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MARXISTS AND RELIGION — YESTERDAY AND TODAY


1. Classical Marxism’s theoretical (‘philosophical’) attitude towards religion combines three complementary elements, the germ of which can be already found in the young Marx’s Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843-44):

 

·         First a critique of religion, as a factor of alienation. The human being attributes to the divinity responsibility for a fate which owes nothing to the latter (‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’); he/she compels him/herself to respect obligations and prohibitions which often hamper his/her full development; he/she submits voluntarily to religious authorities whose legitimacy is founded either on the fantasy of their privileged relationship to the divinity, or on their specialisation in the body of religious knowledge.

 

·         Then a critique of religious social and political doctrines. Religions are ideological survivals of epochs long gone: religion is a ‘false consciousness of the world‘ — even more so as the world changes. Born in pre-capitalist societies, religions have been able to undergo — like the Protestant Reformation in the history of Christianity — renewals, which necessarily remain partial and limited so long as a religion venerates ‘holy scriptures’.

 

·         But also an ‘understanding’ (in the Weberian sense) of the psychological role which religious belief can play for the wretched of the earth.

 

“Religious misery is, at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

 

From these three considerations emerges in the view of classical Marxism, one sole conclusion set forth by the young Marx:

 

“The overcoming (Aufhebung) of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

 

2. Nevertheless, Classical Marxism did not pose the suppression of religion as a necessary precondition of social emancipation (the remarks of the young Marx could be read thus: in order to overcome illusions, it is necessary first to put an end to the ‘condition that requires illusions‘). In any case — as with the State, one might say — the point is not abolishing religion, but creating the conditions for its extinction. It is not a question of prohibiting ‘the opium of the people’, and still less of repressing its addicts. It is only about putting an end to the privileged relationships that those who trade in it maintain with the powers that be, in order to reduce its grip on minds.

 

Three levels of attitude should be considered here:

 

·         Classical Marxism, i.e. the Marxism of the Founders, did not require the inscription of atheism in the programme of social movements. On the contrary, in his critique of the Blanquist émigrés from the Commune (1874), Engels mocked their pretensions to abolish religion by decree. His clear-sightedness has been completely confirmed by the experiences of the 20th Century, as when he asserted that ‘persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions’ and that ‘the only service, which may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of faith to be enforced’.

 

·         Republican secularism, i.e. the separation of Church and state, is on the other hand a necessary and imprescriptible objective, which was already part of the programme of radical bourgeois democracy. But here also, it is important not to confuse separation with prohibition, even as far as education is concerned. In his critical commentaries on the Erfurt Programme of German Social Democracy (1891), Engels proposed the following formulation: ‘Complete separation of the Church from the state. All religious communities without exception are to be treated by the state as private associations. They are to be deprived of any support from public funds and of all influence on public schools.’ Then he added in brackets this comment: ‘They cannot be prohibited from forming their own schools out of their own funds and from teaching their own nonsense in them!’

 

·         The workers’ party should at the same time fight ideologically the influence of religion. In the 1873 text, Engels celebrated the fact that the majority of German socialist worker militants had been won to atheism, and suggested the distribution of eighteenth century French materialist literature in order to convince the greatest number.

 

In his critique of the Gotha programme of the German workers’ party (1875), Marx explained that private freedom in matters of belief and religious practice should be defined only in terms of rejection of state interference. He stated the principle in this way: ‘Everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in’. He added however:

 

“But the Workers’ party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of

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