The most notable spread of atheism was achieved through the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which brought the Marxist-Leninists to power. For the first time in history, atheism thus became the official ideology of a state.
Portrait of Karl Marx
c.1970 (chromolitho) by Chinese School, (20th century) Private Collection/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library.
Whereas Marx and Engels had assumed that religion would wither away of its own accord once the socio-economic conditions changed (see Radical Hegelianism), many Bolscheviks supposed that an aggressive antireligious struggle would nevertheless be necessary. Echoing Lenin, the Marxist philosopher Bucharin (1888-1938), for example, in his ABC of Communism (1919) stated unreservedly that religion and communism were in theory and practice irreconcilable.The antireligious movement in the USSR seems to have lost much of its impetus by the early 1930s, and during the second world war the USSR closed the Association of Militant Atheists (1941) so as not to risk division among the people against the common German enemy. However, in 1955/6 militant atheism in the USSR was once more actively promoted, with the establishment of a Chair for Scientific Atheism in Moscow in 1963. This trend was also reflected in policies in the Eastern Bloc and China.
With the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989 Marxist 'scientific atheism' has ceased to have the place in intellectual debate which it once had, but its importance and centrality in the history of twentieth century atheism has been massive.
Histoire de L'atheisme. La Fleche: Fayard, 1998.