It’s a fact that no one reads Karl Marx, except a few determined souls. Most people go by hearsay. The reason is simple: You can’t read him for fun; he is demanding. One of the most circulated hearsays about Marx is what he said about religion. His extraordinary, original vision of man’s helpless entrapment in religion has been reduced by opponents and proponents both into the one short, shabby cliché: “religion is the opium of the people”.
When Marx wrote the introduction to A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1843—the year of his marriage to Jenny von Westphalen—he was 25, a young man impatient with the philosophies and politics of his times. It is in this work of hardcore, abstruse polemics—unpublished during his lifetime—that Marx presents, in the space of a couple of short paragraphs, an examination of religion that is surpassed by little else before or after him.
It is also the translation of Marx’s text by Joseph O’Malley, the most profoundly poetic vision of all his massive body of work—except the few lyrical flights in the Communist Manifesto. References to religion are so scant in the pages of his theoretical work that it seems he accorded no importance to it except in its role as a lackey of the oppressor and a deluder of the oppressed.
About Christianity, the then dominant religion of Europe, he said: “The social principles of Christianity declare all the vile acts of the oppressors to be either a just punishment for original sin and other sins, or trials which the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, ordains for the redeemed.” True, the Marxian scenario of a proletarian revolution did not play out in Europe. Instead it was a bourgeoisie-driven capitalist upsurge that created Europe’s economic (read colonial) domination of the world—as also its post-Second World War democracies.
The often neglected fact is that the grassroots energy that spurred this transformation was the boundless power released by the secular deconstruction of Christianity that set millions of minds free. European societies who chose to get rid of the religious delusion, to firmly separate state from religion and governance from faith, raced to the top of the ladder of material and cultural progress. The portrait of religion unfurled by Marx in the introduction to his critique of Hegel is nothing less than stunning. He does it with a deft and sure hand, with bold, broad sweeps. It takes him only a few sentences to create this definitive summary of man’s religious reality.
After a quick reference to the situation of religion in Germany, he declares: “...the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism”. Religion disappoints because it offers man only a heavenly reflection of himself, not his true reality. He states: “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: man makes religion, religion does not make man.” Because, “religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again.” Religion is an alter ego created by man. “Man,” he clarifies, “is no abstract being squatting outside the world.
Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.” It is the topsy-turvy world of the state and society that creates religion and its topsy-turvy world view. “Religion,” he continues, “is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its solemn compliment, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.” It is, he says, a fantastic realisation of the human essence in place of a true realisation.
The struggle against religion therefore is a struggle against a world whose spirit is consumed by religion. But there’s a contradiction because religious suffering is the expression of real suffering and at the same time a protest against suffering. Now, in a few—startlingly moving—words, Marx goes to the heart of the matter. “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.” Religion, he continues, therefore is the illusory happiness of the people.
To ask them to give up the illusion is to ask them to give up the condition that requires illusions. It is asking them, in effect, to change the conditions that addicts them to the opium that is religion. “The criticism of religion is, therefore,” he writes, “the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” He argues that religion is like a chain of imaginary flowers man wears. Criticism plucks away those flowers and enables man to throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.
It empowers him to discard his illusions and regain his senses “so that he will move around himself as his own Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself”. He continues with a statement that is dazzling in its unerring understanding of the primary tasks of history and philosophy. “It is therefore, the task of history,” Marx writes, “once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.
It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of self-estrangement has been unmasked.” History and philosophy must help people behold the truth about the real world they live in and to recognise their true alienation, which is of this world and not of an illusory heaven.
“Thus,” Marx concludes, “the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” One wonders if this young 25-year-old knew he had uttered the last word on the charade that religion and politics, masquerading as each other, use to enslave nations.
(Thanks to Oxford University Press for the extracts used here from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), 1970, translated by Joseph O’Malley)
Paul Zacharia (email@example.com)
Award-winning fiction writer