Millenarian atheism

Speeches at the 2nd Congress of the League of the (Militant) Godless, Moscow, 10-15 June 1929

First published in the Journal of Freethought History, Vol 2 No. 2, 2012


Atheism and freethought are not necessarily synonyms. The League of the Militant Godless of the USSR was certainly an atheist organisation, but, despite its membership from 1926 of the International of Proletarian Freethought, it was not exactly a freethinking body. Like all officially-sanctioned public organisations in the USSR, the LMG adhered closely to the Communist Party line throughout its sixteen-year existence. This adherence was greatly assisted by the leading role played at every stage of the LMG's history by Emelyan Yaroslavsky, a close ally of Joseph Stalin.

Formed in April 1925 as the "Society of Friends of the Newspaper Bezbozhnik" from a collection of local atheist groups in the USSR and within months renamed "League of the Godless of the USSR", it claimed 100,000 members.1 By 1929, at the time of its second congress (when it adopted the title "League of Militant Godless"), it counted 700,000 members. The few years from 1929 represented the high point of its activities and importance. By 1932, the league had mushroomed to 5.5 million members - on paper, at least.2 It even started a children's movement, the "Young Godless". But thereafter it shrank back with equal rapidity. By 1935 membership was down to somewhere below 400,000, and that year the newspaper Bezbozhnik suspended publication, not reappearing until 1938.3

The period 1929-1932 was the period of the First Five-Year Plan for the industrialisation of the USSR. Despite the grandeur of the Soviet government's flagship industrial projects during that plan, its most ambitious enterprise was the complete transformation of social relations in the countryside, through the collectivisation of agriculture and the concomitant destruction of the traditional pattern of village life. In the Orthodox Christian areas of the country (the experience in those peripheral areas which were predominantly Muslim was somewhat different), the party saw the church as one of the mainstays of the old rural way of life. The destruction of its hold on the peasants was therefore a political necessity. Thus it was that in the course of the collectivisation campaign, the priorities of the party and those of the league coincided. All the time that remained the case, the league and its activities grew, even if much of this was just for show, as with the self-declared "godless collective farms".4 By 1933, collectivisation had been largely completed, the power of the Orthodox Church had been definitively broken, and significant parts of the Soviet countryside were in the grip of famine. In this situation, the government's priorities no longer chimed with those of the LMG and, deprived of active official support, the organisation shrank back to its activist base.

After the Nazi attack on the USSR in June 1941, the LMG ceased to function altogether. Yaroslavsky died in 1943, the year that the Orthodox Church was partially rehabilitated in the USSR. In 1947 the LMG was formally wound up and replaced by the "All-Union Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge", later renamed the Znanie ("Knowledge") society. This society exists to this day in Russia.

The speeches translated here, by Maksim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Anatoliy Lunacharsky, are just three of the many speeches made at the LMG 2nd congress. They are of interest from various angles. They show just how closely the Soviet godless movement was tied up with the party. There is no hint of any ideological autonomy, scepticism, doubt or free thought. They capture the feverish, millenarian atmosphere of the start of the Five Year Plan, when anything seemed possible. This was the moment when the promise of the revolution was at last going to be fulfilled - the USSR was going to construct a new, socialist society, a society of "genuine happiness", as Lunacharsky put it. Most interestingly, the speeches of Gorky and Lunacharsky in particular reflect their association, over twenty years before, with the literary-philosophical movement known as "god-building".

This movement is generally best known for the criticisms made of it by the authorities of Soviet Marxism - most notably Lenin's vituperative attack in Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909), and Georgiy Plekhanov's wittier and more urbane articles Materialismus Militans (1908) and On the So-Called Religious Seekings in Russia (1910). "God-building" was the name given to an attempt in the early 1900s by certain social-democratic intellectuals of Russian Orthodox ancestry to make use of certain religious themes and motifs. It arose partly in response to "God-seeking", a diffuse intellectual ferment among formerly radical Russian Orthodox Christians seeking new ways to God. The "god-builders", in contrast, proposed to give new content to the forms of popular Orthodox religiosity, replacing supernatural beings by a cult of humanity's collective creative potential. Gorky's best known contribution to the "god-building" literature was his short story of 1908 The Confession, which ends with his hero Matvey feeling himself "eternally and unbreakably connected in his soul with the people, the master and miracle-worker of the world", and offering up a prayer to "global god-building".5 Gorky's speech to the 1929 congress ended with a similar appeal to the Soviet people's miracle-working potential.

Lunacharsky had developed these ideas still further, most notably in his Socialism and Religion (1908), but also, for example, in his 1909 review of Gorky's Confession, where he wrote "Are you seeking God? God is the humanity of the future; build him together with the humanity of the present, joining with its most advanced elements."6 The previous year Lunacharsky had even attempted a prayer to deified collective humanity:7 "On the throne of the worlds shall be seated Someone in the image of man, and the well-organised world, through the lips of living and dead elements shall exclaim by the voice of its beauty: 'Holy Holy Holy; Heaven and Earth abounds with Thy Glory'. And the man-god shall look round and smile, because everything is good."8 In 1929, Lunacharsky was not so fanciful - and he had certainly been chastened by Lenin's rebuke of 20 years before - but the basic continuity of the theme of the new man, the new era, human life displacing religion etc. is not hard to discern.

Speeches at the 2nd All-Union Congress of the Militant Godless

Maksim Gorky. Speech at the opening of the congress. 9

Comrades, I shall say a few words about some things I do not like in the struggle you have begun. I think the campaign could be waged much more successfully, and give much greater results, if the methods and approach used could be changed a little. As far as I am familiar with what is being in those areas where you are waging your struggle, it seems to me that many people approach this most important and responsible work somewhat in the manner of routine officialdom, without passion, as just another ordinary task. But this task is not at all ordinary, but profoundly important: we have to uproot something that has become implanted over 20 centuries. But in your work I feel there is routinism and a lack of passion. That is one side of it. But there is also another side - the petty hooliganism which is creeping into this work. Instead of leading to the results we want, to foster the greater development of the masses, we get what we are seeing now: a growth in religious sectarianism and so on. On the side of our enemies there are emotions and there is enthusiasm, and they are a great force. On our side there is either no discernable enthusiasm, or where there is, it expresses itself in forms which are more annoying than convincing. That is not good. I am familiar with the anti-religious literature. I have to say that I do not find it satisfactory. I do not think that it is solid enough, and we cannot go out armed only with this sort of lightweight material. Or rather, if we do go out with it, we cannot reasonably expect to beat such heavily armed people as priests. They are educated people, cunning, they know their material very well, and can defend themselves with it - their Gospels, their Bible, their theology and so on. And the only antidote we have to that is very lightweight. I think we need to write more solid histories of the origin of religion than the essays we have now. They are lightweight, whereas we need to arm ourselves with more serious, scientific material, and we need to know it well, and we also need to be familiar with the weapons that the enemy is using against us. You will not convince people with logic alone. They have tradition firmly ensconced within them, and you will not dig it out with mere words. They enemy has memorised an enormous amount of all sorts of texts. When all you can give them is your own ideas and some Marx, they will say back to you "Well, I believe this." What are you going to do about that? Against emotion you need to deploy the same degree of energy and hatred, because that "love" which churchpeople and Christians profess contains the most enormous amount of hatred for people. Religion became anti-human long ago. It looks nice in the books, beautiful, but when what is in those books is put into practice, you know full well what the consequences are for the working people.

Without a doubt, many return to the church for aesthetic reasons, because they sing nicely in church. And to be sure, our Russian church music is something profoundly valuable, it really is good music. For some reason nobody has yet thought of writing good, beautiful words to go with that music, which could be listened to not just at vespers, masses and night services, but however and whenever. Why not do that? The value of the music is beyond doubt. As for the words, well, we have as many words as we could need. Why not publish the Bible with a critical commentary? They act against us on the basis of the Bible. The Bible is a thoroughly inaccurate, unreliable work. And against each of the texts that our enemy can muster against us, we can find a good dozen texts which contradict it. We need to know our Bible.

A critical edition of the Bible with commentaries would be a good tool in the hands of atheists. It is not a matter of breaking the church, but rather one of getting people to forget about the church, so that nobody goes there. That is what we need to achieve. But we must remember that we must not try using crude methods in the painful process of removing religious prejudices from our life. I think that experience shows I am right here. Recidivism is a fact, religious attitudes are a fact. I think it is often brought about by the same sorts of reasons which cause the sick to give up on an incompetent doctor and consult an ignorant faith healer. Ah - a note has just come up to the Presidium, saying "Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker!" That was written by someone among you. That is of course the stuff of jokes, that such a note could come from a gathering of atheists.

(A voice from the audience: "A provocation by the priests!")

Maybe it is a provocation by the priests, but it comes via a person sitting here, among you. I would not want to suggest that there are lots of people here who would put their names to such a text, but there is one.

And this one person tells us that to strive with the Maker brings woe. This is one of the old texts, from the Prophet Isaiah.10 The church has threatened us with these words for twenty centuries. But we are arguing against the church, and we are arguing with facts. The whole way of life we are creating at present is profoundly antireligious. Everything which is happening in our country, which is being built by the little people, the masses - in all of that, the anti-religious will is being clearly expressed, although sometimes not very clearly recognised. It is clear that religion has no place in that enormous process of cultural creativity which is developing with unprecedented speed in our country. Who can be stronger than our will and stronger than our reason? Our reason and our will - this is what is working miracles. Who created the gods? We did, in our fantasies and our imaginations. Since we created them, we have the right to overthrow them. (Applause.) And we should overthrow them. In their place we need nothing apart from humanity and its free reason. Everything we are doing now, the entire Land of Soviets is the result of our energy, our will, and this, as we can see, is already working and will in future work miracles. (Stormy applause.)

Vladimir Mayakovsky 11

Comrades, the Soviet Writers' Federation has delegated me to bring greetings to the Second Congress of the Godless. Comrades, it was a bit awkward for me to accept this proposal, and would have been keen to get out of it, because I think it is a bit vegetarian. If they had given me two or three anti-religious plays or if they had given me ten or fifteen anti-religious novels, then I would have come along here and said: "Here are our greetings to you." But unfortunately, comrades, our anti-religious literature is still weak. We have had the greatest warriors for God, such as Dostoevsky, we have had the greatest god-seekers and god-builders, like Tolstoy, we have even had the greatest holy fools, an enormous number of petty lyrical versifiers, à la:

Dear divine God
Pour your love on me
And a final resting place of leaves
Prepare for your slave... etc.12

We already know how to discern without fail the fascist's Mauser beneath the Catholic soutane. We already know how to discern without fail the kulak's sawn-off shotgun beneath the cassock of the Orthodox priest. But there are thousands of other cunning ways in which the same confounded mysticism ensnares us through art. In a letter to Gorky, Vladimir Il'ich wrote that the Catholic priest in a soutane who seduces young girls is not as dangerous as the democratic priest without a cassock, turning our heads with his fine words. We must answer the call of the congress with work. These days we must admit that it may still be possible one way or another to understand those mindless members of congregations who have been beating religious feelings into themselves for decades, the so-called believers. But the religious writer, who works consciously and still works to promote religion, must be regarded as either a charlatan or a fool.

Comrades, before the revolution their gatherings and congresses would usually end with the words "with God". Today, our congress ends with the words "against god". That is the slogan of writers today.

Anatoliy Lunacharsky Greetings to the congress, 10 June 1929 13

Comrades! One of the strongest and most persistent enemies of socialism, as a specific world view, as the specific and steadfast world view of the proletariat in the cause of changing the world, is religion. It is a persistent enemy because we as Marxists know the real social roots which feed religion. These roots are long, and they go deep into our economy and way of life.

In her letter which has just been read out to you, N K Krupskaya14 referred to the Marxist analysis which states that religion arises from humanity's weakness in the face of nature, humanity's helplessness, and on the other hand from the disorganised nature of humanity's social existence. Therefore the complete destruction of religion, which is, of course, the reflection in consciousness of certain ways of living, can only be achieved with the complete removal of all the inadequacies in human social and personal life, i.e., under fully developed socialism. Socialism, by providing … genuine happiness, will finally kill off all the roots of religion, the search for illusory happiness. Therefore, comrades our socialist construction, industrialisation, and struggle for the socialist countryside is the most positive, the most important and the most basic line in the struggle against religion. But this does not mean that we should say that until we have changed all the economic causes and all the conditions of life from which religion inevitably springs, there is no point in talking about the methods of cultural action to influence on people who are the victims of religion, or of political action in the form of direct struggle against those people who are sowing religious prejudices and are reaping the harvests of their foul crops.

We always make use of the great arsenal of Marx and Lenin. And again, in that connection we should repeat ... that early quotation of the young Marx, that we need to change things, because things are a part of the material environment on which consciousness depends. But we also need to change consciousness itself. Consciousness may lag behind the influence of things. It may sometimes run ahead of them. This, for example, is what we have in the countryside, where the situation, in essence, should not be favourable for the development of socialist ideas. However, we are carrying on intensive agitation and propaganda. We understand that in this way we shall create a peasant vanguard, which by its very creation will be able to get ahead of its conditions of life. In its turn, by acting, let us say, to ensure the maximum growth of collective farms in the countryside, it will again dialectically create a new basis, a new foundation for a further increase in consciousness.

In this area of cultural action, as you will well understand, the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment, or rather, the People's Commissariats for Enlightenment of all the Union republics will be standing at your side.

Education in our country can only be communist. Consequently, education can only be anti-religious. I shall say in passing that if Narkompros15 for a certain time held to the so-called slogan of the non-religious school, there had to be deep reasons for that. In its time it was approved by comrade Lenin. Of course, it was a temporary measure, which flowed from a certain weakness, when the majority of teachers was religious and our power had not yet put down deep roots. We had reason to fear that this might repel the mass of peasants from Soviet schools, and could not expose the few atheistically-inclined teachers to persecution in the unenlightened countryside. At that time Vladimir Il'ich warned us against pursuing directly atheist propaganda in schools, but he categorically demanded that we made sure that teachers introduced no religious poison into our schools by these teachers... But our position has strengthened, both in terms of our teaching staff and in terms of the stability of working-class power; all our wars have ended and the proletariat holds our country in firm hands. We have also become stronger in the sense that the strongholds of mass religion have been greatly shaken or are in a period of evolution and change. And now it is more than about time that we undertook the most powerful anti-religious assault in the schools. (Narkompros may even be at fault for leaving it a bit late.) This is what we are doing, and are doing it quickly, on the basis of the directives and instructions we are given by the Party, which have given us timely indications both of the need to sharpen the struggle against religion, and of the parameters within which this struggle should be waged. The role of Narkompros in this has very many facets. We need to use pre-school education, where possible laying the basis of a real, genuine world view, and where possible tearing out everything repellent from the soul of the child.

But mere school education is insufficient. We also need to take on childrearing and spread new ways of living, strengthening … our communist norms of life, which we need to counterpose to religious morality. We need to counterpose new forms of science and art to the aesthetic deceptions which the church has used so magnificently and uses to this day.

Of course, school education on its own would be ineffectual. Children live surrounded by their families, they are influenced by the street and all sorts of chance social factors. Narkompros should even use its social education apparatus to try to influence the parents, otherwise the child we are educating will find itself in an alien environment. But in general the whole business of exerting cultural influence on adults is the responsibility of Narkompros through Glavpolitprosvet.16 This is where we fight against alcoholism and against poisoning with religious opium, where we try to divert people's financial and intellectual resources away from drink and religion towards culture. This, comrades, is the difficult side of Narkompros's work. Among the state institutions, it is Narkompros which directs scientific and artistic life. It needs to be said here, at this congress, that even now, in the 12th year of the revolution, we still get extraordinarily little help from our scientists and artists. This is an enormous gap. ... The opportunities here are exceedingly great. If Narkompros takes this approach, there is much we should, can and will achieve.

Apart from that, there is also another connection between us, as the state apparatus, and you. We must devote more funds to the struggle against religion. I hope we shall not continue to encounter the resistance from other state institutions in this which we have faced before. Our state cannot ignore the need to help us, and should give more funds for all anti-religious work.

On the other hand, we have a very great interest in your work. We have often found that without your ideological help we would have difficulties. We sometimes have problems dealing fully with all the details. We discovered that when we were publishing our letters on the methods of anti-religious propaganda, we had no suitable material for teachers or students at any kind of school, and we were obliged to rely on those social forces in the forefront of the struggle against religion - that is, on your league.

Apart from that, we hope that we will be able to find all the necessary cadres from among you. You can see the mass of points of contact there are between us; there are many points where Narkompros and its work and the League of the Godless and its work come into contact. I hope that this congress gives our struggle a great impetus, but that it also sets out large-scale systematic links between our red army of enlighteners led by Narkompros, between our students, pupils, the Pioneer movement and your forces, your leadership, your literature and your entire movement.

Comrades, I shall limit myself to these thoughts for now, and my firm wish and conviction that we shall form a firm alliance. But this does not mean that I do not have more to say to you. I have a lot more to say to you, both concerning how we understand our methods of struggle with religion, and in relation to some unexpected disagreements which have arisen. We can see from the national press that there are now arguments on questions where yesterday arguments would have seemed impossible. These disputes are confusing and possibly damaging our movement. I am not going to ask to make a special report on that, although from Comrade Yaroslavsky's report I think I shall get enough time to set out my thoughts. I would like to think that this contribution to your work will strengthen our ties.

This 2nd Congress, comrades, marks the start of an enhanced, clearer, more aggressive period in our struggle against religion. We are all getting a boost and a lot of satisfaction from the knowledge that our links are strong.

Long live the class struggle of the proletariat, which is building a new world, a new man, a new era, in which there will be no place for any religion, so that there will be a place for triumphant and rational human life!


1. See B. N. Konovalov, "Soyuz voinstvuyushchikh bezbozhnikov", originally in Voprosy nauchnogo ateizma, No. 4, 1967; republished online on; p. 287.
2. Ibid., p. 288.
3. Daniel Peris, Storming the Heavens. The Soviet League of the Militant Godless, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1998, p. 146.
4. Peris coined the term "Potemkin secularisation" to describe this sort of thing. See ibid., p. 130.
5. M. Gorky, Ispoved', on
6. A. V. Lunacharsky, review article: "O XXIII sbornike 'Znanie'" in Literaturnyy raspad, Vol. 2, St Petersburg 1909, reproduced on
7. This "prayer" caused Plekhanov enormous levity; see G. Plekhanov, "On the So-Called Religious Seekings in Russia" in Selected Philosophical Works Vol. 3, Moscow, 1976, pp. 359-60.
8. A. V. Lunacharsky, "Ateisty", in Ocherki po filosofii marksizma, St Petersburg 1908, p. 159.
9. Original Russian text taken from This is the site of the League of the Militant Godless of the Russian Federation, an organisation formed online in 2008 on the initiative of the (very hardline) Russian Communist Workers' Party, in order to continue the work of the original. How far the resurrected league exists outside of cyberspace is hard to say, although the Russian secularist movement as a whole has recently been reenergised by the Pussy Riot case and its implicit threat to the separation of church and state in Russia.
10. Isaiah 45:9.
12. The author of these lines, in 1913, was the minor futurist and imaginist poet Ryurik Ivnev (M. A. Kovalev, 1891-1981).The Russian original scans and rhymes. By a possibly curious coincidence, Ivnev had served as Lunacharsky's secretary immediately after the Bolsheviks took power.
14. Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1869-1939). Widow of V. I. Lenin, prominent figure in Soviet education.
15. Narkompros = Narodnyy komissariat prosveshcheniya; People's Commissariat of Enlightenment.
16. Glavpolitprosvet = Glavnyy politiko-prosvetitel'nyy komitet; Main Political-Educational Committee, a subdivision of Narkompros particularly concerned with adult education.