Marxism and religion
Saturday, 21 April 2018 17:27

Marxism and religion

Published in Religion

Richard Clarke outlines how religion, like any other cultural activity, is capable of both promoting political and social liberation, and being manipulated and controlled by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

Most Marxists would say that it is none of their business to judge or comment on any individual’s sincere and deeply-held religious beliefs, provided that these do not encourage prejudice, intolerance or result in harm to others.

Some religious groupings, notably the Quakers, have been prominent in the peace and anti-war movement. Many Jews – not just secular Jews but ultra-orthodox religious Jews as well – oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Catholic ‘liberation theology’ has been a feature of progressive movements in South America.  Many individuals – of all faiths – have managed to combine their religious conviction with a commitment to socialism, even Marxism.

RC Keir Hardie Trafalgar Square 1908

In Britain, the fusion of Marxist theory and Christian beliefs called Christian socialism has a long and honourable tradition. Keir Hardie (1856-1915), the founder of the modern Labour Party declared that “Any system of production or exchange which sanctions the exploitation of the weak by the strong or the unscrupulous is wrong and therefore sinful.” And Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury (1931-1963) was a supporter of the October Revolution, a life-long friend of the Soviet Union, and a chair of the Board of the Daily Worker, the predecessor of today’s only socialist national newspaper, the Morning Star.

Religion in and of itself is no indicator of people’s political orientation or of their personal qualities. At the same time Marxists would challenge the liberal exhortation to ‘celebrate all faiths’. The ‘faiths’ that are purportedly celebrated are not, of course, just matters of individual conviction. They are institutionalised belief systems. Religion is primarily a social and historical phenomenon. As Marx observed, ‘Humanity makes religion, religion does not make humanity.’ Britain’s own Head of State is, after all, also the head of the ‘established’ Church of England.

On a philosophical level, Marxism questions the truth of any religion that assumes the existence of a supernatural being not subject to the laws of nature but who responds to the adulation and entreaties of his/her/its worshippers. In engaging with religious believers, however sympathetically, Marxists do not conceal their materialist belief that everything that exists is part of nature and subject to laws which – in principle at least - can be discovered by human action and used by humanity to shape our own future.

However, notwithstanding the gendered language of his time, Marx’s position on religion is a lot more subtle and sympathetic than is commonly thought:

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state and this society produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a 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 realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Probably the best known observation of Marx on religion is that it is the ‘opium of the people.’ This is sometimes taken to mean that he saw it as a mechanism of control from above, prescribed by those in power to secure compliance and docility. To the extent that this is true it is only part of Marx’s analysis. The full passage from Marx makes his own meaning clear:

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.

As Roland Boer points out, Marx used opium himself to give some relief from a variety of ailments including toothache, ear aches and carbuncles; the opium metaphor had some meaning to him. Religion, in his view, provided at least some comfort and hope to the oppressed. In an uncertain world it promises a degree of certainty; it provides an apparently alternative authority to corrupted secular institutions, and to those suffering physical or psycho-social distress, it offers comfort. Above all, it offers hope, however illusory. Marxists understand this, which is why they don’t challenge genuine individual faith.

Marxists realise the limitations of individual good works, and question those that are driven primarily by expectations of a better life hereafter. More than a century ago, the communist organiser Joe Hill’s ballad ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ (popularised by Woodie Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen amongst others) challenged the ‘pie in the sky when you die’ of organised religion. ‘It’s a Lie’ goes the final line of each stanza.

As Marx concluded in his ‘opium of the people’ passage: ‘challenging religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.’ John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ tries to do just this ‘imagine there’s nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too; imagine all the people, living life in peace… no possessions… no need for greed or hunger…’ And of course, the Internationale declares ‘No saviour from on high delivers.’

Institutionalised religion can impose its own form of alienation on its adherents. That alienation is expressed wonderfully for one individual in Dire Straits’ song Ticket to Heaven (ironically taken by some to be an endorsement of religious faith rather than a critique of it). The ‘narrator’ of the song gives more than she can afford to ‘save the little children in a far country’ – sending money to ‘the man with the golden ring. – a reference to evangelical Baptist ministers like Billy Graham, spiritual adviser to a number of American presidents including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and a significant influence on Donald Trump). As a consequence she has ‘nothing left for luxuries, nothing left to pay her heating bills’ but ‘the Good Lord will provide’ – she has her ‘Ticket to Heaven’.

Religion can also be a cloak, a justification for greed and avarice. TV evangelists in the US (and elsewhere) promote the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich, inverting Feuerbach’s assertion that ‘only the poor man has a rich God’’ and reimagining the life of an itinerant Jew who believed that you couldn’t serve God and mammon to be ‘a poster boy for the super-rich.’

As Giles Fraser (former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre) has pointed out, Donald Trump is both a product and a perpetuator of the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich: ‘Being “blessed” has become a moral alibi for America’s greed. It is a nauseating smile of faux-gratitude that says: God gave this to me, so it’s not about me having too much.’’

In Britain the Alpha Course, that gospel’s more restrained, English equivalent, promotes a parallel message of personal fulfilment or quiescence, devoid of any notion of collective social progress.

All religions demand a degree of submission in religious observance – attendance at mass, praying five times per day, acceptance of a higher authority than one’s own conscience. And most are accepting of the status quo – on this earth as well as the next. That lovely hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ has for its third verse:

The rich man in his castle,/ The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,/ And ordered their estate.

But religions are not ‘all the same’. Religion presents a world of contrasts and contradictions both between and within faiths. It would be difficult to conceive of an Islamic liberation theology, for instance. The prophet of Christianity – a poor single man who ‘turned the other cheek’ and gave what he had to the poor contrasts with the prophet of Islam – a trader and military leader who accumulated wealth and power through war. Pope Francis’ 2017 encounter with Donald Trump (who arrived at the Vatican in a motorcade; the Pope came in a Ford Focus) spoke volumes. The Pope had previously suggested that Trump’s threat to build a Mexican wall meant he could not be a Christian (Christians build bridges) to which Trump responded by calling the Pope ‘disgraceful’ for doubting his faith.

For some, religious conviction offers comfort, disengagement, a shelter from the world. For others, it offers a justification for greed, bigotry and even violence. And for some it is the route to social action, challenging injustice, exploitation and evil.

Marxists need to take a careful, dialectical view on religious belief. Like any other cultural activity, it is capable of promoting political and social liberation. But it is always subject to manipulation and control by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

'It is communists who think like Christians': free ebooks on Marxism and religion
Saturday, 21 April 2018 17:27

'It is communists who think like Christians': free ebooks on Marxism and religion

Published in Our Publications

Culture Matters has embarked on a bold new series of essays by the theologian and writer Professor Roland Boer, on Marxism and religion. They will explore the potential for religion to offer both reactionary and revolutionary political meanings, in all their complexity. Our aim with the topic of religious and spiritual life is the same as our aim across the arts and all other cultural activities - to unearth and mobilise the radical meanings in religious thought, teaching and practice. The essays will be published separately in instalments, and when completed they will be published as an ebook.

At Culture Matters, we believe the intersection of religion and progressive politics is a field which merits serious study, especially given the history of the English radical tradition and of Christian Socialism. It is also very topical as the intellectual bankruptcy of neoliberalism becomes increasingly obvious to people, reactionary politicians continue to hide behind a socially conservative interpretation of religion, and as recognition of the need for wide-reaching and progressive change in Britain grows.

Organised religion repels a lot of people these days, because of the perception that it is elitist, dogmatic and socially exclusive. But there is a radical strand in the modern Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths, based on helping the poor, promotion of the common good, respecting the dignity of labour, and practising solidarity with the socially excluded. This radical strand includes political campaigning against the structural causes of poverty and inequality in the name of social justice, as well as encouraging individual acts of charity.

To take a few examples, all of the main Christian groups - Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, United Reformed Church, Baptists, Quakers, Church of Scotland - are supporters of Real Living Wage campaigns, which aim to improve the situation of workers in low-paid, precarious employment. Churches of a variety of denominations have come together to help the victims of recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing. And consider also the critical statements made by Pope Francis about capitalism such as, 'We cannot wait any longer to deal with the structural causes of poverty, in order to heal our society from an illness that can only lead to new crises.' The pope has repeatedly cited the pitfalls of capitalism, decrying global income inequality and equating low-wage labor to a form of slavery. He has even said, in that bitterly ironic tone characteristic of Jesus' voice in the Gospels: 'It is the communists who think like Christians'.

Combining a progressive political strand with a radical application of religion could make a useful contribution to the national conversation about the direction of a future Labour Government. It also could empower people to reclaim their spiritual and moral heritage, and help inspire, motivate and underpin local campaigning activity. Just like art, religion can be a tool of oppression, a means of legitimating unfair distributions of power and wealth – but it can also be a powerful tool for the radical liberation of humanity. 

We hope these essays stimulate critical discussion, and would welcome critical and creative responses to the issues they raise. We invite people to share the booklet via their networks, join us in the debate and contribute ideas about to how advance this agenda. They are being published and distributed widely by Culture Matters as part of our mission to promote a progressive approach to all cultural activities. We hope you find them enjoyable, educational and enlightening. 

In the first essay, Professor Boer discusses Marx's description of religion as 'the opium of the people'. He says:

Marx’s most well-known observation concerning religion is that it is ‘the opium of the people’. The meaning would seem to be clear: opium is a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. So also with religion. The catch is that Marx’s use of ‘opium’ is not so straightforward, for it actually opens the door to what may be called a political ambivalence at the heart of religion.

Go to Religion: the opium of the people? for the first essay.

In the second essay, Professor Boer analyses the various relationships between religion and capitalism, especially Marx's use of the term 'fetish'. he says:

Marx was then able to distil the idea to locate the central fetishistic function of capitalism: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Only a complex theory of fetishism can explain why ‘capital thus becomes a very mystic being’, especially ‘since all of labour’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labour as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself. In this sense can we say that capital becomes the ‘religion of everyday life’.

Go to Religion and capitalism for the second essay.

If you would like to place a bulk order for a (priced) printed version of the complete set when it is published later in the year, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.