IWI holds international trade union seminar: “Religion & Trade Union Movement”

IWI holds international trade union seminar: “Religion & Trade Union Movement”

The International Workers’ Institute (IWI) has successfully held its first seminar for this year, on 30 January 2024. The seminar, which inaugurated the Second Trade Union Education Cycle focused on “Religions and the Trade Union Movement” and the main speaker was comrade Axel Persson, member of the IWI Trade Union Educational Committee (TUEC) and Secretary General of the Trappes railway workers’ union, affiliated with the CGT France.

The seminar was attended with great interest by trade unionists and cadres from almost 30 countries, including Palestine, Lebanon, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Syria, USA, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, France, Greece, Spain, DR Congo, Venezuela, Peru, Puerto Rico, Bangladesh, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Ecuador, Mexico etc. The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was also represented, delivering a greeting speech.

The 2024 IWI Training Cycle will continue with the next seminar on “Women & Trade Union Movement”, which will take place on the occasion of March the 8th, and the main speakers will be comrades Dania Leyva Creagh and Cinzia Della Porta, members of the IWI TUEC.

See below the main Presentation of comrade A. Persson in yesterday’s seminar:



Before we get started, we must take a few minutes to reflect on the definition of religion in order to apprehend it and come to practical conclusions as to how we, as worker’s activists, should take it into account in our activities worldwide as organized labour across the world. It is important to note that there is no scholarly consensus for a common definition of what constitutes a religion or does not constitute a religion. But at the same time, there is a consensus over the fact that there are over 10 000 religions in the world. A paradox not to say the least, because we can agree on the fact that there are more than 10 000 religions, but not agree on how to define what precisely constitutes a religion and what does not. It is important also to note that many groups of people rejects the conception of religion to define their belief systems and consider the concept of religion as not applicable to describe their practices. What all these systems have in common though is that they contain a range of socialcultural systems, including designated behaviors and practices, moralsbeliefsworldviews.

Some of them are embodied and codified in texts, all of them refer to specific ethics, some refer to sanctified places as a common reference. Some, but not all, refer to organizations that generally relate humanity with spiritual elements which tend to organize human life around these spiritual elements in terms of value, interaction between members of society, sometimes with nature and its elements, sometimes even outright organization of society. Religion has been a factor of the human experience throughout history, from pre-historic to modern times. All in all they have sought to give meaning to human existence, answers to the questions all humans have asked themselves throughout history and as such overlap with the concept of philosophy. It is because it overlaps with the concept of philosophy that it influences political theory that stems from these philosophies. Religions provide theory. It is with that aspect in mind that we, as working class activists, leaders of class organizations, determined to bring about a major upheaval in terms of how society functions, grounding ourselves in a political analysis of society and rooted in philosophical concepts, that we have to understand and analyses religion that has such a major impact on how society have functioned and still function to this day.

Studies have been conducted by the CIA across the world to better ascertain how the world population relates to different religious currents. This study shows the following adherence to the different religious (or irreligious) currents in the world.

Christianity (31.1%)

Islam (24.9%)

Irreligion (15.6%) (ex : atheists)

Hinduism (15.2%)

Buddhism (6.6%)

Folk religions (5.6%) (ex : vernacular religions)

Other religions (example : Judaism) (1%)


Religions are reflections and expressions of real social needs and interests. The dominant attitude towards in a given society is also determined by social needs and interests. Marx wrote.

As society gradually produced more than what its members needed to survive, a minority could live without producing by living off the resources created in excess. This minority could then allot time to think, produce philosophy, and produce more advanced religious beliefs and systems that would then determine how to organize who would benefit from the excess resources created. Some of them created clergies, entirely specialized in organizing society around religious beliefs. They provided answers to the questions that were asked. Gave guidance. Religion as such is therefore rooted in how society has developed across the years. Why should some remain poor and work till the grave and others would not? Religion provided answers to that. Why would some be in power and rule over others? While there was a material base for that, religion provided answers that could subjugate society. Everybody knows’ that Marx wrote about religion being the opium of the people, so we shall look at the entire passage from which this comes.

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction.)

‘Everybody’ thinks that Marx was saying that religion was dope manufactured by the ruling class to keep the masses happy. The real Marx, however, was concerned with much more weighty problems. Among other things, he was thinking about how an abstract human being could exist. He concludes that one could not. ‘Man is the world of man, state, society’, and the conception of God was a necessary conception in an ‘inverted world’. Once the world was right side up, the idea would not be needed. Meanwhile we should pay attention to it.

That is how Marx wrote and analysed religion.


Far from banning religion, we should argue that religion should be a private matter in relation to the state, and complete freedom of religion should prevail. The material conditions that have led to the emergence of religions have not disappeared, so it would be completely unmaterialistic to decree that it should disappear by a simple decree. Our organisations must stand by the principle and act accordingly that discrimination amongst workers on account of their religious convictions (or absence of religious beliefs) is wholly intolerable and is a poison that threatens unity within our ranks.

In determining our attitude to popular movements with either a religious coloration or influence, which are many, we must take as our point of departure not the religious beliefs of the movement’s leaders or of its supporters. What we as class activists must do it is to analyses the political role of the movement by identifying the social forces and interests which it represents, even when they do so only partially. Many movements share common religious references. Yet they implement policies that sometimes contradict each other or are very far from one another. Those differences are not rooted first and foremost in their appreciation of Islam but are rooted in the material, geopolitical scene in which the rivalry between these powers are either competing against one other or allying themselves based on their political and economical interests and the alliances they have formed between themselves and against each others according to these interests. While Hamas may on paper share more common religious references with the King of Morocco, the latter has allied itself with the US and western imperialism and Israel in order to further his interests in terms of control of the Polisario region, that he refers to as Western Sahara. And in the 80’s, Israel saw the emergence of Hamas as a phenomena they viewed favorably, in order to undermine the major forces that embodied Palestinian resistance, the secular organisations such as the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine and to some extent Fatah and the PLO. Yemeni Houthis may differ with Hamas on certain aspects of Islam but they are currently engaged in an war against Israel and were also engaged in a war against Saudi Arabia. We as class activists take that into account in our analyses and how to shape our policies, not their religious beliefs.

To put this in perspective in Europe, one can consider the respective historical roles of Catholicism and Protestantism. In the Middle Ages, Catholicism was essentially the religion of the feudal aristocracy. By contrast radical Protestantism tended to represent either the rising bourgeoisie or the plebeian elements. The great rebels and revolutionaries of those times like Thomas Muenzers were passionate Protestants—extremists and fundamentalists in the language of today. But the moment these bourgeois rebels came to power, in the Netherlands and England, they became colonialists and slavers. Oliver Cromwell, the revolutionary who overthrew and killed the king in England, became Cromwell the oppressor in Ireland and specifically the oppressor of the Catholic peasantry. Dutch protestant burghers could be the heroes of Europe in the Dutch Revolt but villains in Africa with apartheid. The strongly reactionary role of the Catholic church continued in Europe, especially southern Europe, and saw it give active support for Franco in Spain and strike deals with Mussolini and Hitler. But at the same time, Catholicism remained strong in Ireland and was able to powerfully identify itself with opposition to national oppression from the British state.

We must determine our political attitude towards Malcolm X not on the basis of his religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam or to Hugo Chavez on the basis of his Catholicism. We understand the organization Jewish Voice for Peace in the US that has organized massive support for Palestinian self-determination against US establishment led by a president that refers to Christian beliefs.

It also follows that we do not accept that our organizations should enforce the idea that any of the major religions is inherently, or in terms of its doctrines, “better” than any of the others in essence. We understand that for a religion to survive over centuries in many locations and different social orders, it is a precondition that its doctrines be capable of almost infinite selection, interpretation and adaptation. Once again, what is decisive is not religious doctrine but social base in the specific social situation. Thus in the US we find a right wing racist imperialist Christianity but also a left wing anti-racist Christian tradition in Martin Luther King. In South Africa there was a pro-apartheid Christianity and an anti-apartheid Christianity; in Latin America there has been a right wing, pro-oligarchy, pro-dictator Catholicism and a leftist “theology of liberation” Catholicism; and, of course, there are a multitude of different, often sharply conflicting, versions of Islam as we exposed earlier. The same applies to Judaism where major anti-zionist socialist labour organisations such as the Bund were dominant in Europe before World War II, sharply opposed to the political and colonialist project of the European Zionists. In India, many leaders have described themselves as Hinduist yet stood against British imperialism but at the same time modern era leaders like Narendra Modi refer to Hinduism as well but embody an extremely reactionary force.


Finally, there is the question of the relationship of the trade unions to religious workers. Any trade union operating in a country where religion remains strong among the mass of the population, which is much of the world, must reckon with, indeed count on, the fact that the revolution will be made by workers of whom many will still be religious.

In such a situation it is incumbent on the class-oriented to ensure that religious differences, or differences between the religious and the non-religious, do not obstruct the unity of working class struggle. Moreover, insofar as the trade union becomes or is truly mass organization, leading the class in its workplaces and communities, it will find or already has in its ranks a layer of workers who are religious or semi-religious. We must ban any attempts to reject, segregate or prevent such workers of rising to leadership positions because of their religious beliefs. This would be sectarian. It would be to make the mistake of regarding religion as the most important element in consciousness and consciousness as more important than practice. But, we must enforce the fact that our organizations should not be a religious organization whose policy, strategy or tactics are shaped by religious considerations.

Our philosophy is rooted in an analysis that leads to action taken in this world in order to bring about the satisfaction of our demands in terms of social justice, freedom and workers power. That in essence, is the ground on which we must strive to unify our members, sympathizers and allies, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Our political project is to build a democratically and rationally planned economy, based on the needs of us all, rather than the profit of a few. And I am also convinced that this project can appeal broadly to the vast majority of religious people and is not in contradiction to many of the aspects of their religions.