E. Belfort Bax

Religion and Labour

(19 February 1920)

E. Belfort Bax, Religion and Labour, Justice, 19th February 1920, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

A congress was held some months ago to consider the attitude of the rising power of Labour to Religion, in which various notabilities of the religious, Labour and political world took part.

It was hardly to be expected, we suppose, that the various religious sects should not make an attempt to “nobble” the Labour Party. By religion, these sects naturally understand the Christian religion in some form or shape. Now, if by religion be meant an ideal aim of social life and conduct, I am far from ignoring the need for the formulation of such an ideal as concerns Socialism – regarded as the goal of the Labour movement. But the attempt of Christian sects and sentimentalists to pour the wine of political economic and social striving into the old Christian bottles of individualistic soul saving is another matter altogether. The “Daily News” remarked on this point not long ago that, “Many persons” deemed that power of Labour must evolve its own religious ideal apart from all extraneous influences. That such is the true view of the matter I regard as incontestable. And I further hold that it is the duty of Socialists to guard the movement from becoming infected with what I regard as the false idealism of the Christian faith in all its forms.

Time to Speak Out

The time has come, I think, to speak out clearly on this issue. The Christian faith and it professors are loth to regard themselves as beaten. Driven from their clerical and dogmatic positions of yore, they are taking their stand on the ground of ethics and hero worship. It is surely important, harmless as this attenuated form of the Christian religion may appear to many, to oppose it equally with the dogmatic forms now beginning to “pale their ineffectual fire”, if we are to clear our minds of cant. Labour generally, and more especially the Socialist Party, has to work its own religious, in the sense of idealistic salvation altogether apart from old shibboleths out of its own innermost soul, and all harping upon superannuated catchwords and prejudices derived from bourgeois religious sentiment is an inevitable hindrance in this process of self-development.

The tendency of certain speeches at the Conference of Religion and Labour referred to undoubtedly points in the above direction whether we regard them as subtle devices of the enemy of evil intent or merely as the expression of the washy sentimentalism of narrow, if honest, minds.

Let us first of all take the somewhat stale denunciations of “materialism” which play so considerable a part in some of the speeches in question. Now “materialism” is an ambiguous word, and of this fact the partisans of current religion are not slow to take advantage.


“Materialism” may either mean low or sordid aims as opposed to higher idealistic and altruistic ones money-grubbing, profiteering, the sinking of the human soul in mere selfish gratification, or the pursuit of gain – or it may mean a philosophical theory of the world intrinsically opposed to the theological outlook on the said world. Now these two meanings of “materialism” have nothing whatever in common with each other. The one stands for a mode of life and conduct, the other for a theory of the universe. But it is the trick of the popular Christian controversialist to mix up these two meanings of “materialism” and thus to keep the term swimming in vagueness, so they may appeal first to one sense in which it is used, and then to the other. If hard pressed they will perhaps trot out the time honoured but impudent falsehood that the one leads to the other.

In other words, they will imply that the materialist Communard of Paris in 1871, who as he expressed it, sacrificed his life on the barricade for “human solidarity” or the partisan of Russian freedom of the late nineteenth century, the Kropotkins, the Bourtzeffs, equally materialistic in their theory of the world, were sordid creatures of low aims compared with the lordly squire of high degree who is a pillar the Church of England or the Nonconformist manufacturer or shopkeeper who may be heard singing Christian hymns at his local Nonconformist tabernacle. Every impartial man with any knowledge of history must recognise the fact that while of course you can have men of high aims and unselfish conduct on both sides, yet if there is any difference it is in favour of those who hold the materialist theory of the universe. For human instincts and devotion to social well-being, the “religious” man has proportionately, with all his belief in Divine Providence, not shown up favourably as against the frank and outspoken “materialist”.

Hypnotism of Tradition

There is another point which the hypnotism of tradition has engraved on the mind of men and which is in the interests of truth and the expulsion of cant from our midst it is time to call attention to. It is the notion of perfection ascribed to the figure portrayed in the Gospels as that of the founder of Christianity. We may here leave out of account the controversy now raging concerning the historical reality of the figure itself. I am content to take the character as portrayed – it matters not whether it be wholly mythical, partly mythical or what not – and to challenge those who dilate on its unsurpassed beauty and excellence to give a reason for their ecstatic lucubrations on the subject. We have here to do with two things, the teaching and the life as professedly recorded. As regards the first it is a common place now among scholars that there is not a single principle, or precept, contained in the Gospels that had not been previously enunciated by either Buddhists, Confucians, Parsees, Jewish Rabbis, or Greek thinkers – in short, that the much belauded moral teaching of the Gospels is a crude mass of plagiarism from beginning to end. Now I must confess personally to having an old fashioned prejudice against the appropriation without and acknowledgment of the thoughts of other men and to those who are guilty of it, and I imagine there may be others who, when the facts are placed before them, will share my view.

The Socialist Movement Must Have Its Own Ideal

We come now to the life of the character as portrayed, whether real or fictitious. Now, I ask, apart from the hypnotism of convention and tradition, whether anyone reading the New Testament candidly can truthfully say that, in the isolated and somewhat thin delineations of a personality there depicted, he can discover any superlative excellence placing it (say) above the best of his contemporaries. “Justice” is not the place to discuss this matter in detail. It is sufficient here, for my purpose, to leave the matter in the hands of any honest investigator.

I can only say for myself that I can find persons who have worked in our own Socialist movement, who have never boasted that they were “meek and lowly of heart,” or pressed upon public attention their difficulties in obtaining a night’s lodgings, whom I can personally admire much more than the belauded Gospel figure. This may be, after all, a matter of taste but my object in introducing the subject here is to urge upon the Labour and Socialist movement that it should clear its ideal of this particular “taste” which seems to me so strongly to savour of cant. Their ideal has au fond, no more to do with the Gospel teaching than it has with the Buddhist scriptures or the cult of Mithras. Let us hope that Socialism will not rest content to harp back upon the stale formulae of “creeds outworn” but will work out its own conception of man’s place as a social being in the universe.

[We print the above article as an expression of our comrade Belfort Bax’s opinion. We do so in view of certain writers on Socialist and labour questions who are contending that the grace of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ are an essential foundation for the Labour movement. – ED J.]


Last updated on 28.5.2007