Marx on Religion & its Role in Oppression (Part 1)

Illusion that Numbs 

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”[i]Karl Marx, On Religion

Karl Marx has long been considered an absolute critic of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Parts of the above quote are often used by Christians and non-Christians alike to fully express Marx’s attitude, but rarely are these snippets used within the full context of this excerpt. While this passage is, indeed, criticism it does not represent the scathing and total rejection of the value of religion that many people would have us believe. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature” does not convey the full meaning of the sentence within which it is contained, and it is rarely connected in context with the remainder, “the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” Marx’s stance is, I believe, more correctly interpreted as a critique of society that has become heartless and spiritless – one in which, however ineffective it may be, religion attempted to be society’s missing heart and provide some hope for those in need.

In continuing with his most common quote on religion, Marx likened it to opium for the masses. What is opium if not an analgesic? Whether used medicinally or illegitimately, this drug has been used to try to alleviate physical or emotional pain; opium has been used in an attempt to escape the symptoms of that from which individuals ailed. As with most palliatives, only the symptoms of the ills were treated – the underlying causes of the sickness or injury remained. Marx’s real criticism of religion comes in the understanding of his attitude that religion had developed in a way that provided humanity with an escape from the realities of this world by offering a better future in the next life. The conditions of this life – poverty, oppression and alienation – could then be simply accepted and tolerated. In this way, Marx viewed contemporary religion as maintaining the status quo by stripping individuals of the initiative to change their circumstances. He saw that the harsh conditions within which people lived during the early to mid-nineteenth century, if not radically changed, required some source of illusion that provided hope. Religion filled this function. Marx’s argument was that, in order to remove the conditions of oppression that made this illusion necessary, the source of the comforting illusion, or painkiller, had to be first removed. Marx considered the abolition of religion necessary in order that people find real happiness.

In this understanding of Marx’s views on religion, is it reasonable to assume that he believed religion to be causal in the conditions of alienation, poverty and oppression? If a cursory look at the volume of his writings dedicated to discussion of religion is taken into account, however, it hardly seems likely that it ranks as much more than symptomatic of an errant society. Further, does Marx’s discussion of religion, especially Christianity, extant during his lifetime necessarily prove descriptive of religion in the world today? In order to address either of these questions, an examination of Marx’s economic views in general has to be undertaken, since he saw all events in history as the result of economic circumstances and trends. In reality, all of Marx’s criticism of religion was based on economics, but not all of his ideas on economics, and therefore society, were viewed through the lens of religion.

Illusion that Exploits

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” [ii]Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party

 Marx asserts that history is the study of class struggle – the constant antagonism between “freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed…” that resulted in either the common destruction of all contending classes or the revolutionary restructuring of a society[iii]. The hierarchical structuring of classes has almost always been multi-layered with numerous levels between the elite and the most impoverished. Marx railed against the concepts of caste and division of labor, but seems to have written almost reverently of the conditions that preceded the Industrial Revolution. The feudal structure, despite the turmoil inherent to its existence, evidently presented a more “natural” set of conflicting layers in which multi-facetted convictions played into the cyclical emergence of insurgent movements. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and the resultant drastic increase in capitalism, a different class system developed containing two primary strata – the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Replacing the more noble reasons for conflict, including the interestingly non-economic factors like religious passion, valor, and ignorant sentimentalism, was pure self-interest.

Greed, Marx seemed to argue, reared its ugly head. Means of production that grew to the point of making feudalism impractical destroyed hitherto indestructible freedoms and replaced each and every remnant of their existence. The new industrial upper class, the bourgeoisie, created new forms of government, commerce, production and even countries like America. “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”[iv] This heinous increase in exploitation, Marx seems to think, came about with the decline of feudal systems and the increase of capitalism.

Consider, in light of the aforementioned quote, this edict from Pope Alexander VI in 1493: “Among all the works offered to the divine Majesty & most desired by our hearts, without doubt the most preferable is the exaltation of the Catholic faith & Christian religion which…seek the salvation of souls, the dismantling of barbarian nations & the subjugation of the same to our faith.”[v] Of course, within this charter was given the rights and privileges to own, and do commerce with, the resources and populations of the conquered indigenous nations in the name of the monarchy of Spain. Thus, the attitudes that Marx ascribes to the advent of capitalism appear to have been alive and well in the earlier period of European colonialism. It seems arguable that, despite overtones of nobler motive, self-interest has been at the root of most human conflict. This does not, in any terms, invalidate Marx’s arguments but, in the least, casts shadows of doubt on his interpretation of human conflict in history. Cycles of oppression and revolution, rather than resulting from class struggle, may be better interpreted as consequences of self-interest on a large scale, with profit and power as the motives, in which class domination and oppression are symptoms of unrestrained greed. The basic causality has been economics, but economics on a large scale with a history of a powerful, limited, moneyed elite dominating the much larger populations of powerless, impoverished peasants in order to satiate self-interest. While capitalism may not have overcome this historic trend, it hardly deserves the accusation of creating it.

Illusion that Dehumanizes

“Consequently, it appears that the capitalist buys their labour with money, and that for money they sell him their labour. But this is merely an illusion. What they actually sell to the capitalist for money is their labour-power. This labour-power the capitalist buys for a day, a week, a month, etc. And after he has bought it, he uses it up by letting the worker labour during the stipulated time. With the same amount of money with which the capitalist has bought their labour-power (for example, with two shillings) he could have bought a certain amount of sugar or of any other commodity. The two shillings with which he bought 20 pounds of sugar is the price of the 20 pounds of sugar. The two shillings with which he bought 12 hours’ use of labour-power, is the price of 12 hours’ labour. Labour-power, then, is a commodity, no more, no less so than is the sugar. The first is measured by the clock, the other by the scales.”[vi]Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital

The concept of labor-power is based on a calculation of the cost of labor. If one uses a cost of labor in any formula for analyzing capitalist commerce, the capitalist (owner/corporation) charges an amount in excess of the price paid for labor. In Engles’ introduction to the 1891 printing of the pamphlet “Wage Labour and Capital”, he uses an example similar to the following:

A laborer makes an item in a twelve-hour day that sells for $27. The Cost-of-Goods (materials, machinery, overhead, etc.) is $21, and the cost of twelve hours labor is $3. By virtue of the labor invested the item has increased in value $6, but the labor itself cost $3. The labor-power is equal to the increase in value that occurs as a result of the labor, or $6. The laborer, however, sells his labor-power, valued at $6, for $3 thereby making the capitalist a profit of $3. The capitalist, therefore, makes profit on the basis of purchasing the labor-power of workers at less than its worth.

Marx decries the development of wage-labor as another form of oppression by using this concept of labor-power as the economic argument. The laborer is being oppressed by the capitalist by virtue of the latter profiting on the back of the former – by turning the labor-power of workers into a commodity. This would seem to indicate that Marx believed that in previous times the exchange of labor was more equitable.

“Introducing a concept of real, as opposed to nominal, inequality of income or wealth suggests some historical reinterpretations, buttressed by a closer look at consumption by the rich. The purchasing powers of different income classes depend on how relative prices move. The influence of relative prices on real inequality was greater in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries than in the twentieth. Between 1500 and about 1800, staple food and fuels became dearer, while luxury goods, especially servants, became cheaper, greatly widening the inequality of lifestyles. Peace, industrialization, and globalization reversed this inegalitarian price effect in the nineteenth century.[vii]

 Economies have existed since the earliest of times – literally from the development of the first household or the trading of one item for another. The word economy can be traced back to the Greek word oikonomos, “one who manages a household,” derived from oikos, “house,” and nemein, “to manage.”[viii] Essentially it represents the acquisition, the retention and/or the management of needed items. There is still argument as to which method of acquisition occurred first, trade or theft. Was the first transaction one in which the holder of one tangible asset, let’s say tools, traded with the possessor of another, food? Or was it one that prompted the most dominant person to overpower or kill the lesser and take what was needed. Despite which came first, both have played significant parts in the development of humanity. It soon became apparent to those that took items by domination that the original possessor may have some value as well, and slavery was born. Slavery is an economic system that has been in existence for virtually all of human history, and when wage-labor as a form of domination is compared to it, wage-labor pales as a form of oppressive behavior. If Marx’s formula for determining the gap between the value of labor and that of labor-power are applied to any time during the development of slavery into the serfdom that preceded the Industrial Revolution, it will be seen that even early capitalism indeed lessened the disparity.

In Marx’s view the labor-power of the worker represents the only increase in value an object has over the cost of its raw materials, combined with the allocated costs of equipment and utilities. There is, in Marx’s opinion, no value that should be applied to the effort of originating a business concept, developing it into a going concern, assuming the risk of financial loss, or ongoing management of the business entity. This is the effort of the capitalist. In reality, if any other body replaced the capitalist, this effort would still exist and would still represent value. On the larger scale, Marx’s economic view of labor left no place for the labor of leading a company or a country. This is one area in which Marxist philosophy could never be practically applied. In communist society as it has existed there has always been a layer of leaders that get some share of the general welfare (in reality a larger share than the proletariat), but that do not generate additional income into that welfare. Without this effort, however, organization cannot work – anarchy would be the result. Administration has expense and function, but rarely generates income. Any form of organization or structure beyond one based purely on volunteerism, therefore, would require structure that Marx would view as oppressive.

 To be continued or go to Table of Contents

[i] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, On Religion, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1964.

[ii] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, “Bourgeois and Proletarians” from Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume one, p. 98 – 137, Samuel Moore, translator in cooperation with Fredrick Engels, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org), <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm&gt;, accessed 12/7/08.

[iii] Ibid, Chapter 1, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Pope Alexander VI, The Bull Inter Caetera, May 4, 1493, “Resources for Indigenous Cultures around the World”, Native Web homepage, <http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-inter-caetera.html&gt;, accessed 12/5/02.

[vi] Marx, Karl, “Wage Labour and Capital” (the original 1891 pamphlet), Fredrick Engels, translator, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, April 5-8 and 11, 1849, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org), <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/index.htm&gt;, accesses 12/7/02.

[vii]Linder, Peter H., Hoffman Philip T., Jacks, David,  Levin, Patricia A., “Prices and Real Inequality in Europe since 1500”, Abstract Archives web page, Economic History Services web page – EH.net,   <http://www.eh.net/lists/archives/abstracts/may-2001/0001.php&gt; accessed 12/2/02.

[viii] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.


4 Responses to “Marx on Religion & its Role in Oppression (Part 1)”

  1. February 1, 2009 at 6:01 PM

    Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

  2. 2 Rich Williams
    October 18, 2009 at 2:12 AM

    While I am very impressed by most of this analysis, I am not sure I entirely agree with your conclusion:

    “Marx’s argument was that, in order to remove the conditions of oppression that made this illusion necessary, the source of the comforting illusion, or painkiller, had to be first removed. Marx considered the abolition of religion necessary in order that people find real happiness.”

    Rather, I believe the correct interpretation of Marx’s argument is that because religion is a product of oppressive conditions, it cannot be abolished by a society that created those conditions without essentially abolishing that society and its conditions. In essence, therefore, he is arguing that the replacement of capitalism by communism will result in the abolition of religion, since the masses will be on the correct path to true happiness and thus will not require the illusionn provided by religion.

  3. 3 Yolanda Dickey
    November 28, 2010 at 10:13 AM

    love this essay. trying to do a paper on this need help.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. 4 Secret
    January 23, 2011 at 10:54 PM

    thank. you. i. love. you. Marx= gibberish; you, on the other hand, make sense. thank. you.

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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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