Roland Boer

Roland Boer

Roland Boer is a distinguished professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, Renmin University of China, Beijing.

Capitalism, Communism, Christianity - and Christmas
Thursday, 20 December 2018 21:43

Capitalism, Communism, Christianity - and Christmas

Published in Religion

Roland Boer answers questions about religion, capitalism, Christian communism – and Christmas. Culture Matters is also giving away a downloadable PDF of Professor Boer's new ebook on Christian communism, with best wishes to all our readers for the midwinter celebrations. Let's hope we have a culturally and politically progressive 2019........

Q. To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your path to Marxism?

A. My path to Marxism came through religion, particularly the Reformed (Calvinist) part of Protestantism. This may seem like a strange path, since the more common one is through Roman Catholicism – think of Terry Eagleton, Louis Althusser, David McLellan and so on. But it is one I share with far more illustrious people such as Friedrich Engels and Kim Il Sung.

How did this happen? My parents emigrated to Australia in the 1950s from the Netherlands, where the long post-war recession was still being felt. My father became a minister in the Reformed Churches of Australia, and later the Presbyterian Church. So I grew up as a minister’s son, with all of its benefits and drawbacks. It did mean that this type of Christian faith was part and parcel of everyday life – a rare experience these days. It was the fabric of my life, my assumptions and ways of experiencing the world.

Intellectually, this meant that I would inevitably study theology, but only after a degree in European classics (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit). While studying for a Bachelor of Divinity at the University of Sydney, I took a course in the 1980s called ‘Political and Liberation Theologies’. It was a real eye-opener – my first in-depth engagement with the intersections between Marxism and religion, which would shape much of what I did later. A Master’s thesis on Marx and Hegel followed, with a doctorate in Montreal on Marxist literary criticism of the Bible.

Various jobs followed: a minister in the church, a lecturer in a theological college, a university research scholar. But I have always been somewhat ambivalent about such institutions and their demands. There is always one foot outside, searching for another path.

The reality was that I was on some type of quest: to follow the whole Marxist tradition in all its many directions. In a Western European situation, this meant – given my interests – the complex intersections with Christianity. It is a commonplace that Western European cultures and traditions are deeply shaped by the realities of Christian (and Jewish) thought in so many ways. This meant that many Marxists, from Marx and Engels onwards, had to engage with religion. A similar point could be made about Russian Marxism, although this was now the Eastern Orthodox tradition, with its distinct theological developments.

The study of Russian Marxism brought me to a new awareness: as Lenin said on many occasions, winning power through a communist revolution is relatively easy; trying to construct socialism, often in a hostile environment, is infinitely more complex. So I became more interested in what might be called ‘After October’, after the revolution. What communist parties do when in power is an extraordinary area to study, especially since it remains so under-studied. New problems arise that could simply not be foreseen by Marx and Engels, who never experienced what may be called ‘socialism in power’. New solutions must be found and new theoretical positions developed.

All of this took me to China (and more recently North Korea). Here communist parties are in power, and I prefer to take that reality seriously rather than simply dismiss it. What are the practical and theoretical developments? How do the cultural and historical contexts – so different from Western Europe and Russia – influence the developments of Marxism? One obvious point is that the history of engagements with religion is so different that one must start again in order to understand what is going on.

So I am now, along with a number of others, working on a project called ‘Socialism in Power’. My interest is in Chinese Marxist philosophy, which entails knowing the language and engaging with the rich tradition of this philosophy and its relations with traditional Chinese philosophy. What topics interest me? They include the socialist state, a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, Chinese approaches to ‘utopia’ and how these are reinterpreted in light of Marxism, and even what the Chinese mean by a socialist market economy.

Q. You’ve written for Culture Matters on a number of topics. Can you start by saying something about Marx, Engels and Lenin’s comments on religion?

A.‘Opium of the people’ is where we should begin. For a young Marx in his twenties it meant not simply a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. Instead, the metaphor of opium in the nineteenth century was a complex one. On the one hand, opium was seen as a cheap and widely available medicine, readily accessible for the poor. Marx himself used opium whenever he felt ill, which was often. On the other hand, opium became increasingly to be seen as a curse. Medical authorities began to warn of addiction and that perhaps its healing properties were not what many people believed. And the scandal of the British Empire forcing opium on the Chinese in order to empty Chinese coffers became more and more apparent. In short, opium was a very ambivalent metaphor: blessing and curse, medicine and dangerous drug, British wealth and colonial oppression. This ambivalence carries through to religion.

As for this ambivalence, Engels is our best (early) guide. Despite giving up his Reformed faith – with much struggle – for communism, he kept a lifelong interest in religion. He would frequently denounce religion as a reactionary curse, longing for it to be relegated to the museum of antiquities. But he also began to see a revolutionary potential in religion, which came to its first full expression in his 1850 piece on the German Peasant War. This was a study of Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant Revolt of 1525, which was inspired by a radical interpretation of the Bible.

It was the first Marxist study of what later came to be called (by Karl Kautsky) Christian communism, although Engels tended to see the theological language as a ‘cloak’ or ‘husk’ for more central economic and political matters. But Engels was not yet done. Not long before his death in 1895, an article appeared on early Christianity. Here Engels challenged everyone – Marxists and Christians alike – to take seriously the argument that early Christianity was revolutionary. Why? It drew its members from slaves, peasants and unemployed urban poor; it shared many features with the communist movement of his own day; it eventually conquered the Roman Empire. We may want to question the last assertion, as indeed later Marxists like Karl Kautsky did, for Christianity – unexpectedly for some – became a religion of empire rather than conquering it.

Does Lenin have any insights for understanding religion? Generally, he was more trenchantly opposed, not least because the Russian Orthodox Church sided so clearly with the collapsing tsarist autocracy. Yet there are some insights. Apart from Lenin’s continued interest in sectarian Christian groups after the October revolution, let me make two observations.

The first is that Lenin agreed with a position that had been hammered out in the German Social-Democratic Party: religious belief is not a barrier to joining a communist party. Marx and Engels had already indicated as much in terms of the First International. Why? Religion is not the primary problem; instead, the main target is economic and social exploitation. Indeed, this principle has by and large been followed by nearly all communist parties since then (although the Communist Part of China is an interesting exception).

Second, Lenin reinterpreted Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ not as ‘opium for the people’ (as is commonly believed) but as a kind of ‘spiritual booze’. This term has many layers in Russian culture, all the way from Russian Orthodox theology to the complex role of vodka in Russian society. The main point is that ‘spiritual booze’ is not immediately a dismissal, but rather a grudging acknowledgement of the sheer complexity of religion itself.

Q…..and on the topic of religion and capitalism?

A. Let us go to the heart of the matter, with Marx (and leave aside the superficial efforts to see capitalism as a type of ‘religion’). The most thorough analysis of how religion works in capitalism comes through Marx’s reinterpretation of the idea of the fetish.

Over forty years, Marx turned this idea over and over. He was always aware of its religious dimensions, but he also transformed it (the German is Aufhebung) into a very useful way to understand the core functions of capital. To find this insight, we need to go to the third volume of Capital. After pointing out that fetishism attaches to every feature of capitalism, he then points out the key fetish: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Or as his formula puts it: M–M1. Why is this the main fetish? It is both unreal and real, mystical and concrete. On the one hand, it obscures labour and production, pretending that money produces money; on the other hand, it is very real and profoundly oppressive. It is what would now be called the ‘financialisation of the market’. This is what he means by the ‘religion of everyday life’.

Q. The ebook that you’ve written for Culture Matters is on the topic of Christian communism. What are the biblical roots of Christian communism?

A. Let us begin with the socio-economic situation, because Christianity, like most religions, is a response to economic injustice and oppression in this world. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Rome’s imperialism was reshaping peasant agriculture, and the burdens of taxation and debt were growing, deeply affecting local economies, village communities, cultures and health – malaria, for example, was rife.

When the Romans eventually took possession of the Eastern Mediterranean, they found a colonial system that was working rather well – if one thinks in terms of the colonisers. They took over what the Greeks had already established for a few centuries and modified it in the light of their own preferences. This was a system of Greek ‘cities’ (polis), which marked the colonising presence of foreigners. These cities were Greek-speaking, with Greek culture, institutions and town planning.

Above all, they relied on all of the surrounding territory (called the chora) to supply everything the cities needed. Their ‘needs’ were substantial, transforming the economic structures of this chora.

But what was the chora? In a colonial situation, the chora was not the arable land around the city (as in Greece). Instead, it comprised all of the villages, land and peasants who worked the land. They spoke the local language, followed local customs and practices and saw the colonising cities as thoroughly foreign. Given the immense demands from the cities, the lives of the peasants were transformed. They were often forced to move into lower areas rife with malaria, with profound consequences for short lives – life expectancy was around 30.

Roman armies frequently cut swathes through this countryside, as ‘punishment’ for revolt. Mass enslavements took place, further reducing rural labour power. In a recently published book with Christina Petterson (Time of Troubles), we have described this as a ‘colonial regime’. The Romans gradually transformed the system they inherited. Even though the cities remained Greek in culture, they were also required to provide the relatively large city of Rome itself with even larger supplies of grain, and of course slaves.

Q. Given this context of exploitation and oppression, can you give us some examples of parables and stories from the NT which can be interpreted as revolutionary hopes, prescriptions, exhortations etc.?

A. Perhaps it is best to begin with an item that is often a stumbling block to modern readers: the healing stories. To modern eyes, they seem magical, the stuff of ‘faith healing’. But they can be read at two levels. The first is the reality of lives broken by disease. Earlier, I mentioned the pervasiveness of malaria, born by mosquitoes. Malaria does not necessarily kill immediately, but it makes one prone to a multitude of other diseases. The healing stories provide an answer to this reality.

At a symbolic level, these stories also respond to lives broken by poverty, exploitation and the profound disruption to kin networks. At the same time, we need to be wary: the Greeks and Romans liked to characterise peasants as ugly, misshapen and deformed (among other items of class consciousness). The presence of so many people in the Gospels with what would now be called ‘disabilities’ may also be seen as a standard way of depicting peasants. In this light, the healing stories disrupt this type of anti-peasant class consciousness.

More obviously, we find in the Gospels a whole series of sayings and events that challenge Roman perceptions of private property, imperialism and exploitation of colonised areas of the empire. Let me give one example of each:

A challenge to private property, which the Romans had invented as a legal category in the late second century BCE. At one point, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’.

A challenge to imperialism: asked about a coin and whose bust was on it, Jesus replies, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’. In other words, the emperor is due nothing, while God is due everything. ‘What has Rome given us?’ Jesus says. ‘Nothing’, is the reply.

A challenge to imperial exploitation: the best example here is a central item of the church’s liturgy. Each week at evening prayer, I recite the following, which are the words of Mary from the Gospel of Luke: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’. I suspect that the radical sense of these words has been lost through two millennia of repetition.

Also lost to view has been the practical way of life that early Christians led, which was essentially communist. Their solution to the problems of exploitation and oppression was sharing, and common ownership, as described in Acts of the Apostles:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Q. How did this ‘communist’ tradition continue, and how was it suppressed and co-opted by the ruling classes?

A. At this point, we need to backtrack a little. The idea of Christian communism was first proposed by Karl Kautsky, the leading intellectual of the second generation of Marxists. In a massive study – called Forerunners of Modern Socialism – that has been translated only partially into English, Kautsky and his comrades set about identifying a whole tradition of European Christian communism. A careful analysis of this work appears in the first chapter of a book called Red Theology, which will be published in early 2019.

Kautsky identifies the basic impulse for Christian communism in many sayings of the Gospels, but above all in two brief texts from the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. The first is quoted above, the second was: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common’. For Kautsky, this was enough of an inspiration for a Christian form of communism that would resonate through the ages.

For our purposes here, Kautsky notes that this communist impulse was appropriated by the powers that be in terms of ‘charity’ and ‘alms’. As Christianity spread, it adapted to imperial power. The turning point was when Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion. The radical texts remained, but they were softened and spiritualised into admonitions for alms, family life and simple living.

But it could not be completely appropriated and suppressed. At the moment of this appropriation, the monastic movement arose, which rejected the trappings of wealth and power and sought the simplicity of the original Christian life far from the centres of power.

Q. What examples of Christian communism have there been in the West?

A. There have been many, not least the ongoing monastic movement. The Christian communist impulse refused to die. It kept reappearing, challenging the status quo and the tendency for the Church to become a surrogate for imperial values. The examples are many, but they are predicated on a basic dynamic of Christianity. In the name of returning to the original Christian community, one movement after another has tried to reform the Church from within or challenge it from outside.

Christian communism has had a fascinating history of 2,000 years. There have been two currents: a) communal life with all things in common; b) revolutionary uprisings, due to persecution and radical criticism of the status quo. The communal expression is found in the Franciscans, Beguines, the Moravian Brethren, the Levellers and Diggers in England, and the many American Utopian communes, such as Pantisocracy and the communities inspired by Étienne Cabet.

The revolutionary impulse appears first with the Dulcinians, who took up arms in the early fourteenth century. Later, it appears all over Europe, especially with the rise of early capitalism: Taborites in Bohemia, Peasant Revolutions in England and Europe, especially with Thomas Müntzer (1525) and the Anabaptist Revolution in Münster (1534-1535).

Keir Hardie and Tony Benn are two more recent examples of socialists who were shaped by Christian beliefs.

Q. What examples of Christian communism have emerged in other parts of the world?

A. Russia has a long history, with sectarian groups (Old Believers, Doukhobors, Molokans and so on) and an older peasant Christian communism, with its slogan, ‘the land is God’s’. Tolstoy was a champion of this type, based on the village-commune with land in common.

During the Russian Revolution a unique form arose: ‘God-Building’. According to Anatoly Lunacharsky, Soviet People’s Commissar for Education and Culture, the gods of religion represented the ideals to which human beings were striving. Socialism could embody this approach in education, art, culture – and especially through revolution.

In modern times, the Christian churches of the DPRK have come to support the Korean effort to construct socialism. They are actively engaged in domestic social work and internationally work to overcome the deep anti-DPRK prejudice.

The Chinese tradition of Christian communism, which arose in the early twentieth century, is the most interesting of all.

One of its main theologians was Wu Yaozong, who spoke of two conversions: one to Christianity and one to Marxism-Leninism. Wu established the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church, established in 1951 and supported by the government, which is now the largest Protestant organisation in the world, with more than 38 million members – and growing.

Even the Vatican understands the natural links between the Chinese state’s struggle for socialism and practical application of the Gospel. It recently pointed out that the Chinese state’s commitment to the common good has much more affinity with Catholic Social Teaching than the individualism of Western liberal democracies. Let me focus on the recent agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government, which has confounded many observers, including on the socialist left.

Three recent statements are important for understanding the agreement, which seeks to solve a centuries-long problem: who will appoint bishops, the Vatican or the Chinese government. Up to recent times, there have been two Roman Catholic Churches in China, one recognised by the Vatican and the other recognised by the Chinese government. The 2018 agreement finally solves this problem. But from the Vatican’s side, it was framed in terms of some very important observations.

First, in 2016, Pope Francis observed:

It has been said many times and my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians. Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide.

Second, in 2018 Massimo Faggioli (from Villanova University) pointed out that:

…the use of Catholicism as an ideological surrogate for Western ideologies is not new, but is especially at odds with Pope Francis’ vision of Catholicism, and it makes it impossible to understand this important moment in the relations between the Vatican and China.

In other words, the church has its own agenda and is not to be co-opted by a Western liberal ideological agenda.

Third, and most importantly, Bishop Sorondo, who is head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, made the following arresting observation in 2018:

Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese … They seek the common good, subordinating things to the general good … The dignity of the person is defended … Liberal thought has liquidated the concept of the common good, not even wanting to take it into account, asserting that it is an empty idea, without any interest. By contrast, the Chinese focus on work and the common good.

This may seem like an extraordinary development, especially in light of the ramped-up Sinophobia in a small number of Western countries, but it makes quite clear that the Vatican has its own agenda in the light of a long history of Catholic Social Teaching, and that it values the social good. For the Vatican, China embodies in our time a focus on the common good.

Churches in China are full to overflowing, apart from the many, many Muslims in China (Hui and Uyghur minorities that number in tens of millions) and indeed the Buddhists. Obviously, they are doing something right.

Perhaps we can learn something from the Chinese experience, not least in the way different Christian churches are seeking to contribute to the construction of socialism.

Q. So there seems to be quite a lot of evidence, throughout history and across the world, that Christianity and communism can be mutually supportive - although clearly there have also times when they have been deeply opposed! What are the lessons for Western socialist politics, and political parties?

A. Churches, mosques, temples and meditation centres need to remember that religion is not all about a private spiritual life focused on another world. This world too, with its exploitation, injustice and inequality, is also vitally important. As each tradition recognises, faith is collective and unitive, a fundamental part of our social natures.

That means working with others for the core aspirations of socialism. One example is to become part of the movement for cultural democracy, to liberate itself from the legitimation of exploitation and oppression and like other cultural activities become part of the struggle to transform the material world.

Let me make the following initial suggestions: first, Western churches may want to begin rethinking their comfortable alignment with liberalism and the modern Euro-American project. I am not using liberalism here in the American sense, where it has come to mean – for various reasons – what is progressive. Instead, I mean liberalism – and its more recent form as neo-liberalism – as the main ideological framework for modern capitalism. It means the primacy of the private individual at the expense of the social and the dismissal of any notion of the common good. Aligning with this ideology has been deadly for Western Churches, as empty pews on any Sunday can attest. The answer is not more liberalism, which we often find in Pentecostal churches and others on the religious right. The answer is to recover the Christian affirmation of the common good.

It is important to do so from within the dynamic of Christianity: the faith and the creeds and the practices of the churches and of religious belief. My influence is the Christian communist tradition, which arises from within such affirmations. This suggestion may seem slightly strange for those who have never experienced religious faith or find it simply mystifying and nonsensical (as the New Atheist movement tries to do in our time). But this is where the inspiration lies – a kind of ‘spiritual reserve’ to inhibit the usual drift away from radicalism,.

For example, the Chinese Christian communist, Wu Yaozong, made it clear that his position arose from faith, prayer and Christian belief, and not from some opportunist compromise with the communists. Thus, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church – which Wu Yaozong helped to establish – in China today is deeply confessional. Or if you look at the statements concerning the Vatican’s reasons for the agreement with the Chinese government, they make it clear that the ultimate basis is theological and pastoral.

Let me put it this way: the Christian call to conversion is far more than an individual moment. The original Greek is metanoia, which means a change of heart and mind. This change of direction, of a turn in one’s life and setting out on a new road, is very much a collective change.

What does this entail? In terms of communist parties, which seem to be undergoing a revival as I write, it is worth reminding them of the Christian communist tradition. This tradition is so important for the Western developments of communism (it was first identified by Marxists, after all) and it reminds us that Christianity is not simply a reactionary and conservative force.

In the context of the UK, it may mean influencing an actual Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. The traditions of British Labour can play a role here, with inspiring leaders like Keir Hardie and Tony Benn, who have drawn on the Christian tradition. The trap, of course, is that such a government may end up losing its radical agenda once in office, as has happened so often before. For this reason, I wrote ‘influencing’, or working to keep the radical agenda at the forefront and even pushing it further to the Left. This may be called a Western version of working with progressive movements, but not identifying with them completely. Perhaps the best slogan here is ‘within and for socialism, but holding socialism to account’.

Or it may mean becoming part of a wider dynamic like ‘cultural democracy’ that seeks to reclaim culture for the people rather than big business and its overwhelming drive for profits As writers on Culture Matters and elsewhere have argued, we need democratic control and various forms of social ownership over the arts, sport, the media – and the churches, mosques and temples.

We need it because culture is integral to the socialist project, an essential part of an all-round healthy, happy, human existence. Our participation in cultural activities like religion should be part of our individual and collective realisation of the common good, and not be undertaken for commercial profit or to ignore, deny or legitimise profit-seeking economic systems like capitalism.

Q. Finally, do you have any other thoughts for our readers, relevant to this Christmas season?

A. Yes – the nativity story is full of radical potential! Jesus is born to a poor family, perhaps in a stable or even on the street, and placed in a feeding trough after birth. Why? An innkeeping businessman turned them away, and then the family was harassed and hunted by the puppet king Herod. Think of the Magnificat, when Mary says:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

And as for the great tradition of Christmas gifts, and Boxing Day, we should remember that the communist slogan – ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ – comes originally from the Book of Acts: ‘everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as had any need’.

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Christian Communism, by Roland Boer, published as a downloadable PDF by Culture Matters, December 2018.



Image by Ignacia Ruiz
Monday, 19 February 2018 20:32

Religion and capitalism

Published in Religion

In the second essay in the series, Roland Boer discusses the relationship between religion and capitalism. The essay is also available as an ebook, and is part of the Culture Matters mission to reclaim and liberate all aspects of our human culture. Our aim with religious and spiritual life is the same as our aim in the arts and other cultural activities: to unearth and mobilise the radical meanings in religious thought, teaching and practice. For details, please go here.

What does the Marxist tradition have to say about the relationship between capitalism and religion? In this booklet, I deal with four topics: the suggestion that capitalism itself is a religion; the ‘economics of religion’ approach, which seeks to apply neo-classical economic theory to religion; Marx’s observations on religion in the bourgeois state; his development of the theory of the fetish to understand the inner workings of capitalism. Since this final topic is the most important, I devote the bulk of what follows to the fetish. For Marx, capital itself becomes a fetish in which money seems to produce money without mediation.

Capitalism as Religion

A proposal doing the rounds of late suggests that capitalism has replaced traditional religion as the faith of many people around the globe. The emphases and sources vary – ranging from Walter Benjamin’s fragment from 1921 called ‘Capitalism as Religion’ to Buddhist criticisms – but the outline is largely similar. Thus, capitalism requires one to believe in an all-powerful being. Some suggest it is money, which can give one power over others, if not determining who dies and who lives. Others draw on Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to point out that the mythical ‘market’ is a wise and all-knowing entity that knows what is best, without human interference. (It is worth noting that Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ operates at the intersection between religious and secular meanings, which enables people to read it in both ways.) Some go do far as to suggest that the capitalist market economy will eventually lead human beings to a paradise of plenty for all. Milton Friedman, whose work influenced Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was one of the more well-known proponents of this image of a market-based heaven on earth. He called it the ‘fecundity of freedom’ (Friedman and Friedman 1980, 3).

The mention of Friedman brings us to another feature of the capitalism-as-religion hypothesis: the economic specialists who function in a way very similar to ‘theologians’. Not only do they debate the core doctrines of capitalism, and not only do they develop new ‘schools’ or ‘churches’, but they also advise governments in much the same way that priests, ministers and theologians used to advise European governments of the past. And where you have doctrines and theologians, you also have sacred places for worship. These places may vary – stock markets and banks come to mind – but one must show due reverence to them and engage in the appropriate acts of worship. Individual life too has its rituals of this new religion, focused on spending and saving, on buying and selling.

I have said enough to show how this proposal works, but I must admit that I see some problems. The main problem is that it uses an argument from analogy: the fact that capitalism is analogous to or like a religion in some respects leads some to suggest that it is a religion. Why is this a problem? First, the step from analogy or likeness to being the same is not obvious. Second, it assumes the priority of religion. It begins with the historical reality that religion is much older than capitalism – true in itself – to the problematic suggestion that religion causes and shapes what follows it. Third, it leaves out the possibility that capitalism and religion may appear to be like one another in some ways because they share features common to large-scale organisations, movements and systems. Let me use another example: one could argue that political movements and religion are analogous to one another, but this does not mean that a political movement is a religion in and of itself. We might be able to ‘translate’ (the basic meaning of this word is to ‘carry across’) some terms from one side into the language of the other side. But this does not mean that they speak the same language.

Economics of Religion

The overall tone of these proposals concerning capitalism-as-religion is mostly negative. Against the assumption that capitalist economics is in some sense a ‘science’, those who propose that capitalism is a type of religion want to undermine the scientific claim. You may think you are exercising a ‘science’, say the critics, but you are no better than religious believers who have a blind faith in God or the gods. However, there is another approach that is more positive. It may be called the ‘economics of religion’, with the assumption that one can apply the dominant economic theories of capitalism (neo-classical economics) in order to understand religious activity (Witham 2010).

So we find the deployment of the supposedly neutral ‘supply and demand’, in which a specific religion might offer something that people want in a way that is better than other religions. Or the presence of many gods and religions is seen as a type of capitalist market: one has many products from which to choose, but which one will you choose? A prevalent assumption is that you will choose the one that gives you the most advantage in life, in comparison with other religions. This assumption relies on the curious idea that human beings ultimately make rational choices about what is best for themselves (Stark 1996). And it also assumes a very individualist idea of how human beings function in the world. It should not surprise us that this approach has been used to argue for the economic rationality of Christian dominance.

However, this economic approach to religion relies on a whole series of assumptions concerning economic analysis. Together they may be described as ‘economics imperialism’ (Milonakis and Fine 2009, Fine and Milonakis 2009). This type of economic analysis begins with the classical economic theory of capitalism and follows it through to the development of neo-classical economics. In this situation, the moral and political frameworks of earlier classical theory (Adam Smith was, after all, a moral philosopher) were dropped in the name of ‘science’. Mathematics was applied, numbers were crunched, tables produced and seemingly scientific models were developed (Weintraub 2002).

The result was an academic discipline that migrated from humanities to the sciences, or at least wanted to claim that it had made the transition. It sought to explain the world as it is rather than suggest a world that should be. Of course, it could do so only when capitalism was well established in many parts of the globe (Adam Smith made his moral arguments for laissez faire when it was clearly not the dominant approach). As Immanuel Wallerstein puts it, this type of economics, along with other disciplines such as sociology and political science, took the form of a university discipline in which ‘the Western world studied itself, explained its own functioning, the better to control what was happening’ (Wallerstein 2011, 264). This is precisely the point: in presenting itself as a descriptive and scientific approach, this particular type of economic analysis was really another dimension of the dominance of capitalism.

Through this whole development, three crucial steps were taken. First, the economics in question was de-historicised. In other words, it systematically forgot its own origins and historical process of development. If we forget our origins, it is a small step to assuming our assumptions are universal. Second, it was de-socialised. The social realities of any economic system were denied and blocked out. Rather than a market – of whatever type – relying on inescapable interactions between social beings, the ‘market’ became an entity unto itself. Third – and obviously related – this approach to economics became thoroughly individualised. The private individual became the primary actor in the market, making choices based on an ultimate rationality that would benefit the individual in question. Stripped down in this way, with history and society banished and the individual raised to become the primary focus, economics imperialism was born.

As it did so, it took on an air of neutrality and universality. After all, without its specific historical and social circumstances and focused on the individual, it became easy to apply this approach to economics to all sorts of human activities. It was applied to human behaviour (Becker 1976) and especially religion (McCleary 2010). This could happen only in light of the developments I have already outlined. Until now, I have insisted that this is a specific approach to economics. It is actually neo-classical economics, a revision of classical economics that sought to turn it into a universal ‘science’ that could be applied to all human activity. Tellingly, its claim to universality is reflected in the claim to be simply ‘economics’. There is no describing term, no epithet – such as ‘neo-classical economics’ or ‘economics imperialism’. Just ‘economics’, with the assumption that there is no other type. By now, it should be obvious that there are profound problems with this approach. It may seem to be a more positive approach to religion within the framework of capitalism, but it has profound problems in the way it universalises a specific approach to economics.

Marx on Religion and Capitalism

In light of these developments, it is worth returning to Marx to see what he has to say about religion and capitalism. These appear in different phases of Marx’s works. The first comes from an early piece, ‘On the Jewish Question’, which is a response to a piece by Bruno Bauer. The latter had been Marx’s teacher at the University of Berlin and they had once worked closely together. But by this time they began to have serious differences. For our purposes, one feature of Marx’s argument is important, although we should remember that this early text by Marx is heavy with dialectical theory and specific historical moments. Marx is responding to Bruno Bauer’s claim that ‘political emancipation’ would be achieved when everyone gave up their particular religious claims, the ‘Christian state’ was abolished and a thoroughly secular and atheistic state established (Bauer 1843b, 1843a). Marx responds by arguing that the ‘Christian state’ – the final form of the absolutist state after the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) – does not disappear with the secular bourgeois state, but that the bourgeois state is the full dialectical realisation of the ‘Christian state’.

To back up his argument, he looks not to France or elsewhere in Europe, but to the United States, which many saw as the first glimmers of the future. Here, argues Marx, religion has become a private affair, exercised by any citizen while the state itself is ostensibly secular. Now Marx becomes fully dialectical: this secular state is not a negation of the ‘Christian state’, but its full realisation. Indeed, the so-called ‘Christian state’ – proclaimed in Europe in the nineteenth century – was not Christian at all. Instead, the fully realised Christian state is ‘the atheistic state, the democratic state, the state which relegates religion to a place among other elements of civil society’ (Marx 1844, 156). Or as Marx and Engels put it in The Holy Family, ‘the politically perfected, modern state that knows no religious privileges is also the fully developed Christian state’ (Marx and Engels 1845, 111).

Marx’s argument in this case is more political than economic, so let us extract the economic point. The bourgeois state is Marx’s concern, which he already found emerging in the United States. And this form of the state appears only with the establishment of capitalism. Crucial to this state is the separation of religion and politics: one religion, or indeed one form of religion, is no longer supported by the state to the exclusion of others. Is this the death of religion? Not at all, for religion becomes the private affair of each individual in the realm of ‘civil society’. In your private life, you can practice whatever religion you like. This private practice is what characterises ‘civil society’. For Marx – and here he borrows from Hegel – this ‘civil society’ is not a neutral term, designating all that is outside the state’s control. Instead, it is bürgerliche gesellschaft, bourgeois society, a creation of capitalism and the bourgeois state. In this context, with its cult of the private individual, religion becomes a private affair.

Capitalism and Fetishism

However, the most substantial contribution by Marx to understanding capitalism appears elsewhere – with his lifelong interest in fetishism. This argument requires some careful and detailed analysis. I make no apologies for this, since it is crucial to understanding not only Marx’s arguments concerning capitalism and religion, but the very nature of capitalism itself. Many will perhaps know the section of Capital I called ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’. Fewer will know that he constantly reworked the idea of the fetish over four decades, or indeed that his completed argument in relation to capitalism appears in the third volume of Capital. Since I will focus on Marx’s arguments in the volumes of Capital, let me summarise his four decades of working with the idea.

The story of the fetish itself begins further back, in the fifteenth century (Pietz 1985, 1987, 1988). When the Portuguese began sailing tentatively down the West-African coast in their tiny caravels in search of a way to the ‘East’ that managed to get around the Muslim-dominated lands of the Middle East, they encountered local people with their own cultures and religious practices. As the Portuguese established forts, refuelling stations and slaving posts, they also attempted to understand cultures that were vastly different from their own. In particular, the amulets and objects, endowed with super-human powers and keys to social exchange, had to be understood. They found the term ‘idolatry’ inadequate, for it had become an elaborate term in the Christian tradition. Church fathers and theologians had developed a complex understanding of idolatry that went far beyond its initial biblical framework: idolatry had become a mirror of ‘true religion’, requiring a cultic practice, institutional structure, clergy, sacred objects, architecture and tradition.

This understanding of idolatry seemed not to apply to the practices of the West Africans. Instead, the Portuguese used the term fetisso, the origin of which is still disputed. But they played a double game: on the one hand, the term was used to suggest that the primitive Africans were irrational, for they attributed super-human and magical powers to simple objects of wood, stone or metal; on the other hand, the Portuguese also would swear by and even consume a fetish (where needed) to ensure a commercial exchange. In short, they looked own on the claim that the fetish had powers in social networking and yet they recognised such powers in their everyday interactions with the Africans.

The term ‘fetish’ caught on. The Dutch, French and English Protestants used it to describe Roman Catholic practices, while Enlightenment intellectuals used it in the eighteenth century as the basis for a general theory of religion. One of these intellectuals was Charles de Brosses, who published a work on fetishism and ancient Egypt (Brosses 1760). I mention this work, since Marx was deeply influenced by it when he read it as part of his early research into religion and art (Marx 1842). In fact, Marx wrote – as part of his collaboration with Bruno Bauer – a manuscript called A Treatise on Christian Art. But the manuscript is now lost!

Even without the manuscript, we can trace the development in Marx’s ideas of the fetish, whether in terms of criticising the decisions of the Rhine Province Assembly, in his early deliberations on the alienation of labour, as well as his reflections on the mediating role of money. What did Marx find so useful in the idea of the fetish? The core was that the fetish entailed a transfer of powers: human beings attributed to the fetish certain human powers, so much so that the fetish itself came to determine human lives. At the same time, human beings were diminished, giving up powers that they originally had. This core idea would run through Marx’s reflections, coming to fruition with his efforts to understand capitalism.


This effort appears above all with the three volumes of Capital. This requires some careful analysis, since it is important understand how Marx develops his argument in his search for the secret of capitalism. We begin with the most well-known treatment, concerning commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital  (Marx 1867a, 81-94). Here Marx attempts a dialectical leap: he argues that the transferral of powers in the commodity-form – the notion that everything, no matter how different, may be exchanged in terms of its value – is both illusory and real, both mystified and concrete. The best way to see how Marx attempts his massive leap is to focus on the following passage:

There [with commodities] it is a definite social relationship between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of the relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the product of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (Marx 1867a, 83).

At first, Marx assumes the position on fetishism with which he has worked until now: the fetish signals a transferral of attributes from human social relations to the fetish (now the commodity-form) and vice versa. In earlier texts, he used this argument in relation to labour, alienation and money. The first sentence in the quotation makes the same point: the social relation between men assumes a fantastic form in the relation between things.[1]

Now Marx faces a problem: how does the transfer of the fetish take place? Is this transference real or illusory? Three answers have been offered: a) the transfer is, like religion, illusory; b) the analogy with religion is misleading; c) Marx attempts to move dialectically beyond the opposition. The first answer argues that we suffer from a mistaken belief that the products of labour, like the fetish, gain such powers. In this case the political response is straightforward: all we need to do is indicate why those beliefs are mistaken, show what the object really is – a product made by human hands – and the task is done. At times Marx seems to assume such a position, sprinkling his text on the fetishism of commodities with phrases such as ‘grotesque ideas’, ‘mystical character’ and ‘unsubstantial ghost’.

The problem with this argument is obvious, since it would make commodities, labour, money, exploitation, and suffering a grand delusion. Is Marx then misguided in his use of the idea of fetishism, especially in light of its religious ties? Some would suggest so, arguing that the understanding of how powers are transferred to the fetish is illusory, a product of the imagination, but that those gained by the commodity are real. Marx was really showing that the perception of how those attributes are passed over to commodities is mistaken; he sets out to correct the mistake. Marx would have done better – so the argument goes – to have used an analogy other than religious fetishism.

How exactly does the transfer take place between fetish and human beings? Marx may well argue that workers, processes of material production, social relations and the product made are real; indeed, he argues that the powers transferred and thereby gained by the product are also real and materially grounded, which then means that the effects on human beings – exploitation, suffering, ruined bodies – are equally real. But are the perceptions of this process held by workers illusory? No, for the transferral of powers between commodities and human beings appear to those producers as ‘what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things’ (Marx 1867a, 84).

Their bodies know perfectly well what is going on. Yet their perception of how this process works is illusory and mystified: commodities do not have this power in themselves, for it comes from the labour power of those who produce commodities. It is both/and rather than either/or. Marx pushes at the edge of language to explain what is going on. For example, the qualities of the products of labour ‘are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses’ (Marx 1867a, 83)

Once again: although one may reveal the process of transferral and thereby show how value appears in the product of labour, that value appears ‘just as real and final, as the fact that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered’ (Marx 1867a, 85). In order to express what he is trying to argue, Marx formulates a curious phrase to express this dual character of social relations and the transferred relations between commodities: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms’ (Marx 1867b, 90).[2] Not only does this apply to the theories of bourgeois economists; it also applies to the very process of fetish transfer itself.

In other words, the process of transferral is a thought form that has become objective, utterly real. The commodity-form and the value of abstracted labour it attracts are both products of thought and objective, imaginary and real, mysterious and concrete. As with the fetish, or indeed the idol of the religious believer, the gods may not be real, but the transfer of powers to the object made, along with the resultant effect on the worker, is very real indeed.

On three other occasions in Capital and its preparatory materials, Marx returns to fetishism – in the third draft of Capital and then twice in the third volume of Capital. In these texts, Marx works away at the question of fetishism, exploring the various means by which more and more elements of capitalism end up ‘confronting living labour power’ (Marx 1894, 802) as alien, abstracted, all-powerful and utterly dominating. As he does so, the idea undergoes a process of expansion and distillation, so much so that the discussion of commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital becomes an ‘introductory framework’ (Dimoulis and Milios 2004, 29). Initially, he expands the fetish to include virtually all of the dimensions of capitalism but then he distils this variety to three and then one essence.


In the only extant section of the third draft of Capital, Marx identifies a whole series of items that are both the products of labour power and yet become powers independent of it. Apart from noting money, commodities, and even use and exchange value, he is particularly interested in abstractions from the social process of labour. Thus, the social forms of labour are inverted and now appear as the forms of the development of capital. So also, the productive powers of social labour look like the productive powers of capital – specifically as the social combination of individual labour capacities in the workshop and as the objective conditions of labour (including machinery, fixed capital and the application of forces of nature and science).

All of these seem to be contained within the capital-relation and appear to be independent of the worker. We also find the capitalist as a personification of the social character of labour, of the workshop, of capital itself, as well as items such interest, rent, wages and profit, until the development of society as such turns out to seem as though it is the development of capital itself. All of them face the labourer as pre-existing, objective, alien realities that rule his life; they ‘stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confront him as “capital”’ (Marx 1861-63, 457-58).[3]

In this treatment two developments have taken place. The first is to argue that the very process of ‘capitalisation’, which involves the extraordinary shift of properties from the social conditions of productive labour to capital, is itself a form of the fetish transfer. The significance of this initial move should not be under-estimated. Let me use the example of use value, which is usually understood to be outside the zone of the fetish (at least on a reading of the first volume of Capital). However, once use value too becomes a fetish, it throws into relief the fact that use value is an abstraction as well, that it does not have a material existence in the conventional sense of the term, that the value so attained by the product is a transfer of human powers to it. All of which means that the end of capitalism does not mean the restoration of some primal use value; rather, use value too must be destroyed in the revolution.

Second, Marx is moving to the position that the whole of capital is itself fetishised. When we arrive at the third published volume of Capital, more items are added. Some are familiar, such as interest, profit, the capitalist as the personification of capital, the products of labour in all their various manifestations, or the form of the conditions of labour, which is ‘alienated from labour and confronting it independently’ (Marx 1894, 812). But others are relatively new: land as an independently producing entity, specifically in terms of ground rent; the landlord who personifies both land and this process; the abstraction of labour, which is a ‘mere ghost’ (the Holy Ghost, the third person of the trinity) that somehow produces wages; those wages themselves, as a portion of the product of labour power; surplus labour -> surplus value -> surplus product, and thereby profit; the circulation process, since it seems as though commodities emerge from within circulation; and the collection of the world market, movements of market prices, credit, industrial and commercial cycles, alternations of prosperity and crisis – all as ‘natural laws’ and as ‘blind necessity’ (Marx 1894, 801-18).


Thus far, I have traced the way Marx expands the category of the fetish to include ever more items involved in capitalism. By now, he has moved well beyond commodities and the commodity-form to include almost every component of capitalism. He is fully aware of the shift, mentioning that his earlier treatment of the fetish transfer in commodity production and money really dealt with only ‘the simplest categories of the capitalist mode of production’ (Marx 1894, 813). At the same time, he also begins a process of distillation, focused initially on a threefold pattern: capital, land and labour (Marx 1894, 801-18).

Marx calls this the ‘Trinity formula’, which actually has three components: capital–interest, land–ground rent, and labour–wages. The key to this trinity is that relations between these terms have been concealed, specifically under the conditions of capitalism. The concealment produces the perception that capital simply produces interest in and of itself, without any need to consider labour power, surplus labour, surplus value, commodities, production, circulation and so on. Similarly, land produces ground rent in its very nature, masking the role of labour. And labour itself produces wages, for all one need do is turn up for work and wages are – naturally – forthcoming.

In each case, the fetish, or ‘capitalisation’, is in full operation. The trinity represents, from the point of view of capitalism and classical political economy, the pure and natural essence of capitalism. In the process, the specific and particular forms of these modes under capitalism become universalised: capital is thereby equated with the means of production, land with land monopolised through private ownership, labour with wage-labour. Even more, the process of personification applies not merely to the capitalist, but also to the landowner, who is now the embodiment of land, which – in a favoured metaphor – ‘likewise gets on its hind legs to demand, as an independent force, its share of the product created with its help’ (Marx 1894, 811).

Marx concludes:

In capital–profit, or still better capital–interest, land–rent, labour–wages, in this economic trinity represented as the connection between the component parts of value and wealth in general and its sources, we have the complete mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the conversion of social relations into things, the direct coalescence of material production relations with their historical and social determination. It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time directly as mere things (Marx 1894, 817).

In all this, I suggest that the primary feature is the first, concerning capital–profit (interest). The other two are subordinate to it, focused above all on the extraction of surplus value. So let us focus on this primary formula.

The Core of Capitalism

'The relations of capital assume their most external and most fetish-like form in interest-bearing capital’ (Marx 1894, 388). So begins the twenty-fourth chapter (in section five) of Capital volume three. Marx’s concern here is the externalisation of the relations of capital, especially in the most extreme form in which social relations are left far behind. And that most ‘fetish-like form’ is what is now known as the financialisation of the market, in which capital creates its own surplus value, money creates money, expanding of its own accord without the mediation of the commodity. Invoking the beautifully simple formula of M–C–M’, Marx argues that interest-bearing capital operates in terms of M–M’. The former at least gives the appearance of depending on social relations (the production of commodities), but the latter has dispensed with that: profit is now ‘the product of a mere thing’ (Marx 1894, 388-89).

Note what has happened to the fetishism of commodities, let alone all of the other instances of fetishism that I discussed above. In light of this argument, each of them has become a localised instance of fetishism, an example of a much more basic operation. In its pure essence, the fetish is nothing other than capital itself, and the fetish relation operates in terms of M – M’, which Marx describes as ‘the original starting-point of capital’ (Marx 1894, 389). Capital apparently produces surplus value in and of itself, unassisted by the processes of production and circulation.

All of this is only the first step beyond the fetishism of particular elements within capitalism. The next involves expanding the very notion of fetishism, for now Marx is interested in the logical extreme of the fetish. If the fetish involves the shifting of the powers and values of human social interaction to the relations between objects, then the full realisation of that transfer will result in the complete elevation of those things and the complete abasement of human relations, so much so that those relations simply disappear from the scene. The analogy with the transfer of human powers to the gods should be obvious: ‘In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, is brought out in its pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birthmarks of its origin’. In this pure, ‘essential fetish form’ (Marx 1894, 390), capital embodies the whole process of production within itself, a ‘mysterious’, self-creating and self-generating source of its own increase (Marx 1894, 389). It may have various manifestations or even incarnations perhaps, as commodity, money, value, social forms of productive labour, capitalist, landlord, profit and so on, each of them with properties acquired but now regarded as inherent, but at its heart capital is a fetish.

Once again, Marx must deal with the tension between illusion and reality, between concealment and transparency, surface and depth, external and internal, absurdity and rationality. On the one hand, capital-as-fetish is due to a topsy-turvy world. M–M’, whether manifested in the form of money or commodities expanding their values independently of reproduction, is a ‘perversion’, a ‘meaningless form’ of capital, mystification ‘in its most flagrant form’, in short, ‘the fetish form of capital and the conception of fetish capital’ (Marx 1894, 390). Why? While interest appears to be a primary and inherent feature of capital, it is actually a portion of the surplus value, manifested as profit, extracted from the labourer. The problem is that the real source of this surplus value is now regarded as secondary, a by-product of the supposedly primary nature of capital. That is, what is unreal is the way this pure formula of capital assumes that capital produces surplus value in and of itself – money generating money, financial speculation, and volatilised markets and so on. At the same time, the process is very real, once we bring out of concealment the process of production that generates such surplus value. But Marx goes further: M–M’ may be a ‘meaningless condensation’, but it is also the ‘original starting-point’, the ‘primary and general formula’, the moment when the unity of production and circulation ‘appears directly’ (Marx 1894, 389). Capital itself has become an ‘objective thought-form’ with power to oppress.

In the remaining part of this important chapter, Marx cites approvingly Luther’s critique of usury and then the amusing fancy of a Dr. Price and his Jesus Christ sinking fund,[4] but the argument concerning fetishism has expanded far beyond that initial foray in the first volume concerning commodities, let alone Marx’s earlier journalistic writings. Now all that has gone before, the full range of items from commodities through to the personification of the landlord, have become incarnations of capital’s ‘pure fetish form’ (Marx 1894, 801-2). Capital can exist only as parasitic, as transferral – for which the terms capitalisation and fetishisation equally apply – in which the means of productions are transformed into capital. Or, as he now writes towards the close of this chapter, capital and fetish elide to become one word, ‘Capital-fetish’.

This insight into the core of capitalism is crucial and to get to it Marx found that the most useful tool was the fetish. He had discovered it many years before, had experimented in using it to analyse a range of economic features, and then made it a centre-piece of his analysis of capitalism. He may have begun with the basic idea of the fetishism of commodities, but soon enough he expanded the fetish to include all of the features of capitalism. Once he had done so, 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’ (Marx 1894, 814).[5]

In this sense can we say that capital becomes the ‘religion of everyday life’ (Marx 1894, 817).


Bauer, Bruno. 1843a. 'Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden'. In Einundzwanzig bogen aus der Schweiz, edited by Georg Herwegh, 56-71. Zürich und Winterthur: Zürich Verlag des Literarischen Comptoirs.

Bauer, Bruno. 1843b. Die Judenfrage. Braunschweig: Otto Wigand.

Becker, Gary S. 1976. The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brosses, Charles de. 1760. Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Égypte. Paris.

Dimoulis, Dimitri, and John Milios. 2004. 'Commodity Fetishism vs. Capital Fetishism: Marxist Interpretations vis-à-vis Marx’s Analyses in Capital'. Historical Materialism 13 (2):3-42.

Fine, Ben, and Dimitris Milonakis. 2009. From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics: The Shifting Boundaries between Economics and Other Social Sciences. London: Routledge.

Friedman, Milton, and Rose Friedman. 1980. Free to Choose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marx, Karl. 1842 [1976]. 'Exzerpte aus Charles de Brosses: Ueber den Dienst der Fetischengötter'. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 4:1, 320-29. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1844 [1975]. 'On the Jewish Question'. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 146-74. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1861-63 [1994]. 'Economic Manuscript of 1861-63 (Conclusion): A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy'. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 34. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867a [1996]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 35. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867b [1972]. Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Erster Band Buch I: Der Produktionsprozeß des Kapitals. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 23. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1894 [1998]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 37. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1845 [1975]. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, 5-211. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

McCleary, Rachel, ed. 2010. The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Milonakis, Dimitris, and Ben Fine. 2009. From Political Economy to Economics: Method, the Social and the Historical in the Evolution of Economic Theory. London: Routledge.

Pietz, William. 1985. 'The Problem of the Fetish, I'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9:5-17.

Pietz, William. 1987. 'The Problem of the Fetish, II'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 13:23-45.

Pietz, William. 1988. 'The Problem of the Fetish, III'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 16:105-23.

Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weintraub, E. Roy. 2002. How Economics Became a Mathematical Science. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Witham, Larry. 2010. Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] More fully, this transferral is a ‘mysterious thing, simply because the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour’ (Marx 1867a, 82-83).

[2] My translation and emphasis, with thanks to Jan Rehmann for this point (personal communication). The English translations try various formulations that do not capture the sense of Marx’s text.

[3] Or: ‘They confront the workers as shapes of capital itself, as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities, belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it’ (Marx 1861-63, 458).

[4] For Price, ‘One penny, put out at our Saviour’s birth to 5 per cent compound interest, would before this time, have increased to a greater sum, than would be contained in a hundred and fifty millions of earths, all solid gold’. The upshot: a state would be able to ‘spirit away the national debt through the mystery of compound interest’, even borrowing against the future (Marx 1894, 392-93).

[5] Or as he puts it elsewhere: ‘All forms of society, in so far as they reach the stage of commodity production and money circulation, take part in this perversion. But under the capitalist mode of production and in the case of capital, which forms its dominant category, its determining production relation, this enchanted and perverted world develops still more’ (Marx 1894, 814).

Image by Ignacia Ruiz
Tuesday, 12 December 2017 22:16

Religion: opium of the people?

Published in Religion

In the first of a series of essays on Marxism and religion, Roland Boer discusses Marx's description of religion as 'the opium of the people'. It is also available as a free ebook here.

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.

Background: Germany and Theology

But before we can deal with this question, we need to deal with some preliminary groundwork: how much did Marx and Engels know about religion – which in their context meant Christianity? As for Marx, although he never seems to have professed any religious belief, even from a young age, he identified himself ‘of Evangelical faith’,[1] where ‘Evangelical’ means in a German context Protestant. This identification came from his certificate of maturity from the Gymnasium (or high school) in Trier, the town where he was born. Much later, in 1861, when Marx was applying to recover his German citizenship (he had been deported due to revolutionary activity), he wrote: ‘I … profess the Evangelical religion’.[2] But these claims were more cultural than religious, especially since Marx’s Jewish father had formally assimilated for the sake of German identification and rights, being baptised as Heinrich (from Herschel). Not only cultural, but also educational. At the Gymnasium, Marx was taught a full curriculum of theological and biblical studies. He studied Latin, Greek, French and Hebrew, as well as ‘religious knowledge’ and church history. As his certificate observes: ‘His knowledge of the Christian faith and morals is fairly clear and well grounded; he knows also to some extent the history of the Christian Church’.[3] All of this is revealed in one of the final examination papers, which involved an interpretation of the Gospel of John.[4]

As for Engels, his background was somewhat different from that of Marx. In his home town of Elberfeld and Barmen (together known as Wuppertal), the Reformed or Calvinist tradition was strong. Engels grew up a devout young man, attending church more than once a week, sitting at the feet of a minister who was to become the most famous in Germany, Friedrich Wilhelm Krummacher. At the local gymnasium he had studied similar subjects as those of Marx, notably becoming competent in classical and New Testament Greek (he was also to master a range of other languages). But Engels’s inquiring mind did not find its outlet in university study. Instead, he entered the family cotton production business, first established in Barmen by his grandfather and later to become the Ermen and Engels firm, with factories in Germany and Manchester. Soon, Engels was posted to Bremen for a couple of years before moving to Manchester. Somewhere between Bremen and Manchester, Engels lost his deep faith, a struggle that caused a profound sense of loss, sadness and release. He was never one to accept the dominant orthodoxies at face value, penning biting critical pieces on the hypocrisies of the Reformed burghers around him, who would be dutifully devout on Sunday and yet see no problem exploiting those around them during the week (see especially ‘Letters from Wuppertal’ from 1839).[5] He also observed the fascinating tensions in the preaching and behaviour of his minister, Krummacher. Already at this stage, it is obvious that he found time to read and write, although he had to publish his early pieces under pseudonyms. It is easy enough to maintain one’s faith while being critical of its practitioners. More difficult for Engels were the challenges posed by contemporary philosophy, theology and biblical criticism, all of which he read with enthusiasm.

I will return to Engels’s struggles in a moment, for now we need to set the wider context in Germany at the time. This was a relatively backward context, economically and politically. The German states lagged well behind The Netherlands, England and France in the development of capitalism. On a political register, the Prussian kings, Friedrich Wilhelm III and IV, sought to ensure the continuance of the monarchy, stifle any reform movements and foster the ‘Christian state’. Unlike France, with its revolutionary experiences and the radical atheism of Voltaire and company, and unlike England, with its burst of industrialisation and the growth of deism, in the German states debate over modern issues was mediated through theology and the Bible. Many topics were censored and could not be discussed directly: republicanism, bourgeois democracy, parliamentary representation, freedom (of the press and assembly), individual rights. So they were addressed in coded form through arguments over the Bible and core theological issues. Thus, to criticize the Bible or Christianity was to criticize the reactionary political situation.

It should be no surprise that the most controversial works of mid-nineteenth century Germany were those of David Strauss, Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. The furore over Strauss’s The Life of Jesus arose over its argument that the narratives of Jesus in the Gospels are purely mythological and that each person is able to become a democratic Christ.[6] Similarly, Marx’s one-time teacher and collaborator, Bruno Bauer, developed a radically atheistic position through his biblical interpretation. In this work, he challenged the oppressive particularism of religion and urged a democratic self-consciousness. And Feuerbach’s proposal in The Essence of Christianity – a work that deeply influenced Marx and Engels in their younger years – that religion is the projection of what is best in human beings was seen as deeply revolutionary.[7] It is telling that all of them either could not find work in a university or lost the posts they had as a result of their work.

Given such a context, both Marx and Engels could hardly avoid debating and discussing theology. But due to their different backgrounds, they followed different paths until they first met in the early 1840s. For Engels, it entailed a slow break from his faith, passing through different stages as he attempted to hold on. We can see this process intimately in a series of letters with his close friends, Friedrich and Wilhelm Graeber from 1838 to 1841. They discussed at length biblical questions, especially the effects of the latest research on internal contradictions and the historicity of the biblical accounts. Engels was unable to reconcile these insights with his faith, not least because he had no role models or mentors who could guide him through to a more critical position. Right up to his break and perhaps even afterwards, Engels’s wrote of calling out to God in prayer, but he also saw the exhilarating if frightening prospects, like crossing the sea: ‘it was like a breath of fresh sea air blowing down upon me from the purest sky; the depths of speculation lay before me like the unfathomable sea from which one cannot turn one’s eyes, straining to see the ground below’.[8] At the same time, this intimate experience of Christianity would sustain a lifelong interest in matters biblical and theological. Instead of turning his back entirely on religion, he sought a different way to understand it in a way that went beyond Marx. We will see in a later pamphlet how this was so.

Marx took a somewhat different path after completing his PhD at the University of Berlin. While there, he had become a close collaborator with Bruno Bauer, with whom he planned books and even a journal, Archiv des Atheismus. Nothing much came of the plans, although Marx wrote a long manuscript called A Treatise on Christian Art. The manuscript is lost, but the themes turn up in Marx’s other work at the time. This is especially so in articles he wrote while editor of liberal newspaper, Rheinische Zeitung. Let me give one example from 1842: ‘The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung’.[9] The article is a sustained response to a certain Karl Hermes, editor of the journal mentioned in the title, who was a conservative Roman-Catholic and government agent. Hermes had fired a broadside against the Young Hegelians and the relatively new critical approach to the Bible and theology. We find Marx in a curious position: he wants to defend these new approaches to the Bible and theology, but at the same time he seeks to get past the theological nature of public debate. How does he do so? Theology is presented as an other-worldly, reactionary and traditional venture; against it are ranged scientific research, history and philosophical reason. The catch is that Marx ends up defending a form of theology and biblical research that is scientific, historical and rigorously philosophical. In this article, we also find Marx mercilessly tackling the contradictions of the ‘Christian state’ and introducing one of his first explorations of the fetish.

For both Marx and Engels, the big question was how they could find a way of thinking and acting that was free from the dominant theological frame of German thought in the 1830s and 1840s. Apart from the material I have already mentioned, we can see the beginnings of this process in the first two works they produced together: The Holy Family and The German Ideology.[10] While the first book was a sustained polemic against the theological undertones of much of the work of the left-wing young Hegelians, the second work begins to move beyond that framework and offers the first rough outline of what would become historical and dialectical materialism. This approach arose as a response to the theological context of thought in which Marx and Engels found themselves. Instead of following them down this path, let us stay with what Marx (and later Engels) say about religion. In what follows, I will examine the meaning of ‘opium of the people’, after which I develop its implications in the thought of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Opium and the Ambivalence of Religion

The opium metaphor appears in an early text, written by a 24-year old Marx soon after he and Jenny were married. The text is brief, only a few pages that comprise the introduction to his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. The full manuscript was not published at the time, but the introduction did appear. For obvious reasons, it has become Marx’s most well-known statement on religion:

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.[11]

Three key points can be made about this text. First, to understand the famous phrase – opium of the people – we need to consider the sentences that precede it. Note carefully: religious suffering may be an expression of real suffering. Religion may be the sigh, heart and soul of a heartless and soulless world. But religious suffering is also a protest against real suffering. Religion does not merely try to make one feel better in a world that has gone to the dogs, or passively accept those conditions. It is also a protest, pointing out that such suffering should not be borne. Here is a hint – a slight one – of what may be called the ambivalence of religion, since Marx’s use of the opium metaphor is more complex than we might initially think. Alongside its more negative associations, it may also have positive ones.

This brings us to the second point. In our time, we may associate opium with drugs, addicts, organised crime and destroyed lives. The situation in nineteenth century Europe was quite different.[12] Opium was regarded as a beneficial, useful and cheap medicine, especially for the poor who could hardly afford a doctor. Even in the early twentieth century, opium was used by doctors to treat melancholy and other ailments. As the left-leaning theologian, Metropolitan Vvedensky of Moscow, said in 1925, opium is not merely a drug that dulls the senses, but also a medicine that ‘reduces pain in life and, from this point of view, opium is for us a treasure that keeps on giving, drop by drop’.[13] However, opium was at the same time seen as a curse, doing more harm than good. Opium was the centre of debates and parliamentary enquiries in England; it was praised and condemned; it was a source of utopian visions for artists and poets, but it was increasingly stigmatised as a source of addiction and illness. To be added here is the ambivalence of colonialism: opium had been forced by the British Empire on the Chinese, so as to empty Chinese coffers of gold and silver. Thus, a significant portion of the wealth of the British Empire was based on the opium trade. Perceptions of opium ran all the way from blessed medicine to recreational curse.

Third, Marx himself used opium regularly. He consumed it to deal with the many illnesses that were produced by obsessive overwork, lack of sleep, chain smoking, and endless pots of coffee: liver problems, toothaches, eye pain, ear aches, bronchial coughs, and of course his infamous carbuncles. On one occasions, Jenny Marx wrote to Engels:

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.[14]

Opium, it turns out, was a multidimensional metaphor. This is precisely why Marx chose it as a metaphor for religion. Like opium, religion may be source of hope, a way of curing an illness, a sigh for a better world; but it is also a result of world out of kilter, and may even be a source of harm in its own right.

Lenin and Spiritual Booze

What was the subsequent history of the opium metaphor? I would like to give one example, from Lenin. In 1905 he wrote:

Religion is opium of the people [opium naroda]. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image [obraz], their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.[15]

I have actually changed the translation of Lenin’s text. Why? The English translation in Lenin’s Collected Works has ‘opium for the people’, which changes the meaning. ‘Opium for the people’ gives the sense that religious beliefs are imposed upon people rather than emerging as their own response: religion is no longer of themselves, but has become something devised for them. But this not what Lenin’s text says. He writes ‘opium of the people [opium naroda]’, which is a direct translation of Marx’s ‘opium of the people [das Opium des Volkes]’.

However, in the USSR ‘opium for the people’ became the dominant sense. People mostly used the phrase ‘opium for the people’ rather than ‘opium of the people’ as the standard definition of religion. Perhaps the most famous example is the line from the movie, Twelve Chairs (based on Ilf and Petrov’s satirical novel of the same name from 1928) where the main character keeps greeting his competitor, the Orthodox priest, with the line: ‘How much do you charge for the opium for the people?’ It may be that Lenin hints in this direction, since he does say that religion is ‘a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image’. At first sight, this seems to mean the conventional ‘drowning of your sorrows’. Religion becomes a flask of vodka that dulls the pain of everyday life.

But Lenin’s text is not so straightforward. He also speaks of ‘human image’ and ‘demand for a life more or less worthy of human beings’. Something else is going on here, more than simply drowning your sorrows. I suggest that Lenin is alluding to theological language, especially from Russian Orthodoxy. How so? This tradition offers an intriguing interpretation of a key text from the Bible, Genesis 1:26: ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’. Russian Orthodoxy argued that the two terms – image and likeness – indicate different meanings. Thus, Adam and Eve may have been created in the image of God, which meant that they could participate in the divine life. However, sin (Genesis 3) has blurred and fractured the union of divine and human, resulting a less-than-human existence, with the unnatural result of death. Now we get into the intricacies of theology: according to Eastern Orthodox theology, the first human beings had missed the likeness to God. They may have been created in the image of God, although this had been distorted through sin. Likeness is another matter. The reason is achieving likeness to God is actually the task of Jesus Christ. This is a new state of existence, beyond that of Adam and Eve. They called this process of becoming like God theosis, or deification. This is a closer fellowship with God than even the first human beings experienced.

Did Lenin allude to this complex interplay between image and likeness, with his usage of ‘human image’ and ‘worthy human life’? Our human image may be obscured, drowned, inebriated, blurred – as though one were blind drunk – but even so the demand for a decent life persists. That is, a life worthy of human beings echoes not merely the broken image that runs through Russian Orthodoxy, but especially the restoration to the likeness of God through Christ.

This is not all, for ‘booze’ is also more ambivalent. As the Moscow Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexander Vvedensky, pointed out in 1925, ‘booze’ is a good translation of ‘opium’. Vvedensky was fully aware of the theological dimensions of Lenin’s phrase, but he was also aware of the role of alcohol in Russian culture. Even today, one finds that beer has only recently (2011) been designated an alcoholic drink, although most people continue to think that it is not. Two-litre bottles are still available in most shops and the famous vodka may be bought in useful bottles that fit comfortably in one’s hand. And there is the great Russian tradition in which an opened bottle must be emptied. Italy and France may be fabled as wine cultures, Germany, Scandinavia and Australia as beer cultures, but Russia’s drinking identity is inseparable from vodka.

Russians may be admired for their fabled drinking prowess, vodka may be a necessary complement to any long-distance rail travel (as I have found more than once), it may be offered to guests at the moment of arrival (for otherwise the host is unforgivably rude), it may be an inseparable element of the celebration of life, but it is also the focus of age-long concern. One may trace continued efforts to curtail excessive consumption all the way back to Lenin. For example, Khrushchev and Brezhnev sought in turn to restrict access to vodka with tighter controls, although their efforts pale by comparison to the massive campaign launched by Gorbachev in 1985. And Lenin fumed at troops and grain handlers getting drunk, molesting peasants and stealing grain during the food shortages of the Civil War (supported by foreign forces). Nonetheless, vodka was a vital economic product. Already in 1899 in his painstakingly detailed The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin provides graphs and data concerning the rapid growth of distilling industry. Finally, when Russians drink they toast the Holy Trinity. They say ‘soobrazit’ na troih’, that is, ‘to do the thing among the three’, or, even more literally, ‘to co-image among the three’. To drink is therefore a co-imaging the Trinity.

Booze turns out to be a metaphor as complex as opium, if not more so. It is both spiritual booze and divine vodka: relief for the weary, succour to the oppressed, inescapable social mediator, it is also a source of addiction, dulling of the senses and dissipater of strength and resolve. Religion-as-booze thereby opens up even more complexity concerning religion in the Marxist tradition.

Between Reaction and Revolution

By now it should be clear that religion is politically ambivalent. It can go one way or the other, to reaction or revolution. Throughout history, we find that a religion like Christianity – on which I focus since I know it best – has easily supported all sorts of tyrants and despots. From the moment the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the religion of empire (from 312 CE and confirmed by Theodosius I in 380 CE), it became clear that religion fits very easily into this role. To be sure, there was plenty of preparation in Christian literature and thought (already in the Bible), as the text of Romans 13:1 reveals: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God’. But Constantine’s act made this process perfectly clear.

The danger, however, is to assume that this is the default position for a religion like Christianity. We can easily assume that religion is inherently reactionary, supporting the worst forms of oppression, holding onto outmoded thoughts and practices. The list of examples is long indeed, but perhaps the best example is the condemnation of Galileo’s proposal that the earth goes around the sun. This took place at the hands of the Inquisition between 1616 and 1633. The error was not acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church until 1992.

But we would be mistaken for thinking the church is at its heart reactionary. A common position is to argue for a conservative core to religion. This could be the church’s support of reactionary power, its support of slavery for many centuries, opposition to marriage equality, or simply the idea that believers should be ‘good’ citizens and not upset the status quo. So if some group challenges its conservatism, they are variously branded as ‘heretics’, anti-religious, persecuted and – as so often happened in the past – executed. On this approach, the rebels are outsiders, developing alternatives at the fringes of religion and its institutions. They distort the core ‘truths’ of religion to suit their political purposes.

However, among these groups we can also find a reverse approach. They sometimes argue that the original ‘truth’ of Christianity was a rebellious, revolutionary and communistic one. Jesus himself was seen as a revolutionary and therefore executed, and the early Christian movement was a form of communism in terms of its social organisation. A favourite text here is Acts 4:32 and 35: ‘Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common … They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’. We find this approach even in Engels and Karl Kautsky, but many on the religious Left would hold to it as well. Thus, the various churches and their accommodation with power constitute a betrayal of the original nature of Christianity. This understanding leaves two options: try to reform the church from within, as many have done throughout history, or move outside the church to form new movements, which has also taken place again and again.

The problem here is not the efforts themselves, but the assumption that there is a core and original truth and that it has subsequently been betrayed. In itself, this is an approach that draws from the Bible, especially the story of the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Once there was an almost perfect state of existence, but human beings betrayed that state and now we live with the consequences (as an aside, this narrative often appears among Marxists as well when dealing with new developments in Marxism elsewhere in the world).

I would like to suggest another approach. It is not that the truth of Christianity lies with either the conservative or radical approach, with either the religious Right or the religious Left. Instead, both approaches come from the core of religion. It is not either-or, but both-and. At one and the same time, Christianity is reactionary, with self-serving institutions validating despotic power, and rebellious, so much so that Jesus was seen as a revolutionary and that Christians should be opposed to imperialism and colonialism. Both positions are possible and they do not require any twisting of biblical texts or theology to justify their approach. What we find throughout the sacred texts, theological debate and historical examples is a constant tension between reaction and revolution, between the religious Right and the religious Left.

‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’: Interpreting a Text

However, since Christianity is primarily a religion based on a collection of texts, the Bible, I would like to focus on one specific text that illustrates this point very well. It comes from 2 Thessalonians 3:10: ‘anyone unwilling to work should not eat’. I will need to put the text in its context, before dealing with two ways this text has been interpreted. The first and more reactionary interpretation is usually found among biblical scholars and conservative politicians, while a more radical interpretation appears with none other than Lenin.


Let me set the context for this biblical verse: the problem for the letter as a whole, which was sent by an unknown author to the small group of Christians in Thessalonica, was the delay in the return of Christ. Many of the early Christians (the Apostle Paul among them) believed that Christ would return very soon, well within their lifetimes. Soon enough, it became clear that Christ was in no hurry to return and bring in a new age. How to deal with this problem? This particular letter proposes that an increasing number of conditions have to be met before Christ would do so: first there must be a time of turning away from the faith (apostasy) and even rebellion; then a mysterious figure called the ‘man of lawlessness’ (or anti-Christ) must appear; then another comes, called the ‘one who restrains’, but he must be removed. Only after these conditions have been met will Christ come and begin the new age by destroying the lawless one.

The language is very mythological and may well have been as much a mystery to its first recipients as it is to us. But I want to stress a few points in relation to this text. First, it was very important in Eastern Orthodoxy, which provided the cultural context for Lenin and other Bolsheviks. This theological tradition had a strong sense of the tribulations leading up to the end time. The Antichrist (man of lawlessness) looms large, resisting God, if not trying the appear as God. And this time was not to begin at some point in the future: it had already begun when Jesus Christ was on earth. It would come to an end only with his return.

Second, the transition period would become drawn out, so much so that it became the new normal. During this period, one should of course await Christ’s return. But since that moment is unknown and it may take quite some time for it to happen, everyone needs to pay attention to keeping the faith while under threat, focus on the importance of the tradition, and work steadfastly. This is where the text from chapter 3, verse 10, comes into play: ‘anyone unwilling to work should not eat’.

Conservative Interpretation

 The verse – really a slogan – seems clear enough: if you do not want to work, you should not be provided with the means for living – specifically food. But interpretations of the verse reveal a fascinating division along class lines. Many biblical commentators suggest that the target of the verse is made up of labourers and artisans. In the new Christian community, they have – argue these commentators – been avoiding work, so the text is telling them to get back to work. Explanations may vary in their details:

  • ‘idle beggars’ who took advantage of Christian ‘brotherly love’;
  • noisy and troublemaking poor who depend on rich patrons;
  • lazy and greedy unemployed manual labourers who no longer wanted to work and relied on wealthy Christians;
  • some manual labourers among a larger number who shirked work and left the burden to others.

Obviously, class plays an important role here. This is expressed clearly in Nicholl’s commentary: ‘It is not difficult to imagine that some from the manual labouring class would have exploited the opportunity to be indolent rather than return to a life of hard manual work’. They are doing nothing less than ‘leeching’ and ‘sponging’.[16]

Biblical commentators are not the only ones who have offered a conservative interpretation of the verse. Not a few politicians and apologists for capitalism have also invoked it. For example, when James Smith arrived at the Jamestown settlement (North America) in 1908, he quoted the verse in order to correct – as he saw it – the problems in the colony. The anti-socialist clergyman, William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), used the verse to promote laissez-faire economics. More recently, ‘shock jocks’ in the United States, such as Glenn Beck, use the verse to attack any form of welfare for the ‘undeserving poor’ (the former Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, used it exactly the same way). Not to be outdone, Margaret Thatcher quoted the verse at least once. In her infamous ‘Sermon on the Mound’, delivered to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988, she suggested that this verse offers a biblical ‘principle’ for social and economic life: ‘We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth’. In short, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 has been used again and again to target the poor unemployed: they are poor because they are supposedly lazy and do not want to work. They should not expect any support from the state.

Revolutionary Interpretation

We may also read the verse in a very different direction: it is not unemployed workers who shirk honest work, but the members of the ruling class, the rich who do not engage in productive labour. They are the ones who sponge off those who actually work. In the history of interpretation of this text, it is difficult indeed to find this reading. The only one who comes close in the Christian tradition is the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus (1371-1415), who – in a work called On Simony (1413) – denounces the practice of church leaders, who were enmeshed with the ruling class and held many estates so as to generate income without working themselves. Hus writes: ‘Woe to the canons … bishops … and prelates who eat, gorge themselves, guzzle, and feast abundantly, but in spiritual matters amount to nothing’.[17]

The first person who really offers a thoroughly new interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 was none other than Lenin. He does so in ‘The State and Revolution’ from 1917, precisely when he is interpreting Marx’s brief comments on the stages of communism in his late piece, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. Lenin reinterprets the initial and subsequent stages as socialism and communism – the first time such a distinction was clearly made. Under socialism, argues Lenin, we still have wage labour, contradictions, classes and recompense in terms of work done rather than needs (the latter would comprise communism).

What is the most appropriate slogan for the stage of socialism? Lenin writes that the ‘socialist principle, “He who does not work must not eat” [Kto ne rabotaet, tot ne dolzhen estʹ], is already realised’.[18] Note carefully: Lenin reinterprets the biblical verse in a small but important way. He does not write ‘he who is unwilling to work’ (as in the biblical text), but ‘he who does not work’.[19] And to spell out what he means, Lenin adds: ‘An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labour’.[20]

A year later, Lenin makes use of the same biblical verse. Now he addresses a gathering of workers in Petrograd. Grain was short, due to the destroyed transport network from the ravages of the First World War and the internationally supported ‘civil’ war. Grain speculation was rife, despite the effort at fixing prices. So Lenin attacks the bourgeoisie for profiteering, bribery, corruption and for trying to undermine the new workers’ state. In reply, he defines the ‘prime, basic and root principle of socialism’:

‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat [kto ne rabotaet, tot da ne est]’. ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’ – every toiler understands that. Every worker, every poor and even middle peasant, everybody who has suffered need in his lifetime, everybody who has ever lived by his own labour, is in agreement with this. Nine-tenths of the population of Russia are in agreement with this truth. In this simple, elementary and perfectly obvious truth lies the basis of socialism, the indefeasible source of its strength, the indestructible pledge of its final victory.[21]

This biblical slogan was erected in villages, towns and cities during the worst days of the food shortages during the ‘civil’ war. In this situation, it entailed state control of grain supplies, bans on private hoarding and trading, strict registration of grain, delivery to places in need, and a ‘just and proper distribution of bread’ among all citizens. Obviously, this did not favour the rich, for the old capitalists and the bourgeoisie did not engage in productive labour. Now they would have to do so.[22]

Of all people, it was clearly Lenin who first offered a fully revolutionary interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 3:10. Indeed, for Lenin this biblical text embodies the ‘prime, basic and root principle of socialism’. Socialism defined through a biblical text, radically reinterpreted! Quite a stunning development. But Lenin is also clear that while this may be socialism, it is ‘not yet communism’.[23]

This socialist biblical verse, or at least the new socialist interpretation became a standard shorthand for identifying the realities of the distinct stage of socialism. Thus, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 contains this verse in one of its opening statements: ‘In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honour for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat [kto ne rabotaet, tot ne est]’.[24]


To wrap up: for Marxists, religion is not merely reactionary, but is actually caught up a profound ambivalence when it comes the political matters. Without any twisting, it may find itself all too comfortable with oppressive and exploitative power. At the very same time, it can offer a distinct alternative, challenging and even overthrowing the very same powers, with a communistic form of community. I began with the question as to how much Marx and Engels actually knew about their religious contexts. The answer, obviously, is very much. Through their education, they learnt it thoroughly indeed – and Engels experienced it first-hand as a young man. I will have more to say about Engels in another pamphlet, but here I pointed out that Marx’s famous metaphor of opium is actually ambivalent in its nineteenth-century context. This ambivalence was brought out even further with Lenin’s gloss as ‘spiritual booze’: the intersection of Russian Orthodoxy and the complex role of alcohol (vodka) in Russian culture made this restatement perhaps even more complex. Finally, with these possibilities in mind, I explored an important text from the Bible itself: ‘anyone unwilling to work should not eat’. While the tradition of Christian interpreters and not a few politicians and commentators overwhelmingly read and continue to read this in a reactionary direction, Lenin and then the Bolsheviks offered a different – and very feasible – alternative interpretation in a revolutionary direction.

Perhaps Ernst Bloch, a Marxist in between eastern and western Europe, expresses it best: while the Bible is ‘often a scandal to the poor and not always a folly to the rich’, it is also ‘the Church’s bad conscience’.[25]


Bartlett, Joseph. "Bourgeois Right and the Limits of First Phase Communism in the Rhetoric of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15." Bible and Critical Theory 8, no. 2 (2012): 36-56.

Bloch, Ernst. Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom. Translated by J. T. Swann.  New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

"Certificate of Maturity for Pupil of the Gymnasium in Trier." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 643-44. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1835 [1975].

Engels, Friedrich. "Landscapes." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 95-101. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1840 [1975].

———. "Letters from Wuppertal." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 7-25. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1839 [1975].

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Das Wesen des Christentums.  Stuttgart: Reclam, Ditzingen, 1841 [1986].

Hus, John. On Simony. Advocates of Reform. edited by Matthew Spinka London: SCM, 1953.

Lenin, V.I. "On the Famine: A Letter to the Workers of Petrograd, 22 May, 1918." In Collected Works, vol. 27, 391-8. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1918 [1965].

———. "Socialism and Religion." In Collected Works, vol. 10, 83-7. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1905 [1966].

———. "The State and Revolution." In Collected Works, vol. 25, 385-497. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1917 [1964].

Marx (senior), Jenny. "Jenny Marx to Engels in Manchester, London, about 12 April 1857." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 40, 563. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1857 [1983].

Marx, Karl. "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 175-87. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1844 [1975].

———. "The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 184-202. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1842 [1975].

———. "Marx's Application for Naturalisation and Right of Domicile in Berlin." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 19, 355-56. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1861 [1984].

———. "The Union of Believers with Christ According to John 15:1-14, Showing Its Basis and Essence, Its Absolute Necessity, and Its Effects." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 636-39. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1835 [1975].

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. "The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 5, 19-539. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845-46 [1976].

———. "The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism." In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 4, 5-211. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845 [1975].

McKinnon, Andrew M. "Opium as Dialectics of Religion: Metaphor, Expression and Protest." In Marx, Critical Theory and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice, edited by Warren S. Goldstein, 11-29. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Nicholl, Colin. From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica: Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Stalin, I. V. "Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, With amendments adopted by the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., Kremlin, Moscow, December 5, 1936." In Works, vol. 14, 199-239. London: Red Star Press, 1936 [1978].

Strauss, David Friedrich. Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet.  Tübingen: C.F. Osiander, 1835.

Vvedensky, Aleksandr Ivanovich. "Otvetnoe slovo A. I. Vvedensky." In Religia i prosveshchenie, edited by V. N. Kuznetsova, 214-23. Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1925 [1985].

———. "Sodoklad A. I. Vvedensky." In Religia i prosveshchenie, edited by V. N. Kuznetsova, 186-93. Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1925 [1985].


[1] ‘Certificate of Maturity for Pupil of the Gymnasium in Trier’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 643-44 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1835 [1975]), 643.

[2] Karl Marx, ‘Marx's Application for Naturalisation and Right of Domicile in Berlin’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 19, 355-56 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1861 [1984]), 355.

[3] ‘Certificate of Maturity for Pupil of the Gymnasium in Trier’, 644.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘The Union of Believers with Christ According to John 15:1-14, Showing Its Basis and Essence, Its Absolute Necessity, and Its Effects’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 636-39 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1835 [1975]).

[5] Friedrich Engels, ‘Letters from Wuppertal’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 7-25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1839 [1975]).

[6] David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (Tübingen: C.F. Osiander, 1835).

[7] Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christentums (Stuttgart: Reclam, Ditzingen, 1841 [1986]).

[8] Friedrich Engels, ‘Landscapes’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 95-101 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1840 [1975]), 99.

[9] Karl Marx, ‘The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, 184-202 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1842 [1975]).

[10] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 4, 5-211 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845 [1975]); Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 5, 19-539 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1845-46 [1976]).

[11] Karl Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 175-87 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1844 [1975]), 175.

[12] Andrew McKinnon, ‘Opium as Dialectics of Religion: Metaphor, Expression and Protest’, in Marx, Critical Theory and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice, ed. Warren S. Goldstein, 11-29 (Leiden: Brill, 2006).

[13] Aleksandr Ivanovich Vvedensky, ‘Otvetnoe slovo A. I. Vvedensky’, in Religia i prosveshchenie, ed. V. N. Kuznetsova, 214-23 (Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1925 [1985]), 223. This comes from a very popular debate between Vvedensky and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Enlightenment in Soviet Russia, on September 20–21 in 1925. It is the first observation concerning the ambivalence of the opium image.

[14] Jenny Marx (senior), ‘Jenny Marx to Engels in Manchester, London, about 12 April 1857’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 40, 563 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1857 [1983]), 563.

[15] V.I. Lenin, ‘Socialism and Religion’, in Collected Works, vol. 10, 83-87 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1905 [1966]), 83-84.

[16] Colin Nicholl, From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica: Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 174.

[17] John Hus, On Simony, ed. Matthew Spinka, Advocates of Reform (London: SCM, 1953), 247.

[18] V.I. Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’, in Collected Works, vol. 25, 385-497 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1917 [1964]), 472.

[19] Joseph Bartlett, ‘Bourgeois Right and the Limits of First Phase Communism in the Rhetoric of

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15’, Bible and Critical Theory 8, no. 2 (2012): 37.

[20] Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’, 472.

[21] V.I. Lenin, ‘On the Famine: A Letter to the Workers of Petrograd, 22 May, 1918’, in Collected Works, vol. 27, 391-98 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1918 [1965]), 391-92.

[22] The biblical text also featured in the debate (mentioned earlier), between Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Enlightenment, and Metropolitan Vvedensky, the leader of the Renovationist movement in the Russian Orthodox Church. Vvedensky observes: ‘When you say you are for the principle of work, I remind you of the slogan, “he who does not work shall not eat.” I have seen this in a number of different cities on revolutionary posters. I am just upset that there was no reference to the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Thessalonians, from where the slogan is taken’ Vvedensky, ‘Sodoklad A. I. Vvedensky’, 193.

[23] Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’, 472.

[24] I. V. Stalin, ‘Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’, in Works, vol. 14, 199-239 (London: Red Star Press, 1936 [1978]), article 12. Indeed, this verse was used to reinterpret the old socialist slogan (itself originally drawn from Acts 4:32 and 35). As the next line in the constitution states: ‘The principle applied in the U.S.S.R. is that of socialism: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’. Communism, which was now a distinct stage (as Lenin first argued), was defined as ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’.

[25] Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom, trans. J. T. Swann (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 25, 21.

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 Commentary

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.