Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Changes in Marxist attitudes toward religion and the view taken of Marxism's own historical role have influenced Marxist theorizing as well as the quasi-religious uses made of Marxian doctrine. The topic of Marxism and religion can involve either an analysis of Marxian theories of religion or a study of Marxism as a functional equivalent of religion. The two are difficult to disentangle. Moreover, although Marxists have often distinguished between the oppressive role of established churches and the emancipatory possibilities of religious movements, they have historically linked their own worldview to both.

The positivist thrust of German Social Democracy fostered little sympathy for religion, although Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky each wrote books on the role of religion in Reformation and Renaissance Europe, and Kautsky's Foundations of Christianity (International Publishers 1925 [1908]) discussed the influence of Roman socioeconomic conditions on early Christianity. The Austro-Marxists were more sympathetic to religion, partly in the hope of attracting the large Roman Catholic working populations. Their neo-Kantianism also encouraged moral theorizing and made greater room for religious speculation.

Lenin wrote little about religion and viewed it primarily as an impediment to political action. However, his book Materialism and Emperio-Criticism (Foreign Languages Publishing 1920 [1908]) attacked current "subjectivist" epistemologies and the cover that they provided for the reintroduction of religion. Trotsky approvingly analyzed the parallel, now commonly made, between the disciplined Puritan and Jesuit "parties" and the contemporary Bolsheviks, while other Soviet Marxists either saw a more positive role for religious ideals as a road to Socialism or elevated Scientific Socialism itself into a new "religion."

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed a suggestive treatment of religion in his Prison Notebooks (Lawrence & Wishart 1971 [1948-1951]). His broad definition of ideological hegemony frequently included reference to religious ideas and elites. The distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals, in his theory of intellectuals, allowed him to discuss both the conservative and the revolutionary roles of religious elites. He analyzed early Medieval and Reformation Christianity, as well as modern Roman Catholicism, especially in their relationships to current Italian conditions. His discussion of the ways in which disaffected members of established religious elites (e.g., Savonarola and Luther) attack hegemonic institutions in the name of new ideals and organizations is particularly interesting.

By contrast, the Frankfurt School produced no sustained analysis of religion. Its members demonstrated a sympathy for religion as a repository of unfulfilled ideals (e.g., Horkheimer) and a source of theological motifs for their writings (e.g., Adorno and Benjamin). Only marginal members, such as Erich Fromm (in The Dogma of Christ , Routledge 1963 [1930]) and Franz Borkenau (in his study of feudal and capitalist worldviews), wrote works systematically linking religion to changing societal circumstances.

Among later Marxists, Lucien Goldmann (The Hidden God , Routledge 1964) offered a valuable analysis of Pascal's life and thought, one influenced by Lukács's Marxism and modified by categories drawn from Piaget. He established structural homologies between social classes and styles of thought and saw the "tragic vision" of Pascal and the Jansenists as the worldview of an administrative class yoked, yet historically opposed, to the monarchy's increasing power. Goldmann's work stands out among Marxist accounts of religion for its theoretical innovations and its thorough and sensitive treatment of historical texts.

Other Marxian-inspired efforts in the study of religion include those of Houtart and Lemercinier, two Catholic thinkers, who have adapted Marxian ideas effectively to the study of Asian religious traditions, and Bryan Turner, who has offered a "materialist" theory of religion.

The rapprochement of Marxism and Christianity among eastern European intellectuals in the postwar era (e.g., Leszek Kolakowski) and the amalgam of Marxism and Christianity in the social reform efforts of Liberation Theology in Latin America since the 1960s (e.g., Guttiérez) are only two examples of the continuing mutual fertilization of Marxism and religion. With the demise of world communism, Marxism's new, yet not unfamiliar, situation is likely to allow its proponents once again to forge links with religion.

Donald A. Nielsen


F. Houtart and G. Lemercinier, The Great Asiatic Religions (Louvain: Université Catholique, 1980)

L. Kolakowski, Main Currents in Marxism (New York: Oxford University Press,1978)

D. McLellan, Marxism and Religion (New York: Harper, 1987)

B. Turner, Religion and Social Theory (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500