The sigh of the oppressed - part 1

Jack Conrad examines Marx and Engels and their criticism of passive materialism, theological atheism and religion

In the Communist manifesto (1848) Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels pour vitriolic scorn on those attacking communism from “a religious, a philosophical and generally from an ideological standpoint”.[1] Eg, communism was charged with acting in “contradistinction” to all “past experience” by seeking to abolish “eternal truths”, such as religion and morality. That said, the more liberal-minded will readily concede that religious, philosophical and juridical ideas have “constantly been modified” during the course of history. Nonetheless, their survival is celebrated as proving the “eternal truth” underlying religion and morality. Marx and Engels effortlessly brush aside such bourgeois metaphysics: class antagonisms simply assume “different forms at different epochs”.[2]

Obviously, communism involves the “most radical rupture” - not only with existing property relations, but with “traditional ideas” too. False claims made by bourgeois ideology, including those of religion, must be overcome, if the working class is to raise itself to the “position of the ruling class” and the “battle of democracy” is to be won.

In that light, communists - whose highest goal is the realisation of a truly free society, in which human beings, liberated from the shackles of alienation, develop their potentialities to the full - flatly reject each and every charge that they want to abolish morality.

General expectations and interests - spontaneously generated through mass evaluation, example and habit - are expressed through the often perverse stipulations of morality. True, in a class-divided society the morality of the ruling class is, of course, the dominant morality. Nevertheless, the codes, norms and beliefs of the ruling class always confront, vie with and often partially accommodate other, oppositional, moralities. Hence changes in morality broadly reflect the balance of class forces. Eternal verities often turn out to be, therefore, nothing but a means of maintaining the status quo and sanctioning the exploitation of the many by the few.

It is a leftwing commonplace to reject the whole notion of ethics. Not only is there the all too blatant bourgeois hypocrisy. The Marx-Engels team were at pains to distinguish their practical, scientific world outlook from utopian and other non-proletarian forms of socialism; that included, needless to say, opposing gushy moral appeals designed to pave the way for the new Jerusalem. “Communists preach no morality,” Marx and Engels emphatically declare in The German ideology (1845-46).[3]

Unlike many of their fellow German radicals, they rejected pleas to adopt the Jesus commandment: “Love one another”.[4] Indeed throughout their political lives Marx and Engels strenuously objected when social improvers solicitously recommended that the programmes of the workers’ party should be based on stirring phrases such as ‘love’, ‘justice’, ‘peace’, ‘equality’, ‘respect’, etc. Marxism, by contrast, modestly contents itself with the real movement of the working class and with painstakingly showing how communism is immanent within capitalist society.

Remarks dismissing the moralistic banalities of petty bourgeois socialism have been read as Marx and Engels dismissing morality per se; leading to the conclusion that there is no place in Marxism for a specifically communist or proletarian ethic. An elementary misunderstanding of the Marx-Engels world outlook - a world outlook clearly motivated by what can only be called heartfelt moral indignation. Capitalism, and class society in general, is roundly condemned by Marxism because it violates, degrades, contradicts an essential human nature. And, of course, the vision of a future communist society where war, class exploitation and oppression have been abolished, where people can be fully social and fully free, where the antagonism between humanity and nature has been resolved, is unquestionably moral.

Youthful road

Whether or not Marx entertained any religious feelings as a child is unknown and is quite frankly unimportant. School essays surely cannot to counted as evidence one way or the other: eg, ‘The union of believers with Christ according to John xv’ (1835).[5] Pupils typically conform to their teacher’s wishes. We also know that his father, Heinrich, counselled his son that he should base his morality on a “pure faith in god” and that “everyone can … submit to” what “Newton, Locke or Leibniz believed”.[6]
But was this tender advice needed, was it ever taken, was it internalised? On present evidence it is impossible to tell.

At university, Marx was counted amongst the Young Hegelian atheists grouped around Bruno Bauer. That is for certain. Another was Engels. Despite coming from a conservative and pious Lutheran family, he thirsted for the most advanced revolutionary ideas. As for Marx, he was, by all accounts, a “lively and central figure” in their so-called ‘Doctors’ Club’ in Berlin.[7]

Engels, together with Edgar Bauer, younger brother of Bruno, give an amusing account of the Young Hegelians in a long, anonymously published, satirical poem, The insolently threatened yet miraculously rescued Bible (1842). The affectionate description of Marx is unmistakable:

Who runs up next full of wild impetuosity?
A swarthy chap from Trier, a marked monstrosity,
He neither hops nor skips, but moves in leaps and bounds,
Raving aloud. As if to seize and then pull down
To earth the spacious tent of heaven up on high,
He opens wide his arms and reaches for the sky.
He shakes his wicked fist, raves with a frantic air,
As if ten thousand devils had him by the hair.[8]

After graduation Marx remained politically and personally close to Bauer and, suffice to say, his “atheism was of an extremely militant kind”.[9] The two spoke about setting up a review entitled Atheistic Archives.*

Marx’s commitment to the freedom, solidarity and dignity of humanity was always matched by a loathing of subservience of any kind. Once asked, what “vice you hate most”, Marx snappily replied - “servility”.[10]
No surprise then: he singled out Christianity as one of the most immoral of all religions. After all, by tradition Christianity preaches reconciliation, passivity and humbleness: in short, the moral attributes of the defeated, the freeloader, the horribly servile. Saint Peter taught that slaves were bound by Christian duty to be submissive to their owners: “not only to the good and gentle, but also to the overbearing” (ie, sadists and rapists).[11]
Supposedly that was to “imitate Christ” - he too suffered unjustly.[12]

A prime example of Marx’s youthful antipathy towards religion can be found in the Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature. Submitting it as his PhD dissertation in April 1841, Marx had an eye on publication (he woefully failed on this score - the full text was first published only in 1927).

In terms of morality Marx clearly employs the mythical Prometheus to express his own distinct standpoint:

"Philosophy, as long as a drop of blood shall pulse in its world-subduing and absolutely free heart, will never grow tired of answering its adversaries with the cry of Epicurus: ‘Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them, is truly impious’ ... Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus - ‘In simple words, I hate the pack of gods’ - is its own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity."[13]

Marx’s exaltation of the role of “philosophy” (almost as a persona in itself) betrays the youthful provenance of this passage. Nevertheless the Promethean motif was a recurring theme. Prometheus’s theft of fire from the gods of Olympus and his bestowal of this gift on humanity can be seen as a prototype of a revolutionary rejection of divine rule, a vital step towards emancipation. Of course, Prometheus was vengefully punished for his treacherous rebellion by Zeus, the top god. Chained to a rock, each day Prometheus had his liver ripped out and devoured by an eagle. Despite that ghastly torture he defiantly cried out: “Understand this well: I would not change my evil plight for your servility.”

Submission ran counter to Marx’s psychological make-up. And it is belligerent, obstinate, unyielding emotional defiance, rather than abstract philosophical/theological considerations, that surely constitutes the bedrock of his hostility towards religion. After all Marx’s “idea of happiness” was “to fight”.[14]

Despite their closeness, Marx broke with Bauer over his support for the Berlin group of Young Hegelians known as ‘The Free’ (successor to the Doctors’ Club). As editor of Rheinische Zeitung Marx decided against publishing further articles by them. Their sloppy submissions were “free from all thought”. More than that, Marx worried that frivolous attacks on religion played straight into the hands of the censor. Marx, it should be noted, was conducting a desperate rearguard battle to preserve what remained of press freedom against the creeping repression of the autocratic Prussian state.

On November 30 1842 he wrote to Arnold Ruge, then a key collaborator, explaining his demand for serious, well researched, articles, instead of atheist verbiage. Marx insisted that religion should be “criticised in the framework of criticism of political conditions”. That is, as opposed to political conditions being criticised “in the framework of religion”. After all, according to Marx, “religion in itself is without content; it owes its being not to heaven, but to the earth and, with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself”.[15]

The final rift with Bauer came after the suppression of the radical press by the Prussian authorities - Rheinische Zeitung being a prime target. Bauer discounted active political resistance and retreated into the protective shell of abstract theorisation.

Between 1843 and 1846, having teamed up, Marx and Engels settled their accounts. As well as firing off journalistic articles, they authored two landmark works, the Holy family (1844) and the German ideology (1845-46). Not only were Bauer et al clinically dissected and mercilessly lampooned. Marx and Engels laid the foundations of historical materialism.

They then rapidly moved on. Engels, let it be noted, showed the way. He made the first attempt at critiquing political economy and grappling with the writings of Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, etc. He was also the first to appreciate the centrality of the working class to any realistic project of universal human freedom. Engels collaborated with the Chartists in Britain and was, of course, based in Manchester from 1842 - the epicentre of the 19th century industrial revolution.

Having begun to develop their new viewpoint, Marx and Engels could put both religion and atheism into their proper place. Writing in the Economic and philosophic manuscripts (1844), Marx provides the following argument:

"But since for the socialist man the entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labour, nothing but the emergence of nature for man, so he has the visible, irrefutable proof of his birth through himself, of his genesis. Since the real existence of man and nature has become evident in practice, through sense experience ... the question about an alien being, about a being above nature and man - a question which implies the admission of the unreality of nature and of man - has become impossible in practice. Atheism, as the denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of god, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. It proceeds from the theoretically and practically sensuous consciousness of man and of nature as the essence. Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion."[16]

Not that this should be taken as Marx rejecting atheism. Rather Marx was rejecting the theological atheism of Bauer and the Young Hegelians. Bauer criticised religion and theology in a religious and theological manner. A well-aimed polemical barb. However, when it came to the non-existence of god, Marx himself could take what might appear to be an almost existentialist approach. If god existed, then humanity could not be truly free, nor could its purposes be entirely its own:

"A being only considers himself independent when he stands on his own feet; and he only stands on his own feet when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the grace of another regards himself as a dependent being. But I live completely by the grace of another if I owe him not only the maintenance of my life, but if he has, moreover, created my life - if he is the source of my life. When it is not of my own creation, my life has necessarily a source of this kind outside of it."[17]

The supreme being people call god is therefore domination and predetermination to the power of infinity. If god exists, then the ‘meaning’ of the world must by definition come from this entity and not from humanity. But Marx consistently maintained that “for man the root is man himself ... The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man.”[18]


Marx’s insistence on explaining religion in naturalistic, historical and social terms owes an undoubted debt to Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72). Though a senior member of Bauer’s circle, Feuerbach - a former pupil of Hegel himself - bluntly announced his “direct opposition to the Hegelian philosophy”.[19] Instead, he expressed loyalty “only to realism, to materialism”; albeit a materialism which, showing he really remained fundamentally rooted in idealism, managed to deify love.[20]

Despite that, perhaps because of that - the Young Hegelians were a motley crew - Feuerbach’s best known work, The essence of Christianity (1841), had an electrifying effect. Writing decades later, Engels gives this testimony: “Enthusiasm was universal: we were all Feuerbachians for a moment.”[21]

Interestingly, David McLellan registers a minor disagreement. Marx, McLellan says, was not over-impressed by The essence of Christianity. It was Feuerbach’s Preliminary theses for the reform of philosophy (1842) which had the “immediate and important influence”.[22]

Here, in this compact monograph - the argument is presented in an aphoristic and cryptic style - Feuerbach seeks to dispose of speculative philosophy - ie, Hegelianism - because it is, he argued, as great a mystification as theology. Mainstream religion was busily consigning god and the supernatural to mere allegorisation, moral instruction and the safe remove of an ethereal heaven. Remorselessly, enlightened thinking, science and biblical criticism marched ever onwards. Hegel, by contrast, managed to smuggle god and the supernatural back onto planet Earth under the cover of a monumental, wonderfully complex and brilliantly organised objective idealist system.

For what it is worth, Feuerbach trumpets the birth of a “new philosophy”. It will not concern itself with abstract concepts, but will strive to fuse with the natural sciences. In the name of “man” it will “contain within it the essence of Christianity” and realise a “new truth - a new autonomous deed of mankind”.[23]

Anyhow, leave aside which particular book inspired Marx. In the early 1840s Feuerbach was the philosopher for the Young Hegelians. Abundant evidence exists to prove this contention. Feuerbach certainly established the correct approach to religion, as far as Marx was concerned. Feuerbach’s more worthwhile propositions were recognisably continued by Marx. Eg, arguably, his “inversion principle” allowed Marx to put Hegel’s dialectic onto its feet and reveal it as the general law, or underlying pattern, of matter and thought in motion.[24]

Eugene Kamenka (1928-94), is right then, at least on this score: an “understanding of” Feuerbach’s earlier works “forms an indispensable precondition for appreciating Marx’s aims and methods”.[25] Anyone who calls themselves a Marxist should feel obliged to at least take a look at Feuerbach’s The essence of Christianity.[26]
True, the failure to construct a serious history, the absence of political economy, the lack of a viable agent for social change, the tiresome sentimentalism, etc are all too apparent. What needs appreciating, however, is the role of The essence as an intellectual portal. Engels again manages to convey the mood, albeit on this occasion in an uncharacteristically clumsy manner: “One must have experienced the liberating effect of this book for oneself to get an idea of it.”[27]

A short biographical aside. While Feuerbach recoiled from political activity after the failure of the 1848 revolution and in latter life authored nothing of significance, in 1870, having read Capital, he joined the newly founded Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Perhaps one of the reasons why an aged Engels brimmingly declared that the “German working class movement is the heir to classical German philosophy”.[28]

Let us ask an obvious question. What was Feuerbach’s central thesis when it comes to religion? Put at its simplest, it is that god does not exist. The “divine being” commonly called god “is nothing else than the human being, or rather human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective - ie, contemplated and reversed as another, a distinct being”.[29] Attributes which people assign to god and statements they make about god are actually attributes of and statements about human nature, but in a mystified form. So the “personality of god is nothing else than the projected personality of man”.[30]

Feuerbach junks the encyclopaedic objective idealism of Hegelianism and in its place puts together a rather thin materialism adapted from Diderot, Descartes, Locke and Hobbes. Nothing exists outside nature. Sense organs rely on matter. Thought is not independent of humanity, etc. To his everlasting credit Feuerbach’s materialism is thoroughly anthropocentric. Everything we perceive, define and know in our thought processes is perceived, defined and known in human terms. Accordingly, in all our mental acts, we human beings project themselves onto the object of their thought, and in so doing endow it with objectified aspects of their own human essence.

The resulting Feuerbachian relation between subject and object is defined as reciprocal and involves identity or correspondence. Religious people gain “self-knowledge” through the object: “Consciousness of god is self-consciousness.” Hence by your gods we shall know you and even your inner secrets. Not that religious people are “aware” of that identity. Ignorance is “fundamental” to the “peculiar” nature of religion.[31]

Evidently, Feuerbach retains Hegel’s category of alienation. People alienate their essential being by attributing their human qualities to a god who is then worshipped on account of these qualities. Projection into the heavens splits, divides, removes humanity from itself. God is humanity’s “alter-ago.”[32]
By worshipping god, people unconsciously worship themselves. An echo of Benedict Spinoza (1632-77) and his homo homini deus - man is a god to man.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of mind (1807) considers alienation under two headings: 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. The dialectic of alienation - in either manifestation - being seen as a positive and necessary stage in historical development. ‘Being’ (or ‘Spirit’) could only realise its essence by first externalising it and then reabsorbing it; without alienation the process of gradual self-development would be 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 humanity’s self-consciousness. 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 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.”[33]

Transforming theological statements about god into naturalistic statements about humanity not only corrects the inversion created by alienation. It allows humanity to establish its own essential dignity. What Feuerbach called “species-being”.

Whereas Hegel’s philosophy involves fetishising abstract predicates such as “thought”, which in the final analysis are treated as a manifestation of the absolute idea (ie, god), Feuerbach inverts Hegel’s subject and predicate. By so doing he restores them to their proper relationship. Eg, instead of establishing the predicate ‘thinking’ as an agent, Feuerbach transforms the equation and asserts that thinking is the activity of existing individuals. Thought comes out of being, not being out of thought.

In decoding religion’s statements about god, Feuerbach usefully adds a specifically collective dimension: “Man has his highest being, his god, in himself; not as an individual, but his essential nature, his species.”[34] It is precisely the ability of humanity, the species, to achieve a communistic identity as universal beings that allows the individual to rise above the consciousness of religion and realise its species-being.

Feuerbach was sensitive to the accusation that he was merely an atheist and, in denying the charge, he raises themes that, as we have argued, are repeatedly found in Marx:

"He who says no more of me than that I am an atheist, says and knows nothing of me. The question as to the existence or non-existence of god, the opposition between theism and atheism, belongs to the 16th and 17th centuries, but not to the 19th. 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. The question concerning the existence or non-existence of god is for me nothing but the question concerning the existence or non-existence of man."[35]

It is, therefore, mistaken to view Feuerbach’s anthropocentrism as a mere denial of religion. The genuineness and fervour of his humanism is beyond doubt. Feuerbach’s critique of the anthropomorphism, which is inherent in almost all religions, is equally driven by his impassioned commitment to humanity.

Be it animism, polytheism, henotheism or monotheism, the supernatural has been personified. However, what is particularly characteristic of monotheistic religions is a dismissal of rival gods as mere wooden or stone idols. Their deity is alone claimed as true:

"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 - and necessarily so, otherwise it would no longer be religion - from the fate, the common nature of all religions: it imputes only to other religions what is the fault of religion in general,"[36]

The “malign principle” of persecuting and destroying heretics depressingly follows.[37]

Some of the more esoteric chapters of The essence of Christianity consist of reinterpretations of Christian theology in terms of anthropomorphism. Eg, god’s supposed nature as an absolutely necessary being, an ens realissimum (most real being - reflecting the doctrine that, as goodness comes in degrees, so there must be an ultimate, real entity). Feuerbach interprets this as mere objectification of human reason itself.

Similarly, the all-powerful, all-wise god is, according to Feuerbach, an inverted projection of human poverty: “The more empty life is, the fuller, the more concrete is god. The impoverishing of the real world and the enriching of god is one act. Only the poor man has a rich god. God springs out of the feeling of a want; what man is in need of, whether this be a definite and therefore conscious or unconscious need - that is god.”[38]

Insofar as Feuerbach considers history, religion is depicted as the “child-like condition of humanity”.[39] By exposing the mystified nature of religion, the alienated, subject-object relation can be reversed. God, he concludes, must be brought down to earth and humanity made whole. Indeed, the entire Feuerbachian project can be summed up as putting humanity - social humanity - in its rightful place at the centre of things.

Settling accounts

Any attempt to analyse Marx’s break with the Young Hegelians solely, or even mainly, in terms of some deep-seated neurosis is obviously highly unsatisfactory. Intentionally or unintentionally, those who adopt such an approach ignore or downplay the originality, grandeur and specific historical context of Marx’s achievement. For example, it has been argued that Bruno Bauer, Edgar Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, etc “overcompensated” for previous religious beliefs by violent, hate-filled attacks on Christianity.[40] Marx, supposedly having never gone through a period of religiousness, was not subject to the same demonic drives. How Engels fits into this schema need not worry us here.

Suffice to say, we know precious little about Marx’s childhood. But we do know that Marx’s mother, Henrietta, descended from a long line of rabbis and she, unlike her husband, appears to have tenaciously clung to the religion of her forefathers. Usually mothers exert some considerable influence over their sons and there is every reason to believe that Henrietta did just that. So Marx’s immaculate atheism is at the very least problematic. Henrietta could be possessive, controlling and disapproving. Relations between mother and son certainly became strained during adulthood. Pitifully, there are those who explain Marx’s so-called “gross anti-Semitic statements” by invoking a “love-hate” relationship with his mother.[41] A combination of character assassination and quackery.

In the exact same dismal spirit, though with diametrically opposite conclusions, the Catholic Freudian, Paul Vitz, explains away Marx’s irreligion as an Oedipal overthrow of fatherly authority. The learned professor makes what he calls “intense atheism” mundane by insisting that almost all famous atheists had a strained, damaged or venomous relationship with their fathers: eg, Paul-Henri Thiry, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Feuerbach, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. By way of contrast, Jesus can be nicely upheld as the “anti-Oedipus”, because, of course, he had a tender, loving, perfectly balanced relationship with his father in heaven.[42]

Searching out the limitations of the Young Hegelians in religious upbringing is banally ahistorical. The Young Hegelians were an unmistakable product of early 19th century Germany and articulated - despite the gag imposed by censorship - the strivings of the German radical bourgeoisie against feudal fragmentation, economic stagnation, bureaucratic corruption and autocratic arbitrariness. Biblical criticism provided one of the few publishable avenues open to anti-establishment intellectuals. But, when put to the test in the 1848 revolution, the Young Hegelians - indeed the whole of the German bourgeoisie - proved feeble, inept and cowardly. Alone the working class was consistent, bold and determinedly revolutionary.

And it was this class to which Marx and Engels were inexorably drawn, both in terms of actuality and future potential. A journey which commenced with a settling of accounts with the Young Hegelians. Eg, when it came to the practical task of making revolution, the weapon of biblical criticism was, Marx and Engels argued, woefully inadequate. There would have to be criticism by weapons.

Leave that aside - psychoanalysis at a 150-year remove can only have extraordinarily limited value. Moreover, diagnosis, at the same historical remove, when it comes to the influence of mothers and fathers, about whom we are largely ignorant, amounts, surely, to pure chicanery. On the other hand, we have abundant evidence showing how Marx and Engels threw in their lot and came to identify with the working class movement, and how they quickly emerged as its foremost international representatives.

An orientation, destination and arena of struggle, I would humbly suggest, which was doubtless chosen and influenced by all manner of formative childhood experiences and youthful assertions of independence from parents, teachers, etc. Nevertheless, taking such a route could only have happened with the maturing of definite historical conditions. Before the rise of the modern working class, whatever you call it - Marxism, scientific socialism, proletarian communism - was impossible.

But enough of ideologically driven psychobabble. We shall now proceed to show how Marx settled his accounts with not only the Young Hegelians, but Feuerbach too.

Marx was never going to be satisfied with a Feuerbachian anthropology that aspired to perfect Christianity. And the notion of overthrowing the Prussian autocracy using theological categories and theological criticisms was always going to be an absurdity as far as Marx was concerned. He soon became convinced that, while atheism was a vital intellectual premise, historic processes, developments in the means of production, social relations and crucially revolutionary practice had to be made the real starting point of “our criticism.”[43]

Inevitably, that necessitated further, much deeper, endless investigations - but now into the “inverted reality” of the bourgeois world. With that in mind, let us turn to the first of two articles which Marx wrote in what was an extremely fruitful period spent in Kreuznach between March and October 1843 - that is, after the suppression Rheinische Zeitung, but just prior to Marx’s first period of exile.

On the Jewish question was published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. It constitutes a comprehensive rebuttal of Bruno Bauer and unmistakably shows that Marx had already superseded the radical democratic politics of the Rheinische Zeitung. Leave aside Bruno Bauer: On the Jewish question also establishes a profound critique of the way liberals treat demands for equality, freedom, rights, etc.

Protestant Christianity was the only officially recognised religion in Prussia and Jews in particular faced a whole raft of laws which humiliatingly discriminated against them. Bauer - inexcusably barred from teaching in 1842 for daring to show that Bible stories were full of human invention - argued, in his book, The Jewish question (1843), that Jews can achieve political and civic emancipation only if they abandon their religious allegiances, religious modes of thinking and religious practices.

In the meantime, by appealing to the Christian state for equality, Germany’s Jews were inexcusably legitimising it. Therefore their demands for equality ought to be rejected simply because they undermined the cause of general emancipation. Bauer actually maintained that granting Jewish rights would be incompatible with either the political rights of citizens (eg, the 1787 US constitution) or general civic rights (eg, France’s 1789 declaration of the rights of man).

According to Bauer, an atheist state was the only solution … and for him that obviously meant Jews, Protestants, Catholics … everyone renouncing their religion. Note, however, for Bauer, the Christian religion was considerably superior to Judaism. And after the failure of the 1848 revolution he swung violently to the right and began to promote an ever more vile anti-Semitism.

In the name of human liberation 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. Bauer’s critique was misdirected because it was aimed at the Christian state, and not at the state as such.

Bauer’s problem (and that of bourgeois radicals in general) was that he mistook political emancipation, embodied in declarations of human rights, constitutions, etc, for human emancipation. Simply decreeing the necessary separation of church and state could not ensure the disappearance of religion (and its associated prejudices). The original American states, for example, had written separation from organised religion into their constitutions, yet the US remained “pre-eminently the country of religiosity”.[44]

Bauer was still using the criticism of religion as his basis for the criticism of politics, but, as Marx insisted, “the existence of religion is the existence of a defect ... We no longer regard religion as the cause, but only as the manifestation, of secular narrowness ... History has long enough been merged in superstition; we now merge superstition in history. The question of the relation of political emancipation to religion becomes for us the question of the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation”.[45]

So it is not that Marx rejects demands for political and civic equality. Of course not. He sees such demands as eminently supportable, but not sufficient for human emancipation. The principal defect of political emancipation in and of itself is that it is purely formal. Taking issue with his own earlier reliance on universal suffrage, for example, Marx points out that various 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”.[46] 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 is, and giving everyone real and effective power over their lives:

"The perfect political state is, by its nature, man’s species-life, as opposed to his material life. All the preconditions of this egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the sphere of the state, but as qualities of civil society. Where the political state has attained its true development, man - not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life - leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers ... he is the imaginary member of an illusory sovereignty, deprived of his real individual life and endowed with an unreal universality."[47]

Counterposing humanity’s “heavenly” and “earthly” existences in a “double life” is, of course, a borrowing from Feuerbach. As already noted, Marx’s approach to religion was 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:

"Political democracy is Christian, since in it man - not merely one man, but every man - ranks as sovereign, as the highest being, but it is man in his uncivilised, unsocial form, man in his fortuitous existence, man just as he is, man as he has been corrupted by the whole organisation of our society, who has lost himself, been alienated and handed over to the rule of inhuman conditions and elements - in short, man who is not yet a real species-being. That which is a creation of fantasy, a dream, a postulate of Christianity - ie, the sovereignty of man, but man as an alien being different from the real man - becomes in democracy tangible reality, present existence and secular principle."[48]

Yet, while Marx might have described himself as a ‘Feuerbachian’ for a brief period in the early 1840s, it is clear that he developed increasingly profound disagreements with Feuerbach’s philosophy, and specifically with his materialism.

The problem with Feuerbach’s naturalistic materialism, for Marx, was that on investigation it was annoyingly illusive, abstract and theoretical. A necessary though not sufficient step towards understanding our relationship with the natural environment. Feuerbach forever remained one-sided. Why? Because he conceived of things in passive, intuitive terms. His conception of the sensuous world was “confined, on the one hand, to mere contemplation of it and, on the other, to mere feeling”.[49]

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 (1845), “The chief defect of all previous materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively.”[50] Marx believed that Feuerbach’s failure derived from his lack of an historical approach. In The German ideology, he agues that Feuerbach did not grasp that “the sensuous world around him is not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and the state of society”.[51]

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."[52]

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 humanity. The writings of Marx we are discussing here were intended specifically to counter the “static” approach to religion. Together with the Theses on Feuerbach, not to mention the scintillating first hundred or so pages of The German ideology, this constituted a devastating critique of the Young Hegelians. That said, there can be no doubt, in its essentials, no matter how enriched and modified, Marx’s understanding of religious alienation remains firmly within the framework established by Feuerbach. It was this that Marx was surely referring to in his Contribution to Hegel’s philosophy of law (1843), when he declares that, “For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete.”[53]

Anyhow, On the Jewish question reiterates the ethical postulate Marx presented in ‘Debates on freedom of the press’ - a six-part supplement carried in the Rheinische Zeitung in May 1842. Here Marx excoriated Prussian press censorship - “a perfumed abortion”, he called it. Prometheus-like he defiantly proclaims: “only that which is a realisation of freedom can be called humanly good”.[54]

Since organised 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 Marxist 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 and by all the kinds of inhuman domination, bondage and debasement implicit in the category of alienation.

Bruno Bauer’s mistake was to imagine that religious emancipation in and of itself could free humanity, whereas, for Marx, even the most far-going version of (bourgeois) political emancipation cannot succeed in achieving freedom. Religious emancipation gives freedom of religion, but it does not free freedom 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 humanity 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 happen:

"Only when the real, individual man reabsorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognised and organised his own ‘forces propres’ [own powers] as social forces, and consequently no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished."[55]

The commanding idea is that humanity can achieve real emancipation by rediscovering its identity in and through community, but not through the imaginary community represented by either religion or the state.

In the second part 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.

While Bauer argued in terms of the emancipation of “the Sabbath Jew” - Jews seen purely in terms of their religion[56] - Marx extends the notion of emancipation by focusing on the oppression of Jews in actual socio-economic context:

"Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew. What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time."[57]

Why, for Marx, is “Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism”, rated as the “self-emancipation of our time”? Because it is money that dominates all social relations, money and the power that flows from it that constitutes the material base of capitalist society:

"Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man - and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal, self-established value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world - both the world of men and nature - of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it."[58]


Biased or simply uninformed opinion - including some leftish academics, journalists, bloggers, etc - react in horror to such passages, denouncing them as clear evidence of anti-Semitism. In other words Marx was a ‘self-hating’ Jew. However, such an assessment is quite clearly wrong. Few of Marx’s detractors go to the bother of explaining that he was actually advocating Jewish emancipation. Fewer still show any appreciation of the fact that it is thoroughly misleading to read post-holocaust sensibilities back onto the language of the 1840s.

By contrast Hal Draper convincingly shows that Marx was merely following the near-universal practice of his day. One could make the same point about his male-dominated language - ie, the word ‘man’ is used more or less unremittingly as synonymous with ‘humanity’. Ditto, ‘Jew’ is treated as synonymous with ‘usury’.[59]
In this case a join with well recognised material roots in the economics of feudal society. Other contemporary Jewish progressives wrote in exactly the same terms: eg, Ferdinand Lassalle and Henrich Heine. And the fact of the matter is that Marx was criticising not Jewry alone, but what he saw as a “Judeo-Christian complex”, which elevates money-making above every human value, relationship and instinct.[60] No, in truth, if one wants to find hatred of Jews of a kind that does resemble the Nazis, one must look to the writings not of Marx, but of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65). The father of anarchism advocated the physical extermination of the Jews.[61] Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) held similar views.[62]

Leave aside Marx’s own Jewishness and his rabbinical ancestry: a good case can be made for his communism being connected, consciously or unconsciously, with messianic ‘Old Testament’ prophets, such as Amos, Micah and Habakkuk.[63] Possibly this came directly through his acquaintance with the proto-Zionist Moses Hess (1812-72), who likewise condemned the “Judeo-Christian huckster world”; almost certainly it came indirectly through Spinoza, Goethe and Hegel. Their commitment to human freedom recognisably descends from the Christian utopias of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Not that I would go along with Eric Fromm, when he describes Marx’s communism as “the most advanced form of rational mysticism”.[64] Such a paradoxical formulation, while having the merit of counteracting the dismal technological determinism of the Stalinites, runs the risk of appearing to reconcile Marxism with religion.

Anyhow, having allowed ourselves a short detour, let us get back to On the Jewish question.

For Marx money was the god of the bourgeoisie and the worship of money was their religion. Hence the following passage:

"Selling is the practice of externalisation. Selling is the practical aspect of alienation. Just as man, as long as he is in the grip of religion, is able to objectify his essential nature only by turning it into something alien, something fantastic, so under the domination of egoistic need he can be active practically, and produce objects in practice, only by putting his products, and his activity, under the domination of an alien being, and bestowing the significance of an alien entity - money - on them."[65]

Feuerbach’s ‘inverted reality’, 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, could not be more clear. Both notions, of course, appear - in a richer, more profound and dialectical form - in Marx’s latter critique of political economy.

But - some may ask - how can the social role of money and commodities be equated with religion? Is this not stretching a 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, but the subordination of human beings to a thing of their own making. Hence, in Capital Marx says: “in religion man is governed by the products of his own brain”. He elaborates:

"A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour ... [the commodity is] a definite social relation between men ... [and] 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 productions of the human brain appear 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."[66]

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. 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 humanity’s productive activity rests on the same basis - that 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 then finally 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."[67]

Hence, as Marx argued, “All science would be superfluous if the manifest form and the essence of things directly coincided”,[68] but, so long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, we all move about in forms of illusion. It was the desire to carry the exposure of religious alienation into the real world of politics and society that led Marx to write his Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law (1844), which effectively summarises his views on religion and contains his best known aphorisms on the subject. Marx begins by stating:

"The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence, because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world, of which religion is the spiritual aroma."[69]


  1. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, London, p503.
  2. Ibid p504.
  3. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, London 1976, p247.
  4. John xiii,34-35.
  5. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1976, p636.
  6. Ibid p647.
  7. D McLellan Karl Marx his life and thought London 1973, p32.
  8. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 2, London 1975, p336.
  9. D McLellan Karl Marx his life and thought London 1973, p42.
  10. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 42, Moscow 1987, p568.
  11. Peter, xviii, 23-24.
  12. Catholic encyclopaedia. See www.newadvent.org/cathen/14036a.htm
  13. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, Moscow 1975, p30.
  14. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 42, Moscow 1987, p568.
  15. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1,London 1975, pp394-95.
  16. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, Moscow 1975, pp305-06.
  17. Ibid p304.
  18. Ibid p182.
  19. L Feuerbach The essence of Christianity London 1854, pvi.
  20. This passage taken from his Essence of Christianity gives the flavour: “Love knows no law but itself; it is divine through itself; it needs not the sanction of faith; it is its own basis. The love which is bound by faith is a narrow-hearted, false love, contradicting the idea of love: ie, self-contradictory; a love which has only a semblance of holiness, for it hides in itself the hatred that belongs to faith; it is only benevolent so long as faith is not injured” (L Feuerbach The essence of Christianity London 1854, p262).
  21. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p364.
  22. D McLellan Karl Marx his life and thought London 1973, p67.
  23. For a translation of the Preliminary theses see W Schirmacher (ed) Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels - German socialist philosophy New York 1997, pp42-59.
  24. VA Harvey Feuerbach and the interpretation of religion Cambridge 1997, p143n.
  25. E Kamenka Marxism and ethics London 1970, p15.
  26. The English translation of the second, 1843, edition can be found at the excellent www.marxists.org site. See www.marxists.org/reference/archive/feuerbach/works/essence/index.htm
  27. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p364.
  28. Ibid p398.
  29. L Feuerbach The essence of Christianity London 1854, p14.
  30. Ibid p224.
  31. Ibid pp12-13.
  32. Ibid p194.
  33. Ibid p29.
  34. Ibid p275.
  35. Quoted in S Hook From Hegel to Marx New York 1950, p222-23.
  36. L Feuerbach The essence of Christianity London 1854, p13.
  37. Ibid p320.
  38. Ibid p72.
  39. Ibid p13.
  40. The view of Michael Malkin. See Weekly Worker February 1 2001.
  41. See www.faem.com/david/marx-3a.htm
  42. See P Vitz and J Gartner ‘Christianity and psychoanalysis’, part1 Journal of Psychology and Theology No12, 1984; P Vitz Faith of the fatherless Dallas 1999, pp3-16.
  43. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p144.
  44. Ibid p151.
  45. Ibid p151.
  46. Ibid p153.
  47. Ibid pp153-54.
  48. Ibid p159.
  49. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, London 1975, p39.
  50. Ibid p6.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid p40.
  53. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p175.
  54. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, pp158-59.
  55. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p168.
  56. Ibid p169.
  57. Ibid pp169-70.
  58. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, p172.
  59. See H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, pp591-608.
  60. Ibid p593.
  61. See JS Schapiro Liberalism and the challenge of fascism New York 1949.
  62. See EH Carr Michael Bakunin New York 1961.
  63. E Fromm Marx’s concept of man London 2004, p52.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid p174.
  66. K Marx Capital Vol 1,London, 1970, p72.
  67. Ibid p79.
  68. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1971, p817.
  69. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3 Moscow 1975, p175.