Marx Myths and Legends. Cyril Smith

Karl Marx and Religion

Source: “Karl Marx and Religion” was written for “Marx Myths and Legends” by Cyril Smith in March 2005, and rights remain with the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

It is vital to understand the meaning of Marx to grasp his ideas in relation to his development. In this connection, his conception of religion is one of the most important aspects of his notions.
As early as 1842, he wrote:

I desired there to be less trifling with the label ‘atheism’ (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man), and that instead the content of philosophy should be brought to the people. (Letter to Ruge, November 24, 1842.)

It was quite easy to deal with religion by just being against it, but that was not good enough. ‘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.

The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction contains Marx’s first mention of the proletariat. His views now took on more critical political-economic ideas, following Engels’ brilliant essay, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, which Marx was pleased to publish in the Deutsch-Franzosiche Jahrbuecher. (The trouble with Engels’ views on political economy was that this was the limit of his work. See Friedrich Engels and Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, Capital and Class, 62.)

Reading a French translation of James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy, Marx takes up Mill’s banal definition of money as the medium of exchange.

Man becomes the poorer as man, i.e., separated from this mediator, the richer this mediator becomes. Christ represents originally: 1) men before God; 2) God for men; 3) men to men. Similarly, money represents originally, in accordance the idea of money: 1) private property for private property; 2) society for private property; 3) private property for society. But Christ is alienated God and alienated man. God has value only insofar as he represents Christ, and man has value only insofar as he represents Christ.

Marx is certain that his view of money as the mediator is necessary to comprehend the situation of the proletariat. Any easy rejection of this view would be as useless as atheism.

The Paris Manuscripts, penned in 1844, returns to this theme.

Since the real existence of man and nature has become evident in practice, through sense experience, because man has thus become evident for man as the being of nature, and nature for man as the being of man, the question about an alien being, about a being above nature and man -- a question which implies admission of the unreality of nature and of man -- has become impossible in practice. Atheism, as a negation of God, has no longer any meaning, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. (MECW, Vol. 3, p. 306.)

At this time, in 1843-4, Marx thought of himself as a follower of Feuerbach. But even this thinker, beloved of atheists, was not one of them. His target was not so much religion but theology, the formal study of God, ‘the worst enemy of the awakened spirit’.

But, as Marx was to realise, Feuerbach was concerned to awaken man, but as an isolated individual. Some time in 1845, Marx scribbled eleven Theses on Feuerbach, and Theses 3, 4 and 6 particularly turn on the questions of religion.

Thesis 4.

Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious estrangement [Selbstentfremdung], of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular [wetliche] one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, former must itself be annihilated [vernichtet] theoretically and practically.

Thesis 6.

Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man [menschliche Wesen = “human nature”]. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence is hence obliged:
1. To abstract from the historical process and to define the religious sentiment regarded by itself, and to presuppose an abstract -- isolated -- human individual.
2. The essence therefore can by him only be regarded as “species,” as an inner “dumb” generality which unites many individuals only in a natural way.

Thesis 7.

Feuerbach consequently does not see that the “religious sentiment” is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual that he analyses belongs in reality to a particular social form.

Marx, in these brief summaries, has thus cleared out of the way Feuerbach’s treatment of the human individual. His ‘awakening’ of man is seen to be as a social atom, and not what Marx is striving for.

Let us jump now to Marx’s chief work, which took much more than his lifetime to complete. (Its completion, by the proletarian revolution, is not yet achieved!) We begin with a quote from the Grundrisse, the first attempt at a critique of political economy as a whole.

"An example in the religious sphere is Christ the mediator between God and man - mere instrument of circulation between them - becomes their unity, God-man, and as such becomes more important than God; the saints more important than Christ; the priests more important than the saints. (Grundrisse, MECW, Vol. 29, p. 257.)

This return to our familiar theme, is part of the exposition of Marx’s of his explanation of the central importance of money.

But his treatment of this notion in Capital is not the same as that we have seen in the other extracts.

The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development. (Capital, p. 173.)

Here, Marx brings together his views on religion and his historical view of the communist revolution and the growth of production generally. He relates religion to the effort to unite human beings without really understanding the sweeping historical forces which have separated them.

One more quotation, from a piece of Capital, the so-called ‘Sixth Chapter’, omitted from Volume 1, maintains this historical outlook.

This antagonistic stage cannot be avoided, any more than it is possible for man to avoid the stage in which his spiritual energies are given a religious definition as powers independent of himself. What we are confronted by here is the alienation [Entfremdung] of man from his own labour. (Capital, p. 990.)

Here, Marx has set out his conception of religion in the light of his notion of the stages of history as a whole. First, humans see themselves as a local community, with their local gods. Then, in the era of money and exploitation, God Almighty rules over all. Finally, there is no use for Him, as humans freely govern their own lives.


See also: How the ‘Marxists’ Buried Marx and The Origins of ‘Marxism’,
from Marx at the Millennium, Cyril Smith 1998.