Fantastic reality - Marxism and the politics of religion

Religion is back with a vengeance. George Bush and the US christian right, holy Tony Blair and Britain's islamophobia, Russia's reinstalled orthodox church and India's saffron communalism, the toxic evangelicalism sweeping Africa and Latin America, Saudi Arabia's puritanical wahhabism and al Qa'eda's terrorism of spectacle, the Iranian theocracy and everywhere, it seems, the escape into the trench warfare of religious identity. But what is religion? In this extract from the introduction to his new book, Jack Conrad shows that the answer is not as straightforward as it might first appear

Any Marxist study of the politics of religion must necessarily ask what is meant by religion. The answer is not as easy as it might first appear. For example, when the goalposts of the definition are sneakily moved to include a vague ‘philosophy of life’, it can - as intended - catch Marxism in the net. Hence, before pursuing religion qua religion, we shall go on a slight detour. After all some religious people try to counter Marxism with a ‘you tooism’. If religion is antiquated and evidently false in terms of the claims it makes about the world, then you are guilty too - after all Marxism has been dismissed and disposed of by various academic opponents through the simple device of categorising it as a religion. Let us explain why the ‘you tooism’ does not work.

Taking as their starting point the highest achievements of classical British political economy, Hegelian philosophy and French socialism, the Marx-Engels team developed an unsurpassed body of theory - consistently stimulating, hugely expansive and emotionally satisfying to boot - it not only explains, but is an essential tool if society is to be fundamentally transformed. To state the obvious, carrying through a world revolution is a thoroughly practical matter. Therefore, unsurprisingly, Marxism does not require its adherents to be born of a Marxist mother, swear obedience to some fixed Marxist creed or agree with a long list of infallible Marxist doctrines. Stalinism, Maoism and the more outlandish versions of Trotskyism are another matter - when they claim to represent Marxism we can only but protest.

The central tenet of Marxism can be summed up in a single sentence. To achieve universal human liberation it is first necessary to form the working class into a party and, through a qualitative development of democracy, replace the rule of capital with the rule of the collective working class. So when it comes to their party, communists are required to accept the programme - not agree. A vital distinction. And, of course, the programme can be added to, altered or updated, according to needs and circumstances. All it takes is a congress vote.

There is nothing in authentic Marxism seriously comparable to the 12 commandments purportedly brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses; or the pettifogging purity rules set down in Leviticus; or the 114 suras of the Koran recited by Muhammed after his trance induced communications with Allah; or the 2,865 clauses of the catholic church’s catechism. We readily admit that, no matter how enduring, our theoretical framework - from the Communist manifesto to Capital and from Vladimir Lenin’s Two tactics of social democracy to Leon Trotsky’s The permanent revolution - all carry the concerns, features and limitations of their time. To ignore, or to casually abandon them, would amount to a total surrender before the dominant, bourgeois ideology. However, to repeat them as akin to gospel is nothing short of mummery.

Marxism combines the strong theory needed to give coherence with the flexibility that keeps the mind of any serious partisan in a state of constant exploration. Eg, it is quite possible to legitimately call oneself an orthodox Marxist and reject specific propositions, predictions or even premises contained in the Marx-Engels legacy. Albeit for the “sake of argument”, Georg Lukács went further. Say “recent research” had disproved “all of Marx’s theses in toto”; despite that, he insisted, Marxists would still be able to accept all such “modern findings”, without having to renounce Marxism. Why? Because Marxism, “does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the result of Marx’s investigations.” Nor is it the “belief” in this or that sacred book, text or set of resolutions. Marxism fundamentally refers to method. It is the conviction that dialectical and historical materialism is the “road to truth” and that this method can be “developed, expanded and deepened” only along the lines laid down by its founders. Anything else, Lukács insists, leads to “over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism”.

That is surely why, when Marxism is really “developed, expanded and deepened” along the lines laid down by its founders, it has produced results and developments that are both intellectually profound and politically powerful. Obviously then, there are far more, far wider and certainly far more worthwhile differences within Marxism than there are within religion. That is only to be expected - after all Marxism is a scientific method. So, to underline the point, Marxists - once again, authentic Marxists that is - are always ready to modify or reject established ideas in light of new findings and developments.

Three short examples will suffice for purposes of illustration.

l Marx and Engels had long held that Russia was a frozen bulwark of reaction. They advocated revolutionary war against Russian absolutism. However, in the early 1880s they arrived at another conclusion. Russia was changing. It was ripe for its 1789. More than that, Russia had become the world’s revolutionary centre. Their political strategy towards Russia changed accordingly.

l Not least in light of the above, both Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin rejected the standard Marx-Engels demand for an independent and reunified Poland. Instead of breaking apart the tsarist empire there should be a united effort by all forces of the working class in order to overthrow it. Poles and Russians should therefore join together in a single party.

l In the 1980s the Leninist wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain argued for a political revolution in the Soviet Union. Our theoretical model essentially derived from Leon Trotsky’s. After the 1991 collapse we undertook a radical rethink.


Constant questioning, the tireless search for objective reality and changing operative conclusions are, needless to say, not features normally associated with the church, mosque, synagogue or temple and their holy doctrines.

Enriching, expanding and deepening various aspects of the Marx-Engels theoretical legacy, of course, comes in many guises and forms. There are corrections and additions. Eg, the work done by Rudolf Hilferding and Vladimir Lenin on imperialism and finance capital usefully adds to the Marxist theoretical framework. However, there are detractions and damaging diversions. As exhaustively shown by Hal Draper, a sadly impressive array of 20th century Marxist greats either consciously, or more commonly, because of political expediency, and therefore largely unconsciously, lent an altogether different meaning to the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ compared to Marx and Engels. Where they simply, straightforwardly, meant the democratic rule of the majority, thinkers of the stature of Lenin, Trotsky and Kautsky - not to mention Plekhanov, Bernstein and Zinoviev - made a complete hash of the whole thing. They counterposed dictatorship to democracy. Subsequently, in the course of an epochal political struggle, one camp of Marxists forthrightly came out for the Bolshevik regime - and therefore minority rule - that is Marxism with various ifs and buts. The other camp, however, treacherously upheld a totally abstract democracy. In practice that meant supporting the rule of the bourgeoisie; albeit through a constitution which concedes a raft of working class rights and gains. Here we reach the boundary where Marxism becomes not only distorted, but dishonest and false. German social democracy had the good grace to officially admit this - though it waited till 1956 to remove Marxism from its programme!

Yes, some Marxists have talked of Marxism as their religion. In most cases, thankfully, upon investigation this turns out to be nothing more than heightened language. Rhetoric designed to show the speaker’s sincerity and burning commitment to the cause. A Bill Shankley type quip - “Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that”. For example, Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900) told the Reichstag that social democracy was not the religion of popes, “but the religion of humanity”. Along the same lines Joseph Dietzgen wrote a series of articles for Vorwärts under the title of The religion of social democracy. Unfortunately, repeating the naive claims of Claude Henri Saint-Simon and Wilhelm Weitling, he seems to have taken for granted that Jesus was the first communist! “True christianity” was therefore equated with communism.

However, there are ‘Marxists’ who have inexcusably sought to reconcile Marxism and religion and who even categorise Marxism as a religion and thereby discredit it, as if from within. The Austro-Marxist, Max Adler, based himself on the widely held Kantian idea that science (including Marxism) and religion dealt with completely separate spheres.Hence in order to give Marxism values it was vital to bring it into “coherence” with religion. Humanity could not do without religion, albeit conceived of by Adler as little more than a rather conventional morality. During the cold war ‘Marxists’ such as Lucian Goldmann and Ernst Bloch maintained that Marxism is the “religion of humanity” in the non-rhetorical sense, or a “religious criticism of religion”.10 

Not that establishment academics needed these idealist confusionists to prompt them to make the exact same claim - except, of course, that in their hands the notion of Marxism being a religion became a damning accusation. Naturally, against the Marxist foe religion carries entirely negative connotations (not something the paid persuaders of the bourgeoisie usually suggest nowadays, at least when it comes to real religions). Karl Popper insists upon the religious character of Marxism on the basis of calling it an “oracular philosophy”.11  Yes, Marxism predicts capitalist crises, wars and revolutions - surely the 20th century provided ample confirmation. Joseph Schumpeter emphatically declares: “Marxism is a religion”12  For him that explains its popular success. By implication, ordinary people cannot grasp anything more sophisticated. Robert Tucker finds parallels between Marxism and post-Augustinian christianity: “Like medieval christianity, Marx’s system undertakes to provide an integrated, all-inclusive view of reality, an organisation of all significant knowledge in an interconnected whole, a frame of reference with which all questions of importance are answered or answerable”.13  Such descriptions would, in fact, include many other ‘isms’, and are obviously - as readily admitted by the christian Marxologist, David McLellan - “coloured by political or religious prejudice”.14  In short, to say that Marxism - which is scientific, materialistic and atheistic - is a religion, is therefore manifestly to reverse the accepted meaning of the term.

So what is religion? Well, a common definition is a belief in a god or gods. However, that would immediately exclude most varieties of buddhism. Then there are self-help/self-improvement movements such as transcendental meditation and its yogic flying (which does not class itself as a religion) and scientology (which does). The fact of the matter is that, apart from implying some kind of belief in the supernatural, theological and academic definitions of religion are often very confused. That is bound to be the case with anything so highly variegated and complex.

Religious ideas and practices vary to a tremendous degree from country to country and often crazily overlap and interweave within countries and even within individuals themselves - a baptised, church-going christian in Nigeria might well also perform rituals to placate witches, ancestors and evil spirits. Needless to say, we reject as false and artificial the distinction often drawn between religion and magic. Opposition to magic is historically opposition to other, or unofficial, religions. Magic was, at best, a primitive form of science, and the medieval church at its worst undoubtedly “permitted” its own version of magic - holy water to drive out evil spirits, prayers to cure the sick, consecrated bells to dispel storms, etc.15 

Marxism has a great advantage. Being a totalising but open-ended world view, it is able to undertake an ongoing investigation into the specific human origins of the supernatural and in turn use ideas of the supernatural to cast a light on humanity itself. Religion, as defined by Marxism, is fantastic reality.

Religion is fantastic, not in the trite sense that the claims religion makes about existence are verifiably untrue, unreal or baseless, but in the sense that nature and society are reflected in exaggerated form, as leaping shadows, as symbols or inversions. Religion should not be dismissed as mere false consciousness. Religion reflects something of the real; but there is even more to it than that. Religious ideas are not only determined by reality, they can themselves “become materially effective”.16  The ideas people have in their heads - especially when mediated through institutions such as churches, mosques and temples - no matter how wrapped up in the godly and seemingly unrelated to the corporeal world, impact on their surroundings. After all everything which moves people into action must first go through their minds and therefore what people have in their minds must feed back into, and thereby interpenetrate with, material conditions. Grasping this unity of opposites, Marxism is able to analyse the true content and significance of religion with unsurpassed insight.

We can, following Karl Kautsky, categorise religion under two headings.17  Firstly, there is religion as a personal experience, a personal morality and a personal way of behaving. In the Bible those who wrote James say: “If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before god and the father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world”.18  Tom Paine (1737-1809), the revolutionary democrat and deist, derided organised religion and the “strange fables of the christian creed”; instead of relying on “faith”, people should marvel at “creation” itself.19  As the first catholic president of the US, John F Kennedy (1917-63), likewise upheld, albeit in far milder terms, the essentially private nature of his religion: “What church I go to on Sunday, what dogma of the catholic church I believe in, is my business, and whatever faith any other American has is his business”.20  So religion can be approached in terms of the inner-self - an introspective search for knowledge, a narcissistic pick and mix that seeks to transcend the stultifying drabness of everyday life and which supposedly puts the devotee in touch with the divine.

Secondly, according to Kautsky, there is religion as a means of social control, an institutionally embodied and evolved system of doctrines which purports to depict creation and the whole subsequent course of the universe and which demands human obedience to a supernatural power or powers. Sigmund Freud, not without justification, describes this as “forcibly fixing” people into a “state of psychical infantilism ... by drawing them into a mass delusion”.21 

These two categories recommended by Kautsky share the same name - religion. Despite that, while the first involves self-motivation, self-consolation and self-delusion, the second requires that the inner-self be subordinated to an external authority that is supposedly divinely sanctioned. Clearly we are dealing here with related but distinct phenomena. Religion that is a private matter and the mass religions - developed systematically, though not without manifold contradictions, over the course of centuries - are not only different in terms of approach, but are frequently hostile. Personal religion is guided by conscience; religion as a means of social control demands the submission of conscience. Yet, though Kautsky chose not to stress it (he perhaps even skirted around it), personal religion is always socially determined and lived through society. Therefore the study of any particular human being and their private beliefs, up to and including those who imagine they have an inspired mission, is inseparable from the study of society.

Aristotle remarked, opening his Politics: “We shall, I think, in this as in other subjects, get the best view of the matter if we look at the natural growth of things from the beginning”.22  With the same objective of getting the “best view of the matter”, we shall set out a brief sketch of religious evolution. Necessarily, this must be the evolution of religion as a social phenomenon. We cannot countenance the approach which abstracts religion from society and which treats the evolution of religion, typically from animism to monotheism (but sometimes to atheism), as if dealing with the passage from infancy to adulthood. That is religion as supposedly synonymous with the progressive gaining of knowledge.

Religion as a logically unfolding idea. Religion as a thing-in-itself. But religion, as a form of consciousness, is part of the evolution of society and cannot be separated from society. In and of itself religion can have no history because it has no content. In a couple of simple lines, John Lennon, neatly summed up this essential emptiness in his beautiful communist anthem ‘Imagine’ - “No hell below us, above us only sky”.

Equally misplaced are attempts by evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists to locate religious belief in our genes. Religion is considered natural: a position upheld by the doyen of conservatism, Edmund Burke. “We know, and what is better we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society ... we know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by constitution a religious animal” he wrote in his Reflections on the revolution in France. 23  The usual approach from the neo-Darwinist school is to look for ways religion could benefit individuals in evolutionary terms and how various religious systems are thereby reproduced through natural selection.24  Not surprisingly reliable data to back up such a rickety theoretical construct is nonexistent. Paul Bloom suggests that children are “psychologically primed for religion” because it is an advantage for them to be gullible when it comes to the stories (instructions) that come down to them from their parents: “don’t stray into the forest because otherwise the evil spirits will get you”. In other words, religion is a “by-product” of an attribute that has real productive advantage - and is therefore passed on in our genes.25  Others take as their starting point not the individual but groups.26  No doubt collectives equipped with a religious ideology can through coordinated action do far more than any individual could ever hope to achieve. But it hardly follows that religion can be explained biologically. Crude reductionism. There are many other determinations.


Human beings have been the product of essentially the same genetic toolkit since the first archaic homo sapiens emerged in Africa around 500,000 years ago. Our own sub-species, homo sapiens sapiens, also arose in Africa - some 140,000 years ago. Doubtless our ability to acquire and transmit religious ideas results from several millions of years of genetic evolution and lies lodged in the brain - probably in the frontal cortex which makes us humans capable of symbolic thought and huge creative leaps. The animal behaviourist Robert Hinde is probably not overstating his case when he says that what is naturally selected includes “the ways in which humans process information, their emotional characteristics, their selectivity in attention to particular features of the external world, and communication abilities”.27  The human brain contains an incredibly complex bundle of interconnected cognitive attributes. That is for sure. However, to explain why the human mind, which evolved to cope with the real world, can develop beliefs that are patently fantastic, we must turn not to biology but to a higher form - culture.

Biology moves painfully slowly in comparative terms. Too slow to have explanatory power when it comes to changes in what we humans think. That is why the high priest of the ‘selfish gene’, Richard Dawkins, writes of memes being the “new replicators”.28  This is nearer the mark.

The first appearance of “religious ideologies” happened, it is authoritatively reckoned, between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago.29  Others have pushed the start of symbolic culture further back. But not by much. Archaeological records show that modern humans were mining, preparing and applying red ochre and other similar red pigments “between about 110,000 and 120,00 years ago”.30  Presumably this was used to paint the body before ritual dances, initiation ceremonies and other such religious occasions. Yet, whatever the exact date of the beginning of symbolic culture and therefore religious belief, all the evidence shows that there have been only minor, to all intents and purposes insignificant, genetic changes over the recent period (recent, at least in biological terms). Despite that, religion has changed, and has changed to a tremendous extent, and has done so again and again. Clearly, we must locate social factors as the main determinant.

The religion of primitive communism is the consciousness of a humanity that has not yet found itself. The first hominids were to all intents and purposes tethered to particular microenvironments of which they had only the most vague comprehension. During the Palaeolithic, however, there seems to have occurred the event that produced culturally modern humans - and therefore art, complex tools and religion. The human revolution was a communist revolution and was, argues Chris Knight, led by females. They, “allied to their male kin,” brought about the transition from nature to culture.31 

Another short aside. Furiously rejecting comrade Knight’s bold application of Marxist theory, and definitely behaving as if some sacred orthodoxy had been brutally violated - and not because of Knight’s Dawkinism when dealing with pre-cultural homo sapiens - the SWP’s Chris Harman decided that before the “rise of agriculture 10,000 to 5,000 years ago”, change was essentially incremental and reliant on new tools.32  A technological, not a social determinism. His own staging of history was enshrined as doctrine - for any of the SWP’s ‘red professors’ to openly disagree in the 1990s was to risk or actually incur expulsion. A Lysenko-type moment.

Religion amongst primitive communist peoples was a magico-symbolic system for the relevant, but unavoidably distorted, understanding of, and interaction with, nature, and the regulation of human life - ie, the cycle of birth, marriage and death - and framing and promoting hunting, social exchange and trust-building. Religion was a practical matter. Both an unwritten rule book governing the social relations of the tribe and an invaluable ally in their productive activity.

It seems possible to control, or influence, real things through ritual and the recurring pattern of collective religious activity. The fantastic stories - told and retold - and the constantly recurring warp and weave of ceremony find their validation in the real world. Humanity attempts to find itself by projecting itself onto outer-reality: anthropomorphism. Socially established metaphors. Nature is usefully imagined as full of spirits and open to human persuasion. Rain, the seasons, the return of migrating herds of wild animals, female fertility are therefore assured by performing certain fixed rituals. By slotting these rituals into the dimly observed pattern of nature, the wish duly becomes part of a chain that leads to fulfilment. Eg, do your rain dance just prior to the rainy season, pray before daybreak for the sun to rise. Projecting itself as the cause, humanity feels its way into nature and comes to know its own immediate environment. Religion and religious practices draw ever closer together with nature. This gives rise to calendars, astronomy and mathematical calculation - Alexander Marshack finds evidence of lunar observations in rock paintings and engravings on mammoth ivory from between 30,000 and 35,000 years ago.33  Religion is the handmaiden of science.

The great mother and other lesser ancestors are said to remain alive in the nether world and can choose to intervene in this one - therefore they have to be kept happy and can be appealed to for help and advice. The immortality of the dead is once again fantastic reality. The living owe what they have in terms of productive activity and knowledge of themselves and the outside world to the “transmitted culture” passed down from past generations.34  This reality of culture and its importance is clothed in dreams and ceremonies, and explained as the work of constantly recalled ghosts. These ghosts combine various aspects of nature with human characteristics.35  The ancestor ghosts behave benevolently or malevolently, not just because hope and fear are closely related cognitively in the human brain, but also because life itself is full of unpredictability. Welcome moments of good luck happen. But so do disasters.

Under primitive communism religion embodies the unity and authority of the collective. The individual personality is, in terms of their potential, cribbed, cramped and crouched. What matters is the cohesion of the whole, the clan or the tribe, not the fullest development of each individual part. Nevertheless, there is a reciprocal relationship between the collective and the physiological and psychological needs of the individual. As emphasised by Scott Atran, religion reproduces social cohesion by providing a symbolic basis for cooperation and trust. Dance, song and ritual reinforce emotional conviction and dedication.36  Individuals have to be prepared to undergo socially constructed suffering and also sometimes extreme pain. Eg, initiation, fasting and male ‘menstruation’. Each individual part rigidly conforms to the customs, mores and requirements of the collective because ensuring survival meant that they had little choice in the matter. A lone individual is a dead individual.

Things changed with the decomposition of primitive communism, the defeat of the female sex and the separation of mental from manual labour. Religion becomes the consciousness of a humanity that has lost itself. The emergence of the class societies - eg, the temple city, the warrior kingdom which raids neighbours and enslaves war captives, the tributary state - went hand in hand with internal oppression and an exploitative system of religion. Religion is no longer indistinguishable from the collective: there arises a professional caste of priests whose prime function is to sanctify (or mystify) and thereby help to sustain and reproduce social stratification and social privilege. In Asiatic social formations the king or emperor is deemed to be responsible for the continued prosperity and functioning of society. At first perhaps these people played a useful role in coordinating production and ensuring the repair of irrigation systems. However, that function progressively passes to bureaucrats. As it does, religion becomes ever more elaborate so that it can act as a counterbalance against the masses, who are expected to survive on the barest minimum of subsistence levels. Because of his unique relationship to the gods, the monarch is supposed to guarantee the daily return of the life-giving sun and the seasonal rains or river floodwaters. Religion demands that the people worship their parasitic rulers as if they were the producers of social wealth - everything is said to belong to them because everything comes from them.

Religion thereby becomes the inverted consciousness of this world because human society itself has been inverted.