The Bogus Priest Who Was a Socialist Pioneer
Published in Socialist Worker, 15 August 1970.
Even in the 20th century, it often seems a tough and lonely job to be a revolutionary socialist. But consider the case of Jean Meslier.
For forty years, from 1689 to 1729, he was priest of the village of Étrépigny in Eastern France. For 40 years he preached to the 37 families in the village, though it is said he sometimes had to hide a sarcastic grin during services.
And when he died, to the consternation of the church authorities, it was found he had left a testament that showed him to be not only an atheist, but one of the pioneers of revolutionary socialism.
Why did he do it? Meslier was deeply moved by the fate of the peasants he lived among. They suffered not only from regular famines, but from the wars the French king was waging to add to his glory.
It is said that a common prayer among the peasants was to ask God for the grace to die within the year. The only amusements were brandy and incest.
Yet what could be done about it? Meslier often refused fees for weddings and funerals, but he could see that individual charity was no solution. There were peasant riots, but these were acts of rage and frustration, not an attempt to change the system.
So Meslier gambled on the future. The priesthood offered him time and independence to study and write. He left his Testament in the hope that one day his dreams might become practical.
Meslier hated the religion he was supposed to represent. He set out proofs to show that the Christian religion was illogical and detestable. He argued that all religion derived from a conspiracy to delude the common people.
But above all, he hated religion because it was identified with conservatism, because it prevented people from changing the world into a better place.
Meslier’s dream was of a society based on equality, where all goods would be held in common, all children would be brought up by the community, all men would have equal food and clothing. No longer would we see:
‘some gorge and burst themselves eating and drinking, with fine meals, while others die of hunger.’
Meslier was not the first to dream of a perfect society. For many centuries such a vision had been a consolation to the oppressed. But while it remained purely a consolation, it could serve only to make people put up with their sufferings. Meslier’s originality was to look for the way things could be changed.
He was well aware that no change could come without violence. In fact he hoped for the day when ‘all the great of the earth and all the nobles will be hung and strangled with the bowels of the priests.’
But who could bring about such change? For Meslier, only the common people could do this – it was, of course, at this time hardly possible to talk of a working class as such.
In the most stirring and prophetic passage of his Testament, Meslier launched the idea of the general strike:
‘Keep for yourselves, in your own hands, all the wealth and all the goods that you produce so abundantly with the sweat of your bodies; keep them for yourselves and for all your fellow men; give none of them to those arrogant and useless idlers, who do nothing useful in the world, give none of them to all those priests and monks who live useless lives on the earth; give none of them to those proud and arrogant tyrants who ruin and oppress you. Tell all your children and your relations, all your friends and associates to leave their service entirely; excommunicate them completely from your society.’
Meslier had learnt something from the strikes of 18th century workers against unfair regulations imposed on them. But he had also had one of the fundamental insights of socialist thought – that those who work to produce the wealth both should and can dispose of it.
Meslier’s thought was still confused and groping for the truth. The idea of workers’ control was absent from his thought. He wrote: ‘It is absolutely necessary for the good of human society that some men should be dependent on and subordinate to others.’
But his Testament was still too hot to handle for many of his contemporaries. The great liberal writer and thinker Voltaire did much to popularise Meslier’s work. But while he was glad to use Meslier’s criticisms of the church, he kept quiet about his socialist ideas.
Throughout the 19th century, Meslier’s work was printed and circulated privately and in secret. Despite the stiff penalties for subversive publications, the book was read widely and contributed to the ferment of ideas that led up to the French Revolution of 1789.
In the 19th century, Meslier’s Testament could at last be published openly and in full. With the growth of marxism, Meslier’s ideas were absorbed into the mainstream of socialist thought.
But this strange figure should not be forgotten. This socialist priest was a forerunner of many other priests in modern times. Faced with the sufferings of the oppressed, they have let the other world take second place to political action here and now.
The French worker priests in the 1940s became militant trade unionists. The Latin American priest Camilo Torres took up arms and died a guerrilla.
Jean Meslier stands as a perpetual reminder that ideas can become weapons, that the lunatic dream of yesterday is the social reality of today.