Is communism a religion or not

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"Opium for the intellectuals"

Friedhelm Lövenich to Michail Ryklins "Communism as Religion"

Capitalism is bursting. In view of the prevailing financial crisis, this is probably what some people thought - or hoped: Some particularly hopeful people had already started the Jubilee ’. With the exploding credit and stock market bubbles and the collapsing economy, Marx is now enjoying another boom, who prophesied such a thing. At the time, eighty years ago, during the global economic crisis, which is currently quoted every day, some people thought that capitalism was at its end and then turned to Marx and communism at the latest. Among them were Western intellectuals who visited the Soviet Union not too long after the October Revolution to get an idea of ​​the conditions there and to report on it: sympathetic revolutionary correspondents who believed in communism as a world-changing force when they arrived. Ryklin's book deals with both: believing intellectuals and communism as their religion.

Michail Ryklin, the philosopher who was born in Saint Petersburg in 1948 and currently lives in Berlin, has already dealt with the situation in Soviet and present-day Russia in several writings; With “Communism as Religion” he is now presenting his most recent work, which focuses on the period between the two world wars. In three chapters Ryklin first addresses the religious structure of communism, then the attitude of individual Western authors to the Soviet Union; a short epilogue on today's post-communist Russia concludes his book.

Lenin around 1920
Interpreting ‘communism as religion’ is not an easy game with words, because combinations of terms from the field of the political and religious to characterize such tendencies and strategies make perfect sense and have been used at an early stage; It is well known that Marxism already offers a salvation-historical perspective and derives its attractiveness from this. Ryklin therefore speaks of "secular religion" - a term used by Raymond Aron - or of the "sacralization of the apparatus and the party leader", with good reason.

Paradoxically, as Ryklin first shows, ‘communism as religion’ is dependent on the denial of God as one of the philosophical foundations of materialism; Ryklin calls this, alluding to Nietzsche, "the birth of religion from the spirit of atheism". For for Bolshevism communism and religion are absolutely incompatible: Lenin regards his way of communism as a final detoxification of religion, as a deliberate disillusionment; for the creator of Leninism, not only Christian politicians, but also - or even to a greater extent - believing communists or even those who link the communist utopia and that of the New Testament, are considered political enemies.

This does not only apply to theory: Bolshevism is, according to its understanding, politics without metaphysics, and even more so religious. But it is precisely this, so Ryklin, that prepares the ground for the disgrace of communism; because in this way politics itself takes the place of what had offered people consolation and hope in previous history: the promised immortality of the soul and thus a meaning in life beyond simple physical survival until death. The sphere of transcendence, which is connected with the idea of ​​deity, is missing here and is replaced by a pure immanence: an inner-worldly ’life without God; Nevertheless, it is precisely the fundamental theory of Bolshevism that operates: historical materialism, on the basis of a salvation-historical dimension comparable to Christianity, which is heading towards the end of history as this worldly paradise.

Stalin around 1942
But it is precisely that in this inner-worldly orientation he rejects the transcendence: the sphere of the divine, leads to the fact that Bolshevism - unlike Christianity - no longer distinguishes between what is the emperor and what is God; instead, as in the Roman state religion, but also in Italian fascism and German National Socialism, Emperor and God coincide. Inevitably, because in view of the absence of God, his place is taken by the ‘high priest’ as leader himself, who can now claim godlike veneration as well as infallibility.

In particular, this claim to sole representation, the claim to be able to give one correct and only this answer to all questions and the associated harsh rejection of all other theories as 'ideological' appears to Bertrand Russell, as Ryklin shows, as one of the most striking stigmata of communism, which disenchant its self-declared scientific nature and expose it as a religion. Precisely because it acts as a ‘science’, communism is twisting more and more into mere belief, whose dogma is defended with violence against alleged or real enemies.

Ryklin does not, however, see communism, as has often been emphasized, a "substitute religion" that represents a practicable alternative to Christianity, which has fallen victim to the secularization that is taking place in modern times, to Weber's "disenchantment of the world"; Rather, it is itself a veritable religion and not just a substitute, since the 20th century only produced religions ’without a hereafter, which believers nevertheless joyfully followed, as they provided just as much meaning for them as the traditional religions of earlier times.

By 'substitute religion', Ryklin, who did not develop this more thoroughly - as one would have wished for - to understand an ideology that is adopted for reasons of compensation in order to fill the gap in the meaning of the 'real' religion, which is a direct substitute for religion ; The fact that this new worldview then represents a "substitute religion" for someone is based on the fact that it takes on the same function for him that the "real" religion previously fulfilled, i.e. - as it is called in system theory - is functionally equivalent.

For Ryklin's designation of communism as a religion, however, it is important that it - like National Socialism - explicitly uses those forms that had characterized traditional religion. The reproach of religion against a worldview is therefore less interesting in relation to the theoretical framework than in the practical politics that is pursued day in and day out and 'domestically' pursues the goal of 'organizing' the masses, i.e. for the respective political goal of the day to stimulate and at the same time to calm: to calm down through 'revolutionary activity'

This emotionalized staging of politics takes the religious stage directions as a model and practices the same rites and ceremonies as the incense-waving preaching of God. Ironically - one is tempted to say, but the Soviet leaders were free of any self-irony - therefore ‘for reasons of propaganda and agitation’ many typical ecclesiastical forms of advertising and decoration are changing into those of Bolshevism.

In this way - this is the main thesis of Ryklin's book - the theological religion becomes political, ecclesiastical ‘pomp and circumstance’ becomes Soviet; the “opium of the people”, which according to Marx represents religion, remains, only now the people should no longer be intoxicated by dreaming on the distant hereafter, but on the future here. As a critique or as a model of interpretation, however, Ryklin's designation of ‘communism as religion’ has little power, since it does not distinguish it from other political religions; he himself expressly places it alongside fascism and National Socialism.

In addition, the question arises whether the adoption of those tricks and tricks of politics that religion 'invented' are not also found in other forms of politics than those mentioned: Are those of the existing democracies really so fundamentally different, or are they not also found here comparable, if perhaps not so extensively and theatrically staged 'events' and phenomena?

Communism, Ryklin argues with Raymond Aron, is also a religion because it does what a religion has to do: to give millions of people a reason to believe and thus a meaning in life that makes them the ultimate sacrifice, theirs own life, know how to empower. That sounds convincing, but it is also achieved by other theories and worldviews than communism; In this respect, all idea buildings in the sense of this criterion would be religions ’because they give meaning - in fact, even a philosophy that rejects‘ meaning ’.

After all, it is precisely this religious ’element: the lifelong meaning that guarantees the effectiveness and attractiveness of world views; without a foundation in the feelings of its followers, a political belief would probably have no disciples, even if some of them claim that they chose it purely on the grounds of reason. Ryklin, of course, also sees this: for him, the basis of allegiance to communism is not the scientific persuasiveness of Marxist teaching, but rather the passion: the hatred of capitalism and its social injustice, as well as the hope of overcoming this through communism.

In the mass rites and ceremonies, there is another similarity between religion and Bolshevism, which Ryklin cites: In both the same thing is sacrificed, namely the individual; the Communist Party, which Ryklin attested to be a military organization from the start, viewed people as “material” from which a bright future and a new person could be formed. In the interest of this goal she was ready to throw overboard what actually constitutes the emotional bond with communism: the insistence on morality in politics and history; The communists, according to Ryklin, “wanted to eradicate the basis of all coexistence in people themselves: the moral principle”, which - precisely in the interests of higher morality - would be destroyed by the denunciations promoted by the CP and the political police.

The Bolsheviks destroyed morality for morality's sake, just as the way the Church has acted in history contradicts her own theology and its moral claims. Apparently, according to Ryklin, they could only imagine a political opponent as an enemy who had to be fought unconditionally, irreconcilably and by all means, legal and illegal, moral and immoral - although there could be no immorality on their side in their view of the world they always saw themselves on the side of progress and humanism. Ryklin aptly calls this “party manichaeism”: The world for Bolsheviks is black and white, terror in this worldview is almost inevitable, indeed logical and necessary.

So why were enlightened intellectuals from Western Europe so fond of the Soviet Union?

It is all the more interesting to ask why enlightened left-wing religious-critical intellectuals from the European West were so impressed by a political culture that had replaced the utopian Christian content with utopian communist, but also in an extremely embarrassing manner in its design understood everyday political practice - not to mention terrorism; precisely what the left-wing intellectuals attacked in religious practice seemed to embroider them in Bolshevik practice.

Unfortunately, the promise made by the publisher in the advertising text that the "most important task of the book" is to explain the reasons for the fascination of Westerners with the October Revolution is not fulfilled: Ryklin tries to show how their Soviet experiences were taken up and processed, but gives little information about the reasons for their - at least original - enthusiasm and their belief in the religion of Bolshevism.

One of these reasons can be found in the social upheavals of the twenties in Europe: the middle classes in the Weimar Republic suffered massive and severe impoverishment as a result of the global economic crisis; for many of its members in Germany, especially for the intellectuals, the decision between Communists and National Socialists was now an obvious choice. The Jewish among them had absolutely no choice here: They often followed the words of comrades Lenin and Stalin and fled to the Soviet Union after 1933, where many of them died in the camps, to which they escaped from the concentration camps had believed escaped.

In addition, as Arthur Koestler attested, the motive was the “self-hatred of the bourgeoisie”, which was made even worse by the steadily deteriorating economic situation of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals; Communism appears as a double way out: Just as the commitment to the proletariat contributed to the healing of the spiritual wound that had opened up through the violation from the previous class, so it also helped to new life energy through the commitment to a form of society that wanted to abolish that caused the misery.

According to Ryklin, Soviet communism was so attractive to Western intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s because they, the bourgeois bourgeois haters, viewed the October Revolution as the destruction of the bourgeois - just as the French Revolution had once overturned the feudal; in the process they went: the intelligent and educated, who immediately saw through every ideological nonsense of capitalism, the propaganda of the Bolsheviks hard on the glue.

Former Western reporters who witnessed the October Revolution had, according to Ryklin, often even justified the terror; “Those in love with the Soviet Union” had also indirectly supported the Stalinist policy of terror with their hymns of praise and were thus complicit in it, as were right-wing conservative thinkers of the Weimar Republic in the concentration camps; some have also actively supported the extermination of political opponents in Russia, such as George Bernard Shaw.

Even Arthur Koestler, who later became so critical, stated that at the beginning of his commitment to the Communist Party he was convinced that the Soviet Union was in a “state of grace”. Therefore Ryklin diagnoses with Jacques Derrida, to whom the book is also dedicated, a moment of religious devotion to Bolshevik politics among intellectuals who were looking for what Gide called a new 'adopted home', a place to which they left their hearts which was becoming more and more painful in the rapidly Americanizing Western Europe. When they returned to their country of origin, some people like Nicos Kazantzakis, the author of ‘Alexis Sorbas’, had a glimpse of Western Europe, to whom it appeared to be the center of decadence.

When they entered the Russian Revolution, the revolutionary tourists from all over the world mostly did not see it as a national one, but as the beginning of an international, even universal one, which would finally sweep away the masters of all countries. What happened here, according to the guests, was only the overture for the worldwide revolutionary opera, whose - mostly, but not always - enthusiastic reviews they now intended to write. Their pilgrimage pursued the goal of being able to observe the historical change ‘live’, and that with sympathy for the actors; Convinced of the ‘historical achievements of Soviet Russia’, the sympathizers traveled with great naivety to the holy land of the revolution; however, if they did see for themselves, most of them were disappointed in some ways.

Ryklin examines the reaction to the experiences in the Soviet Union in the reports of Bertrand Russell, Walter Benjamin, André Gides, Arthur Koestler, Lion Feuchtwangers and Bertolt Brechts. The authors discussed visited the Soviet Union at different times between the wars and experienced different epochs in the development of Soviet society, which of course led to partly contradicting attitudes and conclusions. Of the authors examined here, Russell, Koestler, and Gide are very critical of the goal of their pilgrimage; Brecht, on the other hand, behaves naively and apologetically, according to Ryklin, Feuchtwanger glorifyingly approving and Benjamin sympathizing and alienating - what it means that it is precisely the German authors who are less critical is not explained.

According to Ryklin, Brecht, unlike the vast majority of Western adorants, was not even impressed by the Moscow show trials or by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which put the rest of many other communist alumni in his admiration for the Soviet Union. Bertrand Russell, on the other hand, the skeptic licked by British empiricism and pragmatism, did not turn a blind eye to the failures of the Soviet adventure despite his sympathy for communism: as early as 1920 he attested to Bolshevism as having failed as a communist experiment and only the map of power and the associated oppression to play against your own people.

Ryklin notes that these Russia enthusiasts apparently had little empirical knowledge in the Soviet Union themselves, often helped by their ignorance of Russian, which prevented contact with the "common people"; unlike those who, during and after their visit, did not necessarily turn away from communism but turned away from the Soviet Union, they only had, as Ryklin puts it, "inadequate sensual experience with the new state power". Because, according to him, "there was (there) ... nothing that promoted the healing of the communist faith more sustainably than the harsh everyday Soviet life and the omnipresence of the political police".

In some places Ryklin lets an anti-communist and not just anti-Bolshevik wind blow between the lines - a distinction that may have been lost in the course of the collapse of communism ’; It is possible that in the former Eastern Bloc states with the poor historical result of communism the theoretical desideratum has also been dispensed with and has thus lost its power of differentiation. Throughout the entire book it is often not clear whether Ryklin makes a distinction between communism and Bolshevism: although he emphasizes the difference between the ideals of communism and their poor realization in Bolshevism, he assumes that communism generally has a totalitarian tendency in other passages.

For clarification, a passage seems helpful where Ryklin notes with Raymond Aron that the 20th century alone would have produced "transcendent," improper "religions, the most prominent of which is communism; but since this theory stems from the 19th century, when Ryklin uses the term communism, he seems to be referring to Bolshevism or the Soviet, Leninist variant of 'communism', which begins with the original Marxism - a term Ryklin seldom uses - has little more in common than the name.

One can only speculate about the purpose of this book and the author's concern; Ryklin himself says nothing about it, there is no foreword. As a literary or historical account of the ‘Reception of Soviet society by Western sympathetic observers’, the book is not detailed enough: more people would have had to be treated in more detail. Descriptions of the historical course of the treated epoch can already be found in abundance and are as comprehensive as they are in-depth. As a lecture on the subject of ‘Communism as a religion’, it is not new - but it does not pretend that either. It also does not contain an analysis of why the Soviet experiment failed, apart from the not exactly unusual indication that terror from above cannot create "new people" (178f.).

Ryklin may have written this book, which has not yet been published in Russia, not to teach us anything about Russia, but Russia about itself: about the nostalgia there, the longing for the 'greatness' of the old Soviet Union and the close proximity to it to undermine and counteract connected illusions about their nature. These phantasms have been used for some time by the ruling politics in Russia - presumably quite deliberately in a united front with the Orthodox Church - to restore a strong nationalism and an associated great power politics, which is not only something that Putin-critical Ryklin, who himself had his own experiences with Russian state power had to make appears the wrong way.

Russia has apparently not yet started to come to terms with the past ’, with the scientific reappraisal of the crimes, especially of the Stalin era, in public; instead, as in post-war Germany, political struggles, ideological disputes and nationalist resentment prevail on this issue. Perhaps that is why Ryklin quite often quotes or refers to passages from the books of the authors examined that deal with the terrible situation of the suppression of opinion, the party dictatorship and terror in the Soviet Union.

In the final third chapter of today's Russian society, Ryklin, the member of the Moscow Academy of Sciences, issues a certificate of poverty: What the Soviet Union still had to offer at its end fell under the vultures, each of whom took possession of his piece from the carcass or bit out power, devoid of morality and conscience. It was precisely this early capitalist predatory behavior, according to Ryklin, that these "‘ Raffkes ’" enabled the transcendent atheism and the immoral and unsolidified denunciation from which, according to communist doctrine, the new, anti-capitalist man should have emerged; In addition, it seems to be a society that is becoming increasingly brutalized, since its motives for action such as revenge and retribution appear more plausible than moral concepts inspired by the desire for social justice.

Today's young Russians understand, it seems, the original meaning of communist hope: the utopia of a moral, socially just society, not even what they have in common with their contemporaries in the West. According to a survey, your knowledge of the person and work of Lenin is pathetic; Lenin is treated like a dead dog, which can only be saved from decomposition by the closely guarded secret of embalming his corpse in the mausoleum.

On the other hand, Russian society behaves differently with regard to Stalin, who is increasingly being built up as the consecrated figure of Russia and stripped of his crimes: They are denied or relativized, in some cases even justified - and this not by old communists, but by Orthodox priests. Stalin thus becomes a saint, the unacknowledged model of today's Russian policy; Ryklin attests to Putin that he wants to be a kind of successor to Stalin: he, too, simply ignores the constitution, which he celebrates in Sunday speeches, but gets around in day-to-day political business if he sees it necessary. Western visitors who are ideologically enthusiastic about it are not in sight. © Friedhelm Lövenich

Mikhail Ryklin
Communism as religion.
The intellectuals and the October Revolution
Translated from Russian by Dirk and Elena Uffelmann
Verlag der Welteligionen in Insel Verlag (Suhrkamp Verlag), Frankfurt am Main
ISBN-10: 3458710108, ISBN-13: 978-3458710103
192 pages, hardcover, Euro 17.80

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