Roland Boer

Roland Boer

Roland Boer is a Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle (Australia), and also teaches at Renmin University, China. He blogs at

Communism, religion and atheism
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 16:01

Communism, religion and atheism

Published in Religion

Professor Roland Boer continues his series with a discussion of religion and membership of communist parties.

Is it possible to join a communist party as a religious person? The answer, we would expect, is ‘no’. After all, Marxism is a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or for reactionary religious institutions. The problem is that communist parties in different parts of the world have often permitted religiously committed people to become members.

Let us go back to the First International (or International Workingmen’s Organisation). Founded in 1864 from a diverse array of left-wing movements, Karl Marx soon became its leader and it took a clear communist direction. On the one side, it was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist, he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’ As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.

What are the reasons for this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’. The third reason is that they would simply be copying bourgeois anti-religious programs, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International (1889-1916) took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democratic Party: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’. A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.

What about Lenin and the Bolsheviks? Did they demand atheism from party members? Not so, for Lenin took the position of the Erfurt Program. To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. [Russian Social Democratic Labour Party] have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.

Have communist parties today taken a different approach? As for the Cuban Communist Party, it initially banned religious commitment for its members. Even then, many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ for anyone who sought to become a member. In the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.

Few are the communist parties that require atheism of their members – apart from the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’. At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and does not propagate them. Thus, one might be a believer without belief.
Jesus and Marx
Thursday, 16 June 2016 20:18

Jesus and Marx

Published in Religion

Through exploring points of contact between Jesus of Nazareth, Karl Marx, and Lenin, Roland Boer finds new and richer layers of shared meanings betwen the Bible and communism, and between theology and politics.

I am by no means the first to compare Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx. Actually, I am somewhat wary of such comparisons, not because I do not think there are some striking intersections or likenesses, but because those who undertake such comparisons tend to assume that Jesus is the source and Marx the borrower. This trap is an easy one, since Jesus of Nazareth existed some 1800 years or more before Marx. Yet temporal priority does not necessarily mean logical, political or ontological priority. In other words, rather than assuming that religion provides the absolute fount of ideas and practices, it is really only one code, one language for expressing these ideas. Politics may provide another language, philosophy another, and so on.

This translatability has a number of ramifications, of which I can mention two. First, the absolute claims of any language disappear and they become relative to one another. Second, the translations overlap only partially, for their fit is never complete. They have some elements of an idea in common, but other elements lie beyond the overlap. Thus, in each case meanings in one language extend beyond the translated term in the other language. This situation leads to both the enrichment of the idea in question, but also to potential losses as the idea moves from language to language. With these preliminary thoughts in mind, I would like to explore five points of contact, five translatable terms between Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx.

From Each … To Each …

To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to each according to his ability (Matthew 25:15)

And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need (Acts 2:45)

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need! (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

At the heart of both Christian communism and Marxian communism is this basic precept: that we should contribute according to our ability and receive according to our need. Simple enough in its formulation, it is exceedingly difficult to put into practice. Christian communist groups continue to exist today in many parts of the world (see, for instance,, and their precepts may be outlined easily enough: a common belief in the resurrection of Christ; communal living; communism of goods and production, with the proceeds of any production allocated throughout the community according to need. Often meals are held in common, although private space is acknowledged. All of this is based on both the sayings of Jesus and the depictions of early Christian communism in Acts 2 and 4.

Marxian communism initially attempted to define itself over against Christian communism by arguing that the latter concerned only a communism of consumption. By simply selling property and redistributing the wealth, as in Acts 2 and 4, they did not change the system at all, as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg argued. Marxian communism would therefore take the next step and make the means of production communal along with consumption. Since then, however, Christian communists have responded by emphasizing the need for communal production as well.

Private Property

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:24; see also Matthew 19:24 and Luke 18:25)

The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

The scathing criticisms of private property that we find in the mouth of Jesus are well known. “Go, sell what you have,” he tells the rich man who asks for the secret of eternal life (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; see also Luke 12:33). Again and again, we encounter the polemic against property, the possession of which is regarded as an evil and as a massive hindrance to joining the kingdom of God. Jesus valorises simplicity over luxury and forgoes the influence and power that comes with wealth. In short, everything about him stands against the deep values of the Hellenistic propertied classes. In the words of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix’s magisterial The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, “I am tempted to say that in this respect the opinions of Jesus were nearer to those of Bertholt Brecht than to those held by some of the Fathers of the Church and by some Christians today.”

Why oppose private property, which had been invented by the Romans a little over a century before the time of Jesus? The reason is that private property, as the Romans first defined it, is based upon slavery. More specifically, private property (dominium from dominus, master) relies on the reduction of one human being to the status of thing (res) that is “owned” by another human being who has absolute, inalienable power over that thing. With this basic meaning, the Romans then extended the sense of private property to cover most things in our lives. And this is the sense of private property that has come down to us, through a complex history in which the meaning of private property was lost and was then recovered to become the basis for capitalism. As for Jesus, his implacable opposition to private property is clearly due to its basis in slavery.

Marx comes to a surprisingly similar conclusion via a different path. For Marx, private property arises in the context of alienated wage-labour, in which workers sell their labour power to another in order to make products that are not the worker’s. These products become commodities that are then sold in order to generate profit for those who do not work. We need to remind ourselves that the unemployed for Marx are not those at the bottom of the economic pile, but those at the top, the capitalists who do not work but make their wealth on the backs of those who do. In many places, Marx speaks of wage-labour as nothing better than slave labour – which brings us back to the critique of property in the Gospels.

From Below

So the last will be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16; see also Mark 10:31 and Luke 13:30)

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists … express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

Marx is famous for championing history “from below,” from the perspective of the working class, of the poor, of everyday people who show not merely a remarkable ability to take the initiative, but who are actually the prime movers of history. Peasants, slaves, serfs, colonised people, workers – these and more are the real causes of what happens in the world. The “big men” – so often the focus of history and politics – are constantly trying to respond to these real causes. They may seek to express their deepest wishes, but more often than not they try to curtail the radical demands of ordinary people.

In the Gospels, Jesus wishes to spend far more time with the despised and dregs of society – prostitutes, winos, “sinners’ and so forth. These are the “little ones” (Matthew 10:42; 18:6-14; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2), the “least” (Matthew 25:40-5), the “last.” In the thorough shakeup of the “kingdom of God,” these are the ones who will be raised up and made first. A distinct angle on this approach from below may be found in a spatial analysis. Palestine at the time of Jesus was arranged in terms of polis and chora. The former designates the Hellenistic city, with its Greek architecture, language, culture, religion and practices. The polis was the location of power, wealth, the ruling class and the colonizing army of the Romans. By contrast, the chora was the countryside around about the cities. Here the language was Aramaic, the culture Palestinian, and the villages operated according to tried and true practices of communal agriculture. The chora was also poor, overworked and yet living on the edge of starvation, for the polis drew all its requirements from the chora, irrespective of whether the latter could in fact do so without affecting its own livelihood. What is noticeable about the Gospel stories is that Jesus’ whole concern is with the people of the chora. Apart from his final turn to Jerusalem, he studiously avoided the polis. This was a thoroughly consistent concern with those from below.


I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to metanoia (Luke 5:32)

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change (verändern) it (Theses on Feuerbach)

Here there seems to be a great gulf between Jesus and Marx. The traditional way in which the Greek metanoia has been translated is “repentance.” Given the way “repentance” has been interpreted and framed by the church, Jesus here seems to be referring to the need for “sinners” to confess their “sins” and to begin leading a righteous life. Repentance becomes an individual act in which one turns away from debauchery, revelry, dishonesty and the pleasures of life in order to turn towards God. This seems far indeed from the sense of social, political and economic transformation that is embodied in Marx’s famous thesis I quoted above.

Let us look at this biblical text again, since the individualised interpretation of modern, evangelical Christians is far from the truth. Recall that the “sinners” are actually those rejected by society, the “little ones” among whom Jesus feels at home. They are rejected by the self-described “righteous,” the ones whom Jesus criticises, condemns and avoids. But what about metanoia? Its basic meaning is a change of mind, or rather a change of existence, a complete about-turn in life – in short, a thorough transformation that begins from below. Now the meaning of the last becoming first, and the first last, takes on a somewhat different meaning. Here the words of Mary also take a deeper, political resonance: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52). We have come rather close to Marx’s revolution, except that the one propounded by Jesus includes a religious revolution.

Miracles Can Happen

And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34)

In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle (Lenin)

For my final point, I wish to be a little provocative and bring together Jesus and Lenin on the question of miracle. As is well known, the Gospels are full of cures (for blindness, deafness, lameness, leprosy and flows of blood), of exorcisms, and of miracles in which nature itself performs in a unique fashion. Far less well-known is the fact that Lenin often described a revolution in terms of a miracle. But what does it mean for Lenin to say that revolution is a miracle?

First, miracle is not, in Hume-derived terms, an event that is inexplicable according to the “laws” of nature, nor is it a moment or an event that changes the very coordinates of existence. Rather, a miracle is a point of contact between two seemingly incommensurable worlds. In theological terms, a miracle is a touching between heaven and earth, or the moment when transcendence is bent towards immanence. In the Gospels, a miracle occurs when heaven touches earth, or, more appropriately, when earth draws heaven down to its level. For Lenin, the two worlds are not so much heaven and earth but the expected and the unexpected. No matter how much one may devote to organisation in preparation for the revolution, whether in terms of party structure, publicity organs, propaganda, parliamentary involvement, agitation on the streets or military training, the actual moment of revolution inevitably occurs without forewarning, a spark that turns instantaneously into a conflagration.

After the revolution in 1917, Lenin’s usage increases even more. The new government was faced with impossible challenges. They were systematically attacked by the “white” armies, which were supported by an international consortium (United Kingdom, France, USA, Japan etc.). The country was ruined after the First World War, in terms of industry, transport, and grain production. And the new government sought to build a new social, political and economic order. In this context, Lenin speaks again and again of miracles, of “miracles of proletarian organisation,” of miracles “without parallel.”. He is not averse to designating an individual a “miracle worker,” such as Miron Konstantinovich Vladimirov, the Military Commissar Extraordinary of the Railways. If he can, in the face of a chronic shortage of materials “perform a miracle” by repairing two railway lines instead of one, he “will indeed be a miracle worker.” All of which may be summed up: “The history of our proletarian revolution is full of such miracles.” Here the word “miracle” has been enriched in an unexpected direction.

Together Again

From each according to his or her ability, to each according to need; sustained critique of private property; understanding the world from below, from the perspective of ordinary people who are the real history makers; the radical potential of metanoia; the political translation of miracle as revolution itself. I have suggested that in each case we find a point of contact between Jesus and Marx (and Lenin). That contact sets off a whole series of new layers of meaning, enabled by the translation of terms between the Bible and communists, between theology and politics. And both are richer for it.
The Fall of Adam and Eve
Friday, 20 May 2016 14:27

Marx's revolutionary reading of the Bible

Published in Religion

Roland Boer continues his series on Marxism and religion with a look at some examples of how Marx interpreted the Bible.

The mention of Marx and the Bible will evoke in many readers the famous family Bible in Capital, where it becomes a commodity – along with the piece of linen and the coat. Marx wrote:

Let us now accompany the owner of some commodity – say, our old friend the weaver of linen – to the scene of action, the market. His 20 yards of linen has a definite price, £2. He exchanges it for the £2, and then, like a man of the good old stamp that he is, he parts with the £2 for a family Bible of the same price. The linen, which in his eyes is a mere commodity, a depository of value, he alienates in exchange for gold, which is the linen’s value-form, and this form he again parts with for another commodity, the Bible, which is destined to enter his house as an object of utility and of edification to its inmates.

I cannot help wondering whether these examples were actually drawn from the Marx family’s daily experience. They may well have been the objects regularly taken to the pawnbroker to meet immediate costs of food and rent. Yet, the Bible is far more pervasive in Marx’s works than this reference in Capital. Allusions and references appear in many different guises. They appear in efforts to outwit censors; to attack the ruling class; to attack opponents in the communist movement; as personal references; and as economic allusions. Out of these myriad references, I would like to give three examples.

A Bullet for the Prussian King

In mid-1844, the Prussian king – Friedrich Wilhelm IV – wrote a public letter. It dealt with a recent assassination attempt, which he had survived. Marx offered a sustained criticism of this letter, full of theological allusions. For example, the king wrote: ‘when the hand of the Almighty cast the deadly bullet away from My breast to the ground’. In response, Marx comments:

It does not seem altogether appropriate to cause the ‘bullet’ to be warded off directly by the hand of God, since in this way even a slight degree of consistent thought will arrive at the false conclusion that God at the same time both guided the hand of the criminal and diverted the bullet away from the king; for how can one presume a one-sided action on the part of God?

Of course, God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the righteous and unrighteous (Mathew 5:45). But Marx’s polemic – in the Rheinische Zeitung which he edited in the early 1840s – was dangerously subversive. Further, the Prussian king states that he always goes about ‘while looking upward to the divine Saviour’. Marx responds:

That His Majesty ‘goes while looking upwards to God’ ‘to complete what has been begun, to carry out what has been prepared’, does not seem to offer a good prospect for either the completion or the carrying out. In order to complete what has been begun and to carry out what has been prepared one must keep one’s eyes firmly fixed on what has been begun and prepared and not look away from these objects to gaze into the blue sky.

Moths and Rust

A second example concerns a favoured biblical text, dealing with moths and rust and treasure in heaven. Marx writes:

Thus political economy – despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance – is a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour [den weder Motten noch Raub fressen] – your capital.

The reference is to the Gospel of Matthew 6:19-21 (see also Luke 12:33-34), where Jesus says:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Marx’s sense of the biblical text is quite astute. The text itself is situated in a collection of sayings concerning prayer, fasting and avoiding worry. Indeed, we should not concern ourselves about food and clothes and dwellings, since birds and lilies care little for such things since they receive them from God (Matthew 6:25-34). In other words, our hearts are so often where our treasures are. Yet Marx also gives it one of his typical turns: he speaks not of the treasure in heaven but of the treasure on earth. This is no ordinary treasure, a collection of material possessions which may rot, mould or be eaten by vermin. It is nothing less than the ‘eternal’ treasure of capital.

I would add here that this passage in Marx should also be understood in light of personal circumstances. Marx was hopeless with money, for he spent what little the family had without thought for the morrow. He was usually in debt, with he and Jenny continually fighting off creditors. They could hardly afford to sing, dance and go to the theatre. One wonders whether this passage also expresses a utopian wish for what they could not do.

The Devil and the Truth

My third example is an interpretation of Genesis 3 – the story of serpent and eating of the forbidden fruit. In the early 1840s, while he was the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx mercilessly attacked the activities of the Rhine Province Assembly (largely filled with nobles). On one occasion the speaker of the Assembly quoted the words of the serpent, addressed to Eve, in Genesis 3:4-5: ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’.

Marx replies that ‘the devil did not lie to us then, for God himself says, “Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil”’ (Genesis 3:22). With this observation, Marx has picked up a long tradition that recognises the truth of the words of the serpent (who is usually understood as the devil, but is not so designated in the biblical text). In this crucial story at the beginning of the Bible, it is the serpent and not God who speaks the truth. Indeed, the fact that the woman listens to the serpent was understood by some alternative (or ‘heretical’) groups, as a genuine rebellion against an oppressive god. In this light, other references in the Bible to serpents were seen in a new way: Moses’ staff turning into a serpent (Exodus 4:2-5; 6:8-12); the bronze serpent set up by Moses in the desert for healing (Numbers 21: 4-9); or John 3:14 in the New Testament, which reads: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. At this point, Marx’s satirical response actually touched on a revolutionary reading of the Bible.
Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism
Tuesday, 26 April 2016 09:19

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.
Engels and revolutionary religion
Monday, 04 April 2016 10:40

Engels and revolutionary religion

Published in Religion

Can religion foster revolutionary movements? Roland Boer continues his series on marxism and religion, with a discussion of Engels's growing understanding of the political ambivalence of Christianity. It complements James Crossley's article on the Radical Jesus.

Friedrich Engels is not often given due credit for his distinct contributions to the socialist tradition. This neglect is as much the case in Western Marxism as it is in China, where I work for a good part of each year. In order to make a small contribution to rehabilitating Engels, I would like to explore what may be called his own Aufhebung of religion – understanding the untranslatable term Aufhebung as both end and transformation, both completion and conversion into new forms. Marx may have developed his own Aufhebung religion in terms of the fetish (in which it became a core feature of capitalism as the ‘Capital-fetish’, or when money seems to produce more money in and if itself), but Engels took a somewhat different approach.

His answer was a challenge to both socialists and to religious specialists: religion may foster, if not itself become, a revolutionary movement. Engels grew up as a devout, if critical Christian. His family was of the Reformed (Calvinist) part of Christianity. Indeed, his mother was of Dutch background, coming from a country – Holland – that was deeply Calvinist in its north. Engels may have been devout, but he was also critical. He saw the many hypocrisies of the people in his hometown (Elberfeld, part of the twin town of Wuppertal). Their deep piety was coupled with the vicious exploitation of poor workers, with disdain for the plight of the latter. As they read their Bibles, they also contemplated ever new ways to turn a profit, not caring how it was done.

At the same time, Engels’s was engaged in studying the latest philosophy and biblical criticism. This study challenged his ‘Wuppertal faith’, pushing him to new horizons and arguments with his close but devout friends (especially Wilhelm and Friedrich Graeber). Their arguments concerned the Bible, theology and philosophy. But in the process of those arguments he gradually came to lose his faith – with much soul-searching and turmoil.

As he did so, Engels began to notice an ambivalence in Christianity. It may be deeply conservative, opposed to new discoveries in science and philosophy, opposed to new political directions and supportive of the status quo. At the same time, it could also challenge the very same powers in a revolutionary manner. This insight first appears in some of his comments on the minister of his local church, the renowned preacher, Reverend F.W. Krummacher (who eventually became court chaplain at Potsdam). Krummacher may take some ridiculous theological positions, but he also criticises earthly rulers and riches as undesirable in God’s sight. If Krummacher had been a little more specific, Engels suggests, and criticised the Prussian government directly, he may well have been seen as a religious revolutionary. Indeed, in his younger years, Krummacher was precisely such a firebrand.

This insight into the political ambivalence of Christianity would grow over the years. On the one hand, we often find in Engels’s works statements concerning the negative and reactionary elements of religion. He writes that religion is a source of mystification and deception. Sometimes for Engels the struggle for communism is also the struggle against the evil effects of religion. Yet, he argues again and again for the revolutionary potential of Christianity. Already in his early twenties, he notes what should be called a revolutionary Christian tradition, with leaders such as Thomas Müntzer, Etienne Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling. This is the first time he mentions such a revolutionary tradition, and it would become a key element of his later work, as also in the detailed studies of Karl Kautsky. Over the following years, Engels would develop this argument further, beginning with a study of the Peasant Revolution in Germany in the sixteenth century. Led by Thomas Müntzer, the direct inspiration of this revolution was Christian theology, or rather, the Bible.

Engels was still warming up to his central argument. The final statement appeared just before his death in 1895, although he had been thinking about it for 40 years. Here he argued that the origins of Christianity were revolutionary. The proposal challenged both his fellow socialists, who were suspicious of religion and its reactionary tendencies, and the churches, which were keen to emphasise the figure of a gentle Jesus and the other-worldly piety of the early Christians. Engels based his argument on three points: 1) early Christianity drew its followers from amongst the poor and exploited, the peasants, slaves and unemployed urban poor; 2) early Christianity shared many of the features of the communist revolutionary movement in which he was involved – such as sects, struggles, lack of finance, and false prophets; and 3) eventually it took over the Roman Empire.

We may disagree with some aspects of Engels’s argument. But my point is that he makes this argument at all. He sums up his position from a work of the same time:
It is now, almost to the year, sixteen centuries since a dangerous party of overthrow was likewise active in the Roman empire. It undermined religion and all the foundations of the state; it flatly denied that Caesar’s will was the supreme law; it was without a fatherland, was international; it spread over the whole empire, from Gaul to Asia, and beyond the frontiers of the empire. It had long carried on seditious activities underground in secret; for a considerable time, however, it had felt strong enough to come out into the open. This party of overthrow … was known by the name of Christians.

Not only did this argument influence the work of subsequent Marxists, but it also left a lasting impression among biblical critics and theologians, who continue to debate these issues today. James Crossley's recent article on the Radical Jesus, for example, deals with these issues.

But did Marx know of Engels’s argument, and even approve of it? It seems as though he did, as various comments indicate. One example will suffice: Marx compares the persecution of the International Working Men’s Association with the persecution of the early Christians by the Romans. These earlier assaults had not saved Rome, and so also the assaults on the workers’ movement would not save the capitalist system.
Religion is the Opium of the People
Wednesday, 03 February 2016 22:36

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
Wednesday, 30 December 2015 14:04

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.