Marx on religion: Dispelling more myths about socialism

Never has there ever been a worldview, never has there ever been an idea, and never has there ever been a word so misrepresented and so misunderstood as ‘socialism’… except possibly for ‘Marxism’. Because of this, it has been an ongoing feature here at Paulitics, to dispel some of the myths surrounding socialism (see here and here).

For some time now, I have been wanting to do a short featurette on Marx’s views on religion to dispel them once and for all, and today, having read the same blatantly mis-quoted phrase claiming to be written by Marx for the hundredth time, I finally decided that it was time to dispel this myth once and for all.

The first myth to dispel is that of the famous quote supposedly from Marx which is his opponents use to paint him as a dangerous elitist who scorned the masses. The quote which everybody seems to think Marx wrote is:

Religion is the opiate/opium of the masses”

The only problem with this is that nowhere in any of Marx’s writings, did he ever write these words.

Even the very few instances where this ‘quotation’ is given a citation, the citation is often not entirely correct thus making verification of this quotation even more difficult. The most common citation for this quotation is that it was written in 1843 and occurs in Marx’s essay “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. In actuality, this quotation occurs in the Introduction to Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and was actually written right at the cusp between 1843 and 1844, many months after the main portion of the Critique was written. Indeed, because of this, many ‘collected works’ editions of Marx’s writings do not even feature the Critique as a part of the same text as the Introduction because Marx had written and published other material, most notably On the Jewish Question between his completion of the two parts.

Nevertheless, the full quotation of Marx’s ideas on religion expressed in this essay are actually, when read in context, rather anti-elitist. In fact, Marx’s ideas in his Critique are rather sympathetic to the religious masses whilst simultaneously being highly critical of the institution of religion itself.

The full quotation reads as follows:

“The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their conditions is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

-Karl Marx.
Quoted in “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction.”
Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978. p. 54.

When reading the full quotation, the necessity of the ruling class never quoting the entire passage in its entirety becomes clear. Reading the incomplete non-quotation supposedly from Marx, one has the impression of a Christopher Hitchens or H.L. Mencken-like figure who looks down upon and scorns the masses for their religiosity.

Another important, oft-forgotten aspect related to this famous quotation is that Marx was not even the only person to say something along these lines. Four years after Marx wrote this quotation, Charles Kingsley, a Canon of the Church of England — a man who more likely than not had never read the then obscure and unknown Karl Marx — wrote that the Bible was used as an “opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded.” (Howard Selsam & Harry Martel. Reader in Marxist Philosophy. New York: International Publishers, 1963. p. 224). Keep in mind this is a man of the church saying this independently of Marx.

So, it is really little wonder that the vast majority of the population takes Marxism and socialism to be synonymous with all that is evil.

The goal of this post and the series on dispelling the myths about socialism is not designed so much to convince people that Marxism and socialism are not evil (although I obviously think they’re the opposite of evil).  The goal of this series is to provide irrefutable proof that much of the popular conceptions about Marxism and socialism are either caricatures, half-truths or downright fictions.

The public can do with this knowledge what they like.  But it is clear to me that if a truly fair hearing of Marxism or socialism ever were to become possible, the ruling classes would not know what hit them.

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23 Responses to “Marx on religion: Dispelling more myths about socialism”


  1. 1 SUZANNE 18 May, 2008 at 8:36 pm

    I don’t think this dispels any myths about Marx and religion. It actually confirms what I always knew: that he rejected it and considered illusory. It never occurred to me that Marx might look down on religious people, paritcularly the working class.

    If the disciples of Marx had merely held atheism as an opinion, their philosophy might not been as reviled. But numerous regimes, trying to implement Marx’s ideas, have violently persecuted churches and other religious groups. That has a lot to do with why so many hate and fear Marxism.

  2. 2 paulitics 19 May, 2008 at 9:10 am

    Well, Suzanne, for possibly the first time in my entire experience with you, I’d have to say that I agree with much (although not all) of what you said.

    I do, of course, disagree that the great many so-called ‘communist’ regimes of the 20th Century cared at all about implementing Marx’s ideas, but other than that, I’d definitely agree with you that these brutal regimes are *a* cause for hatred and fear of Marxism. Although our Western governments have had a big role to play in this as well.

  3. 3 Robert 20 May, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Hi paulitics,

    I abhor socialism, but as an atheist, I’ve read many attempts to equate the two, some going as far as claiming the basis of the former is the latter. Having some knowledge of socialism, communism, and Marxism-Leninism, along with a graduate degree in Russian studies, I think the accusation is unfounded.

    Recently I debated an individual who made just such a claim. You might find our discussion interesting (a lot of it is in the comments).

    Original post.
    Follow up #1.
    Follow up #2.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  4. 4 paulitics 20 May, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Robert, what makes you think that what happened in Russia or Leninism has anything whatsoever to do with Marxism?

    Also, who are the people who have claimed that atheism is the basis for socialism? In my opinion, that’s a ridiculous and completely historically revisionist position to hold. The original ‘socialism’ if one can call it that, was religiously based and, to this day, most of the socialism witnessed in Latin America is that of Liberation Theology.

  5. 5 Susan Beecher 20 May, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    So many things we have heard all our life are wrong. What is the point of history anyway?

  6. 6 Robert 21 May, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Robert, what makes you think that what happened in Russia or Leninism has anything whatsoever to do with Marxism?

    Because the Soviet Union was founded by individuals who sought to build a society based largely around Marx’s ideology. Lenin modified Marxism to explain how a largely agrarian society could become socialist (then communist), but the basis of Lenin’s thinking was Marxism.

    Also, who are the people who have claimed that atheism is the basis for socialism?

    Um..did you read my post? I linked to an individual who makes this claim.

  7. 7 paulitics 21 May, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Robert,

    I’ve been very busy these past fiew days, so to be honest, I didn’t have time to read the links you gave me. However, if what you say is true, then I would certainly side with you in that debate insofar as your assertion that it’s not tenable to assert that atheism is the foundation of socialism — and I’m saying this as an atheist socialist. However, I would suggest that just because one internet loon holds this wierd position, that doesn’t mean that it’s at all common or popular for socialists or atheists to hold this position.

    As for your point about the Soviet Union and Leninism, I don’t think you fully understood the point I was driving at. Of course the rhetoric of the Soviet Union was that it was Marxist. But,the reality is that the claim that Lenin and the Bolsheviks cared at all about trying to build a society based largely around Marx’s ideology is based on little more than the rhetoric of despots ranging in degrees of brutality.

    For Marx, socialism was radical democracy, of which, one of the central, most important organs was the workers councils (aka the ‘soviets’). One of the very first acts Lenin made once he came into power was to abolish the democratic workers soviets. And the differences only diverged from there.

    Also, and this should be an obvious point: the Soviet Union was state capitalist while Marx supported socialism. So, if you can find substantive similarities between Marx’s writings and the Soviet Union (especially after Stalin took over, I’ll admit there were some similarities under Lenin) I’d really like to hear them.

    Finally, I would also ask you why you take the Soviet Union’s word that they were socialist at face value? Why do you trust their word? They also claimed, rather famously, that they were democratic. Do you believe they were democratic? If you agree with me that they weren’t democratic, then you must recognize that their word isn’t worth much and that doesn’t bode well for your uncritical acceptance of their claims to be Marxist.

  8. 8 Ken Furber 21 May, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Paul et al:
    Maybe there is a parallel between religion and Marxism — although a rather tenuous one. Marx’s theories are what they are, theories about life and how best to live it. (I know Paul they’re a lot more complicated than that but I’m staying basic here for argument sake.) Also humans unknown created religion for much the same reason — rules to live by — with a little philosophy thrown in. By themselves, not so dangerous. Actually rather interesting and useful if one steps carefully. However, in practice both theories have been mistreated and misrepresented to the point their actual practice is almost unrecognizable from the original theory. Of course that could be said of almost any philosophical theory.

  9. 9 paulitics 22 May, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Ken,

    I actually wrote a reply a while ago on this very topic of Marxism and secular religion that I think is appropriate here.

    I’d like to quote from this comment because I believe it reflects my opinion on the matter probably as succintly as I’ve ever expressed it. (Please forgive the length of the quotation)

    “[Y]ou write specifically whether “socialism COULD be considered a German religion?” Given that wording, I’d have to say that, yes it COULD be considered a religion. Anything could be considered by somebody to be a religion. For instance, the followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult back in the 1997 were able to turn a belief in castration and a magical spaceship that trails the comet Hale-Bopp into a religion.

    “Secondly, given that caveat, I’m going to re-work your question slightly (if that’s okay) to read: “SHOULD socialism be considered a religion?” Based on this new question, let me say from the get-go that every group has their crazies. America has Pat Robertson. Canada has Tom D’Aquino and Jason Kenny. Atheists have Christopher Hitchens. And Marxists have crazies that treat Marx in terms of a cult of personality. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t Marxists like that. However, what I can say on this front is two fold: First Marx himself wrote about how he didn’t want to be worshipped and he loathed cults of personality be it centred around somebody else or himself. In fact, if you read his work, Marx talks about how, at times, he actively tried to be a bit of a dick when he felt that people were beginning to idolize him. Second, I can say that in my experiences with the Marxist community, the kind of people who believe that Marx’s work was 100% correct like some kind of a prophet are few and far between.

    “So, given Marx’s own personal disdain for such idolation, there’s nothing in his work that says it is intended and should be treated as some kind of quasi-religious texts (indeed quite the opposite). This, of course, is diametrically opposed to, for instance, the Qur’an or the Bible or the Upanishads which DO say that they are to be treated as religious texts. Moreover, given how extremely dangerous it is politically to base any social organization scheme on a putatively inerrant or infallible text be it secular or not (and we’ve seen plenty of examples of this), I’d say that there’s great reason why we shouldn’t treat Marx as anything more than a particularly insightful and ingenious 19th Century dead white guy.

    “In fact, it is on this basis that I call myself a Marxist. It isn’t because there aren’t any errors or problems with his work (because there certainly are). It’s quite simply because I believe his work to be brilliant and to have greater explanatory and heuristic value than anybody else’s that I’ve read.”

  10. 10 fireball 25 May, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Hey Paul, I remember our conversation.

    As you say Marx’s did have personal disdain for idolation. One of the first step in establishing a new religion with in the domain of a competing pre-established one is often to discredit it’s basic symbols. When Mohamed entered the Kaaba he destroyed what he called “idolatry” within. After he goes on to establishes his own “point of worship”. Biblically Moses and Jesus both discouraged the worship of gold(Golden Cow) or money(money lenders in the temple). In Marxist states as in other religions icons and the supporters of the prior religion are discuraged, outlawed and sometimes eliminated. We see this in the hasher sense in Russia, China, Cambodia… … Even in more benign socialist states like Sweden and France symbols of there religious heritages being removed and replaced by secular “icons”. Secular organization has replaced the older ‘religious” organization. In fact all that’s happened is that one religion(philosophy or rule) has replace another for good or for bad.

    Much like Marx, Mohamed humbly stated that he did not wish to be worshiped in any way rather it was the ideas he was expressing that were important. Most “profits” make similar gestures. This give them street cred; at the same time separates their philosophy and their personal motivations. In way allowing them selfs to escape liability for the results.

    It seems the word religion has been made a contemporary scapegoat. Some want nothing to do with it and try to separate them selfs from it. It’s convenient not to blame our selfs for what has and is still being done in the name of civilization.

  11. 11 paulitics 26 May, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Fireball/Ken,

    We’ve already discussed this issue at length then. You originally held that Marxism was a german religion (which I challenged), then a european religion (which I challenged), then a secular religion (which I also challenged) and I presented what I believe to be strong reasons why this should not be considered the case.

    In the above quotation, I argued that the question isn’t whether Marxism CAN be considered a religion because ANYTHING can be considered a religion. Rather, the question is whether it SHOULD be considered a religion and I’ve given strong reasons as to why it SHOULD NOT be considered a religion both in terms of the danger it would pose and in terms of the intentions of Marx himself.

    Finally, you appeal to the reprehensible actions of the Soviet Union to describe the process of how Marxism can become a religion. This is a bit like saying that since astronomy made possible the discovery of the comet Hale-Bopp, what the Heaven’s Gate cult did in 1997 just proves that astronomy actually has significant parallels to religion (or is a secular religion). What some individuals do post facto in the name of a given theory has no bearing whatsoever on that theory itself. Moreover, this would be true even if the individuals in question actually exhibited a modicum of fidelity to the theory itself — which obviously was not the case in the Soviet Union.

    The Soviet Union had little-to-nothing to do with Marx and it had even less to do with Marx after 1924. Moreover, the very term you use (“Marxist states”) is, by definition, a contradiction in terms.

    Now, if instead you wanted to argue that *Stalinism* has significant parallels to religion, on that front, I would not have any disagreement with you.

  12. 12 Ken Furber 27 May, 2008 at 9:32 am

    Paul: Boy this thing sure has morphed into an intellectual arguement. Once we get into the fine details of Stalinism, I’ll admit I’m probably out of my league.
    But how about this for an argument?
    There is a link between Stalinism and Marxism if only that Stalin used the Marx philosophy roughly to gain control and then form his own power base. In other words Stalinism was the product of Marxism, at least in word if not in deed. Another example of this type of evolution from ideal idea to reality is capitalism. Works well in theory but in practice leads to a type of slavery for many. And religion is also another good example of that same problem. Once humans attempt to make it work, they shape it to suit their purposes and it evolves into something less than ideal. And that’s the connection between Marx’s theory and religion.
    I agree with you that Marxism shouldn’t be considered a religion, although as you say anything can be considered that way. However, my point was there is a parallel to the way they evolved in practice.
    I know you’re a Marxist Paul and I’m not purposefully intending to pee on your parade, but any ideal is just that until it’s put into practice. When that happens, it evolves — usually into something less than ideal.

  13. 13 paulitics 29 May, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Ken,

    You wrote: “There is a link between Stalinism and Marxism if only that Stalin used the Marx philosophy [sic] roughly to gain control and then form his own power base. In other words Stalinism was the product of Marxism, at least in word if not in deed.”

    Assuming for the moment that Stalin actually cared at all about Marx’s ideas (an assumption which is highly debatable since Stalin’s first act was to eradicate all of the Commisars and political opponents who were even slightly Marxist), then I would say it is still a pretty tenuous connection between religion and Marxism. To me, saying that Stalin was a ‘product’ of Marx’s ideas is a bit like saying that Hitler was a ‘product’ of Darwin’s ideas since his eugenics program and his social Darwinism was based on his perverse interpretation.

    I also believe that you are conflating ‘Marxism’ and ‘socialism’ when you write that “any ideal is just that until it’s put into practice.”

    This may come as a shock, but Marx wasn’t really much of a socialist scholar and he certainly never presented any well-developed ‘ideal’ which even COULD have been put into practice. His works concern history and capitalism and economics more than anything else and he actively eschewed putting forward such a ‘socialist ideal’ that you speak of. In fact he calls such socialism, scournfully, ‘utopian socialism’. That’s why I said that the term “Marxist states” is a contradiction in terms. Well, first off, it’s a contradiction since “socialist state” is a contradiction in terms because a) socialism must be global and b) there should be no states in it. But secondly, it’s a contradiction in terms because there is no such thing as a ‘Marxist ideal’. Marx never presented a well-formed ideal, in fact he thought that was dangerous. His work was more concerned with finding a scientific way, rather than an idealistic way, of advocating or at least understanding the inevitability of capitalism’s collapse into a more humane system. The closest thing Marx ever presented to a socialist ideal in any of his works was actually pretty pedestrian and is almost entirely enclosed within a few short pages in the Manifesto and in his Critique of the Gotha Program.

    This is, incidentally, why this blog is not called ‘Paul’s Marxist Investigations’ but rather is called ‘Paul’s Socialist Investigations’. It’s not that I don’t agree with Marx (obviously), it’s that socialism is a normative position that I support whereas Marxism is merely an academic or heuristic position that I support.

    So, I believe that the now trite argument that “Marxism works in theory but not in practice” is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Marxism and socialism as well as a misunderstanding of what the Soviet Union was.

  14. 14 aliarqam 17 June, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    I think Marx view of religion is not so comprehenssive….when someone have studied thoughts of A muslim Scholar of India…Shah Waliullah Dehlvi,who passed 30 years before French Revolution,he would have to change his opinion of religion especially Islam….He is the man who has great work on socioeconomics and a view for the future political systems….

  15. 15 charly 25 September, 2008 at 6:13 am

    please look at the last sentence of my excerpt here. religion is really stated as the opium of the people. you may go to http://www.marxists.org/admin/search/index.htm
    thanks

    Works of Karl Marx 1843

    Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
    Karl Marx in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February, 1844
    For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

    The profane existence of error is compromised as soon as its heavenly oratio pro aris et focis [“speech for the altars and hearths,” i.e., for God and country] has been refuted. Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man [Unmensch], where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

    The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. 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. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is 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[1]…………….

  16. 16 Charles Cameron 5 February, 2009 at 4:38 pm

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  1. 1 Religion Is the Opiate of the Masses « Hic Sunt Dracones Trackback on 22 May, 2008 at 8:34 am
  2. 2 Dinesh D’Souza responds to my article on atheism and 20th century atrocities | Making My Way Trackback on 9 January, 2009 at 3:18 pm
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