Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 2, 2007

Socialism and religion: what Marx believed

Filed under: religion,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

(This is part 4 of a series on “Does Socialism Have a Future?”. There will be two more installments on socialism and religion after this.)

An excerpt from Chapter 11 (“Marxism and the Failed Critique of Religion”) in Alexander Saxton’s “Religion and the Human Prospect” can be read on the MRZine website. If the chapter title doesn’t say it all, Saxton makes sure to remind his readers that “Marx and Engels remained nonbelievers and foes of institutionalized religion.” Additionally, we learn that “Marx and Engels themselves had chosen to make criticism of religion the ‘premise’ for their project in revolutionary political economy.”

Alexander Saxton

Although I understand that Saxton is emeritus professor of history at UCLA, I was a bit dismayed to discover a rather unscholarly shortage of citations to support such claims, with the exception of his inclusion of Engels’s observation that “Faulty education saves [the new proletarian] from religious prepossessions, he . . . knows nothing of the fanaticism that holds the bourgeoisie bound. . . .”

I for one am not sure how Engels arrived at this conclusion. It may be true or it might not be true, but it hardly amounts to the sort of thing heard from a Samuel Harris (“The End of Faith”) or a Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”), two thinkers who have made a big splash lately railing against religion. It is simply an empirical observation that is entirely secondary to the purpose of the 1845 “Condition of the Working Class in England,” which is to denounce the treatment of factory workers in places like Manchester.

Furthermore, despite Dr. Saxton’s enormous erudition, we are obliged to remind him that Engels was no Marxist at this point. The work could have been written by a Charles Dickens and demonstrates absolutely no engagement with basic Marxist economics. This is completely understandable since there was no such thing at this point in history. Indeed, it is generally understood that Engels’s idea of socialism at this point in his career owed more to Moses Hess than to Karl Marx.

Although I reserve judgment on Engels’s claims, I did take note of the following:

When Father Mathew, the Irish apostle of temperance, passes through the English cities, from thirty to sixty thousand workers take the pledge; but most of them break it again within a month.

As somebody who has enjoyed listening to Christian talk radio over the years late at night, this sounds fairly consistent with the average caller who is trying once again with the help of Jesus to beat alcohol or drug addiction.

Turning from Engels to Marx, there is ample evidence of a philosophical struggle against philosophical idealism, which in the 19th century overlapped to a great degree with theology. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx turns Hegel on his head and looks at all ideas, including religion, as a reflection of more earthly matters:

This material, immediately perceptible private property is the material perceptible expression of estranged human life. Its movement– production and consumption — is the perceptible revelation of the movement of all production until now, i.e., the realisation or the reality of man. Religion, family, state, law, morality, science, art, etc., are only particular modes of production, and fall under its general law. The positive transcendence of private property as the appropriation of human life, is therefore the positive transcendence of all estrangement — that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i.e., social, existence.

Whatever else one wants to say about this, it hardly amounts to a declaration of warfare on religion. If so, then Marx can just as easily be categorized as an enemy of art and science since they too are regarded as being in conflict with a true social existence. That being said, Marx began to evolve away from philosophical reflections of these sorts and to focus more on economics and politics. If he was “against” religion, it was only in the broadest theoretical terms and hardly amounted to a call to boycott Sunday services.

Oddly enough, Saxton does not bother to take up Marx’s famous dictum about religion being the opiate of the people. When I was in junior high school in the 1950s, one of the first things we learned about Marxism is that its founder hated religion so much that he compared it to taking drugs. His followers in the Soviet Union interpreted this to mean that churches and synagogues should be shut down like opium dens. (Since at the time I had my fill of being forced to go to synagogue, I made a mental note to myself to check out this communism thing the first chance I had.)

This business about religion as the opiate of the people can be found in the introduction to the 1844 “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” another early work. It is certainly worth reexamining, especially since it is anything but the manifesto of a “foe of organized religion,” as Saxton puts it.

Demonstrating the influence of Feuerbach, Marx writes:

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.

This is a rather roundabout way of saying that man creates god rather than the other way around. I imagine that except for places like Oral Roberts University, this is rather uncontroversial. The notion that God created the Universe seems rather unscientific nowadays, but in the 1800s it was necessary for people like Marx, Darwin et al to stake out such a position for the sake of intellectual and scientific progress. Unfortunately, this struggle seems to be ongoing.

In the following paragraphs, Marx articulates his famous position:

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.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

However, Marx does not advocate an assault on these illusions in the manner of Samuel Harris or Richard Dawkins. Instead, he urges an attack on the conditions that make such illusions necessary:

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

If there is any confusion about what Marx was calling for, it can be cleared up by simply referring to the body of work that followed these early philosophical ruminations. Once Marx began to focus on political economy and the living class struggle, there is not a single instance of anti-religious polemics. Although Marx certainly must have been disgusted by the hypocrisy of the Anglicans or German Protestantism, he did not waste time “exposing” the utterances of their leaders. He devoted himself into “the criticism of Earth” rather than the “criticism of Heaven”.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that some of the towering figures of classical Marxism saw things in exactly the same way. Rather than attacking religion, they understood the need for working people to gain sustenance from their faith until the economic insecurity that breeds such faith is terminated. In the 1905 “Socialism and the Churches,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

But never do the Social-Democrats drive the workers to fight against clergy, or try to interfere with religious beliefs; not at all! The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience and personal opinions as being sacred. Every man may hold what faith and what opinions seem likely to him to ensure happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. That is what the socialists think. And it is for that reason, among others, that the socialists rally all the people to fight against the Czarist regime, which is continually violating men’s consciences, persecuting Catholics, Russian Catholics[1], Jews, heretics and freethinkers. It is precisely the Social-Democrats who come out most strongly in favour of freedom of conscience. Therefore it would seem as if the clergy ought to lend their support to the Social-Democrats who are trying to enlighten the toiling people. If we understand properly the teachings which the socialists bring to the working class, the hatred of clergy towards them becomes still less understandable.

Lenin, who had the reputation of being far more of a ferocious proselytizer against religion than Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Marx, was capable of seeing things in a far more nuanced fashion. In the 1900 article titled “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion,” he writes:

At the same time Engels frequently condemned the efforts of people who desired to be “more left” or “more revolutionary” than the Social-Democrats, to introduce into the programme of the workers’ party an explicit proclamation of atheism, in the sense of declaring war on religion. Commenting in 1874 on the famous manifesto of the Blanquist fugitive Communards who were living in exile in London, Engels called their vociferous proclamation of war on religion a piece of stupidity, and stated that such a declaration of war was the best way to revive interest in religion and to prevent it from really dying out. Engels blamed the Blanquists for being unable to understand that only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion, whereas to proclaim that war on religion was a political task of the workers’ party was just anarchistic phrase-mongering.

As is so often the case with Lenin, you can find a quote that seems to contradict another quote by him. Those who are anxious to group him with Samuel Harris and Richard Dawkins would dwell on his 1922 article “On the Significance of Militant Materialism“, where he writes:

The keen, vivacious and talented writings of the old eighteenth-century atheists wittily and openly attacked the prevailing clericalism and will very often prove a thousand times more suitable for arousing people from their religious torpor than the dull and dry paraphrases of Marxism, almost completely unillustrated by skillfully selected facts, which predominate in our literature and which (it is no use hiding the fact) frequently distort Marxism. We have translations of all the major works of Marx and Engels. There are absolutely no grounds for fearing that the old atheism and old materialism will remain un-supplemented by the corrections introduced by Marx and Engels. The most important thing — and it is this that is most frequently overlooked by those of our Communists who are supposedly Marxists, but who in fact mutilate Marxism — is to know how to awaken in the still undeveloped masses an intelligent attitude towards religious questions and an intelligent criticism of religions.

It is of course necessary to understand Lenin’s comments in context. The revolution had to contend with a grim reality. The vast majority of the Soviet population was made up of poorly educated peasants who retained all sorts of superstitious beliefs and tended to accept authority. In the early 1920s there was a heroic attempt to revolutionize all aspects of culture, as well as the mode of production. Looking back in retrospect, some of these efforts seem utopian if not foolish today. Within a year or so, there was a gradual retreat all along a number of fronts, including the economy.

Real foes of organized religion

1819 caricature by British George Cruikshank. Titled “The Radical’s Arms”, it depicts the infamous guillotine. “No God! No Religion! No King! No Constitution!” is written in the republican banner.

Whatever excesses are reflected in Bolshevik literature or policy in 1922, they are understandable given Marxism’s affinity with earlier revolutions, particularly in France 1789. Since Lenin and other socialist leaders saw themselves as latter-day Jacobins, it was almost inevitable that they would bend the stick in the direction against organized religion. But in comparison to their French brethren, the Bolsheviks were relatively tame. During the September Massacres of 1792, thousands of Roman Catholic priests were slaughtered by sans-culottes. For a time France was “de-Christianized” by official decree and a deep wave of anti-Clericalism swept the country:

Anti-church laws were passed by the Legislative Assembly and its successor, the National Convention, and by département councils throughout the country such as in Indre-et-Loire, where in November of 1793 the very word dimanche (“Sunday”) was abolished. The Gregorian calendar, an instrument decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, was replaced by the French Republican Calendar which abolished the sabbath, Saints’ days and any references to the Church. Anti-clerical parades were held, and the Archbishop of Paris was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre with the red “Cap of Liberty.” Street and place names with any sort of religious connotation were changed, such as the town of St. Tropez which became Héraclée. Religious holidays were banned and replaced with holidays to celebrate the harvest and other non-religious symbols. Robespierre and his colleagues decided to supplant both Catholicism and the rival, atheistic Cult of Reason with the Cult of the Supreme Being. Just six weeks before his arrest, on June 8, 1794 the still-powerful Robespierre personally led a vast procession through Paris to the Tuileries garden in a ceremony to inaugurate the new faith.


Now that’s what I call really being a foe of organized religion.

(In my next post, I plan to look at liberation theology.)



  1. The Church was banned in the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th Century, I believe.

    Comment by Charles Brown — January 2, 2007 @ 9:32 pm

  2. “Although Marx certainly must have been disgusted by the hypocrisy of the Anglicans or German Protestantism, he did not waste time “exposing” the utterances of their leaders”

    Well, there is the remark he made that the Anglican Church would sooner pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39th of its income. 🙂

    Comment by Paul Lyon — January 4, 2007 @ 5:54 am

  3. Dear comrade

    Although Dawkins is broadly speaking liberal soft-Leftist, the case of Samuel Harris clearly indicates that there’s nothing inherently Left wing about secularism. The fact like brainy people like Professor Dawkins praised ‘The End of Faith’ merely re-emphasises the point that only Marxism gives us the necessary intellectual tools to critically assess such things. After all, amongst all the plaudits Harris’ book received both sides of the Atlantic, only Marxists pointed out that it was dangerous crap and a re-cycled flag-waving exercise. Don’t these reviewers remember terms like ‘B-52 liberals’?

    Comment by Doug — August 15, 2007 @ 3:38 pm

  4. Hello

    Je suis ravis que des étrangers connaissent autant de l’histoire de France, même si cette histoire n’est pas toujours glorieuse, elle reste trés importante pour nous et fait ce que nous sommes aujourd’hui (des emmerdeurs ^^)

    I am delighted that foreigners know so much history of France, even if this history is not always glorious, it remains very important for us and makes what we are today (fucking ass hole but free ^^)

    Bye 🙂

    Comment by alexandre — January 20, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

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