Proletariat and Religion – Otto Bauer (1928)

[First published in Die Menschheitskämpfer on 14 February 1928. The problem of atheism was a very real one facing religious socialists; in the 1920s, thousands of workers were leaving the church every year.]

In atheism, in the denial of God by the proletariat, Christianity today faces its greatest and gravest fault. No evidence of the mistakes of the other side, and it may even be justified, may diminish the gravity of the fault. These ideas must be placed at the forefront of all discussions about the relationship of the proletariat and religion, because only such self-knowledge and confession open up the possibilities that let us participate in powerful humility, free from all self-righteousness, towards overcoming a condition which challenges the deeper meaning, and therefore the actual existence, of the proletarian movement.

Here, we are burdened by a common guilt, because just as we share the glowing renewal that entered the world from the life of the first Christians, we are also responsible for the failures of recent Christians. In spite of all confessional and dogmatic differences, Christianity is still an organic whole.

On what fact is this initial statement based? Simply this: that in the life of Christianity in the recent centuries, the old teaching of overcoming the world became a romantic fleeing from the world. God became too much a personality in the far-off eternity and too little a reality in this life. Of course we bear witness to a quality of God when we speak of his omnipresence but we fill the world with his presence, with his reality in the extent to which we are bringing down the forces of heaven to earth in our actions, our deeds, so to speak. The setting of our activity is this world and from the failure of Christianity in this regard, a sorrowful dualism has resulted: the duality of this life and eternal life, of the workday and Sunday, of prayer and labour, of soul and flesh, of worship and economy, politics. This is the explanation for the chaos of the present, for the domination of demonic forces in our time, for the Cainitic shame of our economic system.

The proletarian searches for traces of God in this economic system in vain. Every scientific proof of God, every remotely pastoral effort is shattered by this fact. Because God cannot be grasped by reason, he can only witnessed by life. “When someone asks you ‘Where is God?’, say ‘Here!’ and do a good deed.” The proletarian finds this religion of life so seldom, they are almost always faced with instructive, moralizing treatises, legal formulas and commandments. Laws and commandments which, because there is so little holy fire of practicing love to trace behind them, loom coldly and rigidly in a vicious reality. Thus the young, prophetic movement of the proletariat, which finds the “chosen” people in their deepest fall, smashes the tablets of the law, as Moses did when he discovered the Jews dancing around a golden calf. But they can only smash the tablets, not the law. They establish the law again, made anew in the painful way of their own life experience. This process of development belongs completely to the elemental from which the human soul is always stirred, when the dawn of a new age is preparing itself: the old, the inheritance that has become mere property is lost in order to become won again, renewed and rejuvenated.

In the demonstrated fall of Christianity from its true religiosity, its culpability for the areligious, God-denying tendency of the proletarian movement is revealed. But even this atheism and materialism is, as contradictory as it may sound, only a phase in the development of humanity to higher recognition of God and realization of God. In this development there’s never any going back, only a forwards march, and everything must serve it.

The Religious Situation of the Proletariat

The proletarian movement was ignited by the hardships of this life in our time and turned with fervor and energy to domination of this world in economy, politics and society. It did this with such exclusivity that there are not a few proletarians who see their religion in this work. It even has much in common with religion as the “hungry are fed” and the “thirsty are given drink”; it does not distinguish itself from practical Christianity. In this work lies the large common ground in which us religious socialists are united in one party with our freethinking comrades.

The exclusive concern of the proletarian movement with the shaping of this world and the discussed “transcendentalization” of Christianity makes it comparatively easy for the freethinking of the bourgeois world to gain a leading influence in the proletarian movement. It became an ersatz Religion, even an ersatz church. However, applying this relation between the proletarian movement and freethinking to the entire proletariat would be a terrible caricature that does not correspond to the facts. Firstly, large strata of the proletariat are not at all accounted for by the movement as a consequence of their lack of “class consciousness” and even in the collective proletariat, several groups with different attitudes to religion can be distinguished.

First of all, we can point to the numerically large group of proletarians who have no interest in religious and metaphysical questions because they are overwhelmed by the physical hardships in the hell of modern industry, in the scandal of urban living conditions.

The second group is the free-thinking industrial and urban proletariat that, although it does not coincide in numbers with workers covered by the socialist movement and rather lags considerably behind, its spiritual attitude nonetheless sharply rubs off on it.

Third is the group that is the largest in number, the church-going rural and urban proletariat. This is only in a small part covered by the socialist movement, for the most part, it stands outside of it, if not in opposing organisations.

The fourth group is formed of the “class conscious” organised proletariat, which is positioned  neither as freethinking nor anti-religious and sees its religious requirement fulfilled in its socialist activities in which naturally strong subconscious religious motives contribute.

And then there is a small group of conscious religious socialists, of whom we have only been able to count as a fraction.

That is of course an inadequate picture of religious groupings in the Austrian proletariat which clearly demonstrates that in the proletarian movement and therefore in the fate and the tasks of the conscious proletariat, the areligious and anti-religious forces have the leadership.

Our Way

It’s time to draw the implications for practical conclusions.

  1. Just like before, we must work with all our might towards the overcoming of social and economic misery in an organisational common ground with all comrades and therefore within the political, trade union and co-operative organisations of the socialist movement. Nevertheless, neither as hangers-on nor yesmen but in responsible collaboration.
  2. In the ranks of the proletariat which are still religiously oriented, we need to uncover the source of living religiosity buried under the junk of external forms and romantic escapism and makes its powers fruitful in the socialist movement.
  3. In the subconsciously religious proletariat, who find their religion in their socialist activity, it is through our actions and lives as individuals and as a whole that we raise this consciousness to its fulfilment. That is what Paul did with the Athenians: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
  4. But the aforementioned also includes our freethinking comrades. We must incorporate their spiritual poverty, their doubt, their denial into our own struggle for the recognition and realization of God.
  5. Hence, we have a message to the entire proletariat, not only those already organised. And this message is: socialism as the realization of religious forces in this world and the present.

[Translated by R. V.]