or in the divinity of Jesus, was conspicuously absent from their affirmations. Seventy-five per cent of her sample, however, said that religion was a means to master life. They consciously saw religion, in other words, as an instrument of adaptation and were therefore outside the religious experience or historically past it. These results, of course, correspond almost exactly to those found in many Western countries.

Professor Ugrinovtisch of the Lomonosov University in Moscow was the next speaker. A humorous and sympathetic scholar who had impressed many of the Western scholars at the World Congress of Sociology in France in September by the suppleness and sharpness of his mind, Ugrinovtisch suggested that studies in the Soviet Union yielded much the same findings as those of Dr. Kadlecova. I was reminded that at the World Congress of Sociology, Ugrinovtisch had insisted that religion was strongest in the Soviet Union among those least integrated into Soviet society: older persons, rural communities relatively untouched by urban currents. At Prague, however, he added some new dimensions to his argument. He held that there were secular or non-religious, indeed even anti-religious, cultic and ritual observances in socialist society; ritual alone, therefore, was not necessarily connected with religion. What he intended was to support his contention that studies of religious comportment by itself were meaningless—we had to study the psychological and spiritual content of religious beliefs. What in fact he did was to raise the vexed question of the spiritual status of civic belief in the socialist societies. For the moment, this passed unremarked; the participants argued about other matters.

Dr. Kadlecova pointed out that an ideal community had not yet been constructed under socialism. In the circumstances, she felt it justified to ask if there were social grounds for the continuance of religion, in some form, in socialist society. Ugrinovtisch carried this argument further. He described as “an old dualism” the view that men controlled their own destinies under socialism but did not do so under other social systems. We required concrete inquiries into the precise degree of control over the social process exercised by specific individuals and groups. To begin with, we already knew that in socialism some individuals could exert far more influence on the social process than others. These remarks seemed to be unexceptionable, yet they quickly led to controversy. Professor Klohr, from Germany, strenuously denied that religion and what he called a high degree of educated consciousness could coexist. Klohr and his colleagues proceeded to present statistics which showed, to their satisfaction at least, that religion declined as socialism advanced.

The East German researches rested on the assumption that there is nothing universal about religion, or about human consciousness in general. Indeed, neither religion nor atheism was a primary form of consciousness: both, rather, were derivatives of more fundamental modes of thought. The sources of these, in turn, were in class relationships and the relationships of production. Atheism arose when a materialistic view developed, quite spontaneously, as a result of social changes which increased society’s conscious power over social and natural processes. It followed, the East Germans insisted, that there had to be a sociology of religion specific to socialist societies: the identical categories could hardly deal with religion in different social systems.

The evidence they introduced to support these contentions did not entirely convince many of their colleagues. Klohr and his group found, to be sure, that many with religious convictions had a “progressive” (by which they meant positive) attitude to the East German state. But they also insisted that those who were most engaged in “constructive” social activity were most remote from religion. I found their mode of inference curiously devoid of psychological penetration: they seemed to care little about what people thought, and even less about what they felt, and to concentrate on what they said. “Socialist” science in this case was rather like the more backward sectors of “bourgeois” research. In one respect, however, it was true to old traditions in classical sociology. August Comte enjoined the European elites after the convulsions of the French Revolution to use sociology as an instrument of domination. Klohr and his colleagues made their own aims quite clear: “The analysis of this entire complex . . . gives a further basis for a differentiated educational and pedagogic activity.”

The response to the German presentation was vigorous. Dr. Kadlecova declared that different categories were not needed for the same religious systems in the same cultural areas, despite political differences. This was an interesting way of insisting on the unity of European culture, an idea more Gaullist than “orthodox” Marxist. Varga of Hungary doubted that the actual content of religious beliefs was different in the different types of society. The East German categories, he continued, referred to the sociology of politics and not of religion: he doubted that it was useful to make the strengthening of socialism the direct aim of study. In any case, Hungarian inquiry had shown that young Catholics and young Communists were quite identical with respect to social engagement. Moreover, Varga observed, a materialist world-view did not always lead to positive social action. He did not elaborate on this point.

Klohr defended himself against his critics rather well. He noted that “bourgeois” sociology also dealt with the political correlates of religious conviction, that it too had shown that the same Christian convictions gave different results in different political contexts. I myself took the floor at this point, to say that the interpretation of Marxism as a doctrine of man’s mastery of nature and society with the aid of science and technology was not absolutely true to Marx’s philosophic intentions. We in America also had a doctrine of the use of science and technology for mastery of the human environment. Perhaps its most conspicuous current proponent was our secretary of defense, Mr. McNamara, himself a former professor of economics. (Many at the conference, if not our German colleagues, appreciated the point.) I also said that those who had the most radical and revolutionary ideas about society in the West were often theologians. “Theologians, perhaps, but the churches not. Socialism is always the doctrine of the working class,” objected Klohr. “In America,” I responded, “socialism is more likely to be found in seminaries of Protestant theology or in the universities generally than in trade unions.”

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The argument about the fate of religion in Eastern Europe quickly touched upon a critical theme: the persistence of an alienated human condition under socialism. Alienation, in the early writings of Marx, was the stunted and unfulfilled human condition which resulted from the subjugation of men to powers outside themselves. These powers were in fact the products of their own labor, but in the class society men could not enjoy the fruits of their labor. Rather, they were ruled over by them in the form of the laws of the market, and the coercive might of the state. In the sphere of consciousness, men were haunted by the phantasmagoria of their own minds: they made an eschatology of their unrealized yearning for fulfillment, and the idea of God expressed at once their desperate hope in the beneficence of a world become strange and their awful submission to it. Religion was therefore also a product of alienation.

The participants were aware that the term alienation has come in the West to cover practically every spiritual disease known to man. They were also fully conversant with the early Marxist texts, and they knew that until very recently, discussion of these as anything but youthful aberrations had been officially discouraged in Eastern Europe. The elimination of market relationships, or so the official doctrine went, rendered all talk of alienation gratuitous. This attitude, along with much else, has changed. Dr. Kadlecova declared directly that the future ought not to be confused with the present—alienation had not yet been eliminated from socialist society. Varga remarked that other forms of alienation besides the “fetishism of commodities,” perhaps political ones, could also account for the persistence of religion. “There are also in socialist society phenomena of alienated consciousness capable of evoking the so-called substitute religions.” He mentioned the mythologizing of technique as a religious substitute—which provoked an immediate protest from Klohr, who found the notion of substitute religion extremely dubious. Klohr went on to say that the class roots of religion had been eliminated in socialist society, and to deny that there was any religious continuity between capitalist and socialist society. Finally, an Austrian Marxist, Walter Hollitscher, objected that the present and future difficulties of life under socialism need not engender a recourse to religion.

In the end, historical developments may prove Hollitscher right. For the moment, he received little support from those at Prague who reported on psychological researches into religion in Eastern Europe. A Czech scholar said that despite the general decline in religious belief and feeling, sentiments of passive dependence and of homeless-ness in the universe persisted. His studies have shown that among students, those who sought a harmony unobtainable in their daily lives turned to religion. Another participant from Czechoslovakia, but this time a Russian lady who worked at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, noted that religion could be derived from hope as well as from anxiety. Ugrinovtisch concluded this part of the discussion by observing that there was no specifically religious psychology, only a general human one.

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The entire discussion was moved onto another plane by a second Soviet participant, Dr. Levada of the Academy of Sciences. Levada began by noting that Marx and Lenin had treated the economic roots of religion as fundamental, but not as the only ones. Religion was not simply a matter of social classes, and socialism was not just a global negation of the previous class system. Socialist society was undergoing a process of secularization which had to be compared to the same process in capitalist society. An entire culture was being secularized, certain values had become desacralized. Meanwhile, those affected by religious influences in the secularized culture were not always aware of the fact. Perhaps this was because the distinction between religious and non-religious rituals was not always clear. Sometimes, non-religious rituals had the same social function as the religious ones they replaced, even if the values attached to them were different. Levada found the entire discussion of alienation too general and abstract: we required studies of new forms of consciousness in socialist society before we could say whether these were religious or not. He himself did not think of the mythologizing of technique mentioned by Varga as religious, but simply as an illusory solution to social and psychological problems.

If I understood Levada correctly, he took the view that the antithesis of socialist society and capitalist society was too ahistoric to be of very much use. Rather, he proposed that the antithesis should be translated into specific terms for each social type before we generalized further about it. And he did insist on the common element in the religious situation across ideological frontiers.

Levada’s contribution did not quite evoke the discussion it merited, possibly because it moved in historical and spiritual dimensions otherwise touched at the conference only by his immediate colleague, Ugrinovtisch, and by Varga. I was genuinely surprised, however, that an excellent historical contribution by a Hungarian, Jozef Lukacs, produced almost no discussion at all. Lukacs presented a panoramic view of the difference between oriental and occidental religion, the one fatalistic and resigned, the other activistic and world-changing. “It would be an error, of the sort that occurs not only in propagandistic activity but also in scholarly work, to ignore this active element in Chrisitanity and to exaggerate the quietistic-contemplative element which is always present in religion, and it would be particularly an error to do so for the Western forms of Christianity.” Lukacs did not directly raise the possibility that Marxism might be thought of as descended, spiritually, from the more activistic elements in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The suggestion, however, was not very far from the surface of his paper. Indeed, many of the most interesting things about the Prague conference were not quite on the surface—but they were not very far below it either.

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What was said at the conference was important enough, and I have tried to give a sense of it. There were no visible constraints on our colleagues, and the discussion was quite free. The things which were not quite said bespoke an underlying movement of thought which has not yet been completed: a search for new general ideas, their outlines barely discernible but their substance still obscure. The constraints under which the participants labored, in other words, were inner ones: the difficulty of altering a set of assumptions, a fixed structure of thought. The contradictions, differences, and disputes at Prague, the schematism of some and the tentativeness of others, point to a new spiritual future in Eastern Europe. In trying to explain how, let me take four major areas of discussion.

The continuity of European culture, across all political boundaries, was very much emphasized at Prague. Our Czech chairwoman said quite explicitly that we lived in a comon culture, and the Soviet participants touched upon similar themes. The participants were familiar with religious tradition, and their familiarity was not the familiarity associated with contempt or the deep hostility born of fear. It would be vulgar (and, above all, wrong) to suppose that the dispute with China has suddenly brought Eastern Europe to the realization of its common heritage with Western Europe. Rather, the historical force of that heritage itself, the population’s stubborn attachment to it, the equally strong attachment of the intellectuals, have made another view of religion inevitable—following the removal of these questions from control by the police. A sense of the concrete, of national particularity, of the value of tradition: these are now emphasized by the Communist regimes as part of a new political strategy. (I would also say that these are values congenial to new Communist leaders well aware of the perversion of “internationalism” under Stalinism.)

The Jewish participants no less than the others seemed to share in this temper—although Jewishness, Judaism, and Jewish communal life in Eastern Europe were not discussed at the Prague conference. I have the impression, from other experiences in Eastern Europe, that a number of Jewish intellectuals in the Communist movement now identify themselves with things Jewish. It will be recalled that Professor Adam Schaff, member of the Central Committee of the Polish party, recently published a book which among other matters dealt with the problem of the continuation of anti-Semitism in Poland.1 At any rate, the situation of Judaism and the Jews in Eastern Europe is perhaps best understood in the light of newer developments in these countries.

The rather more explicit discussion of alienation under socialism entailed more delicate questions. If fifty years of socialism in the Soviet Union, and twenty years elsewhere, had not brought appreciable progress toward the end of alienation, then clearly second thoughts were in order. The possibility was broached at Prague that there may be forms of alienation peculiar to socialist society, but this possibility was not thoroughly explored. The participants tended to insist on the general human problems which socialism had not yet eliminated (and which it might not eliminate in the foreseeable future), rather than on oppressive elements in Eastern European socialism. They did, however, prepare for a thorough critique of the quality of life in socialist society—by showing that the persistence of religion, in some cases at least, had real roots in human distress.

The discussion of alienation was rather general, but the exploration of the question of secular derivatives of religion was somewhat more specific. The participants from the Soviet Union were quite prominent in this discussion: they came, after all, from a country which has a religious tradition rich in ritual and litany. I was glad to see that the Eastern European states were depicted as resting on psychological forces somewhat more subliminal than the insight of their citizens into the high degree of political perfection they had attained. The participants did not say that there were civic or state religions prevailing in Eastern Europe (religions which used the Marxist rhetoric without having much connection with Marxism in its original form). I myself find the notion of Marxism as a substitute religion very debatable: Marx intended to end a transcendental form of human thought in favor of a humanism immanent in the world. I do think that the Communist sociologists of religion are beginning to approach the terrain on which this debate has been conducted elsewhere. They will have to cross it before they can find convincing answers.

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Finally, I was struck by the repeated references at the conference to secularization as a universal process in Western culture. Some of the participants shared that nostalgia for the religious past of mankind which is so curious a part of the current discussion of the death of God, among the religious and non-religious alike. I wonder whether this aspect of the exchanges at Prague may refer, if obliquely, to Marxism as much as to Christianity. In the Constantine epoch, Christianity became a fixed part of the social order—and lost its prophetic qualities as a result. In due course, the social order itself began to dispense with Christianity. What of a Constantine epoch in Marxism? Having become a state doctrine, it has legitimated a system which seems no less problematical than those it has replaced—and in which the universal reign of justice and fraternity, reason and human sovereignty, seems remote. These are familiar enough ideas outside Eastern Europe, and familiar enough experiences inside it. The persistence of religion must strike many Marxists as not unlike the persistence of Marxism: a stubborn perseverance of a belief in a better world, despite the experience of a worse one.

This places the discussion of alienation at Prague in a somewhat different light. Talking about unfulfilled human needs under socialism, some of the participants may have been attempting to say that religion was but one historical solution to the absence of human fulfillment. Marxism may offer another—but not in its present, its own Constantine form. A rediscovery of other elements and possibilities in Marxism, perhaps related to the chiliastic tendencies in Christianity noted by one of the speakers, might offer an alternative to that official Marxism which has become a state doctrine. From a consideration of the fate of religion under state socialism, the Marxist sociologists at Prague were edged by the nature of the theme itself toward critical reflection on the fate of Marxism under their regimes. The process of reflection has begun, and although it is as yet tentative and usually covert, its continuation and enlargement is a certainty for the future.

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1 I have dealt with this book in an essay in the May-June issue of Dissent.

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