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Socialist Religions and Secularization in Nineteenth-Century France

Le peuple et le Christ (Bibliothèque nationale de France). Source:

Julian Strube

It is widely accepted that radical leftist currents contributed to a progressive "secularization" of post-revolutionary French society that reached its peak with the laïcité of the Third Republic. However, a look at the historical sources shows that most socialists and communists articulated decidedly religious identities up to the revolution of 1848 and its devastating outcome. As a matter of fact, "religion" played a key role in the political theories of the most radical social reformers under the July Monarchy. Due to the dominance of other socialist currents like Proudhonism, Blanquism, or Marxism since the 1850s, this circumstance has been lastingly eclipsed.

Following up on the research of Julian Strube’s dissertation about "Socialism, Catholicism, and Occultism in 19th-Century France," this project aims at showing how French socialists and communists imagined the relationship between religion and politics, as well as that between church and state, in the 1830s and 1840s. It will be argued that socialists took a significant part in the debates about the meaning of "religion" and its place in "modern" society. In this course they did not argue for a separation of church and state or a restriction of religion to the private sphere, but for a final synthèse of religion, science, and politics as a basis for a universal harmonic society. Arguably this was quite the opposite of "secularization."

However, the project aims at emphasizing the complexity of the historical situation, by explaining how socialist concepts of "religion" were seeking to establish new forms of "rational," "scientific" religions, thus contributing to the emergence of new religious identities. This becomes especially evident after the failure of the Second Republic in 1851. In the following years, adherents of the failed socialist "schools" that had been predominant under the July Monarchy played decisive roles in new religious movements like spiritualism and occultism. This shows how socialist ideas survived the disaster of 1848 and continued to shape the religious landscape of Europe.