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Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:52

Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism

Published in Cultural Theory

Roland Boer continues his series of article on Marxism and religion, with an examination of the relationship of Marx and Engels to the Theological Young Hegelians: Strauss, Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner.

In order to develop their own system of thought, Marx and Engels had to distinguish themselves from the overwhelming theological frame in which German thought operated in the 1830s and 1840s. This framework was embodied above all in the work of the Young Hegelians, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. Let me say a little more about these crucial engagements.

Ludwig Feuerbach’s Projections

Alongside David Friedrich Strauss’s controversial Life of Jesus (1839), Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity from 1841 was one of the most significant texts of the time. Marx saw the idea that religion and the gods were projections of human beings as a huge breakthrough. He used and extended what may be called the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ at a number of points in his own work. Feuerbach’s idea is an inversion since it argues that previous thought about religion began at the wrong point, namely in the middle. God was not a pre-existing being who determined human existence; rather, human beings determine God’s existence, whom they then assume to be all-powerful over human beings.

Marx took up this argument and claimed that it marked the end of the criticism of religion: ‘For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism’. He went on to suggest that the first great phase of criticism – the criticism of religion – began with Luther and ended with Feuerbach. The next revolutionary phase began after Feuerbach and Marx saw himself as part of this new phase.

For Marx, Feuerbach was the last word on religion. Statements such as the following are pure Feuerbach:

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.

However, Marx also wanted to go beyond Feuerbach on two counts. First, since human beings project religion from within themselves, the place to begin analysis is not in the heavens, but here on earth with flesh-and-blood people. Second, the fact that people do make such projections was a signal that something was wrong here on earth. If people placed their hopes and dreams elsewhere, then that meant they could not be realized here and now. So the presence of religion becomes a sign of alienation, of economic and social oppression. That needs to be fixed. We find this theme very strongly in the famous Theses on Feuerbach, especially the fourth and eleventh theses:

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Marx would go on to use the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ in a number of ways, not least to argue that Hegel’s position on the state was exactly the same as theology: it began with abstracted ideas such as state, sovereignty, constitution and tried to make human beings fit. Much later on, in 1886, Engels filled this picture out in his lucid prose and showed why Feuerbach was so important for the development of historical materialism.

Bruno Bauer’s A-Theology

Given Feuerbach’s importance, it is not for nothing that the first section of The German Ideology should be devoted to his work. But there is also a section given over to Bruno Bauer. After the joint work of The German Ideology, Marx would come back to Bauer in a number of writings, initially to defend him but then later to attack him mercilessly. Why? The basic reason was that Bauer had achieved a radical republican and democratic position through his biblical criticism and theology. Marx in particular was thoroughly opposed to such a possibility: theology dealt with heaven and was not concerned with earth – that was the task of the new historical materialism.

For Marx, Bauer was far too much under the influence of Hegel’s idealist method and in many respects Marx’s distancing from Bauer was an effort to come to terms with Hegel. So we find the repeated and often heavily satirical criticism (especially in the joint work with Engels, The Holy Family) that ‘Saint Bruno’ Bauer left matters in the realm of theology and thereby stunted his critical work. Marx was also excising the influence of someone who had been a close friend, first as joint members of the Young Hegelian Doktorklub from 1837, later as a teacher of the book of Isaiah at the University of Berlin in 1839 and as one who might have gained Marx a position.

The problem was that Bauer was dismissed from Berlin in 1839 for his radical theological and political positions. He argued that the church was ossified and dogmatic, for it claimed universal status for a particular person and group. In the same way that we find a struggle in the Bible between free self-consciousness and religious dogmatism, so also in Bauer’s own time the religious dogmatism of the church needed to be overthrown. In its place Bauer argued for atheism, a democratic Jesus for all and republicanism.

Max Stirner’s World History

So we find Marx and Engels at the point where Feuerbach’s inversion has enabled them to step beyond the criticism of religion and focus on the criticism of the earthly conditions of human struggle, and Bauer’s radical theology had to be negated since religion cannot provide – so they argued – a radical critique. The engagement with Max Stirner was different. Most people do not bother with the endless pages of The German Ideology given over to a detailed refutation of Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, preferring to stop after the early description of the new historical materialist method.

However, the Stirner section is crucial for the following reason: Marx and Engels developed the first coherent statement of historical materialism in response to Stirner’s own theory of world history. The way they wrote the manuscript (which was never published in their lifetimes) is important: as they wrote sections on Stirner they found that increasingly coherent statements of an alternative position began to emerge in their own thought. Some of these statements remained in the Stirner section, while others were moved to the beginning of the manuscript and placed in the Feuerbach section.

As these responses to Stirner became longer and more elaborate, we find the following: in contrast to Stirner’s radical focus on the individual, Marx and Engels developed a collective focus. Instead of Stirner’s valuation of spiritual religion, they sought an approach that was very much of this world. Above all, Stirner wanted to provide a schema of world history that was pitched against Hegel. The reason why Marx and Engels devoted so much attention to him is that they too want a schema of world history that overturns Hegel.

The catch is that the very effort at producing a theory of world history was still very much engaged with religion. One only has to look at the structure of Marx and Engel’s criticism – which moves through the major books of the Bible, quotes the Bible ad nauseam, and criticizes Stirner’s prophetic role and theological dabbling – to see that what is at stake is religion. In the same way that the final edited form of the Bible moves from creation to the end of history and the new Jerusalem, so also does Hegel offer a theory of world history in terms of the unfolding of spirit, and so also does Stirner do so in terms of the ego. But what about Marx and Engels?

I suggest that the content of their proposal – with its collective and materialist concern with modes of production – is quite different from the proposals of the Bible, Hegel and Stirner. But the form of their proposal is analogous. By this I mean that the construction by Marx and Engels of a new historical narrative was based on a crucial lever: the Bible may have had Christ, Hegel may have had the world spirit, and Stirner may have had the ego. For Marx and Engels it was nothing other than contradiction, or rather, the contradictions within modes of production, contradictions that manifest themselves as class-conflict and revolution. In other words, the engagement with Stirner was the crucible of historical materialism, from which emerged a new approach to history that turns on contradiction.
Religion is the Opium of the People
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:52

Religion is the Opium of the People

Published in Religion

What did Marx mean by his vivid metaphor? Roland Boer continues his series of articles on Marxism and religion with an examination of the historical, textual and personal background to one of Marx's most famous sayings.

‘Opium of the people’ is perhaps the first thought that comes to mind when one says ‘Marxism and religion’. Immediately, we assume we know what opium means: a drug that dulls feelings and pain, giving a false sense of wellbeing and eventually leading to an early death. In other words, it is a painkiller that does not address the source of the pain – much like Lenin’s gloss as ‘spiritual booze’.

But do we really know what opium meant in Marx’s text? A consideration of the historical context in which Marx used the metaphor provides a different picture. In nineteenth-century England, opium was seen as both a blessing and a curse. For many among the poor, it was a cheap and effective medicine. Poets and artists found it a source of inspiration. And for the commercial lords of the British Empire, it provided a sizeable portion of its wealth and power. But it was also seen as a significant problem, with increasing attention towards the end of the century focused on its addictive properties, the tendency to deal with symptoms and not the core of an illness, and the devastating effects of the colonial opium policies (especially in China). Opium was thus a very ambivalent metaphor to use.

The textual context of this isolated phrase enhances this sense. In his brief introduction to his ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law’, published in 1844, Marx writes:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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.

The famous phrase – opium of the people – comes at the end of this text. To understand it, we need to consider the sentences that come before it. Marx points out that religious suffering may be an expression of real suffering; religion may be the sigh, heart and soul of a heartless and soulless world. But it is also a protest against that suffering. Religious suffering challenges real suffering. It questions suffering, asks why we are suffering. In other words, Marx allows here a small positive role for religion – as protest. How can religion be a protest? Marx is aware that religions offer a better alternative to our current life. That alternative may be in a heaven or it may be in the future. But the imagination of a better alternative to our current life is at the same time a criticism of this life. Religion in its own way says that this life is not as good as it could be, indeed that this life is one of suffering.

Finally, we need to consider Marx’s own practices, for he occasionally used opium for medicinal purposes. He took opium to deal with his liver illness, skin problems (carbuncles), toothaches, eye pain, ear aches, coughs, and so on – the many illnesses that were the result of overwork, lack of sleep, bad diet, chain smoking and endless pots of coffee. Let me give but one example out of many. In 1857, Marx’s wife, Jenny, wrote to Engels concerning one of Marx’s bad toothaches:
Chaley’s head hurts him almost everywhere, terrible tooth-ache, pains in the ears, head, eyes, throat and God knows what else. Neither opium pills nor creosote do any good. The tooth has got to come out and he jibs at the idea.

Marx’s personal use of opium seems to have influenced his use of the metaphor for describing religion. It helped stop pain, perhaps even assisted him recover from his illness, but it was ultimately not of much use in dealing with his deeper problems.

Three contexts – historical, textual and personal – indicate a rather different sense of religion at the ‘opium of the people’. Indicating both blessing and curse, the metaphor is deeply ambivalent, which is precisely why Marx chose it.
The Three Wise Communists
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:52

´╗┐Between Illusion and Reality: Reconsidering Marxism and Religion

Published in Religion

Roland Boer sets the scene for a series of articles on the complex and contradictory relations between Marxism and religion, with an introduction to some of the issues. An embedded poem by Patrick Lodge is mutually illustrative.

Two preliminary topics are important for any effort to reconsider the difficult relations between Marxism and religion: 1) the tensions between illusion versus reality, or idealism versus materialism; 2) the political ambivalence of religion.

Illusion and Reality

Religion is an illusion, an excrescence of the human brain, a response to alienated social conditions, a diversion for the working class movement, a manifestation of idealism – these and more continue to be common positions among Marxists and those on the Left more broadly. In other words, religion and its claims do not correspond to reality. The gods do not exist, nor does a supernatural world with its spirits of the dead, and we will not go to heaven or hell when we die.

I could respond by challenging a certain caricature of religion that is assumed with such positions. Or I could take the line that ‘religion’ itself is an abstraction from specific circumstances – European imperialism and the need to categorise the rest of the world in the light of Christian assumptions. But I prefer a different approach that draws on Marx’s own thought.

In some of his early works, Marx was quite clear that religion is other-worldly, heavenly and not concerned with the grim realities of this world. For example, in a piece from 1842 concerning the Rhine Province Assembly, he describes religion as mystical, arbitrary, base, fantastical, imaginary, other-worldly, and a sham that functions as a ‘holy cloak’ for political aims. Indeed, a religion like Christianity with its heavenly focus should not bother itself with this-worldly matters such as politics, economics and society.

Fortunately, this is not the only approach to religion in Marx’s works. The best example of an alternative appears with his complex use of the fetish. He had first encountered the term in the early 1840s, and was clearly conscious of its religious sense – a fetish is an object attributed with distinct powers in human transactions, powers that are simultaneously transferred and yet have a real force.

No surprise, then, that Marx found the idea immensely useful in his work for the next forty years. Each time he drew upon the fetish – in analysing labour, money, commodities and indeed capitalism itself – he deliberately mentions the religious dimensions of the fetish. Most well-known is the fetishism of commodities from the first volume of Capital, so let me make a few observations on this use. Marx was seeking a way to speak of a double process: the fetishism that attaches itself to commodities is simultaneously a transferral of powers from workers to the product of their hands and a reality of such commodities. In other words, commodities seem to gain human attributes as they interact among one another, while workers become more and more like things (reification). At the same time, the power or fetishism of commodities is very real, for it affects workers directly.

How to speak of such a process? Marx works at the edge of language, arguing that the fetishism of commodities is both illusory and real, imperceptible and perceptible, mysterious and concrete, mist-enveloped and actual. In the process, he coins a crucial phrase: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms [gesellschaftlich gültige, also objektive Gedankenformen]’. Thought forms can become objective and socially valid.

In order to gain this insight, Marx made use of a religious category: fetishism. In the subsequent volumes of Capital, he developed this initial insight much further. Indeed, he came to argue that fetishism operates at the core of capitalism. The belief that money simply produces money, without the crucial intermediate stage of commodity production is the ultimate fetish. The idea that we can generate money in and of itself, or what is now called the ‘financialisation’ of the market, is fetishism through and through. So much so that Marx coins another term: capital-fetish.

The implications are immense and not often realised. Marx’s focus was on the internal dynamics of capital, but what does this mean for religion? Can it too be seen as an objective thought form, as one that is both illusory and real at one and the same time?

Political Ambivalence

One example among many will suffice for now. It concerns the political ambivalence of religion, which can just as easily slip into the seat beside despotic power as it can foster revolutionary movements that seek to overthrow such power.

For this insight we need to turn to Engels, who developed this argument over the long decades after he gave up – with much pain and soul-searching – the religious commitments of his youth. During these years, Engels had much to say about the reactionary nature of religion, but he also became increasingly aware of the radical movements inspired by religion. These were evident in his own time, such as Etienne Cabet’s Icarian communities with their slogan ‘Christianity is communism’, as well as Wilhelm Weitling, whom Engels called the ‘first German communist’.
The first extended assessment of radical religious movements was Engels’s study (1850) of Thomas Müntzer and the German Peasant Revolution of the sixteenth century. This widespread revolution was clearly fostered as much by theological concerns as by economics and political ones. Although this was the first work of its kind in the Marxist tradition, it is not Engels’s best work. He tends to see the theological language as a cloak for economic and political grievances, a language that could be cast aside with the advent of modern socialism.

Engels’s study of early Christianity is much better. Published close to his death in 1895, it argued that early Christianity was a revolutionary movement. The reasons: Christianity drew its adherents from the exploited classes of the Roman Empire; it had much in common with the socialist movement of his own day; and it succeeded in conquering the Roman Empire. While we may quibble with some of Engels’s points (especially the last), we should not miss the importance of the proposal as a whole. It was a clear recognition and analysis of the revolutionary potential of a religion like Christianity, as Christopher Caudwell recognised in 'The Breath of Discontent: A Study in Bourgeois Religion' (discussed elsewhere on this website).

The Respectable Working Class
by Patrick Lodge

Week in, week out, I give my labour for
next to nowt. I’ve doffed my cap threadbare;
tugged my forelock so fierce
my hairline recedes from the back.

I’ve seemed grateful for mistress’s
sawdust buns, for master’s leaking roof
above my head, under which I wake
each sun-up, practicing my yokel grin.

Come Sunday they want much more;
want me to deny my own self. I draw
the line at that. Aye, I’ll go, sit in the pew
bide quiet, think “more pigs, less parsons”.

I pull the curtains across the window
of my soul. I become opaque.
They prate on about heaven’s rewards
while I think of Jenny warm under the down;

afterwards, buttered toast, scalding
sugared tea, the smell of her on my skin.
I hear the choir sing – “The rich man
in his castle, the poor man at his gate”.

Amen, I’ll say, and look pious too,
but mark this, and mark it well,
when the end times come, the first will
surely be last and going straight to Hell.

Author’s note: This poem, first published in the Morning Star, was written after a trip to the Lincolnshire Wolds. There was, in particular, a spectacular church from the 1840s which stood on a hill and dominated the landscape around. The church was full of memorials to the local great and good and the pattern of land ownership around effectively left the bulk of workers as tenants owing home, hearth and livelihood to the dominant landowners. There was a story told of a requirement made for all tenants to attend Anglican services despite their tendency to Non-Conformity.


Others would carry on Engels’s approach, especially Karl Kautsky and Ernst Bloch, so much that they established the existence of a revolutionary religious tradition. This has enabled the awareness that movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as Liberation Theology and Political Theology, are the latest examples of this tradition.

So it seems that a religion like Christianity can be both reactionary and revolutionary. I am not taken with the common core-distortion position in dealing with this tension. Thus, one or the other side constitutes the core while its opposite is a distortion. Not so, for Christianity is constituted by this profound tension. Both are perfectly valid and in many respects connected to one another. However, it does require that we take sides.

Much, much more may be said concerning religion and Marxism. I have not dealt with Marx’s most famous phrase, ‘opium of the people’; with other religious revolutionary movements such as the Taiping Revolution in China (precursor to the communist revolution of 1949); with the approaches to religion by different communist parties and so on. But the topics I have discussed here at least set the scene.
Caldwell uses rain dances as an example of how spiritualistic ideas in pre-feudal societies are rooted to production
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:52

Caudwell on Religion

Published in Religion

Ben Stevenson outlines Christopher Caudwell's historical materialist analysis of religion.

Poet, activist and theoretician Christopher Caudwell wrote extensively on issues of philosophy and idealism in culture and science. His contribution to a Marxist understanding of the way in which religions - in particular the early philosphy of Christianity - has been shaped as a product of the societies they spring from is best encapsulated in his essay "The Breath of Discontent: A Study in Bourgeois Religion".

Caudwell squarely places the development of philosophy within the context of the type of society and the class divisions that produced it.

Caudwell was born Christopher St. John Sprigg in 1907. He left school at 15 and began working as a journalist in Bradford. In the mid 1930s he became interested in Marxism, moving to Poplar, East London, in 1935 and joining the Communist Party. He threw himself into Party activity in the Borough, which saw a great deal of anti-fascist activity at the time. When the Spanish Civil War broke out he drove the ambulance his branch raised money for to Spain. Upon arriving he immediately signed up with the international brigades. He was killed at the Battle of Jarama in 1937, covering a retreat with machine gun fire. His Marxist works were published posthumously under the pseudonym Caudwell so as not to interfere with his reputation as a writer of thrillers.

In analysing the transition from magic to religion in this article, Caudwell shows how various forms of worship are always rooted in the material reality that confronts the practitioners. For instance, where societies practice rain dances to entice the gods or spirits to water their crops, they do so at the time of year that experience tells them the dance will yield results.

Rain dances also show the extent to which magical and religious practices are and were bound up in production. Religious and class structures developed with the division of labour in the production process. For instance, it is wrong to claim that Christianity was ascendant simply because it was more attractive than other religions, rather it was the worldly content of Christianity – the Kingdom of heaven would come on earth, led by the revolutionary Christ. Christ emerged at a time when the Roman Empire was in decay, its social relations becoming a fetter on the production process. Thus people were immediately drawn to the revolutionary Christian ideology.

Caudwell however points out a reformist strain within Christendom from the start. Despite Christ’s constant denunciations of the rich he hesitated before declaring himself messiah, yet when he did so turned his back on seizing power in favour of assuming it through prayer. This was contrary to the Jewish conception of the Messiah and thus he lost the nationalist support of the Jewish working class in doing so (it should be noted here that Roman society did not correspond to the class divisions in society today, thus when Caudwell speaks of the ‘working class’ he more refers to the poor and exploited than those selling their labour power to the bourgeoisie). Caudwell traces the step into reformism in Christ’s refusal to allow Peter to use violence – whipping the money lenders out of the temple but not out of the state.

The church subsequently became much like early cooperative societies, caring for the poor and holding property in common. The strongly decentralising tendency within the movement made it a threat to the Empire, as it attracted the local ruling class who were opposed to excessive taxation by the Roman state. Emboldened by those Caudwell likens to the modern petite bourgeoisie the movement began to openly challenge the Roman concept of the ‘God-Emperor.’

The first emperor to accept the new Christian religion was Constantine, who, claims Caudwell, allowed the Christian’s leaders to betray them in precisely the same way the leaders of social democracy have betrayed the working class in capitalist countries. Under Constantine the revolutionary elements of Christianity became organs of state power, the Kingdom of Heaven was entirely shifted into the ‘next world’.

Caudwell goes on to trace the development of Christianity with the emergence of capitalism and the expressions of class divisions in the various schisms in the Christian faith. ‘The Breath of Discontent’ is a highly recommended read for an illuminating dialectical materialist analysis of religion.