Atheism Lay at the Core of Soviet Ideology, and Helps Explain Its Moral Monstrosity

Referring to Hitler and Stalin, the New Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins has written that there “is not the smallest evidence” that “atheism systematically influences people to do bad things.” Gary Saul Morson, reviewing Victoria Smolkin’s A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism, finds ample evidence to refute Dawkins; to the contrary, he writes, “Bolshevik ethics began and ended with atheism.”

Only someone who rejected all religious or quasi-religious morals could be a Bolshevik because, as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and countless other Bolshevik leaders insisted, success for the party was the only standard of right and wrong. The bourgeoisie falsely claim that Bolsheviks have no ethics, Lenin explained in a 1920 speech. No, he said; what Bolsheviks rejected was an ethical framework based on God’s commandments or anything resembling them, such as abstract principles, timeless values, universal human rights, or any tenet of philosophical idealism. For a true materialist, he maintained, there could be no Kantian categorical imperative to treat others only as ends, not as means.

By the same token, the materialist does not acknowledge the impermissibility of lying or the supposed sanctity of human life. All such notions, Lenin declared, are “based on extra-human and extra-class concepts” and so are simply religion in disguise. “That is why we say that to us there is no such thing as a morality that stands outside human society,” he said. “That is a fraud. To us morality is subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle.” That meant the Communist party. . . .

For a true atheist, to acknowledge any moral standard “outside human society”—which means outside the party—was anathema. As the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin explained: “From the point of view of ideal absolutes and empty phraseology one can attack Soviet ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘hierarchy’ as much as one wishes. But such a point of view is itself empty, abstract, and meaningless. The only possible approach in this regard is the historical one which bases the criteria of rationality on the specific historical circumstances”—that is, on what the party wants to do at any given moment. . . .

Memoirist after memoirist, including the atheist Lydia Ginzburg, testifies that in the [Soviet prison] camps the only people who consistently chose conscience, even at the cost of their lives, were the believers. It did not seem to matter whether they were Jews, Orthodox Christians, Russian sectarians, or Baptists.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Atheism, Communism, History & Ideas, Religion, Richard Dawkins, Soviet Union, Totalitarianism


Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood