Karl Marx on Religion and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Dr Karl Marx and quotation from The Communist Manifesto (1848).

In the only issue of the Paris-based Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, there appeared a monumental series of articles by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This 1844 publication included Marx’s Letter to Feuerbach, On the Jewish Question, Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction, Engels’s, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy and Engels’s review of Thomas Carlyle’s, Past and Present. This extraordinary single issue combined original writings, and “critique” of others works. The writing revealed a proto-Marxism in which the young Marx (25) was evolving from his Young Hegelian days at the University of Berlin, into a more systematic ethical worldview that would shape much of the modern labour movement from steel workers to adjuncts and endure for the ages.

He rather explicitly, for the first time, beckons the proletariat to recognise its historic mission as a class, and postulates a general theoretical assessment of worker oppression. Religion was, of course, a component of the derivative superstructure which contained the non-materialist and non-decisive forces of society. This superstructure rested upon the base or substructure which was the real core of Marx’s writings. It consisted of the materialist forces of society, namely economic variables from raw materials, level of technology, interplay between manufacture (originally meant hand produced) and indeed labour intensive work, organisation of labour, prevailing demonic corporate structure and the social classes that derived from the mode of production. These were the productive forces that determined the class structure and the DNA of the current order.

To Marx, economic variables were paramount in determining all aspects of a society’s culture, and contained the inevitable contradictions that would lead to revolution and the displacement of the existing ruling class: under capitalism reactionary forces such as the bourgeoisie, the factory owners, the organisers of the economic system of capitalism were doomed. Religion to Marx was not based on reality, but a manifestation of bourgeois dominance which reinforced among the proletariat (factory workers) submission and enervating passivity. Religion during American chattel slavery was an oppressive, dehumanising force when emanating from slavemaster direction.

In the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right appears one of Karl Marx’s most popular phrases, “Religion is the opium of the people” but that is rather simplistic. More significant to Marx was the dehumanising nature of religion in which humans were self-alienated from themselves in the construct of a Supreme Being. Alienation or entfremdung was a life-long preoccupation of Marx. It resulted from the monotony, exhaustion and rigours of the proletarian mode of production, and was viciously reinforced through a manufactured religion that would obscure, frighten and diminish the ability of the workers to recognise their humanity and liberate themselves as “appendages of the machine.” [Non-religious alienation is further developed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and perdures in the immortal Das Kapital].

In the Critique of the dialectical idealist Hegel, Marx wrote:

“Man makes religion; religion does not make man…Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering…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 condition 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.” [All emphases from original.]

Religion was a human-made component of culture that was not independently in the grasp of desperate, impoverished and stunted workers. The absurdity of religion is its being grounded in non-materialist forces that obscure reality according to Marx. Humankind, or more precisely, suffering humankind, is force fed religion by capital as a palliative to create obedience and non-resistance. Religion is also counterintuitive because Marx, who was influenced by Feuerbach, revealed that the process of creating an all wondrous, and perfect God, leads humanity to a dead end, obscuring its historic mission of self-assertion and liberation. Taking the architecture but not the substance of Hegelian idealism, Marx demands the abolition of God in order to reclaim humanity’s own virtues, that were surrendered to the god delusion; ending the delusion would reclaim the virtue that humanity projected onto a god, and recapture a materialist view that will lead to revolution, and the destruction of the evil monstrosity of capitalism.

Marx’s theories were grounded in the belief that culture, including religion, was not independent of economic, materialist forces, and for social change to occur, the cobwebs needed to be removed and the clear light of economic suffering, as the result of bourgeois oppression, revealed. Religion to Marx did not inspire greatness or lead to liberation, which it occasionally has, but was the gatekeeper’s lock and the capitalist’s chain of dependency, pauperisation  and immiseration.

Religion is not sacred beyond its human origins. It is not divine because it emanates from the human mind and whether it is a liberating or regressive force, depends on its particular adherents and their commitment to social justice and international peace and security. It is used for both progressive and regressive purposes.  It gave us the Iraq War in large measure, the destruction of Gaza and we are paying a terrible price. It also gave us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Selma and derivatively the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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