We are used to hearing that the twentieth century was the most secular period in human history. This is not entirely true. In fact, it may have been the most religious century ever. Only 25 years ago, every child living in a communist country was taught, from the moment he or she entered the school system until the day he or she graduated, that there was an all-powerful, infallible Party and leader who were the saviours of humanity and the emanation of goodness.
The communist and nationalist regimes of the last century created truly religious state systems, shaped by powerful ideologies and personality cults. Yet despite the titanic efforts of the ruling elites and the modern techniques of propaganda, Bolshevik Communism and German Nazism were the least effective and short-lived religious systems that have ever existed. In this sense, it is true - they were worldly, temporal movements.
One of the forgotten now-gods of that era was Vladimir Ilich Lenin, whose embalmed body is still on display (if not for worship, at least as a tourist attraction) in a mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square. It is interesting to know how Lenin, the founder of the first communist state, perceived religion. Roland Boer, a research professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia, has recently published a book entitled "Lenin, Religion, and Theology", which reveals what the Bolshevik leader thought about religion and how he was made an object of worship and veneration after his death.
For Lenin, Boer writes, religion was simply an ideology that reflected the economic and political conditions of society. His understanding of faith was not very different from the classic Marxist view of religion as the "opium" of the people. Religion, Lenin believed, was both a medicine for the oppressed against the suffering of exploitation and a means of spiritual oppression in the hands of the oppressors. It had a Janus face - neither entirely good nor entirely evil.
The ambiguity of religion was a source of difficulty in his dialectical framework of thought, so in his writings he never dared to go beyond the view that the Church and the clergy were part of the ruling classes, an extension of the Tsarist regime that had killed his brother Sasha. For this reason, in Lenin's revolutionary programme, the destruction of religion was an important element and prerequisite for the success of the revolution.
Lenin was a pragmatic man and a skilled polemicist, and Boer explains that despite his generally negative view of religious belief, he often used religious language to win an argument, condemn an enemy or inspire an audience. Moreover, Lenin's character was not as cold as the historical materialism he preached. Boer writes that his optimism was irrepressible, akin to the optimism of a man of faith. "There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation," Lenin used to say.
Lenin was a political revolutionary, but he was not a militant atheist. In fact, he accepted Christians as members of the party, used parables in his writings and speeches, and was interested in the practices of marginal Christian groups such as the Old Believers, Dukhobors, Molokans and Mennonites. His friend Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, who spent a year in the Canadian wilderness with a group of Russian Dukhobors, said that when Lenin read the papers of these "sectarians," he once exclaimed: "How interesting! This was written by simple people... while our private lecturers have written a huge amount of talentless papers on all sorts of philosophical bullshit... These manuscripts are a hundred times more important than all their scribblings". Moreover, in Lenin's close circle of political associates, the overt political idealists and Christian socialists were not a fringe group. The so-called "God-builders," a group of passionate revolutionary intellectuals who believed that communism would materialize the religious ideal of a just society, had influence within the party. The most prominent of these were the writer Maxim Gorky and the poet, intellectual, and, after the revolution, "First Commissar of Enlightenment" Anatoly Lunacharsky.
Boer notes that in Lenin's most influential text, "What Is to Be Done?," we discover the key organizing principle of the Bolshevik politics—the resolute action—clothed in the symbolic language of Scripture. In this essay, Lenin twisted the parable of the wheat and the tares from the Gospel of Matthew to explain the uniqueness of the Bolshevik vocation."Our task is to fight the tares," he wrote, "By pulling up the tares, we clear the soil for the wheat." In contrast to the biblical story where God spares the tares to save every single grain, the revolutionary vanguard was advised to act despite the loss of innocent lives. In Lenin's dialectical materialism, even with the help of biblical metaphors, patience and the peaceful coexistence of opposites were unthinkable.
Membership in the Bolshevik Party was open to religious people, Boer said, but their religious beliefs had to remain private. The primacy of the "materialist" collective conscience of the proletariat had to be respected. This was because Lenin was convinced that Christian meekness did not contribute to the success of the revolution. He believed, for example, that people like Tolstoy asked the right questions but gave the wrong answers. For him, Tolstoy's Christianity was simple spirituality, his pacifism inadequate. According to Boer, Lenin saw in the writer's ideas and way of life "nostalgia rather hope, retreat rather than advance, communal life rather than revolution."
Known as a man of action, Lenin surprisingly intended to destroy Christianity gradually, through education, not revolutionary force. Himself a man of faith (the faith of the communist revolutionary), he perhaps sensed that pressure does not defeat believers, but radicalizes them. Thus, after the October Revolution, he approved the appointment of Anatoly Lunacharsky as Minister of Education. Lunacharsky was an old comrade from Lenin's émigré years in Europe. Before the revolution, he published a book, "Religion and Socialism," in which he argued that the communist spirit had much in common with the spirit of early Christianity. Luncharsky sincerely believed that Christianity was a positive force in history, second only to Marxism. His treatment of religion was very similar to that of Ludwig Feuerbach--God was a creation of human imagination, a necessary ideal for the achievement of human greatness.
Lenin's political instinct proved correct in choosing Lunacharsky as his chief educator. Lunacharsky had a religious insight and was "drown towards the future," in the words of Lenin, "with his all being." Only a man of religious insight and irrepressible optimism could enter the sanctuary of the Russian soul. After the death of the Bolshevik leader, Lunacharsky, as a member of the Immortalization Commission, was one of the main organizers of the embalming of Lenin's body; he was one of the main creators of Lenin's personality cult.
In 1921, Lenin said, "In certain respect, a revolution is a miracle." Ironically, he was the last man to believe in miracles. Lenin, the political opportunist and the shrewd pragmatist, was convinced that everything was the result of objective forces, often unexpected, but natural. Boer says that Lenin did not trust the opinions of his proto-Christian Communist colleagues too much, considering them "idealists," but he knew how to use them, even after his death.
At Lenin's funeral, Lunacharsky gave a speech in which he said that a hundred years after the revolution, people "will not have known a more exalted, a more sacred era than the days of the Russian Revolution. In the same speech, Lunacharsky called Lenin "the man with a capital letter." Now we know he was wrong. Today, only a handful of people remember the "Great October Revolution." But Lenin's political logic is still valid: in a sense, after seventy-four years of existence, the failure of the Soviet communist state and religion was a miracle - unexpected, but natural.