Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1818-1883) Social economist, born in Trier, Germany. Marx's father was a lawyer who, because his Jewish religion caused him to be deprived of social and occupational mobility, decided to convert himself and his children to Protestantism. (His wife converted much later after her mother's death.)

After university studies at Bonn and Berlin, with a doctorate from Jena in 1841, Marx assumed the editorship of the Reinische Zeitung , a newspaper opposed to the ruling political system. Because of his socialist perspective, Marx had to flee Germany. For a while he lived in Paris, where in 1848 he and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto and participated in the 1848-1849 revolution. After its defeat, Marx again had to flee and settled in London, where he began his studies in political economy that led to the publication of Capital . He lived in London until his death.

Theory of Religion

Marx's theory of religion (Marx and Engels 1975:38 f) must be viewed as an aspect of his general theory of society. Like many others in his era, Marx too was critical of religion. Unlike them, however, Marx did not seek to criticize the logic of religion as a set of beliefs. Rather, he proposed that religion reflects society, therefore any criticism of religion must ipso facto be a criticism of society itself. "Thus 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 ." Religion for Marx is a human product. "Man makes religion, religion doesn't make man. Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again." In short, what Marx proposes is that religion does not reflect man's true consciousness. Religion, as Marx sees it, is a false consciousness; religion is the product of men, the product of those in power—those who control the productive process.

Religion comes to divert people's attention from their miseries, which are the consequences of exploitation.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also 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 condition. It is the opium of the people.

To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.

This passage clearly illustrates Marx's view that religion is not the creation of the bourgeoisie but the resulting conditions of the historical systems of exploitation. Given that religion has existed long before capitalism, its clear that, even from Marx's view, this is not the product of capitalism. It is the natural consequence of distress, which includes both transvaluation and ressentiment .

Both Marx and Engels renounced the anarchists such as the Blanquists and DŘhring who sought to use coercive methods against religion. For Marx and Engels, religion cannot be eliminated until the social and political conditions that foster it are eliminated.

A concomitant factor is the development of religion as a compensatory mechanism. This is achieved through the process of transvaluation (Nietzsche 1927 [1887]). This is the process by which those of the lower class when faced with their powerless conditions redefine them and attribute a positive value to those conditions (see Mannheim 1936: 45 f). This, for instance, is best exemplified in the Christian teachings of meekness, turning the other cheek, and the desirability of poverty.

But are not people aware of their interests? Are not people aware that religion serves the interests of the ruling classes? The answer is obviously—No. It is no because people are socialized into believing that what they know is the truth. Marx proposes that religion internalizes in people a set of beliefs that are contrary to their interest but are in the interest of the ruling class. In short, it teaches obedience to authority as a condition for achieving future happiness through salvation. Both HalÚvy (1971 [1906]) and Thompson (1966), for instance, suggest that the rise of Methodism in England was a primary force that dissipated political fermentation that, in their opinion, otherwise would have led to revolution. In fact, Marx was even skeptical of Christian socialism's ability to serve the interests of the proletariat. He comments that just "as the parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord, so has Clerical Socialism with Feudal Socialism. . . . Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priests consecrate the heartburn of the aristocrats" (Marx and Engels 1968 [1848]: 55). In the Communist Manifesto , Marx suggests that religion, like morality and philosophy, must be eliminated if we are to achieve a new political and economic existence. "Communism," he and Engels write, "abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on new basis" (1968:52). The reason for this is the historical evidence that regardless of previous changes in the productive systems, religion has always supported the maintenance of the legitimacy of the exploiter and exploited. Thus, to create a truly free society, religion as a tie to the past must be eliminated.

Religion as the Social Superstructure

To Marx, religion is one facet of that whole that he called the superstructure and that is based on and affected by the infrastructure . Differences in religion occur with changes in the infrastructure. Thus Marx and Engels proposed that earlier (precapitalist) religious beliefs arose from primitive man's helplessness in his struggle against nature, while in the class society it is rooted in his struggle against man. In man's quest and struggle against his exploiters, the working masses experience a different form of helplessness—and this experience is what changed religion and introduced the belief in a better life in a hereafter, the alleged reward for his earthly suffering. Moreover, Engels suggests in "Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity" (in Marx and Engels 1975) that Christianity, with its concept of salvation, reflects the outlook of utterly despairing people, of slaves who lost their battles with their masters, of indigent people and Greeks and other nationalities who lost wealth and status.

Religion as a Dominant Ideology

In The German Ideology , Marx (Marx and Engels 1976 [c. 1845]: 67) writes,

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. . . . The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self evident that they do this in its whole range , hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the idea of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.

One apparatus of the transmission of ideas is the church through religion. Religion adds legitimacy to ideas (by making them sacred) that enhance the ruling class's economic position and their hegemony. (This view has been challenged in Abercombie et al. 1980.) The influence religion exerts on the lower classes is only possible to the extent that they constitute a class by itself (eine Klasse en Sich) , namely, a class that has not developed a class consciousness. However, when a class develops consciousness, becomes aware of its own interests and become a class for itself (eine Klasse fŘr Sich) , then the consciousness it develops reflects its own interests.

Marx and Judaism

Marx's opposition to Christianity was extremely mild compared with hostility to Judaism. While on the one hand his hostility toward Jews may reflect a general anti-Semitism that pervaded Germany, and in fact made the mid-twentieth-century Holocaust possible, on the other hand it also reflects his hostility to his mother and her family, the Phillips, who were wealthy Dutch manufacturers. His hostile view of Jews and Judaism is expressed in 1843 under the title "On the Jewish Question" (Marx 1977 [1843]). This essay is Marx's criticism of Bruno Bauer's study on the emancipation of Jews in Germany. In the first part of the essay, Marx seeks to solve the problem of the duality of egoistic individualism that can be expressed in the "civil society" and the political individual as a member of the state. In the second section, Marx turns to the question of Jewish emancipation. Here he advocates the need to emancipate the Christian world, which made the civil world possible, from Judaism. The real Jew, in contrast to the abstract Jew, is a selfish huckster whose god is Mammon.

This hostile attitude was not due to his lack of knowledge of Jewish history. Feuer (1969: 36 f.) writes of Marx, "He knew the history of the Spanish and German Jews and their decisions to resist economic determination and to sacrifice their goods for their religious loyalties." Marx's hatred of Jews in general and Dutch Jews in particular is so intense, so dogmatic, that it led him, according to Feuer, to the verge of a conspiracy theory of history that cannot be but a "reaction-formation," an ego-defense mechanism of an insecure person.

In spite of a number of problems with his ideology and personality, Marx's theory of society and of religion, while in many ways controversial, has nonetheless provided great insight into the functioning of society. While one may not accept his political views, his social theory based on the interaction between the social infrastructure and superstructure has been and continues to be an important departing point for the sociological approach to the study of society and religion.

Eugen Schoenfeld


N. Abercombie et al., The Dominant Ideology Thesis (London: Allen & Unwin, 1980)

L. S. Feuer, Marx and the Intellectuals (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969)

╔. HalÚvy, The Birth of Methodism in England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971 [1906])

K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936)

K. Marx, "On the Jewish Question," in Karl Marx , ed. D. McLellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977 [1843]): 39-62

K. Marx and F. Engels, "Manifesto of the Communist Party" in Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968 [1848]): 35-71

K. Marx and F. Engels, On Religion (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975)

K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976 [c. 1845])

F. Nietzsche, "The Genealogy of Morals," in The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1927 [1887]): 617-807

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966).

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