Marxism and 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 circumstances. It is the opium of the people.”
No discussion on Marxism and Religion can properly be conducted without reference to Karl Marx’s seminal quote. Often misapplied as an attack on religion, the term “opium of the people” can be seen as a much more nuanced concept when placed in its full context.
Marx looks at religion as a reaction to exploitation, oppression and alienation — that is, it is a reaction to the intense feelings of separation, isolation and lack of control that is produced by class society. Most workers do not control their labour, which they must sell for wages; they give up their bodies to produce commodities for someone else. We are also alienated from each other; being brought up in a society that holds profit as the prime objective, we struggle not to see each other through this lens. This can lead to, at the basic level, a tendency to see ourselves in competition with one another, a naturalisation of selfishness, and an objectification of others — we see people as tools to be used for our own gain.
These phenomenon were certainly familiar to people living in pre-capitalist societies, which is where religion institutionally developed. We can plainly see why serfs working on land they did not own, being forced to give up their products to a feudal Lord, would feel the need for an escape from this alienation.
This is how religion came to play such a fundamental role in society: it is the “sigh of the oppressed creature” in that it provides a release and a hope. Its spiritualism can give people a motivation to continue living, even if that motive is only realised after death.
However, many anthropological studies would suggest that religion, or at least spirituality and culture in some sense, pre-date class societies. Religion may be sought because of alienation, but this is not the sole reason it exists. To understand religion’s formation in a broader sense, we need to use Marx’s distinction between the base and the superstructure.
The “base” for Marx is the relations of economic production. It is how we work and produce, together, to meet our social needs. Under capitalism, the relations of production are based upon an antagonism between those who sell their labour, and those who own the means of production. These relations, Marx argues, are the “base” of society, as they determine how we interact with each other day-to-day, as we produce. This base then influences the “superstructure”, defined by Marx as a broad coalition of everything from the state, to arts and sciences, and of course religion. If we act a certain way to each other during production, this will create a tendency for such relations to be reproduced in our cultural interactions.
It was this understanding of religion which led Marx to describe it as having a “dual nature” in society. In The German Ideology Marx described a difference between the religion of the oppressed, and the religion of the oppressor. When examining the social make-up of the orthodox churches in nineteenth century Europe, Marx observed that while these institutions were hoarding large quantities of wealth and land, the people who practised the religion were themselves deeply impoverished. During periods of social unrest, these two opposing class forces, despite belonging to the same religion, would find themselves in direct confrontation. In the Revolutions of 1848 across Europe, the Catholic and Orthodox churches used their stature to support their respective states, while large sections of devout Christian peasants violently fought against them. This shows that as a result of the social make-up of the Church being cross-class, religion can in practice play both a reactionary and progressive role in moments of social unrest.
We can see this contradiction express itself throughout several important stages in modern history. For instance the dual nature of religion was very prominent in the English Civil War, where puritan beliefs inspired the New Model Army to engage in an egalitarian struggle with the Royalists Armies. Both forces claimed to have God on their side.
More recently, this dual nature is evidenced in the Arab Spring. In Cairo, Mosques were used as a significant central meeting point. On Friday practicing Muslims would pray together and then march to Tahrir Square to protest against Mubarak’s regime. At the same time religious leaders connected to the ruling class used rhetoric to attack the revolutionary movement in the region. This was seen most forcefully in Saudi Arabia where Imams attacked protests as being ‘anti-Islamic’, the regime very quickly crushing uprisings. Similar sentiments were made by the Iranian Ayatollahs when attacking the Green Movement uprisings a year earlier.
These examples show Marx’s understanding to be grounded in practice. Far from simply taking the form of a salvation for alienated beings, Religion is seen to express itself as a material protest against the unjust. This is despite the contradiction which is inherent in its cross-class social make up.
In recent decades this has paved the way for interesting collaborations between Socialism and Religion, most notably in the Liberation Theology of Latin America and the Christian workers movement in Poland. In these examples, the religion of the oppressed has attempted to break with the religion of the oppressor.
This is why it is wrong to say religion is inherently opposed to Marxism. Marx recognises it as a contradictory force which, like anything in capitalist society, is distorted by class differences. Strategically, it is something we can work with when used by the oppressed, and against when used by the oppressors. Theoretically, Marx identifies it as being influenced by the economic “base” of society and the alienations this produces, as well as having a focus on non-“rational” faith. But this does not mean it is impossible to be both religious and Marxist. In fact, if we examine the kinds of values required for both Marxists and the religious, we can see similarities. The project of revolutionary socialism is, after all, to destroy the economic relations which have structured our society, culture and even much of our personalities for the past two-hundred years. Creating communism requires a definite ‘break’, a transition into an entirely new form of human existence, which cannot be fully known until we create it. This has clear parallels with religious belief in the afterlife: the only difference is that Marxists want this transition to occur not through mortal death, but the death of capitalism.
Written by Tom Maguire-Wright & Martin Percival
 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), from: marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm
 Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845), from: marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology
Terry Eagleton, “The Scandal of Faith”, Socialist Review, from: www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11771