More than opium: Marxism and religion

Issue: 119

John Molyneux

About 20 years ago I spoke on “Marxism and religion” at the Socialist Workers Party Easter Rally in Skegness. I began, roughly, with the words, “Today, in Britain, religion—fortunately—is not a major political issue.” Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Today religion, or rather one religion in particular, namely Islam, is at the centre of political debate.

Scarcely a day passes without a news item raising the alarm about alleged “hate preaching” imams, or a mosque being taken over by “fundamentalists”, or an opinion piece about the deeply flawed nature of Islam, or a radio discussion about whether “moderate” Muslims are doing enough to combat “the extremists” and prevent Muslim youth from being “radicalised”, or a TV programme on the plight of Muslim women, or a scare story about some stupidity committed in the name of Islam somewhere in the world. As I start to write this article I see the following report in the Independent on Sunday:

Islamic extremism in Britain is creating communities which are “no-go areas” for non-Muslims, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, warned yesterday. Bishop Nazir-Ali says non-Muslims face a hostile reception in places dominated by the ideology of Islamic radicals.

Regardless of the merits or accuracy of the individual story or claim, and this is a particularly absurd one, the relentless flow of this kind of comment and coverage has turned Islam into a religion under siege. This incessant problematisation of Islam and demonisation of Muslims have created the phenomenon now widely referred to as Islamophobia.

For readers of this journal, it should be no mystery why this has occurred. It is not an expression of some visceral Christian hostility to Islam stretching back to the Crusades or the conflict with the Ottoman Empire (even though these atavisms are sometimes mobilised ideologically). It is because the majority of the people sitting on the world’s most important reserves of oil and natural gas happen to be Muslim and, secondarily, because, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, much of these peoples’ resistance to imperialism has found expression in Islamist form. If the people of the Middle East and central Asia had been predominantly Buddhist or Tibet held oilfields comparable to those of Saudi Arabia or Iraq, we would now be dealing with “Buddhophobia”. Seeping out from the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA and Downing Street, coursing through the sewers of Fox News, CNN, the Sun and the Daily Mail would be the notion that, great religion though it undoubtedly was, there was some underlying and persistent flaw in Buddhism. “Intellectuals” such as Samuel Huntington, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis would be on hand to explain that, despite its embrace by naive hippies in the 1960s, Buddhism was an essentially reactionary creed characterised by its deepseated rejection of modernity and Western democratic values, and its fanatical commitment to feudalism, theocracy, misogyny and homophobia.

However, the fact that it has happened—the fact that Islamophobia has been developed, nationally and internationally, as the principal ideological cover and justification for imperialism and war (as straightforward racism was in the 18th and 19th centuries)—has enormously increased the importance of a correct theoretical understanding of, and political orientation towards, religion in its many different forms. Indeed it can be said that a deficient, mechanical or one-sided understanding of the Marxist analysis of religion has been a substantial contributing factor to a number of left individuals and groups completely losing their former political bearings and ending up as left apologists for imperialism.

The most notorious example of this is, of course, Christopher Hitchens, who has written a book on religion, God is Not Great (of which more later), and whose trajectory from leftist intellectual and radical critic of the system to “critical” supporter of George Bush has been precipitous and extreme (though in Hitchens’ case one cannot help suspecting that material inducements have played a larger role in his race to the right than any mere theoretical error). Other examples include members of the Euston Group, such as Norman Geras, and, among left groups, the French organisation Lutte Ouvrière, whose hostility to the hijab turned them into temporary allies of the French imperialist state against its most oppressed women citizens,1 and the sorry case of the semi-Zionist and Islamophobic Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

At the same time, and not by coincidence, in the US and Britain there has arisen a verbally militant anti-religious, pro-atheist campaign, spearheaded by the biologist Richard Dawkins and accompanied by the aforementioned Hitchens, the philosopher Daniel Dennett and others. A critical examination of how these people present their arguments against religion will bring out important features of the Marxist position. But first I want to set out the fundamental principles underlying the Marxist analysis of religion, beginning not with Marx’s direct comments on religion but with the basic propositions of Marxist philosophy.

Materialism and religion

Marxist philosophy is materialist. According to Frederick Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy:

The great basic question of all, especially of latter-day philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being… The question of the position of thinking in relation to being…in relation to the church was sharpened into this: did God create the world or has the world existed for all time? Answers to this question split the philosophers into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of the mind over nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other…comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.2

Marxism, argues Engels, not only stands firmly in the materialist camp but is where “the materialist world outlook was taken really seriously for the first time and was carried through consistently…in all relevant domains of knowledge”.3

Marxist materialism, reduced to its essentials, involves commitment to the following propositions:

  1. The material world exists independently of human (or any other) consciousness.
  2. Real, if not total or absolute, knowledge of the world is possible and has, indeed, been attained.
  3. Human beings are part of nature, but a distinct part.
  4. The material world does not derive, in the first instance, from human thought; human thought derives from the material world.

Propositions (1) and (2) correspond to the presumptions and findings of modern science, and have attained the status of common sense. This is because they are confirmed in practice, millions or billions of times every day, as are most of the findings of science. Proposition (3) also corresponds to the findings of modern science, especially those of Charles Darwin, and modern paleontology and anthropaleontology, but was, as it happens, articulated by Marx before Darwin:

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature… The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men. Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.4

Proposition (4) is the most distinctively Marxist and the least widely shared. Many people who take a materialist view of the relationship between humans and nature take an idealist position on the relationship between ideas and material conditions, and on the role of ideas in society, history and politics. Almost without thinking they may accept that “the Cold War was fundamentally a clash of ideologies” or that “capitalism is based on the idea of economic growth”. For this reason Proposition (4) is the one Marx and Engels insist on most strongly and often:

Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc—real active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces… Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence… In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven… We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.5

Does it require deep insight to comprehend that people’s ideas, opinions and conceptions, in a word, their consciousness changes with every change in their life conditions, their social relations and their social being?6

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.7

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation on which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must therefore be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.8

Thus it is clear that a definite attitude to religion is present, both implicitly and explicitly, in the most fundamental ideas of Marxism. Moreover it should also be clear that this attitude has a dual character. On the one hand, for the thoroughgoing and consistent Marxist, as for the thoroughgoing and consistent materialist, religious faith, in all its many forms, is excluded. Religious ideas, like all other ideas, are social and historical products. They are produced by human beings, and this necessarily precludes religious belief, since religious ideas claim to transcend and take priority over nature, human beings and history. By the same token, philosophical idealism and religion are intimately linked. If mind has priority over matter, whose mind can that be but the mind of god? If ideas are the ultimate driving force in history, where do those ideas come from if not the mind of god? And is not god, as in the terminology of Georg Hegel, “the absolute idea”? As the Bible puts it, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was god.” This is why Leon Trotsky, at the very end of his life, wrote that he would die “a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist”.9

On the other hand the same Marxism clearly demands a materialist explanation of religion. It is not enough to view either religion as a whole or any particular religion as simply a delusion or folly that happens to have gripped the minds of millions for centuries. A common habit of less thoughtful religious believers (especially religious believers in imperialist countries) is to mock or dismiss as superstition the religious beliefs of others (especially so-called “natives”) on the grounds that they are obviously irrational or contrary to well known laws of nature, without realising that exactly the same applies to their own beliefs—in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the feeding of the 5,000 or whatever.

But Marxism does not just generalise this mistake by pointing to the equal stupidity of the cargo cultist and the Catholic, the Rastafarian and the Anglican. It requires an analysis of the social roots of religion in general and of specific religious beliefs; an understanding of the real human needs, social and psychological, and the real historical conditions, to which such beliefs and doctrines correspond. A Marxist needs to be able to understand why a belief in the divinity and immortality of Haile Selassie could inspire a musician of the calibre of Bob Marley in Trenchtown, Jamaica, in the 1960s, or why the belief in the divinity and immortality of Jesus inspired an artist (and mathematician) of the calibre of Piero della Francesca in 15th century Florence.

If we now turn to Marx’s most important statement directly on religion, the first couple of pages of The Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,10 we find it to be a condensed expression of all these elements. It begins with the assertion, “For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.”

By this Marx means that the combined work of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment (especially the French encyclopaedists) and the Bible criticism of German secular left Hegelians has demolished the claims of Christianity and the Bible to offer a factually true account of nature or history, or even an internally coherent theology. Moreover this work was necessary and progressive because a genuinely critical analysis of the world was not possible until human thought was liberated from the fetters of religious dogma. But this single sentence is all Marx says on this aspect of the question. Taking the factual refutation of religion as given, he proceeds rapidly to his main point, the analysis of the social basis of religion: “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: man makes religion, religion does not make man.” This is the starting point. What follows is a paragraph of exceptional density, typical of Marx, in which a PhD’s worth of insights are compressed into a few sentences:

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 realisation 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.

Thus religion is a response to human alienation—man who has “lost himself”. But this is not an abstract or ahistorical condition; rather it is a product of certain specific social conditions. This society produces religion, an inverted view of the world in which humans bow to an imaginary god of their own making, because it is an inverted world in which people are dominated by the products of their own labour. But religion is not just a random collection of superstitions or false beliefs; it is the “general theory” of this alienated world, the way in which alienated people try to make sense of their alienated lives and alien society. Therefore it performs the rich array of diverse functions listed by Marx: “encyclopaedic compendium”, “logic in popular form”, etc. And therefore to struggle against religion is to struggle against that world “whose spiritual aroma is religion”—this world of alienation in which people need religion.

Two points need to be made about this passage. The first is that it is almost universally ignored by commentators offering summaries or explanations of Marx’s views on religion. This may be because they have not read it (unlikely) or have not understood it (more likely), or (most likely) because it is radically incompatible with the attempt to reduce the Marxist theory of religion to a simple one-dimensional analysis such as, “Marx argues that religion is a tool of the ruling class” or “according to Marx religion functions to pacify the toiling masses”. Of course, Marx does say this kind of thing about religion but he says much else besides. To reduce the complex totality of his theory to just one of its strands is effectively to falsify it. The second point is that Marx is so keen on its conclusion that he repeats it again and again in a veritable storm of metaphors and aphorisms.11

However, before concluding his argument on religion, Marx inserts one more highly significant paragraph:

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 circumstances. It is the opium of the people.12

This passage is much better known than the previous one, but that is largely because of its much quoted final phrase (often presented as the essence or the totality of Marx’s analysis). In fact it is the first sentence that is probably the most interesting and most important for understanding the political role of religion. Marx’s insistence that religion is both an expression of suffering and a protest against it is the key point, giving the lie to any analysis which focuses only on religion’s narcotic and soporific effects. It also points in the direction of the important historical fact (to which I shall return) that there have been many progressive, radical and even revolutionary movements that have either taken a religious form, had a religious coloration or been led by people of religious faith.

In the course of their work Marx and Engels made numerous references to and analyses of religion. In particular the young Marx wrote On the Jewish Question, a polemic in favour of Jewish emancipation;13 Engels contributed a number of interesting studies of the historical development and role of Christianity, particularly in The Peasant War in Germany, Anti-Dühring, the introduction to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity, and The History of Early Christianity.14 However, all these comments have one thing in common: they never take religious doctrines, sects, churches, movements and conflicts at face value, nor treat them as simple follies or deceptions practised by the priests, but regard them always as distorted reflections and expressions of real social needs and interests. A few extracts will illustrate the point.

From The Peasant War in Germany:

In the so-called religious wars of the 16th century, very positive material class interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by conditions of the time in Germany. The revolutionary opposition to feudalism was alive throughout all the Middle Ages. According to conditions of the time, it appeared either in the form of mysticism, as open heresy, or of armed insurrection.

From the introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

Calvin’s creed was one fit for the boldest of the bourgeoisie of his time. His predestination doctrine was the religious expression of the fact that in the commercial world of competition success or failure does not depend upon a man’s activity or cleverness, but upon circumstances uncontrollable by him.

From The History of Early Christianity:

Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome…

[The risings of peasants and plebeians in the Middle Ages], like all mass movements of the Middle Ages, were bound to wear the mask of religion and appeared as the restoration of early Christianity from spreading degeneration… But behind the religious exaltation there was every time a very tangible worldly interest.

And, incidentally, from the same work, a footnote on Islam:

Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, ie, on one hand, to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other, to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the “law”. The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required, a new Mahdi arises and the game starts again from the beginning. That is what happened from the conquest campaigns of the African Almoravids and Almohads in Spain to the last Mahdi of Khartoum who so successfully thwarted the English… All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes.

The point here is not the historical truth or falsity of all or any of these specific observations, but the consistent methodology underlying them.

Dawkins, Hitchens and Eagleton

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who first came to prominence with his book The Selfish Gene, and thereafter built himself a considerable reputation and career as a populariser of science. In 2006 he published The God Delusion, a full frontal assault on religion and defence of atheism, which became an international bestseller, generated huge controversy, especially in the United States, and attracted plaudits from sources as diverse as Ian McEwan, Michael Frayn, the Spectator, the Daily Mail and Stephen Pinker.

I should say at the outset that I do not at all share the apparently widespread admiration of Dawkins’s style and intellect. Reading Dawkins after Marx is like going from Leo Tolstoy or James Joyce to Kingsley Amis or Agatha Christie. Where Marx packs a book into a paragraph, Dawkins expands a short essay into a large book. In fact all 460 odd pages of The God Delusion do not take us intellectually beyond what Marx summed up in the first sentence of his analysis in 1843, namely that the criticism of religion is essentially complete. What Dawkins offers is an “Enlightenment”, empiricist, rationalist refutation of religion—a “scientific”, ie positivist, demonstration that there is a complete lack of factual evidence to support what he calls “the god hypothesis” and that, on the contrary, the evidence makes it almost (if not absolutely) certain that god does not exist. This is supplemented by logical refutations of the various arguments advanced for god’s existence ranging from the venerable “proofs” of Thomas Aquinas and “Pascal’s Wager” to the bizarre recent speculations of one Stephen Unwin, and numerous examples of the follies and crimes perpetrated in the name of religion. I suppose there are some people for whom this will be revelatory and others who may enjoy it because it makes them feel smarter than the ignorant masses who swallow these superstitions, but theoretically there is nothing new here, indeed very little that is not at least 200 years old.

The only real exception to this lies in Dawkins’s attempt to explain why religion is so widespread in human society, but this attempt is a rather miserable failure. Being a committed evolutionary biologist he feels obliged to frame his explanation in terms of genetic advantage in the process of natural selection, but his blanket hostility to religion also obliges him to deny that religion can be advantageous for individual or societal survival. He tries to wriggle out of this contradiction by suggesting that religion is a side-effect of a characteristic that he claims is advantageous in the struggle for survival, namely a propensity for children to believe what they are told by their elders. Clearly this does not withstand criticism. First, the extent to which youthful suggestibility outweighs youthful scepticism, especially into adolescence, is debatable. Second, it is equally debatable whether such suggestibility is, on balance, advantageous. Third, it seems highly likely that both the extent and advantageousness of suggestibility are massively socially conditioned and very different in different societies. Finally, like any theory that explains the behaviour or beliefs of children by the behaviour or beliefs of their parents, it is left with the problem of explaining the parents’ disposition in the first place if it is to avoid being caught in an infinite regress.

As Marx pointed out, “The educators themselves must be educated”.15 In other words Dawkins’s explanation turns out to be no explanation at all. Moreover it is symptomatic of his whole approach that neither in this section nor any anywhere else in The God Delusion does the author find time seriously to consider the Marxist theory of religion.

However, intellectual unoriginality and mediocrity are by no means the main objection to this book. (It would be churlish to cavil so over a work that was second rate but reasonably sound.) The main objection is to the reactionary political conclusions that flow from the weak methodology. As Marx argued in relation to the German philosopher Feuerbach, mechanical materialism invariably leaves the door open to idealism, and Dawkins is a particularly clear example of this. Without noticing it, he flip flops from a vulgar materialist genetic determinism in his view of human nature and behaviour in the abstract, to a rampant idealism in his view of the role of religion in concrete historical circumstances. Again and again he makes the mistake of assuming that when people do something in the name of religion it really is religion that is determining their behaviour. The following passage from his essay “The Improbability of God” epitomises his approach:

Much of what people do is done in the name of god. Irishmen blow each other up in his name. Arabs blow themselves up in his name. Imams and ayatollahs oppress women in his name. Celibate popes and priests mess up people’s sex lives in his name. Jewish shohets cut live animals’ throats in his name. The achievements of religion in past history—bloody crusades, torturing inquisitions, mass-murdering conquistadors, culture-destroying missionaries, legally enforced resistance to each new piece of scientific truth until the last possible moment—are even more impressive. And what has it all been in aid of? I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that the answer is absolutely nothing at all. There is no reason for believing that any sort of gods exist and quite good reason for believing that they do not exist and never have. It has all been a gigantic waste of time and a waste of life. It would be a joke of cosmic proportions if it weren’t so tragic.16

In fact this is no more than a souped up version of the familiar nostrum that lots of wars are caused by religion. It will not stand a moment’s critical scrutiny. Let us take the example of Ireland. The view that the conflict in Ireland was essentially or primarily about religion is both manifestly false and plainly reactionary. It is false even in terms of the declared statements and consciousness of the principal protagonists. If many, though by no means all, Republicans were Catholics, no Republican would have said (or believed) that they were fighting for Catholicism; they fought for an independent, united Ireland. Things were less clear on the Unionist side where religious bigotry played a much larger role; nevertheless the principal declared goal was a “national” one, namely remaining “British”. Moreover, it is abundantly clear that behind these conflicting national aspirations lay not religious differences about the doctrine of transubstantiation or the fallibility of the pope but real economic, social and political issues of exploitation, poverty, discrimination and oppression. To see the conflict as basically about religion was reactionary because it fitted with the racist stereotype of the Irish as primitive and stupid (after all “we” gave up fighting about religion centuries ago) and helped to legitimise British rule as a neutral arbiter between warring religious factions.

To his credit, Dawkins opposed the Iraq war, and politically he is no friend of George Bush, but, in the context of the “war on terror”, his approach to religion becomes, even if unintentionally, even more reactionary. For it is central to the ideology of the neocons, Bush, Cheney, Blair and Brown that Muslim hostility to “the West” is unprovoked and unjustified. It is not seen as a reaction or response to Western imperialism, exploitation and domination, but rather an offensive religion-based campaign aimed at destroying, conquering or perhaps converting the non-Muslim world.

Some see these aims as inherent in mainstream Islam,17 while for Bush, Blair and Co it derives from an “evil” misinterpretation or perversion of Islam, but in both cases the motivation is religious. It is an interpretation which flies in the face of the declared statements of both Al Qaida, who made explicit political demands such as the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia, and the 7/7 bombers in London, who said they were motivated by what was being done to Iraq, and defies reason. The notion that America, Britain or any big Western nation could be destroyed, conquered or, indeed, converted by planting bombs on the underground or flying planes into buildings is so utterly absurd that it cannot be the real motive for any sustained campaign. The idea that the US could be induced by a terrorist campaign to stop supporting Israel or to get out of Afghanistan is also mistaken but it is not completely implausible. For Bush, Blair and Co, however, the “religious” interpretation is mandatory, as without it they would be forced to concede the culpability of imperialism and of their own policies—and the Dawkins approach dovetails with this and reinforces it:

“Mindless” may be a suitable word for the vandalising of a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on 11 September… It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns.18

Similar to Dawkins, but worse, is Christopher Hitchens. His book, God is Not Great, is on an even lower intellectual level than The God Delusion, with a more arbitrary combination of self-serving personal anecdote and rambling journalistic polemic. Its adaptation of the atheist case to Islamophobia is embodied in the title (a mocking reference to the Muslim cry, “God is Great!”) and blatant throughout. I suppose out of deference to his radical past he actually quotes, approvingly, a couple of the key paragraphs of Marx on religion. He then proceeds to ignore their meaning completely. In the key section, “Religion Kills”, he takes us on a whistlestop tour of six strife-torn cities—Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad—in each case offering a swift summation of the conflict exclusively in terms of religious hatreds, without any reference to history, imperialism, oppression or class. It is a travesty of socio-political analysis. The “analysis” of Palestine is especially striking:

I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel’s more polished and thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said, was the ease of its solubility… Two peoples of roughly equivalent size had a claim to the same land. The solution was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass? And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything.

This is risible, but when Hitchens says, and I quote verbatim from YouTube, “I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion”,19 he is also saying the cause is not the material facts of capitalism, imperialism, inequality, exploitation or class conflict, just a mistaken idea people have lodged in their heads.

Vigorously opposing the arguments of Dawkins and Hitchens does not, however, involve diluting in any way the classical Marxist critique of religion or opening the door to some kind of theoretical compromise with religious ideas. At this point we need to leave the odious Hitchens for the far more congenial Terry Eagleton, who provides an example of what should be avoided. Eagleton is an eminent cultural and literary theorist, friendly to Marxism, who, in the past, attacked the racism and other bigotries of Philip Larkin. He recently distinguished himself by denouncing the Islamophobia of his academic colleague Martin Amis. In 2006 he wrote a highly critical review of The God Delusion for the London Review of Books. Although Eagleton’s review advances some of the same arguments as this article, for example in relation to Ireland, the general terms of his critique are not Marxist. His principal argument is that Dawkins has attacked fundamentalist religion, Christian and Islamic, as if it represents all religion, while ignoring more sophisticated “liberal” theology of which Dawkins is largely ignorant:

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’ views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?20

As a criticism of Dawkins’s book this has some validity, but there are also serious problems here. First, it is not reasonable to argue that it is necessary to master all the ins ands outs of Christian (or Buddhist, or Zoroastrian) theology before one can make an intellectually sound case for atheism and for rejecting theology as such. Second, in demonstrating his understanding of the liberal theologians’ concept of an immaterial, impersonal god of love and tolerance, in contrast to the Old Testament god of vengeance, Eagleton leaves decidedly open the possibility that this liberal god may actually exist, or be worthy of worship. He does the same when he offers his picture of Jesus as proto anti-imperialist revolutionary:

Jesus did not die because he was mad or masochistic, but because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy and justice, as well as at his enormous popularity with the poor, and did away with him to forestall a mass uprising in a highly volatile political situation.21

For a Marxist the loving, caring, impersonal god of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the radical Jesus of Terry Eagleton are both just as much human creations, illusory projections, as the unpleasant bigoted gods of Ian Paisley or Osama Bin Laden.

Religion and socialist politics

To conclude this article I shall outline a brief and rather schematic summary of the principal political conclusions that flow, and have flowed historically, from the foregoing analysis.

First, and contrary to widespread opinion (fostered by widespread misrepresentation), Marxist socialists are absolutely opposed to any idea of banning religion. This is not some new position but was explicitly stated by Engels as far back as 1874 in response to a proposal by followers of the French socialist Louis Blanqui. The reasons given by Engels remain valid to this day:

In order to prove that they are the most radical of all they abolish god by decree as was done in 1793:

“Let the Commune free mankind for ever from the ghost of past misery” (god), “from that cause” (non-existing god a cause!) “of their present misery. There is no room for priests in the Commune; every religious manifestation, every religious organisation must be prohibited.”

And this demand that men should be changed into atheists par ordre du mufti is signed by two members of the Commune who have really had opportunity enough to find out that, first, a vast amount of things can be ordered on paper without necessarily being carried out; and, second, that persecution is the best means of promoting undesirable convictions!22

Far from banning religion, Marxists argue that religion should be a private matter in relation to the state, and complete freedom of religion should prevail under both capitalism and socialism. Lenin spelt this out unambiguously in an article from 1905:

Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, ie, to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated.23

The only sense in which Marxists contemplate the elimination of religion is through its gradual withering away as a result of the disappearance of its underlying social causes—alienation, exploitation, oppression, etc. Marxist socialists are, however, opposed to any state privileges for religion and call for the disestablishment of any or all official state churches (such as the Church of England).

Inevitably the general perception of the Marxist attitude to religion is considerably influenced by the experience of the Stalinist regimes in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea, etc. A systematic investigation of this experience is impossible in this brief article and, hopefully, readers of this journal are well aware that the policies of these regimes were in no way representative of genuine socialism or Marxism. Nevertheless, certain observations are worth making. Stalinist repression of religion is often both exaggerated and misunderstood. It is exaggerated in that, in general, the Stalinist regimes did not repress the main religions or churches but tolerated them and even formed alliances with them, on condition that these churches were politically compliant (which they mainly were). It is misunderstood in that, where religious groups or individuals were persecuted, it was primarily because they were politically troublesome, rather than because of their faith as such. But then these were societies in which all political opposition was suppressed. A broad overview of the “-Communist” states’ treatment of the religious can be found in the last chapter of Paul Siegel’s The Meek and the Militant,24 and an especially useful case study of the Russian Revolution’s dealings with its Muslim minority is provided by Dave Crouch in an earlier issue of this journal.25 Crouch shows how in the early years of the revolution the Bolsheviks adhered strictly to the Leninist principles outlined above and thus met with considerable success in winning Muslims over, whereas the rise of Stalin led to the adoption of increasingly top-down authoritarian policies, including an assault on the veil, which proved disastrous.

In determining their attitude to popular movements with a religious coloration, which are many and varied, Marxists take as their point of departure not the religious beliefs of the movement’s leaders or of its supporters, or the doctrines and theology of the religion concerned, but the political role of the movement, based on the social forces and interests which it represents.

To put this in perspective consider the respective historical roles of Catholicism and Protestantism. In the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period Catholicism was essentially the religion of the feudal aristocracy and therefore almost universally reactionary. By contrast radical Protestantism tended to represent either the rising bourgeoisie or the plebeian elements below and to the left of it. The great rebels and revolutionaries of those times, the Thomas Muenzers, John Lilburnes and Gerard Winstanleys, were passionate Protestants—extremists and fundamentalists in the language of today. But the moment these bourgeois rebels came to power, in the Netherlands and England, they became participants in what Marx called “the primitive accumulation of capital” and thus vicious colonists and slavers. Oliver Cromwell, the revolutionary and regicide in England, became Cromwell the oppressor in Ireland (where his name still lives in infamy), and specifically the oppressor of the Catholic peasantry. Dutch protestant burghers could be the heroes of Europe in the Dutch Revolt but villains in Africa with apartheid. The strongly reactionary role of the Catholic church continued in Europe, especially southern Europe, and saw it give active support for Franco in Spain and strike deals with Mussolini and Hitler. It still continues in attenuated form in the main conservative parties in Italy, Spain and southern Germany today. But the countries in Europe where Catholicism and religion in general remained strongest were Ireland and Poland where the church was able, very moderately but powerfully, to identify itself with opposition to national oppression.

Any socialist looking back to the 17th century will identify immediately with the Protestant rebels and against the Catholic monarchs and emperors. Any socialist looking at Ireland in 1916 or Belfast in the 1970s will identify with the “Catholic” Nationalists, not the “Protestant” Unionists. Any socialist who saw the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland as a conflict between the “backward” Catholics of Gdansk and the “progressive” atheist Communists of the Soviet state ended up on the side of the imperialist oppressor. The same applies today to the Tibet/China conflict and, above all, to the “war on terror” and the struggles in the Middle East.

Many other cases can be adduced to reinforce this argument. Where would a socialist be who decided their political attitude to Malcolm X on the basis of his reactionary religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam, to Bob Marley on the basis of his belief in the divinity of that old tyrant Haile Selassie or even to Hugo Chavez on the basis of his self-proclaimed Catholicism and admiration of the pope? Unfortunately some would-be socialists who have no difficulty grasping this in relation to Chavez or Marley, under the pressure of intense bourgeois propaganda are unable to apply the same approach when the religion in question is Islam. To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically).

It also follows that Marxist socialists do not accept the idea that any of the major religions is inherently, or in terms of its doctrines, more or less progressive than any of the others. For a religion to become “major”, that is to survive over centuries in many locations and different social orders, it is a precondition that its doctrines be capable of almost infinite selection, interpretation and adaptation. Once again, what is decisive is not doctrine but social base in the specific social situation. Thus in the US we find a right wing racist imperialist Christianity in the Moral Majority or the Mormons and a left wing anti-racist anti-war Christian tradition in Martin Luther King. In South Africa there was a pro-apartheid Christianity and an anti-apartheid Christianity; in Latin America there has been a right wing, pro-oligarchy, pro-dictator Catholicism and a leftist “theology of liberation” Catholicism; and, of course, there are a multitude of different, often sharply conflicting, versions of Islam.

The main argument used to justify the notion of Islam as an especially backward religion is, of course, the attitudes to women and homosexuality prevalent in Muslim countries. Those who put this argument need to be reminded that much the same attitudes were prevalent in Western societies until very recently and are still present in the teachings of many Christian churches. But the fundamental flaw in this argument takes us back to the basics of Marxist materialism—the secret of the Muslim Holy Family lies in the earthly Muslim family. It is not Muslim religious consciousness that determines the position of women in Muslim society, but the real position of women that shapes Muslim religious beliefs. Islam was born in the Arabian peninsular, spreading west across North Africa and east across Central Asia. For centuries this great belt has been largely poor, underdeveloped and rural, and to a considerable extent remains so today. Other societies, from Ireland to China, with similar levels of development and similar social structures but different religions, exhibit similar oppression of women and gays.

Finally, there is the question of the relationship of the revolutionary party to religious workers. Any such party operating in a country where religion remains strong among the mass of the population, which is much of the world, must reckon with, indeed count on, the fact that the revolution will be made by workers of whom many will still be religious. The vast mass of workers will be liberated from their religious illusions not by arguments, pamphlets or books, but by participation in the revolutionary struggle, and beyond, in the building of socialism. In such a situation it is incumbent on the party to ensure that religious differences, or differences between the religious and the non-religious, do not obstruct the unity of working class struggle. Moreover, insofar as the party becomes a truly mass party, leading the class in its workplaces and communities, it will inevitably find in its ranks a layer of workers who remain religious or semi-religious. To reject such workers because of their religious illusions would be sectarian and non-materialist. It would be to share the religious/idealist mistake of regarding religion as the most important element in consciousness and consciousness as more important than practice. At the same time, the party must not become a religious party, or party whose policy, strategy or tactics are shaped by religious considerations. Revolutionary victory requires that the party should be guided by the theory that expresses the collective interests and struggle of the working class, namely Marxism. Therefore the party must ensure that on this matter it educates and influences its religious members rather than vice versa.

One revolutionary party working in such a situation was the Bolshevik Party, and its leading theorist, Lenin, wrote on these matters with insight and clarity in his 1909 article “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”. Here are a few extracts:

Marxism is materialism. As such, it is as relentlessly hostile to religion as was the materialism of the 18th century Encyclopaedists or the materialism of Feuerbach… But the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels goes further…for it applies the materialist philosophy to the domain of history….. It says: We must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion.

Why does religion retain its hold?… Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressivist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view… It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way… The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism

Does this mean that educational books against religion are harmful or unnecessary? No, nothing of the kind. It means that Social Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task—the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.

The proletariat in a particular region…is divided, let us assume, into an advanced section of fairly class conscious Social Democrats [the name used by socialist groups in Russia], who are of course atheists, and rather backward workers…who believe in god, go to church, or are even under the direct influence of the local priest… Let us assume furthermore that the economic struggle in this locality has resulted in a strike. It is the duty of a Marxist to place the success of the strike movement above everything else, vigorously to counteract the division of the workers in this struggle into atheists and Christians, vigorously to oppose any such division. Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be both unnecessary and harmful—not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle, which in the conditions of modern capitalist society will convert Christian workers to Social Democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda.

We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social Democratic party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it.26

What these extracts confirm is what this whole article has argued, namely that handling correctly the issue of religion, so vital in the present political situation, is not just a matter of ad hoc judgments or tactics, still less of electoral opportunism, but of understanding the most basic ideas of Marxist dialectical materialism.


1: Boulangé, 2004.

2: Engels, 1989, pp366-367.

3: Engels, 1989, p382.

4: Marx and Engels, 1991, p42.

5: Marx and Engels, 1991, p47.

6: Marx and Engels, 1848.

7: Marx, 1977.

8: Engels, 1883.

9: Trotsky, 1964, p361 (my emphasis).

10: Marx, 1970.

11: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness”; “The criticism of religion is…the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo”; “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower”; “The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth”; etc.

12: Marx’s emphasis.

13: This rather obscure text has been particularly controversial because it has been cited as evidence of Marx’s anti-Semitism. John Rose discusses this in detail in his article in this issue of International Socialism. See also Draper, 1977; Bhattacharyya, 2006.

14: All available in Marx and Engels, 1957.

15: Marx, 1845.

16: Dawkins, 1998.

17: Dawkins himself seems to hold this view or something like it-see Dawkins, 2007, pp346-347.

18: Richard Dawkins, “Religion’s Misguided Missiles”, Guardian, 15 September 2001.

19: It is not easy to grasp how far Hitchens has gone. Again I quote from him on YouTube, debating with Reverend Al Sharpton: “You see, I don’t love our enemies, and I don’t love people who do love them. I hate our enemies and think they should be killed… And I’m absolutely sure there should be no other country that has a budget that threatens ours, and I’m not sentimental about it.” And by “our enemies” and “our budget” he means the enemies and budget of US imperialism.

20: Eagleton, 2006.

21: Eagleton, 2006.

22: Marx and Engels, 1957.

23: Lenin, 1965.

24: Siegel, 1986.

25: Crouch, 2006.

26: Lenin, 1973.


Bhattacharyya, Anindya, 2006, “Marx and Religion”, Socialist Worker, 4 March 2006,

Boulangé, Antoine, 2004, “The Hijab, Racism and the State”, International Socialism 102 (spring 2004),

Crouch, Dave, 2006, “The Bolsheviks and Islam”, International Socialism 110 (spring 2006),

Dawkins, Richard, 1998, “The Improbability of God”, Free Inquiry, volume 18, number 4 (autumn 1998), available from:

Dawkins, Richard, 2007, The God Delusion (Black Swan).

Draper, Hal, 1977, “Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype”, in Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, volume one: State and Bureaucracy (Monthly Review),

Eagleton, Terry, 2006, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, London Review of Books, 19 October 2006,

Engels, Frederick, 1883, speech at Marx’s graveside, from Der Sozialdemokrat, 22 March 1883,

Engels, Frederick, 1989 [1886], Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, volume three (Progress), alternative version online:

Lenin, Vladimir, 1965 [1905], “Socialism and Religion”, in Collected Works, volume ten (Progress),

Lenin, Vladimir, 1973 [1909], “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”, in Collected Works, volume 15 (Progress),

Marx, Karl, 1845, Theses on Feuerbach, translation online:

Marx, Karl, 1970 [1844], Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Cambridge University)

Marx, Karl, 1977 [1859], Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Progress),

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1957, On Religion (Progress),

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1848, Manifesto of the Communist Party, alternative translation online:

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1991 [1845], The German Ideology (Lawrence & Wishart),

Siegel, Paul, 1986, The Meek and the Militant—Religion and Power Across the World (Zed), sections available online:

Trotsky, Leon, 1964, The Age of Permanent Revolution (New York).