Many nineteenth-century thinkers believed that society was progressing from backward epochs when religion was pervasive to future times when religion would be regarded as an outmoded illusion, perhaps to be superseded by a `rational' creed focused on humanity. This continues to be reflected in the views of prominent Marxist historians, who, convinced that the residual vitality of religion is `archaic' or `recessive', are enviably certain about when, where and why secularisation occurred, though this confidence eludes those who have spent a lifetime acquiring detailed knowledge of these questions.
A number of nineteenth-century writers argued that religion was retreating from areas of existence where it had once been important, the metaphor of tides slipping away from a beach being a favourite after Matthew Arnold's `Dover Beach', despite the fact that tides roll in and out. They coined new terms to express this process. Although the word `secular' has a long history, `secularism' was employed in 1851 by the English radical George Jacob Holyoake when a lawyer advised him that it might raise fewer hackles than `atheism'. This enabled the resulting Secular Societies of the 185os to avoid the widespread charge that disbelief in God resulted in immorality.
`Secularisation' also acquired new meanings, beyond the expropriation of church properties during the Reformation and French Revolution, which was its original sense. William Lecky, author of an influential history of European rationalism, was among the first to use 'secularisation' to encapsulate his claim that religion had ceased to play a major role in international relations, notably as a reason why states went to war. He would have marvelled at the twenty-first century. Later, the academic sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber argued that the multiple functions of the clergy were being usurped by a proliferating host of professionals, whose knowledge and skill confined religion to unanswerable metaphysical questions, while diminishing the importance of saints and miracles to mastery of the elements or life's contingencies.
The advanced parts of the world were being `disenchanted' by processes which made Christianity both implausible and irrelevant. How many Catholics called upon St Christopher any more when the tram or train broke down? Although people continued to have accidents, fall ill and die, they felt they possessed a mastery of the physical world by virtue of their own effort and intellect. Salvationism gave way to meliorism and, with it, an underlying optimism about a future in which material prosperity and scientific progress would banish poverty, scarcity and disease. In 1884 Sir James Stephen informed readers of the Nineteenth Century:
If human life is in the course of being fully described by science, I do not see what materials there are for any religion, or indeed, what would be the use of one, or why it is wanted. We can get on very well without one, for though the view of life which science is opening to us gives us nothing to worship, it gives us an infinite number of things to enjoy ... The world seems to me a very good world, if it would only last. It is full of pleasant people and curious things, and I think that most men find no great difficulty in turning their minds away from its transient character.
Secularisation was not a straight descent from a putative peak of faith, whose historical whereabouts were elusive. There were those in, for example, Hanoverian Britain who claimed that religion had become `a principal subject of mirth and ridicule', shortly before the onset of Methodist revivalism. Secularisation was a congeries of intellectual and social trends, punctuated (and punctured) by resurgences of Christian fervour, or awareness that Christianity performed essential moral, political, charitable and social functions that it would be foolhardy to abandon. Secularisation was an intellectual contest and the result of more general processes, although these easily admit contradiction and qualification. Some people consciously sought to bring secularisation about, through such sects as the British National Secular Society (1866) whose pugnacious leading lights, notably Holyoake and then the Northamptonshire MP Charles Bradlaugh, combined freethinking with political radicalism. Atheism was confined to a handful of mainly London-based radical republicans who as keen ideologists were irrelevant to a country whose politics were pragmatic rather than ideological."' In imperial France such activity usually took place under cover of the masonic lodges until the advent of the Third Republic when they moved to the heart of government. In Imperial Germany there was a League of German Free-Religious Parishes, which exchanged lectures for sermons, and, from 1881 onwards, the more militant German Freethinkers League of Ludwig Buchner. But neither the ethical, scientific and theological challenges to religion considered at the start of this chapter nor the advent of freethinking sectarians was as important as the vaster impersonal developments which `disenchanted' the world, deracinated traditional communities, eradicated or gave rise to social classes, transformed Churches and sects into denominations, and, the universal fact of mortality apart, diminished the incidence of crises to which religion alone had the most compelling answers. These immense themes will concern us in these concluding passages.
Politics played a significant role in whether people adhered to the Churches or rejected them, and, more subtly, contributed to what proved to be evanescent religious revivals. As has been remarked already, the mid-nineteenth century saw a return to Catholicism of the wealthier Voltairean French bourgeoisie, who were the most educated part of the population, while, towards the close of the century and beyond, Catholicism was en vogue among many French intellectuals. The French Church's ties to this `Party of Order' resulted in a corresponding intensification of radical and republican anticlericalism. The insurrectionary Paris Commune in 1871 provided the `clericalist' right with twenty-four martyrs, including the archbishop of Paris, whom the communards shot as an easily identifiable symbol of `reaction', while the `Bloody Week' that followed created a far greater number of left-wing martyrs. In effect, politics gave a considerable fillip to the vitality of religion in France, although at the expense of providing republicans with an easy target called `clericalism'. In a more complicated way, political conflict also contributed to temporary revivals in the fortunes of a British Nonconformism, which by becoming both institutionalised and respectable had progressively cut itself off from further expansion among the upper-lower social classes it had once attracted, classes which in any event were disappearing as domestic outwork was replaced by the factories. As we shall see Nonconformity became more like a Church, while the Church of England adopted many of the Evangelical energies of Nonconformity.
In Britain, unlike much of Europe and Latin America, the confessional state was incrementally dismantled without giving overt foes of religion much cause for celebration. As the Nonconformist Society for the Liberation of the Church from State Patronage and Control explained: `The dominant force in favour of disestablishment is a religious force; it may be safely assumed, therefore, that in putting an end to the political ascendancy of a particular Church, care will be taken, possibly at the expense of some logical consistency, to do nothing that will be prejudicial to the religious interests of the nation.."" With one eye to the United States Nonconformists argued that, while government and society should profess a general adhesion to religion, the state should not support one Church at the expense of another. That, of course, begged several questions regarding those who professed non-Christian or no religion, as well as regarding, for example, the temperance or Sunday-observance legislation that Nonconformists were otherwise so keen on.
From the mid-nineteenth century, pressure groups, of which the Liberation Society was among the most notable, mobilised support for the piecemeal but steady dismantling of establishment as part of a broader liberal and radical assault on the vestiges of `aristocratic' privilege. This close association between liberalism and Nonconformity led to a defensive reliance upon the Conservative Party, and hence the liberal Nonconformist slur that the Church of England was the `Tory Party at prayer', whereas it had been increasingly scrupulous in maintaining an at times difficult distinction between its national `moral' engagements and involvement in political factionalism.
It would be tedious to follow each and every conflict between Nonconformists and the Church of England and their respective political champions. The exercise of civic responsibility was progressively divorced from a particular religion privileged by the state even though that religion still retains much pomp and circumstance. The key stages included the deconfessionalisation of the rites of passage, opening Oxford and Cambridge to Dissenters, the abolition of both compulsory church rates and religious oaths for public office, the disestablishment of the Church in Ireland and Wales (the latter achieved only in 1914), and, most contentious of all, the role of religion in education. Nonconformists sought to end state subsidies for Church of England schools, preferring a nondenominational state system; what they got in the 1870 Education Act was far less, namely a dual system of Church and non- denominational `Board' schools, with a parental right to exempt children from religious instruction on grounds of conscience. This compromise continued to dissatisfy Nonconformists well into the twentieth century. On some of these questions the Church fought back, with the aid of its own Church Defence Institution (1859), notably against the `conscience clause' in education, and over the issue of burial according to Nonconformist rites in Anglican graveyards. On other questions, such as the abolition of compulsory church rates (1868) or the admission of Nonconformists to the ancient universities as either undergraduates or fellows (1871 and 1882), the Church of England gave ground relatively smoothly. While Nonconformism was being transformed from a sect into a denomination, the Church of England, regardless of its claim to monopoly, was metamorphosing into a denomination in a context characterised more and more by religious pluralism. In the long term, both lost out to a state that increasingly acted as an impartial umpire in these conflicts, and which, bit by unco-ordinated bit, progressively usurped social functions that they lacked the resources to perform, and by virtue of doing so further promoted both de-facto disestablishment and secularisation.
Contrary to many pessimistic predictions, loss of religious faith did not result in the wholesale de-moralisation of society. On the contrary, in Victorian Britain morality - meaning an interlocking series of individual-social virtues and stigmas - itself became a form of `surrogate religion' to which the vast majority of respectable people (of whatever class) subscribed, even if few followed Matthew Arnold's rather fey view of religion as `morality tinged with emotion'. Visiting Cambridge in May 1873 George Eliot toured the gardens of Trinity with her academic admirer Fred Myers:
she stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men - the words, God, Immortality, Duty, - pronounced with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never, perhaps, have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing law.
Leslie Stephen struck a lighter, but similar, note in an 1876 letter to a friend: `I now believe in nothing,to put it shortly; but I do not the less believe in morality etc., etc., I mean to live and die like a gentleman if possible' The moral canon included not just those virtues that critics of the Victorians like to parody as hypocritical and self-servingly 'bourgeois' - for example, abstinence, cleanliness, punctuality, self-help and thrift - but decency, honesty, integrity, good manners and service to others, virtues to which many poor people, regimented or not, subscribed too. The Englishman's home was not just his castle but his (or her) temple; the foundation of private and public morality. We can push this argument a little further, for there were those like Newman who recognised where the over-emphasis upon morality was tending. Christian support for such moral campaigns as the prevention of (mainly working-class) cruelty to animals, Sabbatarianism and temperance not only alienated workers who had to shop on Sundays since they were not paid until late on Saturday or who spotted the obvious hypocrisies of household wine cellars, fox-hunting and servants who worked on the Sabbath, but in themselves represented the diversion of religion from otherworldly concerns to what amounted to social policy. From whichever angle one views these developments, God was being left out.’(Brian Harris, `Religion and Recreation in Nineteenth-Century England', Past & Present ,1967, 38, pp. 124-5)
It would be incorrect to assume that the churches were evenly distributed across the European countryside or that towns were necessarily epicentres of irreligion. For historical reasons, relatively dense parochial networks covered northern Italy, Portugal and Spain, while the southern parts of those countries were characterised by a combination of anticlericalism and superstition, the former reflecting the close relationship between the Churches and a social order based on latifundist agriculture. In France, huge belts of the countryside, in the centre and south, had never recovered from the de-Christianising holocaust of the French Revolution, while everywhere in Europe coastal areas, marsh and moors had a very light ecclesiastical presence, with single parishes in northwestern Scotland the size of Church provinces. (See McLeod, Religion and the People of Western Europe 1789-1989 p. 57)
The phenomenal growth of towns and cities presented a particular challenge to ecclesiastical logistics, even assuming that most countries were not like France, which under article 69 of the Napoleonic Organic Statutes picked up the tab not only for clerical salaries but also for church building, and under republican regimes was reluctant to encourage this. Everywhere there were usually too many churches in the historic city centres and too few in the rapidly expanding peripheries. Some parishes in working-class districts of Berlin or Paris had over 120,000 parishioners where ten or twelve thousand was already deemed hopeless. Of course, this was not a failing unique to the Churches. Every feature of the infrastructure, from cemeteries to sewers and street lighting, that made urban life civilised was often inadequate.
It is far from axiomatic that incredible rates of urban growth created a race of Godless proletarians - not for nothing was Glasgow, whose population doubled every twenty years in the nineteenth century, known as `Gospel City', while church attendance was extraordinarily low in rural Mecklenburg.121 But leaving aside cities where ethnicity and sectarianism may have reinforced religious convictions, and that was not true of, say, Lille in northern France, there is considerable evidence, some of it dubious, that in many places working-class people were alienated from the Churches, even assuming they had the opportunity to come in contact with them. Charles Dickens caught this well in his fictional Coketown, the setting for his novel Hard Times:
First, the perplexing mystery of the place was, Who belonged to the eighteen denominations? Because, whoever did, the labouring people did not. It was very strange to walk through the streets on a Sunday morning, and note how few of them the barbarous Jangling of bells that was driving the sick and nervous mad, called away from their quarter, from their own close rooms, from the corners of their streets, where they lounged listlessly, gazing at all the church and chapel going, as at a thing with which they had no manner of concern. Nor was it merely the stranger who noticed this, because there was a native organisation in Coketown itself, whose members were to be heard of in the House of Commons every session, indignantly petitioning for acts of parliament that should make these people religious by main force. (Dickens, Hard Times, London 1995, pp. 29-30.)
One should not assume that the clergy automatically connected with people in the countryside. In her Scenes from Clerical Life, serialised in 1857, George Eliot contrasted the unfortunate curate Amos Barton, whose combination of learning and prolixity prevented him from communicating with the lower-class imagination, with the Reverend Martin Cleves:
Mr Cleves has the wonderful art of preaching sermons which the wheelwright and the blacksmith can understand; not because he talks condescending twaddle, but because he can call a spade a spade, and knows how to disencumber ideas of their wordy frippery ... He gets together the working men in his parish on a Monday evening, and gives them a sort of conversational lecture on useful practical matters, telling them stories, or reading some selected passages from an agreeable book, and commenting on them; and if you were to ask the first labourer or artisan in Tripplegate what sort of man the parson was, he would say, -'a uncommon knowin', sensible, free-spoken gentleman; very kind an' good-natur'd too'. (George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life, London 1998 pp. 27-31)
Predominantly young migrants, some hailing from irreligious countrysides, found themselves in fluid environments where there was no squire to bolster clerical authority. Where there was constant upward, downward or spatial mobility, as there was in the cities, a sustained relationship with a Church was difficult; where people inhabited homogeneous working-class ghettos they could be bullied or persuaded into other allegiances. What free time they had on Sundays was devoted to rest and recreations that busy-body Sabbatarians tried to obstruct, although later in the century less puritanical churches were surprisingly adroit in finding vicars who doubled up as footballers and prize-fighters. The Churches' identification with middle-class respectability was one issue that alienated the workers, although that did not lessen their enthusiasm for sending their children to Sunday Schools or participation whenever Churches demonstrated their practical uses. Workers' lack of suitable attire made church attendance shameful when social distinctions extended to such things as rented pews, while the ill-attired and noxious were penned in towards the back or in separate galleries lest they give olfactory offence. 124 Some argue that the imagination of the nineteenth-century urban worker had shrunk to the point where he or she could not easily accommodate stories about kings, wise men, lambs and shepherds, let alone what one English labourer called `cherrybims'. If country folk could still find something in common with a religion that revolved around semi-nomadic desert tribes, the inhabitants of cities found few exemplars in sacred scriptures whose most memorable cities were Sodom and Gomorrah. As a man prosecuted by Sabbatarian zealots for advertising his fish, muffins and crumpets on a Sunday objected in court at Hammersmith, he and his co-accused were `not living in the times of Adam and Eve, but of civilisation'.
Country life may have been subject to such catastrophes as drought and flood or livestock plagues and crop-flattening storms, but these ceased to afflict factory workers or machines that rarely stopped. A magistrate in Besancon in eastern France encapsulated this when he wrote in 1857: The agricultural areas are essentially moral and religious. The man who owes his fortune to the marvellous workings of machines, whose mind is constantly turned towards material things, more easily forgets his origin; the man of the fields cannot forget his creator; in his distress, when the weather is bad or his harvest threatened, he prays to Heaven for help .. . The worker in a factory only sees the action of matter, the agricultural worker relates everything to the action of a divinity.
This might suggest that workers fell prey to materialist versions of socialism, exchanging one religion for another. Actually, the speed with which socialism extricated itself from Christianity varied considerably according to local national circumstances or regions within individual nations. The transitions within individuals were very fluid, with rejection of God and hatred of the established Churches going together with continued belief in Christian moral values. Flaubert's account in his Sentimental Education of a meeting at the radical Club d'Intelligence in the wake of the Revolution of 1848 illustrates the general problem. In this episode, a radical priest had tried to speak about agronomy to a socially mixed audience, but had not been given a hearing:
Then a patriot in a smock climbed on to the platform. He was a man of the people, with broad shoulders, a plump, gentle face, and long black hair. He cast an almost voluptuous glance round the audience, flung back his head, and finally, stretching out his arms, said:
you have rejected Ducretot [the priest], and you have done well; but you did
not do this out of impiety, for we are all pious men.'
Several members of the audience were listening openmouthed, like children in a catechism class, in ecstatic attitudes.
`Nor did you do it because he is a priest, for we too are priests! The workman is a priest, like the founder of Socialism, the Master of us all, Jesus Christ!'
The time had come to inaugurate the reign of God. The Gospel led straight to 1789. After the abolition of slavery would come the abolition of the proletariat. The age of hatred was past; the age of love was about to begin.`Christianity is the keystone and the foundation of the new edifice ..'`Are you making fun of us?' cried the traveller in wines. `Who's landed us with this blasted priest?'
This interruption shocked the audience to the core. Nearly all of them climbed on to the benches, and, shaking their fists, yelled: 'Atheist! Aristocrat! Swine!' while the chairman's bell rang without stopping and there were shouts of `Order! Order! (Flaubert, Sentimental Education p. 303)
Devotees of `scientific' socialism regard Christian Socialism as an archaism and its adherents as irrelevant woolly-minded mavericks, representative of a transitional phase that would inexorably, or ideally, be swept away by the marching cadres of the scientific sort. This is difficult to reconcile with the view of a leading historian of French socialism that `During the 183os and 1840s, virtually everyone who considered himself a socialist claimed to be inspired by Christianity or even by Catholicism itself. The Gospels were everywhere, and Jesus, it seemed, was the founding father of revolutionary change. See Edward Berenson, `A New Religion of the Left. Christianity and Social Radicalism in France 1815-1848' in Francois Furet and Mona Ozouf (eds), The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, vol. 3: The Transformation of Political Culture 1789-1848 (Oxford 1989) P. 543
While everyone knows that British socialism exhibited religious currents, it is less well known that this was the case in France too. There were several reasons why this was so. For a good introduction to God's relationship with the British Labour Party see Graham Dale, God's Politicians. The Christian Contribution to zoo Years of Labour (London 2000)
The failure of insurrections in 1834 and 1839 led some on the French left to re-evaluate the conspiratorial and violent legacy of 1789, turning to Christianity as a means of transforming the moral outlook of individuals before they set to work transforming society itself. Unlike the esoteric sects of Fourier or Saint-Simon, Christianity was something that even the most intellectually challenged person knew about and, by their own lights, understood. It required no esoteric knowledge of highfalutin German philosophy or British political economy, and its utopia involved a transformation of human values rather than the ridiculous prospect of turning the seas into lemonade.
In the wake of Romanticism, religion had also become modish. Reason had discredited itself through a franco-French holocaust; people wanted to believe. Leftists like Louis Blanc regarded Voltaireanism as `dangerous and puerile', and - horror of horrors for progressives everywhere - argued that irreligion might be hopelessly out of date: 'A chaque epoque son oeuvre! Cello de notre temps est de raviver le sentiment religieux.' Theorists such as Blanc, Cabet, Considerant and Philippe Buchez emphasised equality and fraternity at the expense of liberty, and took every opportunity to write Jesus Christ into the socialist script. Their lead was followed by the workers' press, with the Communist paper Travailclaiming that 'communisme est le veritable christianisme applique aux relations de la vie'. Worker-poets identified Christianity as the original source of socialist virtues, and the early Christians as prototypical of incipient socialist organisation.
Socialist enthusiasm for Christianity was also a response to profound changes within Christianity itself. So as to undo the legacy of the Revolution, the French Church had had to rediscover the gentler Christocentric faith of cardinal de Berulle in the early seventeenth century, downplaying the more recent sternly theocentric emphasis evident in its teachings during the eighteenth century. Out went fear, and in came love. This doubly appealed since, as we have seen, both Rousseau in theory and the Jacobins in practice tried to enforce their civil religions through fear and far worse. Lamennais popularised an egalitarian version of Christocentric Christianity, in which `the people' were associated with a caring God and Christ while the rich and powerful consorted with their ally the devil. Equality, justice and plenty were not endlessly deferred to an afterlife, but were attainable in this life through faith in Jesus Christ. A new generation of priests, often from modest circumstances, preached this gentler Gospel to parishioners who were much like themselves, doing so with the aid of such works as Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ which stressed the virtues of the common man. They were joined in this endeavour by lay primary school teachers who, following a law of 1833, were responsible for religious instruction in classrooms that once again had a crucifix on the wall. Unaware of doctrinal orthodoxy, these lay teachers helped disseminate an egalitarian version of Christianity that was simultaneously being propagated by Buchez, Lamennais and their acolytes. The fact that these doctrines were being taught by laymen and renegades rather than a Church that underwrote an unjust society contributed to their success, and for that matter to their enduring presence within a socialist tradition temporarily tantalised by the pseudo-omniscience of Marxist materialism.
It is well known that the British socialist tradition or example , has been constantly enriched by Nonconformism, Anglicanism and Catholicism, with Christianity, and a number of minority religions, being as important to many of Labour's leaders and adherents as they are to their counterparts among Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. (See Shirley Williams, God and Caesar. Personal Reflections on Politics and Religion London 2003)
Unlike some of the continental socialist movements, no rift opened in Britain between organised labour and Christianity, although the established Church was sometimes seen as having betrayed the social ideals of the latter. By the 189os the Church had assumed the characteristics of a chameleon, being conservative in the countryside but socialist in the deprived areas of the big cities. Methodist chapels had for long been enabling working-class people to hone their civic and organisational abilities prior to translating these (and much of the accompanying rhetoric) into trade unionism and politics. In Britain, socialism did not displace Christianity; on the contrary, it was indelibly shaped by it. Whatever setbacks the Christian Churches experienced in urban Britain, these cannot be attributed to the growth of socialism among the working classes.
On the continent, the Churches were overwhelmingly identified with conservatism, with Germany's largest Protestant Church, the Old Prussian Union, actively involved in the struggle against socialism. In Britain both liberalism and labour were inextricably involved with different shades of religious dissent. Whereas many British socialists came from religious backgrounds, their German counterparts were products of an environment where church attendance was already low. By the early twentieth century, some 1o to 15 per cent of working-class Protestant Londoners still attended church on Sundays, the figure for such bastions of socialism as South Wales or Yorkshire being considerably higher. By contrast, in Godless Berlin, only 1 per cent of people in equivalent working-class parishes attended church on Sundays in 1869, and that percentage had halved again by the outbreak of the First World War, a dismal record that could be replicated for Hamburg and the industrial parts of Saxony. See Hugh McLeod, `Religion in the British and German Labour Movements c. 1890-1914. A Comparison', Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History (1986) 51, p. 30
This does not mean that there were not tensions between Churches and the labour movement in Britain. Liberalism and Nonconformity were so enmeshed that inevitably, while it was regarded as normal to preach' liberalism, preaching socialism was regarded as more controversial. For some people, politics itself became a sufficient and then an overriding commitment that gradually displaced their religious allegiances; others followed their continental comrades in adopting an explicitly secular view, although more often than not this was based on Darwin and Huxley rather than Marx and Engels. But in Britain these influences had to compete against colourful and pluralist religious traditions, whether the Nonconformist chapels in South Wales, the synagogues of London's East End, or, last but not least, the occasional Anglican clergyman committed to the marriage of Christianity and socialism in some urban rookery.
Conversion to what was unabashedly described as `the Religion of Socialism' complemented rather than challenged a convert's egalitarian notions of Christianity. A new recruit to the Independent Labour Party in 1894 wrote: `Here I saw the way to that Kingdom of God on earth for which 1 had prayed and worked so long. My joy was beyond words, because the revelation of life which I had seen in Jesus of Nazareth became clearer and more real to me every day. I began to see why Jesus pitied the rich and said the poor in spirit possessed the Kingdom of God ... I realised that the incoming of the Socialist ideal into my life had revolutionised my relationships with mankind.' 133 Some thought that socialism had helped reconcile politics and religion `since their objectmatter is the same' and `politics are henceforth merged with morals'. This era of religious incandescence was relatively brief. The rise of a single party machine out of a looser federation of sects meant that the machine, or the state it sought to capture as the only imaginable way of doing good, began to be conceived as an end in itself. Penetrating local government or the state to pursue reformist ends, recruiting members to swell the apparat and raising money to fight elections displaced wider goals. The reduction of socialism to economics and politics, which would then simultaneously benefit and be implemented by an academic and technocratic careerist `expertocracy', meant a quiet drift of people whose concerns were to do with the moral regeneration of the individual and society into a separate Ethical movement. As socialism assumed all the characteristics of an established Church of the working classes and their middle-class sympathisers, it necessarily joined the traditional Churches in facing the secularising challenge of rising living standards and the proliferation of recreational activities, shopping, sport, the pub and newspapers, which served to undermine the totalising pretensions of both religion and politics. (Stephen Yeo, 'A New Life. The Religion of Socialism in Britain 1883-1896', History Workshop , 1977, 4, p. 12134)
Not all socialists were Marxists, for anarcho-syndicalism had greater purchase in the French trades unions and in Italy or Spain, but the great continental European socialist movements were influenced by the Marxist canon in ways that remind intelligent commentators of the relationship between nineteenth-century Christians and the Bible: `some accepted the book in the spirit of fundamentalism, some in the spirit of the higher criticism, some with heretical reservations; others respected without believing, others neither respected nor believed, but often quoted significant passages all the same'.( John McManners, European History 1789-1914. Men, Machines and Freedom , Oxford, 1966, p. 334.)
The largest European socialist party was the German Social Democratic Party. By 1910 this had some 720,000 members, or more than the socialist parties of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland combined. It was much more than a political party, more like a way of life. Based on a fusion of two parties, the Social Democrats were subject to anti-socialist laws between 1878 and 1890 which reduced legal activity to the parliamentary party and its voters, while banning all party organisations, activism and publicity. Some of the leaders went into permanent exile. About fifteen hundred Social Democrats were sentenced to a total of eight hundred years' imprisonment, a level of repression that paled into insignificance beside the bloodbath that followed the Paris Commune or the later persecution of organised labour under the Third Reich.
Repression provided fertile ground for the messianic doctrine of Marxism, which from the late 1870s became the official creed of the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) leaders, and displaced both anarchism and those who, like Ferdinand Lassalle, believed in cooperation with the Bismarckian state against the bourgeoisie."' Paradoxically, the marxification of the Party was one of the factors that contributed to a diminution of anticlerical and atheist ardour that were more evident in the i86os and 187os than later. Although the Party's 1875 'Gotha programme' had declared religion to be a private matter, in practice leading Social Democrats believed that `Religion is the most powerful enemy of socialism ... religion is the main bastion of antisocialism, of reaction, [and] the breeding ground of all social evil'. In Berlin johann Most sponsored an aggressive exodus of socialists from the Churches, or 'Kirchenaustrittsbewegung', while opponents of socialism tried to revitalise Christianity among the workers through such initiatives as the ill-starred Christian Social movement of the antisemitic court preacher Adolf Stoecker. Neither movement was very successful. In 1878 Most persuaded a few hundred workers to leave the Churches; a year later this trickle had become the intermittent drip of a few dozen. Stoecker, as we shall see in a later chapter, failed abysmally in recruiting Berlin workers to his Christian Social platform, and turned instead to the (Christian) lower-middle class. In 1883 the SPD abandoned its aggressive campaign against the Churches, in favour of defending its own worldview. As Guido Weiss warned the comrades, by attacking the Churches: `You are galvanising a corpse, and in the end the Church will have the advantage.
This newfound socialist moderation on the subject of religion had tactical and theoretical causes. When Bismarck abandoned the `culturewar' on Catholicism, he refocused his sights on the Social Democrats as 'Reichsfeinde' with similarly alien allegiances to the Catholics, a development which led the Social Democrats to tone down their anti-Catholic rhetoric so as to ingratiate themselves with the Catholic Centre Party. Unsurprisingly, it was also becoming apparent that militant atheism was unattractive to potential voters, should the SPD seek to break out of its working-class ghettos. In the countryside, socialism went hand in hand with traditional religious allegiances, and without those votes socialists would never gain power. But there was also an important theoretical development. The ascendancy of younger Marxist intellectuals like Eduard Bernstein or Karl Kautsky meant the Party gradually imbibed the Marxist belief that religion would simply disappear when the socieconomic conditions that had given rise to it were overcome. Put differently, religion was so ephemeral that it was not worth fighting. As Engels wrote: `The only service that can be rendered to God today is to declare atheism a compulsory article of faith.' The SPD confined itself to attacking the political role of the Churches as part of the Establishment, and their influence on elementary schools, rather than directly challenging religion.
Social Democracy was not merely a political party together with a closely allied and subordinate trades union movement, but a way of life, consisting of a self-contained subculture that thrived in working-class quarters of big cities. As in most ghettos, including the one to which many Catholic workers belonged, exclusion was self-reinforcing. The Social Democrats were regarded as `enemies of the Reich' with dubious international affiliations; they regarded themselves as the gravediggers of the established order. Accounts of discussions among ordinary members suggest that they thought that after the `Last Judgement' anxiety about the availability of potatoes would be superseded by the pleasure of champagne on tap.
Since workers were also part of the wider society, whether through schools, the military, the Churches or their workplace, the Party sought to counteract these influences through a socialist parallel universe, with its own cultural, recreational and sporting clubs, newspapers, welfare organisations and, once they were legalised, public festivals. The Churches might have been envious of a movement that included separate co-operative stores, health insurance, charities, cycling, bowling, gymnastic and singing clubs, choirs, libraries, festivals, celebrating 18 March 1871 or May Day, and at life's end socialist cremation. The birth of the----Paris Commune was commemorated as a rival to Sedan Day which celebrated Prussia's triumph over the French. Although they clung, against the realities of the German economy, to a belief in capitalism's imminent demise and to a rhetorical romantic revolutionism, the emphasis was increasingly on organisation for organisation's sake and the realities of incremental reformism through participation in municipal government. Some argue that this, and those aspects of the dominant culture that seeped into that of the socialists, effectively integrated them into the wider society that rejected them. Be that as it may, the movement gave workers' lives structure and ultimate meaning that reminded some of the religion that Social Democracy affected to despise. As one scion of a Berlin socialist household recalled:
In the solidaristic identification of the individual with the whole, they built the powerful organisations and communities which, like great religions, placed people under their spell. They gave them a view of the world, a country and a home. Here people did not only take part in politics: they also sang and drank, celebrated and made friendships. What was impossible elsewhere was possible here: you could be a human being.
In their prison cells, several socialist leaders reflected on the nature of utopia, a fashionable literary genre that also thrived among people staring at the walls of a cell. The most famous such product was Bebel's Die Frau and der Sozialismus (1879), written during two stints in prison in 1872-4 and 1877-8. In addition to its egalitarian and statist economic musings, Bebel's book imagined that in his future society idleness would be replaced by a fervour to work; many crimes would disappear; literary taste would be cleansed; and life would be happy and carefree. This anthropological optimism accounts for why his book became the socialist Bible. (Lucian Holscher, Weltgericht oder Revolution. Protestantische and sozialistische Zukunftsvorstellungen im deutschen Kaiserreich, Stuttgart, 1989, pp. 315-17)
Some socialists made the connection between religion and socialism explicit. `Beloved fellow citizens!' wrote a Marxist autodidact, `the tendencies of socialism contain the building blocks for a new religion ... Until now, religion was a question for the proletariat. Now, by contrast, the question of the proletariat is becoming a religion.'
Outside such totalitarian environments it was usual to find more variegated allegiances based on apparent contradiction. In the Erzgebirge, where workers had pictures of Luther next to those of the Virgin Mary, they also had August Bebel beside the king of Saxony, leading a pastor to comment: `In the soul of the people, it is the same as it is on the wall; they bring together harmlessly things that are most opposed! 131 This was what respectively Martin Rade and Alfred Levenstein discovered in two small surveys of working-class religious beliefs and practices which they conducted in 1898 and 1912. Levenstein found that just over half of his miners, metal and textile workers did not believe in God (13 per cent said they did) but that only a handful had gone to the trouble of disaffiliating from the state Churches. Their party did not demand this and, besides, most of them did not want to offend other family members who were religious, or feared damage to their children's future prospects. Pastor Rade discovered a near universal contempt for the Churches and scepticism towards parts of the Bible. By contrast, there was unanimous respect for Jesus as a `true workers' friend', with one claiming that were Jesus alive `today he would certainly be a Social Democrat, maybe even a leader and a Reichstag deputy'. In other words, Jesus was a proto-revolutionary or secular reformer. (Vernon Lidtke, `Social Class and Secularisation in Imperial Germany. The Working Classes', Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook ,1980, 25, pp. 28-30)
The claim that Social Democracy was a surrogate religion was made at the time by such opponents as the German Jesuit who in 1878 wrote: `Because Man must have a religion, socialism has become the religion of atheistic workers particularly in Protestant regions.' Protestant critics accused the socialists of trying to establish `a heaven on earth' through the fire and sword once used by the Anabaptists in sixteenth-century Munster. However this was not something simply imputed to socialists by their opponents, but a claim they frequently made themselves. Closing the 1890 party congress in Halle, one of the Party founding fathers, Wilhelm Liebknecht, said:
Wenn wir unter dem Sozialistengesetz freudig das schwerste Opfer gebracht haben, uns die Familie und die Existenz zerstoren liessen, uns auf Jahre trennten von Frau und Kind, blos um der Sache zu dienen, so war das auch Religion, aber nicht die Religion des Pfaffenthums, sondern die Religion des Menschenthums. Es war der Glaube an den Sieg des Guten und der Idee; die unerschiitterliche Uberzeugung, der felsenfeste Glaube, dass das Recht siegen und dass das Unrecht zu Falle kommen muss. Diese Religion wird uns niemals abhanden kommen, denn sic ist eins mit dem Sozialismus.
Socialism resembled a religion in several respects and for various reasons. Even those socialists who rejected religion in favour of Darwinism and Marxism depended on the Christian heritage for such concepts as `heaven' or `salvation', not to speak of the most powerful rhetoric that lay to hand. They hardly had a monopoly of that, for scientific materialists everywhere tended to sound like members of proselytising religious sects. As the atheist Liebknecht unhelpfully explained: `I would say, provided the word religion is not misconstrued, that socialism is at the same time a religion and science - rooted in the head and the heart."" Rhetoric reliant on the religious heritage may also have made the SPD less objectionable to such new constituencies as `women' or Catholic `peasants' in southern and western Germany. But, apart from these contextual or instrumental uses of religious words and images, Social Democracy catered to human needs and fulfilled functions normally associated with a religion. The language and visual imagery of socialism was saturated with angels and happy people marching into the warm rays of the 'world-historical sunrise'.
Exposure to the fundamental tenets of the faith led workers to remark: `I saw the world with entirely different eyes: Socialism gave the most insecure, marginal and vulnerable that most valuable thing of all: hope that the future would turn out for the good since it charted a path through the ambient chaos and darkness towards a warmly reassuring light. It converted aspirations and feelings, whether of envy or fellowship, into what purported to be scientifically grounded knowledge, in the process enabling workers to controvert the bourgeoisie's monopoly of learning with a narrow range of stock formulae. It afforded the individual's life higher meaning, moral worth, while providing an ersatz community consisting of the dedicated and truly informed. It simplified moral complexities into a world of easy allegiances; one could hate or resent with good conscience since one had surrendered to the higher necessities of a movement that transcended delicacies of conscience. Finally, socialism promised reality-defying leaps from the `world of necessity to that of freedom' that, coolly considered, were as improbable as a belief in feeding thousands with loaves and fishes or walking on water. The end of the existing world would come not in the form of a divine apocalypse but as a result of laws immanent in the productive process, though an apocalypse it would be all the same. It was called a revolutionary `Last Judgement'. As society evolved towards the revolutionary end-state, a `new man' would arise to populate the post-apocalyptic age. This vision owed very little to `science' and much to religious eschatology. See Sebastian Priifer, `Die friihe deutsche Sozialdemokratie 1863 his 1890 als Religion. Zur Problematik eines revitalisierten Konzepts' in Berthold Untried and Christine Schindler (eds), Riten, Mythen and Syinbole - Die Arbeiterbewegung zwischen Zivilreligion' and Volkskultur (Vienna 1999) P. 42 and Britte Emig, Die Veredelung des Arbeiters. Sozialdemokratie als Kulturbewegung (Frankfurt am Main 1980) especially PP. 94-103
Readers may object that socialism came in different guises and tempers. So did Protestantism. Just as liberal bourgeois Protestants had abandoned the more dramatically eschatological aspects of their faith, through their accommodations with modern science and criticism, so some socialists abandoned an emphasis upon the revolutionary apocalypse that was supposed to inaugurate utopia, in favour of a modern appreciation for incremental, practical reforms, to be achieved by working with the grain of the existing system. In 1891 Georg von Vollmar amused delegates to a socialist convention when he mocked the prophetic certainty of some of his fellow SPD leaders in and outside Germany:
The point in time when that (the great crash-bang-wallop) will be, has - since prophecy has now become fashionable in the party - (applause) recently been established by those in London as being the year 1898. I don't know the day or month. But I do know people in the party, for whom this date is far too distant, and who think it could be 1893, perhaps even 1892 (applause).( Holscher, Weltgericht oder Revolution pp. 189-9o)
Going to buy the Party newspaper was like entering sacred ground, with people putting on their Sunday best to do it. Socialist meetings followed a liturgy that unconsciously mimicked that of the Churches, with choral singing of alternative words to the tune of Christian hymns, together with cheers and toasts to socialism. Celebrations of the early socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle's birthday on Palm Sunday were not complete without a portrait of the leader surrounded with leafy greenery and banners inscribed with such sayings as `The workers are the rock on which the Church of the present shall be founded.' Speeches referred to Lassalle as `the new messiah of the people'. Down to 1890 when restrictions on political demonstrations were lifted, socialists used funerals as a means of impressing the scale of their support on the public. While these took on more secular characteristics, it is noteworthy that at the graveside the assembled comrades felt obliged to reaffirm their `confession of faith'.
If the European working classes, and middle-class fellow travellers, took to the religion of socialism in prodigious numbers, people higher in the social scale adopted a number of creeds that have evinced greater durability. This was especially true of Protestant northern Germany where middle-class alienation from the Churches seems to have set in remarkably early, that is before 1848, and people turned to the arts aswell as commerce for consolation and meaning. Concerned Protestant clergy routinely came down on the well-educated professional middle classes and the wealthier commercial bourgeoisie for failing in their religious duties.
Once, Christianity had constituted a common bond between the highest and the lowest, regardless of the different levels at which they apprehended the same stories. In the early modern period, humanistic culture was confined to court life and made little impression on the world beyond. By the nineteenth century this had been augmented by the specialised scholarship of universities, which divided fragments of knowledge among rival faculties, to be further dissected by a specialising professoriate that revelled in wilful obscurity. For a good discussion of these processes see the still useful Franz Schnabel, Deutsche Geschichte im neunzehnten jahrhundert (Freiburg im Breisgau 1937) 4, PP. 568ff.
History, natural sciences and political economy edged aside theology, although philosophy would follow in due course. Beginning with the demieducation that went with the layabout life of students, religious indifferentism spread to the urban bourgeoisie, who moreover were as mobile in their way as the new industrial proletarians, and hence not embedded in ecclesiastical structures for any length of time. While the urban middle class moved their dwellings to places that reflected their status and discovered the cultural diversity of modern urban life, the intellectual scope of the Churches contracted to a dialogue of the like-minded who by dint of their modest circumstances were unable to leave their place of birth. Protestant pastors operated within a relatively narrow circle of lower-middle-class bureaucrats and shopkeepers who were committed to parish life, who were active on parish councils, and who had very limited cultural or intellectual horizons. By contrast, those higher up the social scale, like architects, doctors and lawyers, found other diversions, such as private clubs and reading-rooms, commercial associations, concerts and theatre, and hardly ever visited a church. (Lucian Holscher, `Die Religion des Burgers. Burgerliche Frommigkeit and Protestantische Kirche im 19. jahrhundert', HZ ,1990, 250, pp. 602ff.)
However, alienation from formal religious observance did not mean that the urban bourgeoisie were lacking in religiosity, a word which originally meant the individual's subjective religious experience, but which mutated into a diffuse emotional piety. This occurred especially wherever liberal Protestantism simultaneously invested such worldly activities as work, politics, science or the arts with transcendental significance, as cultural Protestantism attempted to reconcile faith with the culture of the times. (Lucian Holscher, `Burgerliche Religiositat im protestantischen Deutschland des 19. Jahrhunderts' in Wolfgang Schieder (ed.), Religion and Gesellschaft im 19. jahrhundert, pp. 2o8ff.)
Music was especially suitable as a means of reaching for the sublime, especially when what is called musical idealism resulted in symphony orchestras performing an almost hallowed repertory of dead masters, such as Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, in austere concert halls where audiences of the earnest were expected to behave, keep quiet and applaud in the right places, all in marked contrast to the febrile social whirl that eclipsed the music in Europe's metropolitan opera houses.
Hector Berlioz and, more especially, Richard Wagner were composers (and prolific authors) who had an extraordinarily elevated view of the transformative potential of their art, and disdain for both crass commercialism (never incompatible with Wagner's remorseless quest for money, best symbolised by his wife Cosima hauling off bags of coins when banknotes were not forthcoming) and the mediocrity of contemporary public taste that was over-tantalised by flashy performers whose technique triumphed over substance. Wagner the man and his music offered the frisson of being avant-garde, dangerous and slightly subversive, elements essential to the romance of modernistic success as the artist himself became a cause adopted by the cognoscenti in their self-satisfied fight with uncomprehending philistines. Obsessive contemporary interest in Wagner's odious, if scarcely unique, views on Jews has rather overshadowed what he signified in the broader evolution of art galleries, concert halls and opera houses into temples where modern man glimpses the sublime, or his influences upon a modernist tradition that relies upon evoking myths that resonate in obscure regions of our psyches. The mystical transports of Wagner's brooding, fractured and swirling chords lifted audiences into a realm of deep emotions and myth.
It seemed to open profounder and more human vistas than that of the prevailing desiccated dogmas of Comtean Positivism (see P.1) or reductive Darwinian science, the musical medium through which this emotional piety was expressed being inherently unsusceptible to the Straussian critiques that had challenged a religion based on controvertible historical texts. Music could and did substitute for religious experience in a twofold manoeuvre. At Easter enthusiasts went to performances of Bach's operatic St Matthew Passion, perhaps in a concert hall rather than a sacred setting, but then made a `pilgrimage' to experience Wagner's Tristan and Isolde or Parsifal. Opera became a sacramental event that transformed an audience who arrived as atomised products of a dehumanised society into a church-like community transported into sacred realms through music-drama that evoked the rites of some half-grasped myth. Wagner's art provided a religious experience for people who could no longer believe in God, in which sacred meaning derives from the music itself, and which described the ideal of this-worldly redemption through the sacrifices made by the characters. Art had replaced religion in the sense of giving higher meaning to a world that was increasingly disenchanted, temporarily giving striking form and purpose to mythic incarnations of the human self to audiences all too aware of the ambient chaos and meaninglessness of the Godless condition.
Wagner saw himself as a cultural messiah whose `holy gift' would cleanse and transform not just opera audiences but society at large. Cosima encouraged the atmosphere of a cult that surrounded the irascible `Master'. The cult spread through such devices as the national subscription societies founded to finance his festival house at Bayreuth. According to Wagner, art preserved a kernel of religious experience, to which churches and their paraphernalia had become irrelevant; as he wrote, music provided `the essence of Religion free from all dogmatic fictions', giving modern society a soul and `a new religion', as well as a new task for art itself. See Richard Wagner, `Religion and Kunst' in D. Borchmeyer (ed.) Dichtungen and Schriften (Frankfurt 1983) 10, pp. 117-63. For a good discussion of these themes see Thomas Nipperdev, `Religion and Gesellschaft. Deutschland um 1900', HZ (1988) 246, pp. 61o-n and his Religion in Umbruch. Deutschland 1870-1918 (Munich 1988) pp. 140-3
Correspondingly large claims were made for the power of music by audiences who were increasingly referred to as `apostles of music' or `initiates in the divine art', both terms indicative of the degree to which music had achieved autonomy from religion while, in a neo-Romantic sort of way, performing many of its collective and individual functions. As Charles Halle himself had it: `The art which I profess has been a sort of religion for me. It has certain influences beyond those of any other art. See Simon Gunn,The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Classes. Ritual and Authority and the English Industrial City,1840-1914 (Manchester 2000) PP. 150-1
Such cities became the hubs of a civic religion in which they themselves fulfilled part of the divine purpose. It took a clergyman to encapsulate this, but the sentiment was more widespread. George Dawson was a Nonconformist minister in late-Victorian Birmingham, for whom `a city ... was a society, established by the divine will, as the family, the State, and the Church are established, for common life and common purpose and common action'. Like the nation in miniature, the city was a surrogate Church: `This then was the new corporation, the new Church, in which they might meet until they came into union again - a Church in which there was no bond, nor text, nor articles - a large Church, one of the greatest institutions yet established.' (T. Hunt, Building Jerusalem. The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, London 2004)