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.
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 stalinsmoustache.org.