The sigh of the oppressed - part 2

Jack Conrad continues his examination of Marx and Engels and their criticism of passive materialism, theological atheism and religion

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 grip the human mind and heart:

 "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion."[70]

This passage demands careful attention. In the first place, the phrase, “Religion … is the opium of the people”, is often quoted in isolation, to suggest 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 is an inescapable part of the human condition, but also the anguish engendered by consciousness of the inevitability of disease, decay and death. To separate “opium of the people” from “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world ... the spirit of spiritless conditions” is to disregard the evident understanding and compassion which Marx feels towards those who have nothing else in their impoverished and alienated world from which to take comfort.

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 torn up the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man shall wear the unadorned, bleak chain, but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve round himself and therefore round his true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve round himself."[71]

Marx believed 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 genuine 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:

 "The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."[72]

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 root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself ... the criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being."[73]

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.

As we have seen, for Marx, the ‘purity’ of religious alienation - ie, the fact that in religion human beings submit themselves to and are dominated by entirely imaginary and fantastical entities that have no existence in objective reality - gave the category a certain paradigmatic, prototypical quality. That is why we find him throughout his life using it analogically - most notably, of course, in the final section of chapter one in the first volume of Capital, entitled ‘The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof’. There he has “recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”, in order to explain how “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”.[74]

Just as “the religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, 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”, so “the life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan”.[75] Only communism can bring about such “perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations”, because production under communism, motivated by human needs, not by profit, will be free, collective and founded on a plan that will not only incorporate the most advanced scientific knowledge, but, more importantly still, will be characterised at every level by active, popular control, thereby reintegrating human beings with themselves and one another in a society where the gulf between appearance and reality - all the illusions and mystifications embodied in bourgeois ideology - will be left behind.


It is to the question of ideology - specifically religion as a ‘branch’ of ideology - that we shall now turn. Here our key text will be The German ideology, a Marx-Engels collaboration which has raised a number of highly contentious questions within our tradition. Eg, what is the significance of ideology as a category within Marxism? Due to what I believe is a misreading of some well known aphorisms, combined with a mechanical, undialectical and fundamentally unMarxist approach to the base-superstructure metaphor, some thinkers on the left dismiss ideology as pure illusion: ie, a void, a nothingness. Economics and the means of production are everything. Religion is given the same status as a fleeting dream. All reality is external to it.

To begin with, however, let us return briefly to the Economic and philosophical manuscripts. True to his conviction that criticism must move from heaven to earth, and in keeping with his own naturalistic materialism, with its emphasis on the centrality of the reciprocal interrelation between humanity and nature in the labour process, Marx gives us a new focus on alienation. While retaining the category of religious alienation as a useful analogical tool, he now stresses that, whereas this category as such occurs only in the realm of human consciousness (ie, in the inner life of humanity) economic alienation is rooted in our real, material lives. So if we transcend economic alienation we also transcend its religious counterpart.

Transcending economic alienation means confronting a threefold problem arising from the relationship between human beings and the objects and institutions they have produced. Firstly, workers are alienated from the product of their labour. The existence of private property in the means of production means that workers, who must sell their labour-power in order to live, as producers of commodities relate to the product of labour as to an alien object that stands over and above them. They cease to be self-determining beings and become merely a moment in the objective process of production:

"The worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object ... the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself - his inner world - becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into god, the less he retains in himself."[76]

Secondly, workers are alienated from the labour process as such. No longer can the exercise of brains, nerves and muscles constitute a satisfying end in itself, but only the means to earn money essential for survival. Because labour is “external to the worker”, it “does not belong to his intrinsic nature ... therefore he does not affirm himself, but denies himself, does not feel content, but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy, but mortifies his body and ruins his mind ... His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it ... Lastly, the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him.”[77]

Once again the analogy with religious alienation is made explicit: “Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him - that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity - so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of himself.”[78] The dehumanisation engendered by the alienated labour process means that “man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions - eating, drinking, procreating ... and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”[79]

Thirdly, because it is “just in his work upon the objective world that man really proves himself a species-being”, the alienation of the individual from the product of his labour and from the labour process itself inevitably has social consequences:

"When alienated labour tears from man the object of his production, it also tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species” ... and finally, “An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labour, from his life activity, ... is the estrangement of man from man."[80]

Marx makes clear that it is alienated labour itself under the capitalist mode of production, rather than the existence of private property in the means of production, that is the real cause of the alienation he describes: “though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labour, it is rather its consequence, just as the gods are originally not the cause but the effect of man’s intellectual confusion. Later this relationship becomes reciprocal.”[81]

The above passages from the Economic and philosophical manuscripts have been included because, apart from the light they cast on Marx’s explanation of the categorical relationship between religious alienation and alienated labour, they are central to an understanding of the category of alienation as a whole. The question has frequently arisen as to whether this category was effectively ‘superseded’ in Marx’s later works. Can one in fact speak of a radical discontinuity (what Louis Althusser dubbed an “epistemological break”), between an early - “ideological” - and a later - “scientific” - Marx?[82]

Frankly, the sheer weight of contrary evidence makes Althusser’s proposition simply untenable. His “epistemological break” originated as a Stalinite invention, blessed by the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow, designed to belittle, dismiss, escape from the anti-statism, democratism and humanism that shines forth from Marx’s early works (often little known or unpublished till the first half of the 20th century) and which, therefore, when published, proved to be deeply problematic for the bureaucracy which squatted over “really existing socialism”.[83]

However, even a cursory browse through the Grundrisse and Capital - scientific works par excellence - should be enough to convince the reader that commodity fetishism not only underpins Marx’s mature political economy. It constitutes a concrete application of the category of alienation, or estrangement, to capitalist society. Commodity fetishism/alienation allows Marx to penetrate the fog of mystification that obscures the real nature of the capitalist mode of production. Behind the carefully constructed veil of bourgeois normalcy and equality there lies the hidden reality of unfreedom and exploitation.

Hence, far from having been dropped in favour of a more ‘scientific’ approach in Marx’s later work, the category of alienation constitutes the enduring core of Marx’s critique of capitalism. Alienation underlies the loss, dispossession and dehumanisation inseparable from the capitalist mode of production, a state of affairs in which human beings have no chance whatever of living decent lives, let alone of fulfilling their potential. It is precisely the depth of this dispossession and dehumanisation, the apparent impossibility of escaping from it, which, Marx argued, leads people to seek in religion “the soul of soulless conditions, the heart of a heartless world” - nationalism, new ageism, celebrity worship all being attenuated forms.

István Mészáros, a leading authority on the subject, emphasises that alienation is not only the “key concept” of the Economic and philosophical manuscripts, but also “the central concept of Marx’s whole theory”; and that “Marx’s critique of capitalistic alienation and reification” is in fact “the basic idea of the Marxian system”.[84]

Other respected scholars agree. Leszek KoÅ‚akowski (1927-2009), when he was a Marxist, had much of value to say on the subject of alienation. KoÅ‚akowski identified what he saw as the real question as being “whether the aspects of his early thinking which Marx subsequently abandoned are important enough to justify the idea of an intellectual break, and whether the theory of value and its consequences [expounded at length in Capital] are a basic innovation, either contrary to Marx’s philosophy of the early 40s or in no way anticipated therein”.[85]

In answer, KoÅ‚akowski describes the Economic and philosophical manuscripts very appositely as “the first draft of the book that Marx went on writing all his life, and of which Capital is the final version”, and goes on to say that, “There are sound reasons for maintaining that the final version is a development of its predecessor and not a departure from it.”[86] In short, alienation is the theme which unites the successive ‘drafts’ of that body of thought of which Capital is not the ‘final’, but the still incomplete, statement.

What does change in the way Marx handles the category of alienation has more to do with language than with substance. In the later works he abandons the philosophical idiom of Feuerbachian, anthropological materialism. The theme is transposed from a philosophical to a socio-economic key, as Marx’s focus shifts from such abstract categories as our ‘species-being’ (Gattungswesen) to the concrete conditions of the production process under capitalism.

In describing this shift, the academic critic, Allen W Wood, maintains that in Marx’s later writings alienation is “no longer explanatory; rather it is descriptive or diagnostic. Marx used the notion of alienation to identify or characterise a certain sort of human ill or dysfunction which is especially prevalent in modern society. This ill is one to which all the various phenomena exemplifying the images or metaphors of ‘unnatural separation’ or ‘domination by one’s own creation’ contribute in one way or another.”[87]

The meaning behind Wood’s language is clear enough perhaps, but by ascribing metaphorical status to the ‘unnatural separation’ and ‘domination by one’s own creation’, he seems to want to reduce to a mere notion what is a concrete historical phenomenon. For Marx, alienation was much more than an intellectual construct serving the purpose of linking together the social evils and irrationalities of modern life. Moreover, the division of his analysis of alienation into compartments - “explanatory” in the early work; “diagnostic” in the later writings - is far too schematic.

After all, the theory of commodity fetishism expounded in Capital is in fact a compelling materialist account of alienation as a historically specific process, relation and condition, and commodity fetishism played a vital explanatory function in Marx’s analysis of capitalism as a whole. In short, even though there was some speculative philosophical baggage carried over from Hegel and Feuerbach in the Manuscripts, the category was retained and developed.

Nowhere, as we shall see, is this more clearly evident than in Marx’s treatment of labour: core components of his mature theory, such as the nature of labour-power as a commodity, and the difference between use-value and exchange-value, can, as we have seen, already be found in the Manuscripts in embryonic form.

It is through labour, “the everlasting, nature-imposed condition of human existence ... independent of every social phase of that existence or rather ... common to every such phase”,[88] that we humans express ourselves “as real, living, particular individuals”. Labour-power being defined as “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality of the human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description”.[89]

For Marx, alienation is defined (primarily at least) not in terms of the subjective experience of conditions, but in terms of the objective outcome of relations. ‘Objective’ in what sense? In the sense that alienation is firstly an empirically verifiable phenomenon; and secondly, that it is concerned with the way human beings relate to the objects (in the widest sense) which they produce - not just material things, but ideas, institutions and so on.

For those who have eyes to see it, therefore, a careful reading of the Economic and philosophical manuscripts demonstrates the extent to which, in substance, they prefigure the historical materialist basis of The German ideology. Take the following example:

"Religion, family, state, law, morality, science, art, etc are only particular modes of production, and fall under its general law. The positive transcendence of private property, as the appropriation of human life, is therefore the positive transcendence of all estrangement - that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc, to his human - ie, social - existence."[90]

Already, Marx sees the realm of ideology, the ideas and institutions represented by religion, morality, law and so forth as themselves alienated products of the capitalist mode of production. The “return of man from religion, family, state, etc”, the task of understanding society, of turning inverted reality back on its feet, as it were, becomes an epistemological question, because all forms of alienation are founded on the illusion and mystification that are inescapably inherent in the capitalist form of commodity production itself.

This theme is, of course, at the centre of Marx’s break with Feuerbach, who “starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world and a real one. His work consists of resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that, after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself, therefore, first be understood and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised in practice.”[91]

One of the main problems with Feuerbach’s approach to alienation was that it went no further than ‘inverting’ the idealism of Hegel, transferring alienation from the sphere of the ‘spirit’ to that of human beings. But for Feuerbach ‘man’ remained a nebulous concept, as much as ‘eternal human nature’ or ‘species-being’. What was lacking was any attempt to place ‘man’ in the concrete circumstances of what Marx calls the “secular basis”: ie, class society, with all its contradictions. Hence, Feuerbach’s “human essence” (das menschliche Wesen) is a purely abstract category: “the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”[92]

Turning to The German ideology itself, it is essential to place this work in its historical context - it is a highly polemical and discursive attempt by Marx and Engels to settle their accounts with Feuerbach and the Young Hegelians. The first hundred or so pages - effectively an extended elaboration of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach - contain the kernel of what was to become historical materialism: namely that social relations determine the nature of society.

It is based on a conception of history that “relies on expounding the real process of production, starting from the material process of life itself and comprehending the form of intercourse connected with and created by this mode of production - ie, civil society in its various stages - as the basis of all history; describing it in its action as the state and also explaining how all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, morality ... arise from it”.[93]

"The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life - both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way .... Empirical observation must bring out ... without any mystification and speculation the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life process of definite individuals; however, of these individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they actually are: ie, as they act, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will."[94]

So far as religion is concerned, Marx is at pains to stress the entirely empirical nature of its origin and development from that natural religion which constituted “consciousness of nature, which first confronts me as completely alien, all-powerful and unassailable” force. The first ‘religious’ impulse stemmed, therefore, from the need to propitiate the natural forces on which the very continued existence of humanity depended.

Marx recalls a time when:

"The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men - the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men at this stage still appears as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production, as expressed in the language of the politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc, of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc: that is, real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms."[95]

With the development of the division between manual and mental labour, however, a situation arises in which “consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of ‘pure’ theory, theology, philosophy, morality, etc”.[96]

Significantly, the manuscript of The German ideology has a marginal note at this point: “The first form of ideologists, priests, is coincident.” Religion, along with morality, philosophy and so forth, are to be seen as products of consciousness in the sphere of ideas, as “ideological reflexes and echoes ... phantoms formed in the brains of men ... sublimates of their material life process ... bound to material premises ... Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest of ideology, as well as the forms of consciousness corresponding to these, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.”[97]

Marx’s language is certainly trenchant: on the one hand, the world of “real, active men” engaged in “their real life process” in the sphere of production that constitutes the materialist base, “conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces”; on the other hand, “morality, religion, metaphysics and all the rest of ideology”, are depicted as a superstructural realm of “reflexes”, “echoes”, “phantoms” and “sublimates”. Small wonder that many have been tempted on the basis of these passages to adopt a crudely reductionist interpretation, in which ideology is dismissed as an epiphenomenon, or even ‘unreal’. It is, however, a temptation firmly to be resisted, because it ends in a vulgar travesty of Marx’s thinking, with many harmful consequences.

We need to remember exactly what it was against which Marx was wielding his polemical sword with such gusto - namely, the philosophical idealism that allotted to consciousness and abstract ideas, whether human or ‘divine’ in their origin, an effective primacy in the determination of history. Hence Marx’s insistence, for example, that religion and the “rest of ideology” have no peculiar history of their own as self-evolving, autonomous entities, but are human creations that can only properly be understood in the context of human productive activity as a whole.

On setting out for Paris, Marx had eagerly looked forward to undertaking a ruthless criticism of all that exists, through the analysis of mystical consciousness that is not clear to itself, whether it appears in religious or political form. But in their various ways his former allies in the Young Hegelian movement still went on believing that ideas could by themselves lead to a transformation of society. In The holy family Marx, on the other hand, stressed that, “Ideas never lead us beyond the old order of things, but only beyond the ideas of the old world order. Ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force.”[98] As Engels wrote, also in The holy family, “Criticism creates nothing; the worker creates everything.”[99]

In The German ideology, Marx denounces the idealist view of history in which the real production of life, when not altogether disregarded or treated as a minor matter, appears as non-historical, while the historical appears as something separated from ordinary life, something “extra-superterrestrial”. But giving historical primacy to the interrelationship of the development of productive forces and production relations has nothing in common with the preposterous view that history is nothing but these things. A view of history that focuses exclusively on the material production and reproduction of life, on the self-evident necessity of securing the material means for our physical survival - a view that dismisses creativity, imagination and all that we can legitimately refer to as ‘the spiritual’ and consigns it to the periphery of human experience and activity - is profoundly unMarxist.

For Marx, truly human labour, such as can enable us to fulfil ourselves as fully rounded human beings, is inseparable from that conscious, purposive activity in which imagination, creativity and spiritual satisfaction play a vital part. It is the lack of scope for such activity in so much of the labour performed by wage-slaves under capitalism that constitutes one of Marx’s main ethical objections to the system as such.

We look in vain for a firm definition of ideology as a category in Marx’s work, but we can locate a consistent thread of argument in his work as a whole. In the ‘mature’ work, his attention is focused predominantly on the supposedly fixed, immutable, eternal categories of bourgeois political economy. The leitmotif is one of clarification, of discerning the difference between appearance and reality, of turning things the right way up, so as to expose the inverted, illusory nature of the categories on which bourgeois ideology is founded:

"When the economists say that present-day relations - the relations of bourgeois production - are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature. These relations therefore are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any."[100]

‘Bourgeois ideology’ is a useful portmanteau category, but we should beware of endowing it with the character of an autonomous, intrinsically coherent body of thought. It is true, of course, that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: that is, “the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas.”[101]

But it would be a mistake to imagine that ideology is a consciously formulated, settled construct derived from real, full awareness of the material and social circumstances on which it is founded. Ideologists are no less subject to the mystificatory impact of alienation than the rest of us. The task of the ideologist, including in Marx’s view those amongst the religious ideologues who seek to present the rule of a particular class, to persuade society that the interests of the ruling class represent the ‘general interest’ of all: “each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to present its interest as the common interest of all the members of society: that is, expressed in ideal form, it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and present them as the only rational, universally valid ones.”[102]

Within the ranks of the ideologists themselves, however, there are inevitably conflicting ideas about exactly what serves the best interests of their masters. If we look at insightful works such as The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or The class struggles in France, we find an account of ideology as a real, material political force, but one operating at numerous levels of awareness of reality.

The point is that Marx’s principal focus was on the concrete, practical role of ideas in the class struggle. When ideas and forms of consciousness - including, of course, religious notions - play a part in the political struggle of contending classes, they become ipso facto ‘ideological’, because they serve a class interest. As Marx was to put it in his introduction to A contribution to the critique of political economy, “it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic - in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”.[103]

Having identified the division of labour as a decisive development, which allows consciousness to “flatter itself” that it is something “else other than consciousness”, Marx waspishly comments that consciousness can then “emancipate itself from the world” and proceed to the formation of “pure” theory and “pure” theology, philosophy, morality, etc.[104]

Put another way, the division of labour is ultimately based on the “natural division” in the family, where the wife and children are the “slaves of the husband”.[105] However, the more developed the division of labour, the more society cleaves into exploited and exploiter and hence antagonistic classes. The struggle within the state, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy and monarchy are “merely the illusory forms” in which the “real struggles of the different classes are fought out”.[106]

Interestingly, Marx specifically points to the division of labour as one of the main causes of alienation: as long as a person’s activity “is not voluntarily but naturally divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For, as soon as the division of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.”[107]

The division of labour described by Marx finds concrete expression in the unequal division of property and power - derived from control over that product, and from the power to dispose of the labour-power of others - existing in any given social formation. In these circumstances, perhaps the most important function of ideologists - the ‘mental labourers’ - is to elaborate ideas that ratify, propagate, defend and naturalise the status quo, securing and extending the property and power of the existing ruling class.

Anyone with experience of religion and the prayers and homilies coming from Church of England pulpits, which ratify, propagate, defend and naturalise the status quo, will be all too familiar with that. Historically religion has played a vital role as an ideological bulwark of the ruling class in every exploitative society.

The history of western Christendom certainly shows that from late Roman times the Catholic church, was not merely a ruling intellectual force; it constituted a mighty temporal - ie, material - power in its own right. Despite the enlightenment, despite all the scientific progress of recent centuries and despite the evident decay of some examples of orthodox, mainstream religion in this ‘secular’ age, religion still has a useful, ratificatory role to play on the side of the ruling class.

God as a leftist

Not that religion, even in modern times, cannot present itself as being militantly on the side of the masses. Even as a necessary means for social transformation. Religion can and does. Hence it must be appreciated that the practical struggles of Marx-Engels against religion mainly concerned illusion generated from within the working class.

When they first got seriously involved in socialist politics in the mid-1840s, there was already a tradition on the left, especially in France, of regarding religion not merely as philosophically compatible with socialism, but even as a positive source of inspiration. There were clerics who advocated their own brand of Christian socialism and supported workers’ demands: eg, the communist priest, Hugues Lamennais (1782-1854). Other French socialist thinkers maintained that their politics were rooted in biblical notions. Henri Saint-Simon’s New Christianity (1825), together with the writings of socialists like Étienne Cabet (1788-1856) and Pierre Henri Leroux (1797-1871), were highly influential. Hence Engels observed in the article, ‘Progress of social reform on the continent’: “It is, however, curious that, whilst the English socialists are generally opposed to Christianity, and have to suffer all the religious prejudices of a really Christian people, the French communists, being a part of a nation celebrated for its infidelity, are themselves Christians. One of their favourite axioms is, that Christianity is communism - le Christianisme c’est le communisme.”[108]

A similar strain of thought could be found among German socialists, such as Moses Hess, and perhaps most notably in the teaching of the autodidactic communist artisan and preacher of the ‘dictatorship of intelligence’, Wilhelm Weitling (1808-71), who at one stage attracted thousands of followers in the workers’ movement, and for a time worked alongside Marx and Engels in the Communist Correspondence Committee, set up to foster links between revolutionaries and advanced workers.

It was a disciple of Weitling’s and a fellow member of the Correspondence Committee, the eccentric Hermann Kriege, whose activities provoked one of Marx’s early denunciations of this eclectic mix of ‘communist’ politics and religion.

After emigrating to America in 1845, Kriege settled in New York and established a German-language journal, Der Volks-Tribun, in which he began propagating a utopian kind of agrarian socialism that amounted to urging American immigrants to become farmers. According to Kriege, a beneficent state could abolish poverty forever by allocating a smallholding of 160 acres to every family. This was bad enough, but worse was to come when Kriege, in the name of communism, began preaching a new religion of love as an antidote to all human ills. From the quotes provided by Marx it is clear that Kriege’s “amorous slobberings” were the product of a deeply disordered mind - he died in an asylum. But Marx was surely using Kriege to target Weitling and in the process hoping to undermine those who in the name of communism preached the “old fantasy of religion ... the direct antithesis of communism”.

By advocating the view that communism sought to bring about “the long yearned for community of the blessed denizens of heaven”, Kriege ignored the fact that “these obsessions of Christianity are only the fantastic expression of the existing world and that their ‘reality’ therefore already exists in the evil conditions of this existing world”. It is important to note that Kriege was expelled from the Correspondence Committee, not because of his weird religious views per se, but because they were, as Marx put it in his ‘Circular against Kriege’, “compromising in the highest degree to the Communist Party”.[109] If Kriege had been merely a private individual, his quasi-Christian effusions, had they been noticed at all, would no doubt have met with that mixture of contempt and bemused exasperation with which Marx regarded all forms of religious belief.

Marx was just as scathing when it came to attempts by Christian ideologists among the bourgeoisie to claim that their religion was in any sense compatible with the struggle for socialism. In 1847, for example, he published an article condemning the propagation of a variant of feudal, Christian socialism preached in the pages of the conservative Rheinischer Beobachter. The paper maintained that the social question in Germany could be resolved within the framework of the Prussian state, provided that the state put into practice what it called “the social principles of Christianity”. Marx’s delivered a memorable retort in ‘The communism of the Rheinischer Beobachter’:

"The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and are capable, in case of need, of defending the oppression of the proletariat, even if with somewhat doleful grimaces. The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and for the latter all they have to offer is the pious wish that the former may be charitable. The social principles of Christianity place the consistorial counsellor’s compensation for all infamies in heaven, and thereby justify the continuation of these infamies on earth. The social principles of Christianity declare all the vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either a just punishment for original sin and other sins, or trials which the lord, in his infinite wisdom, ordains for the redeemed. The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness: in short, all the qualities of the rabble; and the proletariat, which will not permit itself to be treated as rabble, needs its courage, its self-confidence, its pride and its sense of independence even more than its bread. The social principles of Christianity are sneaking and hypocritical, and the proletariat is revolutionary. So much for the social principles of Christianity."[110]

Nowhere else in Marx’s writings can we find a more personal, more deeply felt and more intensely angry summary of exactly what it was in religion that he found so abhorrent. The lines just quoted constitute another Promethean declaration of the essential dignity and independence of the human person, for whom submission to the gods represents a defining act of self-abasement in the face of mere illusion and alienation.

For the Communist manifesto, the notion of Christian socialism was a manifestly absurd oxymoron. In the view of the Marx-Engels team, the variants of it that tried to muster support among the masses represented no more than a final, futile attempt on the part of a decadent, senescent aristocracy to stem the rising tide of the bourgeoisie:

"In order to arouse sympathy, the aristocracy were obliged to lose sight, apparently, of their own interests, and to formulate their indictment against the bourgeoisie in the interest of the exploited proletariat alone ... As the parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord, so has clerical socialism with feudal socialism. Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the state? Has it not preached in the place of these charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat."[111]

There is no room for any kind of fudge on the matter: in Marx’s eyes religion was and could never be anything more than a contemptible form of self-degradation, whereby the human subject transforms itself into a cringing object by voluntarily submitting to the domination of an entirely illusory deity. Hence his anger, near the end of his life, when the German social democrats enshrined in the Gotha programme the formula that religion was a ‘private matter’.

While not sharing the desire of some of his socialist contemporaries like Louis Auguste Blanqui to declare war on religion and persecute its adherents, a tactic which historically has always proved entirely counterproductive, Marx thought that any workers’ party worthy of the name should not limit itself to a mere declaration of freedom of conscience. Just as he had argued against his Young Hegelian collaborators decades before, Marx maintained that the ultimate objective should not be to bring about freedom of religion, but freedom from religion. To argue that “everyone should be able to attend to his religious needs as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in” was not enough: “Bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and it [the workers’ party] endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion.”[112]

Suffice it to say that Marx was consistently and unbendingly hostile to any suggestion that religion or religious values - of whatever kind - had anything useful to contribute to the class struggle and the fight for socialism. Indeed, where religious notions did enter into socialist politics, whether in the form of nostrums based on biblically inspired ethical precepts underlying ‘true socialism’ and so forth, or simply in the form of opportunistic compromises such as those at Gotha, he regarded them in an entirely negative light. The religious beliefs of individuals appear to have interested him not at all, but, where the workers’ movement was concerned, it was an entirely different matter.

Formally, in and of themselves, they were obviously false and irrational. And, suffice to say, a generation before enlightenment thinkers had already shot down the absurdities and logical flaws contained in the Bible: eg, Thomas Paine’s Age of reason (1794, 1795, 1807).

Instead, Marx-Engels recognised that, as the subject - ie, the active agent - of history, the working class both needed educating and would itself, with each mass advance, educate the educators (ie, people like themselves). When it came to religion, that meant using what is an incredibly rich mode of thought, as a window, a voice, a means of interpretation. With a proper understanding, history can reveal profound truths about society past and present. Quid pro quo, without a profound understanding of the past, Marx and Engels were convinced that the working class movement could achieve nothing much beyond an improved position for a slave class.

Jack Conrad[113]


  1. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3 Moscow 1975, pp175-76.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid p182.
  5. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p72.
  6. Ibid p80.
  7. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p272.
  8. Ibid p274.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid pp274-75.
  11. Ibid p277.
  12. Ibid p279-80.
  13. L Althusser For Marx Harmondsworth 1969, p13.
  14. See I Mészáros Marx’s theory of alienation London 1982.
  15. I Mészáros Marx’s theory of alienation London 1975, pp11, 233, 293.
  16. L Kolakowski Main currents of Marxism Vol 1, Oxford 1978, p263-64.
  17. Ibid my emphasis.
  18. AW Wood Karl Marx London 1984, p7.
  19. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p184.
  20. Ibid p167.
  21. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p297.
  22. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, London 1976, p7.
  23. Ibid p4.
  24. Ibid p53.
  25. Ibid pp31, 35-36.
  26. Ibid p36.
  27. Ibid p44.
  28. Ibid p36-37.
  29. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 4, London 1975, p119.
  30. K Marx and F Engels Ibid p20.
  31. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p174.
  32. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, London 1975, p59.
  33. Ibid p60.
  34. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 29, London 1987, p263.
  35. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, London 1975, p45.
  36. Ibid p46.
  37. Ibid pp46-47.
  38. Ibid p47.
  39. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p399.
  40. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, London 1976, pp35-37.
  41. Ibid p231.
  42. Ibid p508.
  43. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p98.
  44. I hesitate to sign this article because originally it was written by Michael Malkin - albeit edited by myself and included in Fantastic reality (2007). However, I have now altered the argument here and there to some considerable degree, so as to accord with my own thoughts and opinions. Hence my decision to put my name to the article, though I continue to think it important to credit Michael Malkin for putting in the bulk of the work.
    Any readers interested in comparing and contrasting can look at the three articles on Marxism and religion written by Michael Malkin in the Weekly Worker (December 21 2000, February 1 2001, March 1 2001).