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.