The truth about Marxism and religion

Submitted by Anon on 25 March, 2006 - 1:02

By Paul Hampton
Read this article in French here.

An article, “Marx and religion” by Anindya Bhattacharyya in Socialist Worker (4 March 2006) argued that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were not very hard on religion and scorned “liberal” contemporaries (especially Bruno Bauer) who were.

The article is largely rationalisation, reading back into history the SWP’s current politics of courting some Muslims organisations. It fails to represent the complexity of Marx and Engels’ views on religion: their fundamental atheist outlook; their opposition to organised religion; the place of religion in class society; and their opposition to discrimination and police measures against religious believers.

It is a crude attempt to smear those like the AWL who oppose the SWP’s political line as crude secularists, and dress the SWP’s line in Marxist attire. A look at what Marx and Engels actually wrote presents a very different picture.

Early influences on Marx and Engels

Marx and Engels both developed politically, though separately from each other, in the milieu of young university graduates in Germany in the 1830s and 1840s. This group, known as the Young Hegelians, drew radical conclusions from the apparently conservative philosophy of Hegel.

Within this milieu, Bruno Bauer was a prominent university lecturer who had made a name for himself criticising the Bible. According to Zvi Rosen, in his book Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx (1977), Bauer exercised particular influence over Marx between 1839 and 1843, inviting him into his home and involving him in the Doktorclub study circle. It was Bauer who encouraged Marx to complete his PhD.

The influence of Bauer’s views on religion are evident in Marx’s doctoral dissertation, finished in 1841 when he was 23 years old. In the foreword Marx referred to “the confession of Prometheus: ‘In simple words, I hate the pack of gods’, is its own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity.”

In the body of his study Marx pointed out that: “The proofs of the existence of God are either mere hollow tautologies… all proofs of the existence of God are proofs of his non-existence.” (Marx, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, 1841, MECW 1.)

Others were publishing more strident arguments against religion and in favour of humanism at the time. For example Ludwig Feuerbach published The Essence of Christianity (1841), which argued that the root of religion was man (meaning humanity). Bauer wrote the pamphlet, The trumpet of the last judgment on Hegel (1841), denying that Jesus was an historical figure and defending atheism.

In 1841 Marx and Bauer planned to publish a radical philosophical periodical, Archives of Atheism. The views of some contemporaries give some indication of the scope of their project.

Arnold Ruge wrote: “Bruno Bauer, Karl Marx, Christiansen and Feuerbach are forming a new montagne and are making atheism their slogan. God, religion, immortality are cast down from their thrones and man is proclaimed God.”

And Georg Jung wrote to Ruge: “If Marx, Bruno Bauer and Feuerbach associate to found a theological-philosophical review, God would do well to surround himself with all the angels and indulge in self-pity, for these three will certainly drive him out of his heaven… For Marx, at any rate, the Christian religion is one of the most immoral there is.” (David McLellan, Marx before Marxism, 1970)

Flowing from his atheism, Marx opposed organised religion and the role of religion in politics. A flavour of Marx’s attitude can be gleaned from his journalism at the time.

In his Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction (1842) he wrote:

“Hence either forbid religion to be introduced at all into politics — but you don’t want that, for you want to base the state not on free reason, but on faith, religion being for you the general sanction for what exists - or allow also the fanatical introduction of religion into politics. Let religion concern itself with politics in its own way, but you don’t want that either. Religion has to support the secular authority, without the latter subordinating itself to religion. Once you introduce religion into politics, it is intolerable, indeed irreligious, arrogance to want to determine secularly how religion has to act in political matters. He who wants to ally himself with religion owing to religious feelings must concede it the decisive voice in all questions, or do you perhaps understand by religion the cult of your own unlimited authority and governmental wisdom?” (MECW 1)

And in “The Leading Article” in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung (1842), Marx accused the Prussian state of disseminating Christian dogma, criticised the police and the censor for protecting religion and insisted that no distinction should be made between religion as belief and the religious establishment. (MECW 1)

Religion is “the opium of the people”

Bhattacharyya seeks to downplay the essential Marxist criticism of religion, summed up by Marx’s famous aphorism that it is “the opium of the people”, by emphasising religion as a protest against real suffering.

The expressions occur in Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction (1843-44): “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.” (MECW 3)

Of course there is more to Marx’s view of religion than simple rejection. He sought to explain the roots and significance of religion as an expression of deeper political and economic processes.

Bhattacharyya implies that “the sigh of the oppressed creature” in some sense blunts Marx’s critique. But this ignores important arguments in the same article.

Marx began by arguing that “For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.”

Far from repudiating the young Hegelian criticisms of religion as expressed by David Strauss, Bauer and Feuerbach, he put himself firmly in their camp. He also asserted the fundamental criticism separating him from the religious outlook in general: “Man makes religion, religion does not make man”.

He wrote: “The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for man – hence, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, foresaken, despicable being.” (MECW 3)

Marx asserted the need to criticise religion, because “The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”

After the passage about the opium of the people, Marx added: “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.

“Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”

He wrote a little further on: “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.” (MECW 3)

These passages make it clear that there was no place for religion in Marx’s world outlook. Religion was not the root of humanity’s alienation — but it was nevertheless an integral aspect of it. Religions needed to be understood and undercut, not justified or rationalised. However the critique of religion is subordinated to the political class struggle — what Marx begins to sketch the rest of the article.

These passages also indicate the continuing influence of Bauer. Although many writers before their time, such as Holbach, Maréchal and Hegel, had compared religion to opium, Bauer had done so explicitly at the time of his collaboration with Marx.

In Der christliche Staat und unsere Zeit (1841), Bauer wrote: “The pure Christian state is a state in which theological law prevails. This law attains to real power or, to be more exact, absolute power, when, through its results which are identical to opium, it puts all parts of mankind to sleep.”

In Die gute Sache der Freiheit (1842), Bauer had written that religion “sketches, in its opium intoxication a picture of the future situation, which differs drastically from the order of this world”. He also wrote that religion “is the expression, isolated manifestation and sanction of the omission and disease of existing relations” (Rosen)

Other metaphors used by Marx also came from Bauer. For example he wrote in Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker (1841) that, “the chains which bound the human spirit in the service of these religions were decorated with flowers”.

Marx’s break with Bauer

Marx broke with Bauer in late 1842 over the latter’s support for Die Freien (The Free), a group of Young Hegelians (including Engels) who attacked religion without regard to the political realities of the time. Marx was editing the Rheinische Zeitung at the time and fighting a losing battle against censorship by the Prussian government. He refused to publish articles by Die Freien.

He wrote to Ruge (30 November 1842) explaining his stance: “I requested further that religion should be criticised in the framework of criticism of political conditions rather than that political conditions should be criticised in the framework of religion, since this is more in accord with the nature of a newspaper and the educational level of the reading public; for religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to the earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself.” (MECW 1)

The final break came in March 1843 when Bauer made it clear he had given up on the masses and on political activity.

Between 1843 and 1846 Marx and Engels were sharply critical of Bauer. As well as journal articles, they wrote two books, the Holy Family (1844) and the German Ideology (1845-46) sharply criticising Bauer. But they did not go soft on religion in the process.

On the Jewish Question

Bhattacharyya makes a big deal of Marx and Bauer’s contrasting attitudes to the discrimination and persecution faced by Jewish people at the hands of the Prussian state. Bhattacharyya shamelessly accuses modern critics of religion of sharing Bauer’s view, an assertion without substance.

Bauer opposed the fight for Jewish emancipation within the existing Prussian state. Marx rightly castigated him in On the Jewish Question (1843). Marx was rightly in favour of fighting to end the discrimination and oppression of Jews in Germany at the time, even though this was a long way short of general human emancipation. He upheld the principle from the French Revolution, of “the right to practice any religion one chooses”. He wrote:

“We no longer regard religion as the cause, but only as the manifestation of secular narrowness. Therefore, we explain the religious limitations of the free citizen by their secular limitations. We do not assert that they must overcome their religious narrowness in order to get rid of their secular restrictions, we assert that they will overcome their religious narrowness once they get rid of their secular restrictions. We do not turn secular questions into theological ones. We turn theological questions into secular ones… The question of the relation of political emancipation to religion becomes for us the question of the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation.” (MECW 3)

Marx was right in adopting this stance, elaborating a consistently democratic position against all forms of oppression, including religious persecution. But this did not negate his overall attitude toward religion.

In the same article Marx made it clear that he favoured a secular state, not one where religion was privileged (e.g. in education). He wrote: “Man emancipates himself politically from religion by banishing it from the sphere of public law to that of private law… the perfect Christian state is the atheistic state, the democratic state, the state which relegates religion to a place among the other elements of civil society.” (MECW 3)

Another argument Bhattacharyya uses against the “liberal atheists” is a complete travesty. Bhattacharyya argues that because Bauer later became an anti-semite, his earlier criticisms of religion should be dismissed. This proves nothing about the validity of Bauer’s views in the 1840s when Marx associated with him. And their polemics in the 1840s did not lead to a complete break. According to Marx’s letters, as late as 1855-56 Bauer visited Marx in London (MECW, MECW)

Other Young Hegelian critics of religion did not “move to the right” — some, like Ruge, remained liberals as they were when they associated with Marx. Others such as Feuerbach who criticised religion moved to the left. In 1868 Feuerbach enthusiastically read Marx’s Capital and in 1870 joined the German Social Democratic Party. (Marx Wartofsky, Feuerbach, 1977)

Marx and Engels knew of Bauer’s evolution. Yet looking back over forty years on, in Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity (May 1882) Engels captured the importance of Bauer’s critique of religion in the early 1840s. He argued that previous freethinkers had simply criticised all religions as the work of deceivers. They did not explain its origin and development from the historical conditions under which it arose and how it came to dominate.

Engels wrote: “Bruno Bauer has contributed far more to the solution of this question than anybody else.” He proved that the Gospels were not four independent historical accounts but mutual interdependent. He also showed that little from the Gospels could be proven historically, going as far as to question the historical existence of a Jesus Christ.

Engels concluded that: “[Bauer] cleared the ground for the solution of the question: what is the origin of the ideas and thoughts that have been woven together into a sort of system in Christianity, and how came they to dominate the world?” (MECW 24)

Other early writings

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) Marx repeats his point that “the gods were originally not the cause but the effect of the confusion in men’s minds”. (MECW 3)

He added: “Communism begins from the outset (Owen) with atheism; but atheism is at first far from being communism; indeed, that atheism is still mostly an abstraction. The philanthropy of atheism is therefore at first only philosophical, abstract philanthropy, and that of communism is at once real and directly bent on action.” (MECW 3)

In these manuscripts Marx appeared at one point to argue that socialism is not based on atheism. He wrote:

“Atheism, as the denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. It proceeds from the theoretically and practically sensuous consciousness of man and of nature as the essence. Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion, just as real life is man’s positive reality, no longer mediated through the abolition of private property, through communism.” (MECW 3)

Nevertheless religion is still described as “alienated human self-consciousness” and atheism retained as part of the new world outlook. (MECW 3) He wrote:

“In the same way atheism being the supersession of God, is the advent of theoretical humanism, and communism, as the supersession of private property, is the vindication of real human life as man’s possession and thus the advent of practical humanism, or atheism is humanism mediated with itself through the supersession of religion, whilst communism is humanism mediated with itself through the supersession of private property.”

And he added:

“But atheism and communism are no flight, no abstraction, no loss of the objective world created by man – of man’s essential powers born to the realm of objectivity; they are not a returning in poverty to unnatural, primitive simplicity. On the contrary, they are but the first real emergence, the actual realisation for man of man’s essence and of his essence as something real.” (MECW 3)

In The Holy Family, Marx and Engels argued that Bauer “dealt with the religious and theological question in the religious and theological way”. (MECW 4) They wrote:

“Herr Bauer was shown that it is by no means contrary to political emancipation to divide man into the non-religious citizen and the religious private individual. He was shown that just as the state emancipates itself from religion by emancipating itself from state religion and leaving religion to itself within civil society, so the individual emancipates himself politically from religion by regarding it no longer as a public matter but as a private matter… If Herr Bauer is caught up in politics he continually makes politics a prisoner of his faith.” (MECW 4)

Marx and Engels criticised Bauer, because, despite his atheism, his mode of thinking was still essential religious: “Herr Bauer was a theologian from the very beginning, but no ordinary one; he was a Critical theologian or a theological Critic.” (MECW 4)

Although criticism of religion became subordinate to criticism of the political economy of capitalism, Marx and Engels continued to oppose religion. For example Engels, writing in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844-45) opposed the role of religion in education and advocated secular schooling. He wrote:

“As it is, the State Church manages its national schools and the various sects their sectarian schools for the sole purpose of keeping the children of the brethren of the faith within the congregation, and of winning away a poor childish soul here and there from some other sect. The consequence is that religion, and precisely the most unprofitable side of religion, polemical discussion, is made the principal subject of instruction, and the memory of the children overburdened with incomprehensible dogmas and theological distinctions; that sectarian hatred and bigotry are awakened as early as possible, and all rational mental and moral training shamefully neglected.

“The working class has repeatedly demanded of Parliament a system of strictly secular public education, leaving religion to the ministers of the sects; but, thus far, no Ministry has been induced to grant it.” (MECW 4)

Other writings in the 1840s sought to explain religion as a transitory phase in human thinking. In his Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith (9 June 1847), Engels wrote: “Question 22. Do Communists reject existing religions? Answer: All religions which have existed hitherto were expressions of historical stages of development of individual peoples or groups of peoples. But communism is that stage of historical development which makes all existing religions superfluous and supersedes them.” (MECW 6)

The same answer was carried over into his Principles of Communism in October 1847 (MECW 6)

In opposition to organised religion, Marx was scathing. He wrote in The Communism of the Rheinischer Beobachter (1847): “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness, in short, all the qualities of the rabble; and the proletariat, which will not permit itself to be treated as rabble, needs its courage, its self-confidence, its pride and its sense of independence even more than its bread. The social principles of Christianity are sneaking and hypocritical, and the proletariat is revolutionary.” (MECW 6)

In an address delivered to a Communist circle in November 1847, Marx said: “Of all that has been achieved by German philosophy the critique of religion is the most important thing; this critique, however, has not proceeded from social development. Everything that has been written hitherto against the Christian religion has limited itself to proving that it rests on false principles; how, for example, the authors have used one another; what had not yet been examined was the practical cult of Christianity… This story, as presented in Daumer’s work, deals Christianity the last blow; the question now is, what significance this has for us. It gives us the certainty that the old society is coming to an end and that the edifice of fraud and prejudice is collapsing.” (MECW 6)

In the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engels wrote that for the working class religion is “so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests”. (MECW 6)

And they warned that, “Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.” (MECW 6)

Later writings

Marx and Engels referred to religion in their later writings and in correspondence. For example in 1855 Marx described an anti-church movement demonstration in Hyde Park. He wrote: “It will be realized from the above placard that the struggle against clericalism assumes the same character in England as every other serious struggle there – the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, the people against the aristocracy, the “lower orders” against their “betters.” (MECW 14)

Marx also wrote in Capital, volume 1 (1867) that, “the religious world is but the reflex of the real world”.

Engels composed more detailed studies of religious movements – such as The Peasant War in Germany (1850) and The History of Early Christianity (1894-5).

In Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy (1886) Engels wrote that, “the Christian God is only a fantastic reflection, a mirror image, of man”.

The SWP seems to want to forget these words and to abandon the outlook it implies. The root is a basic confusion between the ideological critique of religion and the political conclusions drawn from it.

Bhattacharyya assumes that anyone who attacks religion as an ideology is justifying police measures against religious people. This is nonsense. Marx and Engels combined their sharp critique of religious ideas with opposition to the persecution of religious people – either by the bourgeois state or indeed by socialists.

For example in Refugee Literature (1874), Engels approvingly noted the widespread atheist attitudes among German workers and declared for the dissemination of atheist propaganda in France. But he added:

“And this demand for a transformation of people into atheists by order of the star chamber is signed by two members of the Commune, who had opportunity enough to learn in the first place, that a multitude of things may be ordered on paper without being carried out, and in the second place, that persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions. So much is certain, that the only service, which may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of faith to he enforced and of outdoing even Bismarck’s anti-Catholic laws by forbidding religion altogether.” (MECW 24)

In the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), Marx wrote: “Everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in. But the workers’ party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois "freedom of conscience" is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience and that for its part it endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion.”

Marx and Engels’ atheism was an inseparable part of their theories and well anchored in their outlook. They believed that the natural and social world could be understood by human science and changed by human activity, not by supernatural forces. They favoured making propaganda against religious ideas and institutions – though this was subordinate to the task of mobilising workers, including those with religious views, to fight the class struggle. And they opposed the oppression of religious groups.

Marx and Engels’ authority does not tell us about the character of religion today, nor does it mechanically determine our attitude to Muslims in general or political Islam in particular. To read off our attitude simply from quotations would merely represent a religious mode of thinking.

However their writings do help us to orientate today — both as sharp critics of religion and as working-class consistent democrats on religious questions, as on all matters.

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