“Religion”, Karl Marx once said, “is the opiate of the masses”. Indeed, one of Marxism’s most famous maxims has also become one of the most misinterpreted. Marx did not mean that the practice of religion was toxic to society, rather he argued that faith was a means by which the people could alleviate themselves of their squalid conditions, and instead find hope and meaning in their otherwise bleak existences. This article will not discuss the existence of God, nor should it be seen as evangelistic propaganda – I am not particularly religious myself. I hope only to emphasize that Marx’s sentiment still carries weight and that religion, rather than the preserve of the right of the political spectrum, has offered profound inspiration to those on the left.
In a way, it is unsurprising that religion is now often seen as the bastion of social conservatism. Christianity has been championed by far-right groups such as Britain First and the Cornerstone Group – a loose alliance of traditionalist Conservative MP’s, espousing the Vichy France-style motto “Faith, Family, Flag”. Many religious leaders continue to denounce gay marriage. The theocratic regime in Saudi Arabia has become infamous for its violations of gender rights – women still require male permission before they can travel, obtain permits or undergo medical procedures. Around the world, religion has been used by those in the political sphere to justify everything from free market economics to war. It follows therefore, that religion and conservative political philosophy are extensions of one another. I would argue, however, that religion has been just as influential in the formation of left-wing ideas, as it has on the right.
It is true that there has long been a tradition amongst left-wing intellectuals to militantly reject religion. Mikhail Bakunin, a hero in anarchist circles, argued that the notion of a ‘god’ was an obstruction to an equal society free of all forms of hierarchy. The 20th century communist heavy-weights, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, presided over the systematic persecution of hundreds of thousands of religious people. More recently, the ‘Four Horseman of the Non-Apocalypse’ (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris) have become prophets of the New Atheism movement - a movement which is commonly associated with the political left. Indeed, you might begin to question whether the left has any room for religion at all.
Yet on the 13th March 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected by papal conclave to become the next Bishop of Rome and pope of the Catholic Church. The ascension of Pope Francis marked a seismic shift in the political dynamic of the Catholic Church. In contrast to many of his predecessors, Pope Francis has become a champion of wealth redistribution, gender equality within the Church and, remarkably, gay rights. The Dalai Lama too has become one of the most famous and well respected progressive voices on the planet – 9.8 million people at the time of writing tune into his twitter account for his periodic nuggets of wisdom. A self-declared Marxist, the Dalai Lama has also pledged his support for progressive movements around the globe, such as feminism and animal welfare. Zionists in Israel have even experimented with practical socialism. The Kibbutzim can be described as a realization of Marxist theory, incorporating leftist principles of equality, collectivised production and self-sufficiency into their communes. Veteran socialist Tony Benn listed Ghandi as one of the most inspiring figures in modern history. Ghandi, a devout Hindu, defined his own faith as the “search after Truth through non-violent means” – a philosophy which characterised his protest against British colonial rule. The principles of the left can be found in abundance in the sphere of religion.
It is perhaps easy to forget the contribution which religious teaching and practice has made to left wing ideology amidst the dogmatic rhetoric which many on the left espouse. The Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee wrote in his book Labour Party in Perspective, “I think that probably the majority of those who have built up the Socialist movement in this country have been adherents of the Christian religion”. It is undeniable that religion of all creeds has been a robust and constant source of inspiration to many on the political left throughout history, and while some will continue to dismiss it as an affront to humanist principles, it has had a marked influence on the development of left wing ideology.