Karl Marx and religion - part two

Michael Malkin discusses Marx's critique of religion in the early 1840s

In my last article, I showed that neither intellectually nor temperamentally did Marx have much interest in the question of religion per se (Weekly Worker December 21 2000).

Having never believed in god, unlike others among the young Hegelians, he was not driven, as was Bruno Bauer, for example, to overcompensate for previous religious belief by violent attacks on christianity - though Marx's personal opinion of that religion was, as we shall see, decidedly negative; nor was he inclined to engage in cosmological or theological/metaphysical speculations concerning pre-human or pre-social existence. Marx's 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 it was irrational to assert in the first place.

"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, p395). It was, among other things, Marx's determination to move on from the criticism of religion to the criticism of politics and of society that led to his becoming increasingly impatient with his erstwhile young Hegelian friends. Almost from the outset, his emphasis was on the historical, social and practical aspects of the question, rather than engaging in 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" (D McLellan [ed] Karl Marx: selected writings Oxford 1977, p157 - hereafter KMSW).

With the exception of a couple of substantial articles written in 1843, some extended passages in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts (1844) and in The German ideology (1846), Marx's thoughts on religion consist for the most part of scattered remarks and observations made in the context of other work. The absence of a sustained, systematic corpus of writing should not, however, lead us - as practical Marxists and revolutionaries - to regard the question of religion as entirely peripheral, a problem that can safely be left to take care of itself.

Something akin to this approach can be found in remarks made by comrade Steven Davies (Letters Weekly Worker January 11). The comrade "cannot see what practical consequences flow from it [the discussion of Marx's attitude to religion] ... religion as theology will (artistic expression aside) wither like any other ideology under com-munism."

I share the comrade's confidence that under communism religion, like the state itself, of which it is even today a not insignificant ideological bulwark, will indeed wither away. But we are far - very far indeed - from socialism, let alone communism. Failing to recognise that the struggle for socialism must - inter alia - involve a struggle against all forms of ideological enslavement of human beings in the here and now represents a facile and dangerous degree of complacency.

Grotesquely, at the beginning of the 21st century we in Britain live in a state that has an established church whose authority is rooted in the power and patronage of the crown; a state in which the religious indoctrination of the young, from infancy to the age of 18 - however 'multicultural' and 'non-denominational' that indoctrination may purportedly be - is a matter not of free choice but of legal obligation; a state in which vital areas of social policy, including abortion, sexuality, developments in medical science and so forth, can be affected by powerful institutional pressure exerted by religious organisations acting in the role of 'divinely inspired' moral arbiters.

Comrade Davies is obviously too intelligent himself to be taken in by the claims of religion, but there are, in my experience, other comrades, who in all other respects are exemplary members of the class, for whom religious scruples or hang-ups can still present an impediment to full engagement in the class struggle.

For these and for many other reasons, the CPGB quite correctly included a section (3.17) on religion in its recent supplement 'Towards a common Socialist Alliance pro-gramme', which is based on the relevant passage in the CPGB's own draft programme. In terms of immediate demands, the document rightly calls for the complete separation of church and state. This means, as I see it, not just the formal disestablishment of the Church of England - ie, the abolition of the link between the church, crown and parliament - but also the removal of all special privileged status accorded to this or any other religious body in the political and social life of the state, including the conduct of state-sponsored, legally enforced religious propaganda activity in schools. The freedom to propagate and practise religion on a private basis, along with the freedom to conduct atheist propaganda, is, it needs hardly be said, inseparable from that commit-ment to consistent freedom and democracy that characterises genuine communists.

Leaving aside such practical political considerations, which in themselves make clear why the question of religion is still of great relevance to all who struggle for the self-liberation of the working class, there are other reasons why the study of Marx's thinking on religion should not be neglected.

First, Marx's increasingly vehement polemics against the theoretical shortcomings and mistakes of the young Hegelians led him to engage in a critique of religion that produced ideas of lasting importance in relation to such problems as the dichotomy between the state and civil society, and the illusory nature of those bourgeois rights and freedoms in which the young Hegelians placed such naive hope when calling for the political emancipation of Prussia and the other German states.

Secondly, his analysis of the 'religious' alienation implicit in human beings' relations with the products of their labour activity was, as we shall presently see, to play a major role in the development of Marx's ideas about commodity fetishism and the role of money.

Thirdly, it was the pressing need to move on from a purely philosophical, passive and abstract critique of religion to a materialist critique of politics and social conditions that inspired, among other things, the Theses on Feuerbach and The German ideology.

Finally, Marx's strictures on the empty, hypocritical nature of religion's claim to be the fountainhead of morality - such as are found in the Communist manifesto and Capital - are vital to an evaluation of the problem of the relation between Marxism and ethics.

I shall now turn to the first of two articles which Marx wrote in an extremely fruitful period of study spent in Kreuznach between March and October 1843, after the suppression by the authorities of the Rheinische Zeitung, to which Marx contributed a number of articles critical of the Prussian government.

'On the Jewish question', published in the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher (1844), was a riposte to essays written by Bruno Bauer on the question of religious emancipation. This article shows Marx already abandoning the liberal-idealistic politics of the Rheinische Zeitung in an excoriating rejection of classical liberal notions of freedom, rights, etc. Its fundamental ideas can be found - expanded, modified and enriched - in Marx's mature writing.

Protestant christianity was the state religion of Prussia and the only recognised form of religious observance. Bauer, a lecturer in theology, who had perhaps not surprisingly been sacked from his university post for his virulent atheism, supported Jewish demands for religious emancipation. His solution was to propose the abolition of the link between the state and religion - a step which he saw as the essential precondition for civil emancipation, not just for Jews, but for all citizens. With the disappearance of castes and privileges based on religious prejudice and separation, humankind could attain the freedom and equality implicit in the ideals of the French Revolution and the American constitution.

Marx rejected Bauer's 'solution' as theoretically flawed and totally inadequate. Bauer was trying to solve a social question as if it were a purely theological one; he failed to see that religious inequalities were not the cause of social inequalities, merely their symptom. His critique was misdirected because it was aimed at the christian state, and not at the state as such.

Bauer's problem (and that of liberals in general) was that they mistook political emancipation, embodied in declarations of human rights, constitutions and so forth, for human emancipation. Simply enforcing the separation of church and state would do nothing to ensure the disappearance of religion (and its associated prejudices). The North American states, for example, had written such a separation into their constitutions, yet still remained "the land of religiosity par excellence" (KMSW p43). The same could be said today.

Bauer was still using the criticism of religion as a basis for the criticism of politics, but, as Marx insisted, "Religion for us no longer has the force of a basis for secular deficiencies, but only that of a phenomenon ... History has for long enough been resolved into superstition: we now resolve superstition into history. The question of the relationship of political emancipation to religion becomes for us a question of the relationship of political emancipation to human emancipation" (ibid p44).

It is not that Marx rejects demands for political emancipation as such. He does not. He sees it as a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for human emancipation. The principal defect of political emancipation is that it is purely formal. Taking issue with his own earlier enthusiasm for universal suffrage, for example, Marx points out that many North American states had abolished property-ownership as a qualification for participation in elections. From the liberal standpoint, it could be said that "the masses have thus gained a victory over the property owners and moneyed classes", that the "non-owner had become the law-giver for the owner". This victory, however, was only apparent, not real, because there is a world of difference between giving everybody a vote, desirable and necessary as that may be, and giving them real and effective power over their lives:

"The perfected political state is by its nature the species-life of man in opposition to his material life. All the presuppositions of this egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the sphere of the state, but as proper to civil society. When the political state has achieved its true completion, man leads a double life - a heavenly one and an earthly one - not only in thought and consciousness, but in reality, in life. He has a life both in the political community, where he is valued as a communal being, and in civil society, where he is active as a private individual, treats other men as means, degrades himself to a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers. He is an imaginary participant in an imaginary sovereignty" (ibid p45f).

The counterposing of humankind's "heavenly" and "earthly" existences in a "double life" is, of course, an echo of that analysis of "inverted reality" which Marx found most positive and useful in Feuerbach, and has a specifically religious resonance. As I noted in the first part of this article, Marx's hostility to religion was in part grounded in a Feuerbachian rejection of the way in which religion demands subservience to a fantastic being who is no more than a projection of authentic human sovereignty in alienated form.

Hence the parallel which Marx draws between christianity and political democracy: "What makes a political democracy christian is the fact that in it man ... counts as a sovereign being; but it is man as he appears uncultivated and unsocial, man as he is corrupted by the whole organisation of our society, lost to himself, sold, given over to the domination of inhuman conditions and elements - in a word, man who is no longer a real species-being. The fantasy, dream and postulate of christianity, the sovereignty of man, but of man as an alien being separate from actual man, is present in democracy as a tangible reality and is its secular motto" (ibid p50).

A brief digression. By drawing attention to the essentially Feuer-bachian basis of Marx's rejection of religion, I once again risk the ire of comrade Davies, who was "a little appalled to see Feuerbach praised as a development in the Marxist critique of religion". The comrade goes on to state that "Feuerbach must surely be one of the most static materialists ever".

I am not quite sure what the comrade means when he says that my article "praised Feuerbach as a development in the Marxist critique of religion", but in any event I plead 'not guilty' to the charge. Let us be clear about a few facts. For a brief period in the early 1840s Marx could be described, and would probably have described himself, as a "Feuerbachian". Documentary evidence to this effect is abundant and was set out in my articles about Marx's naturalistic materialism published in the Weekly Worker last year.

At the same time, however, I took trouble to emphasise Marx's increasingly profound disagreements with Feuerbach's philosophy, and specifically with his materialism. I suggest that the comrade reads these articles and also takes another look at the concluding section of my article on religion.

Let us briefly reiterate some salient points. For Marx, the problem with Feuerbach's naturalistic materialism was that it was strangely illusive, abstract and theoretical. It remained 'one-sided', a half-truth, a necessary but not a sufficient step towards understanding our relationship with our natural environment. Why was this so? Because he still conceived it in passive, intuitive terms. His conception of the sensuous world was, in Marx's words, "confined on the one hand to mere contemplation of it, and on the other to mere feeling (The German ideology, KMSW, p174).

Nature, for all the importance which Feuerbach attached to it, remained something 'out there', something dissociated from humanity, to which he related in essentially theoretical terms. In the memorable words of the Theses on Feuerbach, "The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively" ('Theses on Feuerbach' KMSW p156).

Marx believed that Feuerbach's failure to see things this way came from his lack of an historical approach. He did not grasp that "the sensuous world around him is not a thing given direct from all eternity remaining ever the same" (ibid p174) - a good enough definition of what comrade Davies means by "static".

Similarly, the problem with Feuerbach's attitude to science was that he consistently identified it with observation and description of natural phenomena, not realising that 'pure' physics, chemistry and biology are inadequate to account for our human species-being: "Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only for the eyes of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this 'pure' natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men ...This activity, this production [is] the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists" (ibid p82).

Perhaps most seriously of all, in terms of Marx's own political agenda for the self-liberation of the proletariat, Feuerbach was certainly a "static" materialist, in that he never really went beyond the notion that freeing human beings from religious alienation would in and of itself, in some unexplained way, simply usher in a society which expressed the 'communist' species-being of humankind. The articles of Marx that I am discussing here were intended specifically to counter the more "static" approach to the religious question exhibited by the young Hegelians. Together with the Theses, not to mention the scintillating first hundred or so pages of The German ideology, they represent a crushing rebuttal.

All that having been said, however, there should be no doubt, that in its essentials, however enriched and modified by Marx, his critique of religious alienation remains firmly within the framework established by Feuerbach. It was this that Marx was obliquely referring to in 1843, when he wrote that, "As far as Germany is concerned, the criticism of religion is essentially complete" (KMSW p63).

To return to 'On the Jewish question', what Marx is here reiterating is the same ethical postulate he had stated in his earlier article 'On the freedom of the press', that "only that which is a realisation of freedom can be called humanly good" (CW Vol 1, p174). Since religion, by its very nature, makes human beings into slaves of an imaginary deity, conceding them merely a specious sovereignty in alienated form, it cannot, in Marxian terms, be a force for human good in any meaningful sense. Religion and 'morality' (ie, bourgeois morality) exist in the abstract sphere of 'public life', the realm of illusory collectivity and illusory sovereignty represented by the state, whereas the concrete sphere of 'everyday life' - civil society - remains dominated by individual antagonisms, by all the kinds of inhuman domination, debasement and slavery implicit in the category of alienation.

Bauer's mistake was to imagine that religious emancipation in and of itself could make humankind free, whereas, for Marx, even (bourgeois) political emancipation cannot succeed in achieving the realisation of freedom. Religious emancipation gives us freedom of religion but it does not free us from the rule of religion, property or trade: it just gives us the right to profess the religion of our choice, hold property and practise trade as individuals in a civil society dominated by the bellum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all).

Just as religion, though constituting an illusory collectivity of humankind in relation to god, actually renders us into alienated, atomised individuals in relation to an imaginary creator, so political emancipation, while endowing us with an illusory sovereignty as citizens of the state, renders us into alienated, atomised individuals in a civil society dominated by property and the power that flows from it. Genuine, human emancipation can only happen as a result of "bringing back man's world and his relationships to man himself ... man must recognise his own forces as social forces, organise them, and thus no longer separate social forces from himself in the form of political forces. Only when this has been achieved will human emancipation be completed" (ibid p57). The idea is that humankind can achieve real emancipation by rediscovering its identity in and through community, but through the real community of its own social existence and social forces, not through the imaginary community represented by religion on the one hand or the state on the other.

In the second section of 'On the Jewish question', the category of religious alienation appears in another guise, strikingly adapted in order to illustrate the significance of money and commodities in capitalist society, in a way that foreshadows some of Marx's fundamental ideas about commodity fetishism and the alienation inherent in the capitalist mode of production.

Bauer argued in terms of the emancipation of what Marx calls "the sabbath Jew" - the Jew seen purely in terms of his religion. Marx, on the other hand, seeks to extend the notion of emancipation by focusing on the oppression of Jews (and gentiles) in its actual socio-economic context: "Let us look for the secret of the Jew not in his religion, but let us look for the secret of religion in the actual Jew What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, selfishness. What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling. What is his secular god? Money ... an emancipation from haggling and money, from practical, real Judaism would be the self-emancipation of our age" (ibid p58).

Some scholars and commentators turn with distaste from these passages in 'On the Jewish question', finding in them what they perceive to be anti-semitism; or they fall back on implausible psychological theories relating to Marx's purported 'Jewish self-hatred' (jüdischer Selbsthaß) to explain his remarks. I believe they are quite wrong. Marx certainly described Judaism as "repulsive" - an epithet interestingly toned down in the English translation of his works (see CW Vol 1, p200), but his remarks about christianity and hinduism are hardly more flattering. References to Marx's own Jewish-ness or to his rabbinical ancestry almost always herald some kind of canard - for example, the bizarre idea, cultivated by some who would like to 'reconcile' Marxism with religion, that Marx's vision of the proletariat's self-liberation was in some sense prophetic and derived subconsciously from the eschatology of the Old Testament.

Why, then, should "emancipation from haggling and money, from practical, real Judaism" constitute "the self-emancipation of our age"? Because it is money that dominates all social relations, money and the power that flows from it that constitutes the material base of class society: "Money is the jealous god of Israel, before whom no other god may stand. Money debases all the gods of man and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal, self-constituted value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world, human as well as natural, of its own values. Money is the alienated essence of man's work and being. This alien essence dominates him and he adores it" (ibid p60).

Money as god, the worship of money as religion: both notions - expressed here in Feuerbachian terms of 'inverted reality', of a world in which the essence of everything is externalised (entäussert), or objectified (vergegenständigt) into an alien, imaginary entity, a process whereby all values are turned upside down - were, in a richer, more profound and dialectical form, to find a lasting place in Marx's critique of political economy. A little later in the article we find the following passage: "Selling is the practice of externalisation (Entäusserung). As long as man is imprisoned within religion, he only knows how to objectify his essence by making it into an alien, imaginary being. Similarly, under the domination of egoistic need he can only become practical, only create practical objects by putting his products and his activity under the domination of an alien entity and lending them the significance of an alien entity - money" (ibid p61f).

But - some may ask - how can the role of money and commodities in society be equated with religion? Is this not stretching the point? No, it is not, for by 'religion' and 'religious' in this context, Marx refers not to the cultic beliefs or observances of this or that religion or sect, but to the manifest tendency of human beings to make themselves the object of an alien, imaginary subject.

Hence, in Capital he says that "in religion man is governed by the products of his own brain", and comments that "a commodity is a mysterious thing ... simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped on the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour ... a definite social relation between men ... assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world, the production of the human brain appears as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands" (Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1954, pp582 and 76f).

It is precisely the analogical, paradigmatic role of religious alienation in unravelling the "mysterious" nature of commodities, money and much else in the world of political economy that is of central importance to an understanding of the development of Marx's thought in these areas.

Commodities, the products of our hands and brains which exert an alien power over us, at least exist in actuality, whereas god or gods are entirely a figment of the human imagination, with no existence in objective reality. It is precisely the 'purity' of religious alienation in this respect that endows it with a prototypical value when considering alienation in general.

The point is, of course, that the relationship between religious alienation and its 'secular' counterpart in the world of humankind's productive activity rests on the same basis of a fundamental inversion of subject and object, a radical confusion between appearance and reality at every level: "The religious world is but the reflex of the real world ... The religious reflex of the real world can ... only vanish when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellow men and to nature" (ibid p83f).

Hence, as Marx puts it, "All science would be superfluous if the manifest form [Erscheinungsform] and the essence of things directly coincided" (Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1962, p797), but so long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, we all "move about in forms of illusion" (Gestaltungen des Scheins) (Capital Vol 1, p74).

It was the desire to carry the exposure of religious alienation into the real world of politics and society that led Marx to write the second of his Kreuznach articles, the rather clumsily titled, 'Towards a critique of Hegel's Philosophy of right: introduction', which effectively summarises his views on religion and contains his best known aphorisms on the subject.

Marx begins by stating that: "The foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-awareness of man who has either not yet attained to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man: the state, society. This state, this society produce religion's inverted attitude to the world, because they [the state, society - MM] are an inverted world themselves. Religion is the general theory of the world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form ... its moral sanction ... its universal basis for consolation and justification ... Thus the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against the world whose spiritual aroma is religion" (KMSW p63).

Again, Marx calls for a shift in focus - from the world of religion, the criticism of which is already "complete", to the real world of the state and politics. In an eloquent passage, however, he frankly acknowledges why it is that the illusory world of religion can take such a firm hold on the human mind and heart: "Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. 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. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is the demand to give up a condition that requires illusion. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo religion is" (ibid p64).

This passage needs careful attention. In the first place, the phrase "Religion is the opium of the people", is often quoted in isolation, and in tone that suggests mere contempt - religious people are just spiritual junkies. In the 19th century, however, opium, especially in the form of laudanum, was in widespread use as a primitive analgesic and tranquilliser.

Had he been writing today, Marx might well have described religion as the valium, or the prozac, of the people - ie, a means of dulling not just the physical or mental pain that are an inescapable part of the human condition, but also the anguish engendered by consciousness of the inevitability of disease, decay and death.

The criticism of religion, the exposure of its illusory nature, is seen by Marx as by no means merely a negative, destructive exercise, engaged in with relish by the cocksure atheist without regard to the feelings of others. In terms of his naturalistic materialism, which attaches so much significance to the needs of human beings, including their spiritual needs, Marx's attitude is sensitive to the pain that can accompany disillusionment: "Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chains not so that man may bear chains without any imagination or comfort, but so that he may throw away the chains and pluck living flowers. The criticism of religion disillusions man so that he may think, act, and fashion his own reality as a disillusioned man comes to his senses; so that he may revolve around himself as his real sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself" (ibid p64). Marx knew that to discard the comforts of religion, to throw away one's chains and come to one's senses, is a necessary part of achieving genuine human autonomy and the only way to encompass a genuinely fulfilment. Nonetheless it is a painful business.

The "living" as opposed to the "imaginary flowers" to which Marx refers are flowers of living knowledge.

Collectively and individually, human beings have to try to pierce through the veil of illusion and come to know themselves and their world for what they really are. Armed with this knowledge, they can "fashion their own reality", by transforming nature (and with it themselves) through their purposeful productive activity. Such knowledge cannot, however, be fully attained in a society where we all still "move about in forms of illusion".

Exposing the illusory nature of religion and its comforts (the "imaginary flowers") was, in any case only the beginning of a much broader historical task: "Now the truth is no longer in the beyond, to establish the truth of the here and now. The first task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, once the holy form of human self-alienation has been discovered, is to discover self-alienation in its unholy forms. The criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics" (ibid p64).

At the heart of this 'new' critique, one that moves onward from the exposure of religious alienation while retaining its vital lessons, is the profoundly humanist notion of the centrality of the human person: "To be radical is to grasp the matter by the root. But for man the root is man himself ... the criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the highest being for man: that is, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised" (ibid p69).

By 1844, when these words were first published, Marx had already been breathing the heady atmosphere of French socialist politics in Paris, an experience whose vivid impact provided the intellectual stimulus for the Economic and philosophical manuscripts. Within the next two years, having begun a lifelong collaboration with Engels, Marx's approach to religion was to take a radically new direction. It is to this that I shall turn in the next article.