By William Safire
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature,” wrote Karl Marx, “the spirit of unspiritual conditions. It is the Opium des Volkes – the opiate of the people.”
Opium at that time in Germany was known mostly as a painkiller; Marx’s point was that religion deceptively eased the painful symptoms of the exploitation of labor by capital.
To bring on the revolution, religion’s succor had to be removed, allowing the working class to suffer until the pain was intolerable; at that point, the permanent cure would come from communism. Marx made that a top priority: “The first requisite for the people’s happiness is the abolition of religion.”
V.I. Lenin adopted that doctrine as the new gospel, and condemned any party members for what he derided as a dangerous “flirtation with God.”
Ever since, Americans have been denouncing “Godless communism.” Dwight Eisenhower said in 1950: “Hundreds of millions behind the Iron Curtain are daily drilled in the slogan: ‘There is no God, and religion is an opiate.’ But not all the people within the Soviet Union accept this fallacy; and some day they will educate their rulers, or change them.”
The education of Moscow’s atheists is under way. Under the Gorbachev policy of “controlled openness,” letters from Russians have begun to appear in the Soviet press like this: “Unless you (the authorities) stop fighting religion, there will be no end to alcoholism.”
That hits home because vodka has become the spirit of unspiritual conditions. In the Soviet Union, drunkenness is more than ever a way of life, causing absenteeism at the factory and erosion of family ties.
People drink to excess to escape life’s oppressions, boredoms, responsibilities. In the Soviet Union, where communism turned out to be the god that failed to put bread on the table, booze is the pervasive opiate of the people, used to cope with the pain of living in a world of constant constraint.
Now we come to a crucial difference in the way the communist and Western worlds work. Escape from hopelessness in an officially atheist society has taken the form of obliteration of the senses. But in other societies that encourage religion, many people dissatisfied with their lives or frustrated in their dreams find not merely solace but strength in their faith – an engagement of the moral sense that can change lives.
A gulf exists between the escape of drunkenness and the engagement of religious commitment. One dulls, the other sensitizes; one runs away, the other runs toward; one wallows in despair, the other is inspired by hope.
Marx and Lenin, it turns out, were wrong about religion because they saw it as the result of economic despotism and not as the moral yearning that causes human beings to reject any form of tyranny. The truth about that fundamental mistake has begun to dawn on many Russians.
That is why three Lenin Prize laureates – all good communists, not dissidents – have been seeking a shift in the Soviet orthodoxy against religion. According to a Radio Free Europe report by Vera Tolz, one novelist questions the morality of his hero’s opponents from a frankly Christian standpoint; another writer claims that the present-day strength of many Russians is still based on Old and New Testament precepts; the third asks, “Who blew out the lamp of our conscience?” and remembers the time “there was a light in our soul,” charging that it was “stolen from us and. nothing was given in its stead. “
That turn toward religion – that communist heresy – was promptly derided as “flirting with God” by a house philosopher, and repudiated three months ago by Yegor Ligachev, chief Soviet ideologist. Those who dared “talk about the need to tolerate religious ideas,” said the leader second only to Mikhail Gorbachev, “forgets that it was not religion that developed the basic ethics adopted by mankind.”
What a perversion of truth. The religious spirit, not some class struggling, brought forth Mosaic moral commandments and nurtured mankind’s ethical sense. The stern Calvinists enshrined the “work ethic” underlying capitalism, which helped produce the shared prosperity that the world’s largest atheistic society so bitterly envies.
Don’t be surprised by a papal visit to the Soviet Union in 1988 to celebrate the millennium of its Christianization.
Safire, a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist of the New York 77mes, is a former aide to President Nixon. (Reprinted from the Houston TX Chronicle [Jan. 4, 1987], sec. 1. p. 18.)
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 19, p. 590
October 6, 1988