How socialism helped seed the landscape of modern religion

Predecessors of Marx and Engels found religion integral to their political vision.

For most people today, socialism is associated with a secular or atheistic worldview. Since the October Revolution of 1917, most socialist regimes have built on Marxist doctrines and taken clear anti-religious stances. From another perspective, however, secular or anti-religious socialism is exceptional, and religious socialism common. The vast majority of the socialist predecessors of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were acutely religious. Especially in France, socialists found religion integral to their political vision.

After the mid-19th century, socialists even became founders of new spiritualist occultist religious movements. The role of socialism as a secularising force in the 19th and 20th centuries was coincidental and not inherent to socialism itself. In fact, socialists had a vital and productive relationship with religion. In the 1820s, the French Saint-Simonians, the first influential socialist movement, declared themselves the apostles of their “church” and preached a “New Christianity”. The Fourierists, who succeeded the Saint-Simonians as the most dynamic socialist school, demanded the “return to the Christianity of Jesus Christ”.

In the 1840s, the leading communist Étienne Cabet identified communism with “the true Christianity according to Jesus Christ”. Pierre Leroux, who had coined the term socialisme, explained its meaning with “religious democracy”. Engels, in 1843, had marvelled at the Frenchmen’s “mysticism”, but later observers, who had usually been shaped by Marxism, dismissed the religion of the early socialists as superficial rhetoric or childish enthusiasm. However, that is simply not the case.

Religion meets science and philosophy

Many early socialists looked to religion for ways to define society according to principles both religious and socialist. Early socialists sought to create a “synthesis” of religion, science and philosophy to counter the excesses of the Enlightenment. They saw the Enlightenment and the French Revolution as needing correction against a tendency to materialism, atheism and egoistic individualism. The Saint-Simonians declared that “the political order will be, in its entirety, a religious institution”. In this perfect society, a class of priests would maintain social harmony. They even accepted the description of socialism as a “theocracy”, as long as one “understands theocracy as the state in which the political and the religious laws are identical, and where the leaders of society are those who speak in the name of God”.

Following the long-established example of Catholicism, socialists demanded “spiritual authority” and modelled their universal association after the structure of the Catholic Church. The borders to contemporary reformist Catholics were often blurred, most spectacularly in the case of Félicité de Lamennais, a priest who had founded the so-called neo-Catholic movement and had turned to a Christian socialism in the early 1830s. Lamennais’ highly influential writings fuelled the socialist determination to establish the “true Christianity”.

The February Revolution of 1848 failed to realise the socialist Kingdom of God on Earth. The coup of Louis-Napoléon in 1851 brought the demise of the Second Republic and socialist activities were outlawed. It was in this atmosphere that the appearance of spiritualism caused a sensation. Spiritualism had emerged in the United States in 1848, when the Fox sisters claimed to be in contact with the spirits of the dead by so-called “rappings”.

Since 1853, similar phenomena had caused a stir in France and Germany. Socialists, especially Fourierists, welcomed spiritualism, in part because it had emerged from US socialism and incorporated theories about universal harmonies and attractions, natural forces and spiritual regeneration conducive to socialism. In the 1850s, numerous socialist veterans became leading spiritualists.

At the same time, vehement debates about the future of socialism raged. The Revue philosophique et religieuse, an attempt to revive socialism in its July Monarchy vein, is an example of the clash between veteran socialists and their critics. The latter included the socialist Zionist Moses Hess. The fronts were clear: as a wrathful letter to the editor claims, the “scientific” German socialism owned the future, while the failure of socialism in France owed to it being “theosophical socialism”.

Magic and mysticism

Alphonse-Louis Constant, a clergyman who in the 1840s became notorious for his extreme radicalism, was another mystically inclined socialist. Born in 1810, he had abandoned his ecclesiastic career to enter the world of Romantic artists and socialists. Constant became a disciple of Lamennais and proclaimed a communisme néo-catholique. Like Saint-Simonians and Fourierists, he held that only an instructed elite could realise a peaceful revolution.

In his articles for the Revue, Constant maintained that he had found the key to achieving true socialism: the Kabbalah and its magical doctrines. Contemporaries were less surprised than later generations: historiographies of socialism – both critical and self-referential – regarded the socialists as the heirs of a heretical tradition that included mystics, theosophists, Kabbalists, magicians, Cathars, or Templars, and stretched back to the ancient Gnostics. Constant explained that this tradition represented true religion, and thus true socialism, but that its wisdom had been handed down in an encrypted form to save it from corruption. The decryption of this occult tradition would mean the emancipation of humanity.

Parallel to these articles, Constant began to adopt a pseudonym under which he would become famous as the founder of modern occultism: Eliphas Lévi. The first parts of his occultist Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (or Dogma and Ritual of High Magic), a work that is still influential, appeared in 1854. In this and his later books, Constant was the first author to propagate “occultism”.

Its aim was the creation of a priestly elite of initiates that should lead the people to emancipation and, finally, establish a universal association with god where everybody is equal. The “universal science” of magic, which Constant developed on the basis of contemporary socialist theories, was to play a central role. This would create the final synthesis of science and religion that would lay the foundations for the perfect social order, marking the last stage in the revolutionary march of human progress.

The language of magic should not obscure Constant’s ideas as a socialist. Scholars have sometimes regarded his call for spiritual authority, theocratical hierarchy and the gradual instruction of the “ignorant masses” as a reactionary political turn. In fact, these were church-inspired socialist doctrines. Because of the dominance of materialist, atheist varieties of socialism since the second half of the 19th century, the relationship between religion and socialism has been in some profound ways distorted. Not only did religion lead many to socialism; with spiritualism and occultism, socialism has contributed in lasting ways to the landscape of modern religion.

This article first appeared on Aeon.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.


As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.


So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.


As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”


By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.