What are the current tasks of the freethought movement?

Sebastian Bahlo

Sebastian Bahlo, Chairman of the German Freethinkers’ Association.

The question implies that the tasks of the freethought movement have changed over time. What has not changed are the general goals of the freethinkers – and I always understand the word synonymously with socialist freethinkers, because with the bourgeois atheists and critics of religion there can be no lasting common theoretical and strategic basis beyond selective cooperation – the supreme goal was and is the overcoming of man’s self-alienation caused by class society, Underneath this are the sub-goals of propagating the Enlightenment, criticising religion, fighting against the social power of the churches, fighting against economic exploitation, for political freedom, cultivating an association life that fulfils the members spiritually and culturally and offers them friendship and sociability.

These goals remain, but the way in which we can make the greatest contribution to achieving them varies depending on external circumstances. It changes with social consciousness, and this depends on the general development of humanity. It might seem that some of the aims of the Freethought Movement here in Western Europe have been realised to such a high degree that we have become almost superfluous: The role of religion is visibly weakening, and even the most uneducated are informed about scientific theories by morning television. But these appearances are very deceptive.

I want to put the question in a historical context that concerns the very subject of this conference. With the development of capitalism into imperialism, a degeneration of the working class gradually occurred in the developed capitalist countries, which Friedrich Engels explained in relation to England with the words: “the workers are briskly feasting on the world market and colonial monopoly of England”. The class struggle in these countries tended to become less and less about wresting a share of the self-created product from the capitalists and more and more about bargaining with them for the dividends of imperialist exploitation. After the Second World War, this tendency intensified as the intra-imperialist antagonisms were frozen in the long term, (though not absolutely, of course), and a fairly unified imperialist bloc led by the USA came to dominate the world. However, a tendency similar at first sight can also be seen in many exploited countries: In order to exist as nation states at all under the conditions of imperialism, or even to actively defend their sovereignty, they need a cross-class national alliance. Here, too, there is often a weakening of the national class struggle. However, this latter weakening is of a very different nature from the weakening of the class struggle in the imperialist countries. While in the imperialist countries the weakening is economically conditioned and involves a degeneration of political consciousness towards individualism, in the exploited countries it is politically conditioned and is carried by an elevation of mass consciousness in the sense of a national and collectivist ideology. This is, so to speak, a law of imperialism, which of course never appears in its pure form. In particular, the existence of socialist countries is not taken into account here for the sake of simplicity, but this does not invalidate what has been said. On the term “weakening”: this term is not entirely happy and should, if possible, be replaced by a better one. What is meant is that the class struggle remains confined to the economic field and does not lead to political unrest. China offers a simple example: In China, capitalism is indisputably the dominant economic form. Therefore, there is also class struggle in China, which is also openly carried out, including strikes. But it is clear to all concerned that the political stability of the Chinese state must form the immovable framework for this purely economic class struggle. If someone now comes along and says: China is capitalist, ergo China needs a new socialist revolution for the political seizure of power by the working class – such idiots objectively make themselves super-leftist lackeys of imperialism.

Obviously, the question touches on the theory of imperialism and the question of how to define an imperialist country. There are those who tacitly presuppose the definition that a large capitalist country is automatically to be addressed as imperialist and believe they can refer to Lenin in doing so – but there is nothing of the sort in Lenin, there are rather formulations which indicate that he would have rejected such a definition. In Lenin’s time, however, it was not a matter of dispute which countries were imperialist and the need for a definition was not felt. It is different today. For the question of whether a particular country is to be considered imperialist, I propose as at least one criterion whether its policies are dominated by the national interest or by the interests of finance capital.

One more explanation is in order: even in imperialist countries, a conscious perception of national interests can be quite progressive. Thus, all efforts for a German withdrawal from NATO and for the defence of national sovereignty against the EU are progressive. Even in the leading imperialist power, the USA, I see the slogan “America First” as predominantly progressive, because it is essentially directed against the abandonment of national interests in favour of the imperialist network of alliances. However, if such a national standpoint were to become dominant in the country, it would soon expose the real profiteers of imperialism and paradoxically tear apart the false, only apparent national unity.

Highlighting the contrast between a degenerative national unification and a progressive national unification makes it easier to decide whether a social phenomenon is predominantly progressive or predominantly reactionary. And an obvious application for us freethinkers is, of course, religion. Religion – and, for that matter, even one and the same religion – can play a progressive or reactionary role, depending on whether it is an essentially collectivist ideology serving only to camouflage degenerative individualism, or whether it is a genuine source of collectivism. Yes, even the religious conviction of a single individual can exhibit both tendencies. The Pope can do something progressive in the morning and something reactionary in the afternoon. We should clearly distinguish ourselves from the view that freethinkers define themselves decisively by their opposition to religion. Our worldview has a positive content, it does not need a counterpart whose non-being it would be. Our critical recognition of religion as a historically conditioned, limited and transitory phenomenon must not prevent us from respecting it as a long-lasting real phenomenon and, in particular, from recognising its progressive forms of expression. In cooperating with religious forces for progressive purposes, we should not impose any limitations on ourselves. We should also open ourselves even more to religious members. Inner religious conviction is not fundamentally incompatible with a materialist worldview.

The transition to a multipolar world order, which we have discussed at length today, also affects the field of activity of freethinkers.

I said earlier that it is a law of imperialism that the national class struggle is weakened in both imperialist and exploited countries, these being two quite different kinds of weakening. In fact, the contrast between imperialist and anti-imperialist nations is only the transformation of the class struggle on a larger stage, the main antagonists being the monopoly capitalists of the imperialist nations and the labouring masses of the anti-imperialist nations. And therefore, it is also quite correct to see a revolutionary process in the present formation of the multipolar world order. At this point, it is appropriate to quote Vladimir Putin: “The West is not in a position to lead humanity single-handedly, but is desperately trying to do so, and most of the peoples of the world do not want to put up with it any longer. This is the main contradiction of the new era. To use the words of a classicist, the situation is in a sense revolutionary: those at the top can no longer, and those at the bottom no longer want to.”

Those at the top can no longer, but they still want to. And this involuntary departure of imperialism from the world stage is turning out to be very unpleasant. Further and further escalation in Ukraine, unprecedented economic war, permanent propaganda, synchronisation of state and media, criminalisation of protest. All of these things started in some form years ago, but since last year their fascist tendencies have become clear. And this requires us to renew our self-understanding as an anti-fascist organisation and to focus the anti-fascist struggle on the contemporary manifestations of fascism and its precursors. This also includes the struggle against pseudo-antifascism, which is an ideology of domination.

It is clear that a freethinkers’ association would paralyse itself to the point of complete inability to act if it tried to strike a balance in its membership between diametrically opposed views on the war in the Donbass. On this issue, we have to be unwavering in our position, at the risk of individuals leaving us – which, in our experience, does not play a significant role in the German Freethinkers’ Association and is more than outweighed by the people who come to us anew precisely because of our clear positioning.

We also do not miss the opportunity to point out and fight the Green Party as the spearhead of war politics and fascisation, and we participate in the propagation of the slogan “Whoever votes Green, votes for war”.

The fight for freedom of expression is acutely necessary at a time when politicians and prosecutors are trying to prosecute critical expressions of opinion on the war between Russia and Ukraine as “approval of criminal acts”. In some cases this accusation did not stand up in court, it is probably mainly to scare people. I said the other day at the Immortal Regiment: “Let us rather be brave now, as long as we are only threatened with fines or imprisonment, before resistance is again life-threatening”. However, it is at all scandalous that an expression of opinion about a war between two foreign countries should be punishable, this is a blatant violation of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, which we must defend.

It would therefore be an illusion to believe that the freethought movement could be held together by avoiding the sensitive, historically decisive questions – no, this would only lead the movement towards insignificance. There are, however, questions on which one can be indifferent and about which one has to endure the internal dispute. These are often the questions with the greatest potential for division. For example, it is possible to discuss openly in our association how dangerous a certain virus is and what political measures should or should not be taken against it. We also have opposing positions on the scientific hypothesis of man-made global warming. Not that I think there are no truths or multiple truths – but there are disputes about what the truth is, and these are issues where tolerance of opposing positions holds the federation together and strengthens it. I underline what Guy Dawson said earlier (in relation to Corona politics): The worst thing was division! Yes, I too have my opinion about whether the virus or the measures have claimed more victims, but what distinguishes our federation is that we can talk to each other even if we have opposing positions on this, whereas elsewhere families are torn apart over this. Everyone retreated into their own bubble, no one even wanted to listen to each other’s way of thinking. That we managed to resist this division was an achievement that was worthwhile.

I would like to point out that I do not claim to have a complete list of all the tasks of the freethought movement, and that I do not consider the tasks that I have not mentioned to be irrelevant. Of course, tasks such as representing the interests of non-religious and – as it is called in Germany – non-denominational people, demanding the separation of state and church, further development of secular festive and mourning culture and many others remain. Only it should never be pursued in isolation; one must have a clear picture of the world in which it takes place.

I am convinced that the freethought movement, if it does justice to the above-mentioned tasks and acquires a contemporary self-image, will play an important role in the present phase of upheaval and will gain considerably in importance and size.

Sebastian Bahlo