Karl Marx and religion

In a recent series of recent articles I set out the tentative framework for a re-examination of Karl Marx's materialism. I argued that, far from being identifiable with the crude, doctrinaire and mechanically deterministic 'dialectical materialism' that became the philosophy of the 'official communist' movement under Stalin and thereafter - a doctrine perfectly exemplified by the wooden catechetics of the fourth chapter of the Short course - Marx's materialism was profoundly naturalistic and humanist, rooted in humankind's relationship with nature. This relationship is mediated through our purposeful, productive labour, whereby, exercising our natural powers in order to satisfy our physical, emotional and spiritual needs, we enter into productive association with one another and with the forces of nature - in the process, transforming not only nature, but also ourselves.

Marx's vision of the natural world (including, of course, human beings) was of a self-sufficient and self-regulating system, requiring no supernatural being or agency to explain its existence, because it is all that there is. The natural world itself can provide us with all the knowledge we need in order to understand all phenomena within it. With Lash, we could say that for Marx, "The 'natural' - including the human, and hence such human products as images and ideas - exhausts the totality of actual and possible objects of action and discourse" (see N Lash A matter of hope London 1961, p136). In such a world, 'god' or 'gods' are redundant - no more than unnecessary hypotheses; religion, a manifestation of alienation and illusion.

It is to the question of Marx's attitude to religion that I should now like to turn. By 'religion', I mean not just the great faiths and their innumerable sects, but all systems of thought or belief that posit the existence of supernatural or supranatural beings, forces or entities. For simplicity's sake, I shall focus on Christianity, but what I have to say can be taken, mutatis mutandis, as applying to the other faiths.

In this and succeeding articles I shall focus on a number of straightforward propositions and questions that are, for the most part, pretty uncontroversial among Marxists - the aim being to stimulate discussion of how we should approach the problem of religion under current conditions.

First, I shall argue that Marxian materialism is totally irreconcilable with any form of religious belief. It is, to quote Lenin's words, "a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and hostile to all religion" (VI Lenin, 'The attitude of the workers' party towards religion' Selected Works Moscow 1952, Vol. 2, p663). To call oneself a Marxist and at the same time to believe in god is not just a personal contradiction, but a philosophical absurdity. Marxism without atheism would not merely be inconsistent, but fundamentally self-contradictory.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that the optimistic assumption shared by many Marxists to the effect that scientific and technological progress, together with advances in education, would by themselves mechanically lead to the withering away of religion has proved wrong. True, in some parts of the world the mainstream religions appear to be in long-term decline, but there is no shortage of alternatives - either fundamentalist revivals within conventional religious movements, or new manifestations, such as the 57 varieties of mysticism, superstition or simple snake-oil quackery represented by phenomena like the so-called 'new age' spirituality. It is no coincidence that in post-Soviet Russia we have seen not just the resurgence of the orthodox church as a pillar of the state, but the proliferation of innumerable cults.

The reasons for religion's continuing hold on the minds of millions of people are complex, but it should surely be obvious that, as long as human beings live under the political, economic and social oppression and the alienation inherent in the capitalist mode of production, they will seek, as they always have, a source of solace to give meaning to a brutalising and dehumanising existence that to many of them seems senseless and, even for the relatively well-off, sterile and deeply unsatisfying.

One could even argue, perhaps rather more controversially, that a hunger for meaning, a kind of instinct for teleology, is inherent in human nature itself. As a species endowed with consciousness, language, intelligence and insatiable curiosity, human beings are always asking questions. Throughout history we have asked about the meaning and purpose of life - Why does the world exist? Why do we exist? What are we for? Perhaps this can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that, uniquely among animals, we can foresee and contemplate our own death. "Thou madest man, he knows not why; He thinks he was not made to die", was how Tennyson expressed this dilemma in the 19th century.

If the world has no purpose, if it simply is, then the human species is just so much flotsam, drifting about on a cold sea of contingency. Paradoxically, the discoveries of science can themselves serve to gratify and stimulate our hunger for purpose. By discovering so much order and regularity at every level of existence, science can tempt us into drawing false teleological conclusions about the world.

In this light, it is easy to understand the promises of comfort and reassurance that religion provides, albeit in a way that actually debases the human person, turning us into the slave of an illusory divine creator.

To dismiss religion as merely so much bunkum, without analysing its hold over the human mind, is to adopt a vulgar and philistine approach that gets us nowhere. If, for example, we examine the archetypal myths common to all religions, and the great literature founded on these prototypical themes, we do find 'truths' of a kind, even if in an inverted or distorted form, about what it means to be a human being. It is precisely this resonance with matters of the utmost concern to thinking and feeling beings that gives religion much of its allure.

Thirdly, religion has consistently proved to be a bulwark of political and social reaction. Again, to quote Lenin, "Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class" (op cit. p664).

Even in 'secularised' countries like Britain - which no less an authority than the archbishop of Canterbury recently described as an "atheist society" - religion remains important to the ruling class. Not because they believe in it - though some of them may do - but because it still constitutes a useful ideological weapon in the struggle against radical political and social change. Religion continues, actively or passively, to provide an ultimate 'supernatural' legitimation of the status quo and of values dear to the heart of the bourgeoisie, such as the sanctity of private property and the god-given, hierarchical nature of the social order: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, god made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate" is a verse that, for understandable reasons in our 'egalitarian' society, has been quietly suppressed from the Church of England's hymnal. Parsons may preach and pray about social justice and equality, about the inalienable rights of the individual (on paper, and within very strict limits) and so forth, but when the crunch comes, we know on which side of the barricades the church will find itself.

In a typical bourgeois democracy, there is a constitutional separation between church and state. Not so in Britain, of course, where the Church of England ('by law established') has the monarch as its titular head and is deeply enmeshed in the relations of power and patronage that have the crown as their fountainhead. When he takes time off from chatting with his begonias, slaughtering wildlife, and fornicating with his mistress, Charles Windsor - a "devout Anglican" - tells us of his desire on his accession, if he ever gets that far, to become a "defender of faith", rather than of "the faith". There is talk about the disestablishment of the church of England. None of this, needless to say, will make any substantial difference to the objective role of the church and of religion in general in our society.

In the present period of reaction, with the left still in disarray and the working class temporarily off the stage of history, the ruling class has little need to employ religious institutions as its ideological agents. We ourselves may, therefore, be apt to forget the virulence with which, quite recently, organisations like the Roman catholic church waged a bitter ideological war against 'godless communism'. This was no mere war of words between rival creeds. It was an intensely, consciously political offensive on the part of the Vatican to subvert and destroy 'official communism' in the Soviet bloc. Evidence of collusion between pope John Paul II and the Central Intelligence Agency, of Vatican financial support for Solidarnosc and so forth has been made public in recent years. The determination with which the Roman catholic church destroyed the faltering efforts of 'liberation theologians', using Marxist criteria of analysis, to give a radical political spin to the prophets and the gospel message was another good example of the church's visceral enmity towards all manifestations of real human self-emancipation.

We can be sure that, when revolutionary situations or class conflicts arise in the future, religious institutions will once again deploy all their resources to proclaim a moral crusade against any force that advocates or fights for the overthrow of capitalism.

Fourthly, the most effective way in which religion serves to buttress the existing political, economic and social order is by claiming the right to act as the ultimate arbiter on all question of morality and ethics. By virtue of their supposedly 'divine' origin in scripture and revelation, the moral values that religion propagates ostensibly transcend all considerations of class, race and so forth. They have universal, god-given validity.

The degree to which religious institutions are able to exercise this power of dictating the moral agenda obviously varies enormously. In theocratic states, such as Iran or Afghanistan, the power of Islam means that religious and secular law become virtually indistinguishable. To transgress the moral dictates of the established religion means that you are not just a sinner, but a criminal, subject to the severest penalties, including execution, for infringing the moral code.

Elsewhere, of course, the situation is quite different. In conditions of bourgeois democracy, the secularisation of society means that religion can only seek to influence, rather than to command, but that influence is often considerable when it comes to some crucial social issues. For example, the religious right in America, both inside the Republican Party and through a wide range of fundamentalist pressure groups, still exerts a powerful influence on the political agenda in terms of attitudes to issues like abortion, sexuality and race; in Ireland, it is thanks to the power of the Roman catholic church that abortion is criminal and contraception not freely available.

British readers will be only to aware of how religious institutions, on the basis of their supposed moral authority, are constantly seeking to interfere in political and social questions. Recent weeks have seen attempts by a coalition of church and other religious leaders to lobby against the abolition of clause 28, against the equalisation of the age of consent for gay sex and against plans to make the 'morning-after pill' available across the counter. It is no coincidence that all these questions relate in one way or another to sex - in which prelates and priests have an obsessive interest. Ann Widdecombe, the self-appointed voice of the pope in the House of Commons, despite her evidently limited experience of sexuality, feels under no constraint to refrain from telling the rest of what we should or should not do in bed.

From the very beginning, the enemies of the working class movement have, in the words of The communist manifesto, charged that, "Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality" (D McLellan (ed.) Karl Marx: Selected writings London 1977, p236 - hereafter KMSW). They contend that 'godless communism' by virtue of its atheism is definitionally amoral, thus threatening not merely the overthrow of the existing social order, but the destruction of all civilised values. As communists, whose highest goal is the creation of a truly just and free society, in which human beings, liberated from the shackles of alienation, can develop every aspect of their social being to the full, we know that this charge is ludicrous. Of course, communism does indeed involve what Marx called "the most radical rupture with traditional ideas" (ibid. p237). This "rupture" is essential. For communists it is an absolute duty to challenge and struggle against all the false claims of bourgeois ideology, including those made by religion in relation to morality and ethics.

As materialists and atheists, communists argue that morality is a human creation expressing in an ideal form a set of social relations. But these social relations reflect and are ultimately determined by underlying material relations of property and power; moral values prevalent in a particular society at a particular time reflect the concrete material conditions of human life, the way in which that society produces the means necessary for its subsistence and reproduction; moral conceptions are subject to change and development, reflecting changes in the forces and relations of production - there are, therefore, no eternal and immutable moral verities; in societies divided by class conflict, morality reflects these divisions and primarily functions as a means of justifying the status quo, thus securing the power of the ruling class and reinforcing its ideological claim to represent the best interests of society as a whole.

Historically, many on the left have had big problems with the whole notion of ethics. They have read into Marx's often bitterly sarcastic and dismissive strictures against bourgeois morality a condemnation of all morality per se, drawing the conclusion that there is no basis in Marxian theory for a specifically communist or proletarian ethic. I believe, and later hope to demonstrate, that this position is incorrect; that it represents a crude misunderstanding of the thrust of Marx's critique of capitalism, a critique that is replete with what can only be called heartfelt moral indignation; and that Marx's philosophical approach to the historic role of the proletariat, whose self-emancipation brings about the emancipation of all humanity, has a profound and specific moral dimension.

Finally, there are some related questions that will need to be addressed. Given the evident necessity of breaking the hold which religion - whether organised or not - and other forms of superstition have over the minds of workers, how do we go about waging this struggle in current conditions? Certainly not, in my view, by advocating a vulgar, Blanquist-style 'war on religion', in which the propagation of atheism assumes a disproportionate significance and exercises a dominant role in approaching the strategic and tactical requirements of the class struggle. To adopt such a method would be fundamentally contrary to Marx's own approach to the question, in which the struggle against religion constitutes no more than a subordinate part of the wider, vital struggle of class against class.

Another question: should workers and others who sincerely want to participate in the struggle for revolution, but who are religious believers, be excluded from membership of the Party? Again, definitely not. The best antidote to religion and other forms of superstition is involvement in the collective, democratic struggle for socialism itself. Of course, the Party will obviously seek to free such comrades from their religious illusions. It is, however, primarily the unity that comes from revolutionary social practice, from the shared tasks and hardships of the struggle, that will do the job most effectively. Here too, I would argue that a communist ethic, emerging not from preaching, but from practice, has an important role to play.

Let us now turn to a brief survey of Marx's own attitude to the religious question, with the aim of identifying areas for further consideration and debate.

Unlike Engels, who in his youth was a devout adherent of the Pietist strain of Lutheranism, Marx seems never to have had any religious beliefs or experiences. The conventional, deist, pieties of his schoolboy essays, written perhaps under the influence of his father's injunction to "submit to what was the faith of Newton, Locke or Leibniz", certainly cannot be adduced as evidence to the contrary.

Marx was not one of those 'unholier than thou' atheists for whom the debunking of god and religion was a constant preoccupation. His naturalistic materialism had no place for god, but his attitude to religion was closer to one of exasperated incredulity than virulent antipathy. He saw no point in wasting time denying a proposition that he thought was irrational to assert in the first place.

He had little interest in or patience with speculative questions about pre-human or pre-social existence. The theological/metaphysical aspects of the question, 'Who or what created the world?', are simply meaningless for Marx, who never deviates from his historical, social view of the problem: " Since for socialist man what is called world history is nothing but the creation of man by human labour and the development of nature for man, he has the observable and irrefutable proof of his self-creation and the process of his origin. Once the essential reality of man in nature ... has become evident in practical life and sense experience, then the question of an alien being, of a being above nature and man - a question that implies an admission of the unreality of nature and man - has become impossible in practice. Atheism, as a denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a denial of god and tries to assert through this negation the existence of man; but socialism as such no longer needs this mediation; it starts from the theoretical and practical sense-perception of man and nature as the true reality" (my emphasis KMSW p95).

Marx takes an almost existentialist view that the non-existence of god is a necessary precondition for the freedom and autonomy of humanity. If god existed, then humankind could not be truly free, nor could its purposes be entirely its own: "A being only counts itself as independent when it stands on its own feet, and it stands on its own feet as long as it owes its existence to itself. A man who lives by grace of another considers himself a dependent being. But I live completely when I owe him not only the maintenance of my life, but when he also created my life, when he is the source of my life. And my life necessarily has such a ground outside itself if it is not my own creation" (KMSW p94).

The supreme being people call god is domination and predetermination to the power of infinity. If such a being exists, then the 'meaning' of the world must by definition come from him and not from humanity. But Marx consistently maintained that "for man the root is man himself ... The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the highest being for man" (KMSW p69). As Kolakowski puts it, "the rejection of all solutions that involve man realising himself by the actualisation, or at the command, of an antecedent absolute Being" is the philosophical core of Marx's atheism (L Kolakowski Main currents of Marxism Vol. 1, Oxford 1978, p80).

Marx's emphasis, derived from his naturalistic vision of materialism, is always on practical activity, rather than on abstract theorising: "All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice" (KMSW p157).

The mainspring of Marx's personal approach to religion can be traced from some of his earliest writings: "As long as a single drop of blood pulses in her world-conquering and totally free heart, philosophy will continually shout at her opponents the cry of Epicurus: the profane man is not the one who destroys the gods of the multitude, but the one who foists the multitude's doctrines onto the gods ... Philosophy makes no secret of it. The proclamation of Prometheus - 'In a word, I detest all the gods' - is her own slogan against all the gods of heaven and earth who do not recognise man's self-consciousness as the highest divinity. There shall be none other beside it" (From Marx's doctoral dissertation: The difference between Democritus' and Epicurus' philosophy of nature KMSW p12n - my emphasis).

Of course, Marx's exaltation of the role of "philosophy" betrays the youthful provenance of this passage, but the Promethean theme itself, far from being a mere immature enthusiasm, was to play an important part in the development of Marx's thought. Prometheus's theft of fire from the gods and his bestowal of this gift on humankind can be seen as a prototype of a revolutionary rejection of divine rule, a vital step towards emancipation. Prometheus was to pay a terrible price for his rebellion, but in the midst of his torment he cried out: "Understand this well: I would not change my evil plight for your servility" (ibid. p13).

It is an intensely human and passionate rejection of servility, rather than any abstract philosophical/theological considerations, that, I believe, constitutes the heart of Marx's rejection of religion, central to which is "the categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised" ('Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of right' KMSW p69).

Marx's commitment to the freedom, autonomy and dignity of man was matched by a loathing for the self-abasement and grovelling which he thought were inseparable from the practice of religion: "It is not by atheism, but by superstition and idolatry that man debases himself" (KMSW p151). "The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness: in short, all the qualities of the rabble" ('The communism of the Rheinische Beobachter' K Marx and F Engels Collected works London 1975, Vol. 6, p231 - hereafter MECW).

In an article written in 1853 about British rule in India, Marx gave a description of Hinduism which conveys exactly the way in which religion disgusted him: "Instead of elevating man to be the sovereign of circumstances, they transformed a self-developing social state into never-changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalising worship of nature exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow" ('The British Rule in India', reprinted in Marx and Engels on Britain, undated, p383n).

If this intense dislike of servility was, as I would maintain, the psychological determinant of Marx's attitude to religion, its philosophical basis must be traced to the work of Feuerbach. As we saw in earlier articles on Marx's materialism, the thought of Feuerbach, though inestimably deepened, modified and enriched by Marx, was nonetheless an abiding influence. Its interest here is not just the fact that, for Marx, Feuerbach's critique of religion had settled the matter to his satisfaction once and for all, but that some of the central motifs in Feuerbach's analysis of religious alienation, were to find their way into Marx's thinking about alienation in general and into many of the basic aspects of his study of capitalism.

It was Feuerbach's book Das Wesen des Christentums (The essence of Christianity), published in Leipzig in 1841, that galvanised the Young Hegelians, Marx among them. The simple thesis of the work was that god does not exist. The 'being' we call god is a collective product of human consciousness; the attributes which theologians assign to him and the statements they make about him are actually attributes of and statements about human nature, but in what Feuerbach calls a "mystified" form. The riddle of god can, therefore, be solved by anthropology.

In order to demonstrate his thesis, Feuerbach combines Hegelian terminology with his own distinctive theory of knowledge to produce a naturalistic critique of religion. His theory of knowledge rests on the contention that the relation between subject and object is one of interdependence: "Man becomes self-conscious in the object: consciousness of the object is man's self-knowledge ... the object is the manifest essence of man, his true objective self. And this applies not only to spiritual objects, but also to those of sense. Even the objects that are furthest from man, in so far as they are objects to him, are a manifestation of his essence" (from The essence of Christianity, quoted by L Kolakowski Main currents of Marxism Vol. 1, Oxford 1978, p114).

This is not, needless to say, an idealist declaration that the objective world is dependent on human consciousness for its existence. On this Feuerbach takes an uncompromisingly materialist position. What he argues is that everything we perceive, define and know in our thought processes is always perceived, defined and known in human terms. In all their mental acts, human beings inescapably projects themselves onto the object of their thought, and in so doing endow it with objectified aspects of their own human essence. This abstract notion has been defined as "the subject constituting itself in self-knowledge through the object, the object constituting itself in the projection of self-knowledge" (ibid. p115). The interdependent and reciprocal nature of this relation is obvious, because without an object, without the material world of objective reality, the evolution of self-consciousness and self-knowledge would be impossible.

In relating his theory of knowledge to the specific problem of religion, Feuerbach makes use of the Hegelian category of alienation to depict the process of objectification whereby the human mind has created god. In Hegel's Phenomenology, alienation is divided into two aspects: Entaüsserung (projecting a power or attribute onto an object), and Entfremdung (estrangement or alienation), which follows when the mind treats its own projections as independent from and even dominant over itself.

In Hegel's dialectic, as we all know, alienation was a positive and necessary stage in each phase of historical development - 'Being' (or 'Spirit') could only realise its essence by first externalising it and then reabsorbing it; without alienation the process of its gradual self-development would have been impossible.

Feuerbach, however, sees alienation in an entirely negative light, because it inevitably gives rise to an inverted relation between subject and object, which radically distorts man's self-consciousness. The philosophical kernel of Feuerbach's thought about religious alienation can be summarised as follows: people project facets of their own essence and nature onto an object of their thought, then allows themselves to be dominated by this spectral being, which is nothing more than a creation of their brain; the subject-object relation is thereby turned upside down, so that people (the real and only subject) endow an object of thought (god) with the status of a real, existing subject and then perceives themselves as the object, the creature of this spectre. It is not god who creates humanity in his own image, but humanity who creates god in humanity's own image and then bows down before his own creation: "Man - this is the mystery of religion - projects his own being [Wesen] into objectivity and then again makes himself an object of this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject, a person; he thinks of himself, is an object to himself, but as the object of an object, of another being than himself" (L Feuerbach The essence of Christianity New York 1957, p29f).

How, then, can humankind emancipate itself from its slavery to this creature of its own making? Feuerbach's answer is to put the inverted subject-object relation back on its feet by exposing the "mystified" nature of religious discourse. Transforming theological statements about god into statements about humanity not only corrects the distortion created by alienation, but also restores humanity's essential dignity.

This 'transformative' method means that all that is predicated of the spectre god must, therefore, be predicated of humanity. Not humanity as individuals, however, but of humanity in its essence - what Feuerbach refers to as our "species-being" [Gattungswesen]. Thus, the perfection and infinitude predicated of god by religion are, in reality, the imaginative projection of our species-being, the totality of our potentialities raised to the level of infinity.

In his 'decoding' of religion's statements about god, Feuerbach adds a specifically communal or social dimension to the purely anthropological: it is precisely the ability of humankind to cooperate socially as a species that gives human beings collectively the potential to actualise their species-being, the essence of all that makes them human, and to transcend the limitations that prevent them as individuals from developing their potentialities to the full. It is, of course, the limitedness and contingency of humankind as individuals that is primarily responsible for driving us to seek refuge and consolation in religion in the first place.

Feuerbach was sensitive to the accusation that he was merely an atheist and, in denying this charge, he raises themes that, as we have seen, reflected Marx's own passionate humanism: "He who says no more of me than that I am an atheist says and knows nothing of me ... I deny god. But that means for me that I deny the negation of man. In place of the illusory, fantastic, heavenly position of man, which in actual life necessarily leads to the degradation of man, I substitute the tangible, actual and consequently also the political and social position of mankind" (my emphasis, see S Hook From Hegel to Marx New York 1962, p222).

It is, therefore, a mistake to view Feuerbach's anthropocentrism as a purely philosophical stance adopted in order to correct the distortions produced by alienation. The genuineness and fervour of his humanism are beyond doubt. Nor should Feuerbach's philosophical critique of theism be confused with his critique of the anthropomorphism which is inherent in all religious discourse. Whether in animism, polytheism or monotheism, the supernatural has usually been perceived as personal, and human beings have made their gods in their own image, imaging their gods as "persons with thoughts, desires and purposes somewhat like their own, responding to men somewhat as men respond to one another, and actively fulfilling intentions through such control over material things as men sometimes have and more often wish to have" (JL Mackie The Miracle of theism Oxford 1992, p192).

It is, of course, characteristic of all religions to dismiss their rivals' gods as mere idols, while claiming their own deity as the only true god: "What was at first religion becomes at a later period idolatry; man is seen to have adored his own nature. But every particular religion, while it pronounces its predecessors idolatrous, excepts itself ... it imputes only to other religions what is the fault of religion in general" (L Feuerbach The essence of Christianity London 1893, p13).

Of course, Feuerbach is right to point out that any form of religion, if systematically purged of all its anthropomorphic content, would be little more than "a subtle, disguised atheism" (ibid. p15). In fact, the god depicted by such a negative theology, "free from anthropomorphisms, impartial, passionless, is nothing less than the nature of the understanding itself regarded as objective" (ibid. p35). It is in this light that he interprets some of the more abstract, scholastic conceptions of god elaborated in Christian theology, such as god's supposed nature as an absolutely necessary being, an ens realissimum, which Feuerbach shrewdly interprets as a mere objectification of human reason itself.

Some of the more interesting passages in The essence of Christianity consist of reinterpretations of Christian theology in terms of anthropomorphism. The doctrines of the incarnation and the triune nature of the deity are presented, for example, as objectifications of human tenderness and social union.

When, finally, the distortions produced by alienation are corrected, and the anthropomorphic nature of religious discourse is revealed, the kernel of religion, as Feuerbach conceives it, is seen to consist of "the self-consciousness of men freed from all discordant elements" (ibid. p97n). In a direct echo of Spinoza's homo homini deus, Feuerbach's theme is that "man is to man the only god", a theme enthusiastically taken up by the Young Hegelians, Marx included, as a political as well as a philosophical tenet. The whole Feuerbachian project can be summed up conceptually as "the complete and absolute dissolution without any contradiction of theology into anthropology", the restoration of humanity, social humanity, to its rightful place at the centre of things (L Feuerbach Principles of the philosophy of the future Indianapolis 1986, p58).

I have discussed elsewhere Marx's philosophical critique of Feuerbach's materialism (Weekly Worker September 7 2000) and would point out here that, with Feuerbach the criticism of religion was complete. When Marx speaks of god, which he does but rarely, it is the Feuerbachian god of collective, alienated human consciousness that he has in mind. This is not to say, of course, that their views were identical. Both were atheists, but for different reasons. Faced with a personal crisis following the collapse of his religious faith, Feuerbach propounded a philosophical materialism centred on anthropology. In effect, he saw himself confronted with the necessity of choosing between two elements of a straight antithesis - 'god or man' and he opted decisively for man.

Marx, on the other hand never had a religious faith to lose. His denial of god is in no sense the outcome of a choice because, as we have seen, god was, in terms of Marx's materialism, merely a redundancy. Nor was Marx satisfied with a 'secularised' anthropology that was no more than an alternative to a 'religious' one. For Marx, the notion of building a philosophy on the basis of the outcome of a theological debate was nonsensical.

The fact is that after his experience with the Young Hegelians, Marx did not find religion, in itself, a subject of any interest. As he wrote in a letter to his collaborator Arnold Ruge: "Religion has no content of its own, and lives not from heaven but from earth; and falls of itself with the dissolution of the inverted reality whose theory it is" (K Marx, F Engels, CW, Vol. 1, Moscow 1975, p395). It was to the study of this "inverted reality" in the world of bourgeois politics and economics that he was soon to turn, applying an enriched, dialectical reading of Feuerbachian alienation to every aspect of his work. This is what I propose to examine next time.

Michael Malkin