KOREA COLUMN 17
Marxism and Religion
The very first article that Marx wrote as a Marxist, i.e. as an advocate of workers’ revolution, began with a discussion of religion. Moreover that article, (‘The Introduction’ to ‘ A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, 1843) contains what is probably Marx’s best known single line, namely ‘ Religion is the opium of the people’
Despite this Marx’s real attitude towards religion has remained largely unknown or misrepresented. There were times and places, for example Europe in the sixties, when this didn’t seem to matter very much because religion appeared to be a declining force in society. But the rise of Islam as a political issue , first in the eighties with the influence of the Iranian Revolution, and then with 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ changed all that . The world political situation became such that leftists and would be Marxists - and there were many – who failed to understand Marx’s analysis of religion, were likely to be blown completely off course.
The most common mistakes were: 1) the belief that Marx and Marxists were hostile to religion in the sense of wanting to ban or suppress it, as it was imagined had happened in Stalinist Russia; 2) the idea that Marxism regarded all religious ideas as simply stupid, backward and to be treated with contempt; 3) the notion that Marxists saw all religions and religious ideas as invariably allies or tools of reaction and the ruling class.
It is true of course that Marx was an atheist who rejected religious explanations of the world or events. This was part and parcel of his materialist philosophy and theory of history, which I have already discussed in this series. For Marx it was not consciousness that determined social being, but social being that determined social consciousness, not primarily ideas that shaped history but history that shaped ideas, and this applied to religion too. ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’, wrote Marx. But it was precisely this materialist approach that led Marx to produce a much more complex, rounded and , in a sense, sympathetic analysis of religion than is so often attributed to him.
If people make religion, they do so because religion meets, or appears to meet, real human needs. When religion was first developed in pre- class hunter-gatherer societies, human beings lived in close interaction with, and complete dependence on animal and natural forces, which, in one sense, they knew well, but of which they lacked any scientific understanding. In this situation religion tended to take the form of ‘pantheistic animism’. Rivers, winds, mountains, the sun and the moon, wolves, bears, monkeys, elephants etc were seen as endowed with gods or spirits. In other words religion provided emotional expression for feelings of dependency and an ‘explanation’ for the ups and downs of life, when no rational account was possible.
With the transition, 5000 or so years ago, to class divided, male dominated, state ruled societies, dependency on nature remained, but to it was added inequality, exploitation, slavery, dependence on, and domination by, social forces which were also outside people’s control and beyond their understanding – in a word, alienation. Religion reflected this. Gods ceased to be nature spirits and started to become powerful male authority figures like Zeus, Jehovah, and Allah while at the same time religion started to offer consolation to the downtrodden in the promise of an afterlife in which virtue not wealth is rewarded.
Marx puts it this way:
Religion is… the self consciousness and self awareness of man who either has not yet attained to himself or has already lost himself again… This state, this society, produces religion’s inverted attitude to the world because they are an inverted world themselves. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point of honour, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal basis for consolation and justification.
Thus religion comes in many different shapes and sizes and performs many different functions, depending always on the specific social conditions in which it is operating. There are versions of religion which serve to justify the position of the ruling class to itself ( even kings and dictators, bosses and generals need self justification); there are versions which justify the ruling class to the masses by preaching that the social order is God’s order and urging passivity and respect for authority ( ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’). There are also versions which give expression to the misery of the oppressed, to their hopes for a better world and even to their outright rebellion. Religion, says Marx,
…. is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless circumstances
One of the characteristics of the so called ‘great’ religions ( Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc) which have survived thousands of years, is that they are sufficiently adaptable to have played all these different roles in different times and places, while maintaining an appearance of continuity. Thus in seventeenth century Europe there was a feudal counterrevolutionary Christianity (Catholicism) and bourgeois revolutionary Christianity ( Calvinism); in the US in the sixties, there was White racist religion and Black anti-racist religion; in Latin America there is a Catholicism of the dictators and Yankee imperialism and a Catholicism of the poor and in the Middle East there is the pro – imperialist Islam of the Saudi royals and the anti- imperialist Islam of Hamas and Hizbollah.
From this analysis flow a number of political conclusions which contradict the stereotype often attributed to Marx. First, Marxists are completely opposed to any attempt to ban religion ( before or after the revolution). On the contrary they defend the principle of freedom of religious belief and worship for all. The only way religion can be ‘abolished’ is by abolishing the conditions of alienation and exploitation that give rise to it. Second, because socialist revolution is the act of the mass of workers themselves, it is inevitable and necessary that the revolution will be made by, and the revolutionary movement will include, workers with religious beliefs.
Third, Marxists reject the idea that any particular religion is inherently more reactionary, (or more progressive) than others. Clearly, at present, this applies principally to Islam, but in other circumstances it could be Hinduism, Confucianism etc. Our attitude to political movements with a religious coloration or religious leaders, such as the (Catholic) Hugo Chavez, or ( Buddhist) Tibetan nationalism or Falun Gong in China or Islamic resistance in Iraq and Palestine, is based not on the movement’s religious beliefs but on the material social forces it represents and the justice of its political cause.
4 Feb 2007