In the contemporary study of religion as a factor of social change and political mobilisation, Marx is treated as a marginal reference at best, a ‘dead dog’ at worst. The global impasse, or even reversal, of a secularisation process that Marx appears to take for granted; the turbulent rise of explicitly religious forms of political subjectivity; the persistence or resurgence of religion both as a principle of political authority and a structuring presence in everyday life – these current trends seem to militate for the relegation of Marx to a historical moment (that of the European nineteenth-century), a political subject (the workers’ movement), and a notion of temporality (the one encompassed by notions of progress, development and revolution) which have been inexorably surpassed in a globalised scenario (whether we grasp this scenario through the differential lens of postcolonial critiques, the hegemonic and homogeneous prism of neoliberalism, or the bellicose culturalism of the infamous ‘clash of civilisations’). To compound this state of affairs, which could also be read in terms of a revenge of the sociology of religions against a Marxian ‘master narrative’ – and with all the apposite caveats regarding the discontinuities between Marx and historical Marxisms, practical and theoretical – we cannot ignore the significance of the religious question within the so-called ‘crisis of Marxism’ of the 1970s and onwards. When Michel Foucault, in his enduringly controversial reports on the Iranian revolution, stressed the irrelevance of Marx’s dictum on religion as the ‘opium of the people’ in accounting for the role of Islamic politics in the overthrow of the Shah, he was expressing a commonly-held rejection of the supposed secular reductivism characteristic of Marxist theories of social change and prescriptions for revolutionary action. Alongside Iran, the complex entanglement of popular rebellions and religion in the Polish Solidarnosc movement and Latin American liberation theology wrong-footed a theory of revolutionary praxis which took the ‘practical atheism’ of the proletariat as a sociological datum. This situation has been exacerbated today in a context where the ebb of projects of human emancipation is accompanied by the pauperisation and brutalisation of a ‘surplus humanity’ living in a ‘planet of slums’, the catalyst for a twenty-first-century ‘reenchantment of a catastrophic modernity’ in which ‘populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism’.
Can Marx’s thinking on religion survive the challenge posed by what appear to be the dramatic reversals in the secularizing tendencies and revolutionary opportunities which he identified in the European nineteenth-century? And can a Marxian social theory withstand its ‘expatriation’ into a political scenario in which explicitly Marxist actors, whether states or movements, are weak or inexistent? The most economical response, though perhaps a facile one too, would be to indicate the continuing vitality of historical materialism in the study of the socio-political dynamics behind the current religious resurgence, whether in the context of rampant planetary urbanization (as in the writings of Mike Davis, quoted above), or through the analysis of the role of neo-liberalism and ‘accumulation by dispossession’ in fostering the conditions for religious militancy (as in the work of David Harvey, among others). However, rather than merely engaging in a salutary restatement of the virtues of Marxism for a systemic and systematic understanding of the conditions for today’s refulgent religiosity, I want to take the aforementioned dismissals of Marx seriously and deal with what we might call the ‘subjective’ element of religious-political conviction, its mobilizing force, alongside the questions of the explanation of religious phenomena and the supposed secularization of capitalist societies. The aim then is to restore some of the richness of the problems raised by Marx, and even to treat his seeming anachronism as a resource rather than a defect in displacing some of the numerous commonplaces about religion, society and politics that have come to dominate our public and academic discourse. Whilst endowed with their own complex reality and efficacy, appearances – including that of the contemporary centrality of religion to political life – are rarely the whole story. As Marx puts it, in a mordant description of his method: ‘the philistine’s and vulgar economist’s way of looking at things stems from … the fact that it is only the direct form of manifestation of relations that is reflected in their brains and not their inner connection. Incidentally, if the latter were the case what need would there be of science?’
We could add that it is such a philistine’s myopia for the inner connections that has dominated much recent writing which has sought to explain and to counter the political return to religion by invoking the naturalist and atheist legacy of the Enlightenment. What is striking about the voguish defences of an unfinished Enlightenment project against the delusions and depredations of religious fanaticism is their blindness to the incorporation and radical transformation of Enlightenment preoccupations, especially in terms of religion, by the emancipatory and workers’ movements of the nineteenth-century. The impression given by much of the popular literature in defence of atheism is that at an intellectual level – to put it in a nutshell – the 1840s still lie ahead of us. It is indeed to the early 1840s, the only period of sustained writing on the link between politics and religion in Marx’s work, that we now turn. Understanding Marx’s intellectual intervention into this critical moment in German and European history provides a necessary orientation for examining the way in which the problem of religion, in its various guises, is both addressed and transformed in the further development of Marx’s work.
The criticism of Earth
Glossing over the formidable flowering of radical theory and intellectual activism in the context of which Marx makes his first interventions, and emphasizing what is ‘living’ in it today, it is possible to summarize Marx’s stance as a critique of the critique of religion. This might seem a very peculiar formulation with which to define a thinker who was not only a combative atheist armed with an awesome arsenal of anti-religious invective, but a theorist who unequivocally ascribed to the Enlightenment conviction that ‘man makes religion’. But as we shall see, everything hinges on how this ‘makes’ is to be understood.
It is worth noting that Marx’s intervention into the politics of religion initially takes place in the ambit of his ‘philosophical journalism’. In ‘The Leading Article of No. 179 of Kölnische Zeitung’, published in 1842 in the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx, impelled by a republican and democratic élan, confronts the ‘German papers [which] have been drumming against the religious trend in philosophy, calumniating, distorting and bowdlerizing it’. This ‘religious trend’, which comprises the works of ‘Hegel and Schelling, Feuerbach and Bauer’, is under attack in the press for the way it rationally responds to the politicization of religion in the form of the Christian state. As Marx judiciously notes, it is the very attempt by agencies of the state to religiously legitimate politics in a non-theocratic vein, which secularizes religion and opens it to philosophical disputation: ‘If religion becomes a political quality, an object of politics, there seems to be hardly any need to mention that the newspapers not only may, but must, discuss political objects. … If you make religion a theory of state right, then you make religion itself a kind of philosophy’. Marx confronts the anti-philosophical and conformist opinion of his day with the fact that the moment one begins to speak of a Christian state, it becomes impossible to forestall a logic of full secularization. For either the Christian state is equivalent to the reasonable state, in which case its Christianity is redundant and philosophy is fully adequate to thinking through the state-form; or rational freedom cannot be developed out of Christianity, and therefore religion is simply external to the state: ‘Answer the dilemma as you like, you will have to concede that the state is not to be constituted from religion but from the reason of freedom’. Though this radical democratic secularism can be registered, in a mutated form, in later pronouncements by Marx, it does not exhaust Marx’s position.
Initially influenced both by Ludwig Feuerbach’s reappropriation for humankind of a species-being which had been alienated into the deity, and by Bruno Bauer’s unsparing anti-theistic criticism of the baleful effect of religious belief on universality and self-consciousness, Marx’s early writings can be understood in terms of the progressive, if very rapid, realization that the attack on religion – while a vital spur to undermining the religious legitimation of state power – is always insufficient, or even a downright diversion, when it comes to attain its avowed ends. Repeatedly, atheistic criticism overestimates the centrality of Christianity to the state and treats the state’s secularization as an end in itself. The slogan encapsulating Marx’s intervention into the fraught 1840s debate over religion and politics is: ‘from the criticism of Heaven to the criticism of Earth’. The outcome of Marx’s philosophical operation is to remove ‘the critique of civil society and the state from the broader Left Hegelian campaign against Christianity and [establish] socio-political critique as the object of an autonomous secular discourse of sociological and economic analysis’. The clearest form of this redirection in the aims of ‘irreligious criticism’ is to be found in a letter to Arnold Ruge of 30 November 1842, where Marx declares that
religion should be criticized in the framework of political conditions [instead of criticizing] political conditions … in the framework of religion …; for religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to the earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself.
Despite the provocative and problematic declaration that religion is ‘without content’ of its own – which in turn introduces Marx’s belief in the ‘withering away’ of religion as a corollary of social revolution – it is important to note that, against the image of religion in a certain Enlightenment materialism as a mere delusion or conspiracy, Marx, while never reneging on his militant atheism, affirms what we might term the ‘social necessity’ of religion as a form of consciousness and an organizing principle of collective life. When Marx writes of religion as a theory of the world, he is making a properly dialectical point: religion provides an inverted picture of the world because the world itself is inverted. Though there is an argument to be made for the idea that Marx draws this ‘transformative method’, which combines the ‘inversion of subject and predicate and exposure of the hypostasized form of both’, from Feuerbach, it also the case that he explicitly refers to the limits of a materialist humanism vis-à-vis religion in order to specify his own position. As he sets out in the fourth of the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’:
Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.
To bring religious abstraction ‘down to earth’ by revealing it to be a distorted projection of human essence is thus insufficient. For Marx, religion possesses a social logic of separation and autonomisation (its establishment as an apparently ‘independent realm’), whose bases in a really inverted world, so to speak, are the object of theoretical and practical criticism. Marx’s critique of the Young Hegelian’s critique of religion – and a fortiori his views on the insufficiency of the attack on religious delusion in French materialism and the Enlightenment – will persistently take this twofold form: an elaboration of the social logic of abstraction (as a result of the ‘inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of [the] secular basis’) and an elucidation of the necessity for revolution (‘the removal of the contradiction’) if the real grounds of abstract domination are to be removed. Bluntly put, in order to tackle the endurance of religious abstractions we are to confront the social logic into which they are inscribed, and the dependence of these abstractions on given modes of production and social intercourse. As Marx writes in The German Ideology:
In religion people make their empirical world into an entity that is only conceived, imagined, that confronts them as something foreign. This again is by no means to be explained from other concepts, from ‘self-consciousness’ and similar nonsense, but from the entire hitherto existing mode of production and intercourse, which is just as independent of the pure concept as the invention of the self-acting mule and the use of railways are independent of Hegelian philosophy. If he wants to speak of an ‘essence’ of religion, i.e., of a material basis of this inessentiality, then he should look for it neither in the ‘essence of man’, nor in the predicate of God, but in the material world which each stage of religious development finds in existence.
In the 1844 Introduction to the ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, Marx had noted that the ‘abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo’. We might say that the early conviction whereby the struggle against religion is the ‘embryo’ of true revolutionary transformation, gives way, through Marx’s deepening study of the system of exploitation and his own political engagement, to a belief that such an anti-religious struggle might even serve as a detour or a cloak for real political struggle, that is to the idea that the aims of atheism and Enlightenment cannot be accomplished through a bald affirmation of Godlessness and Reason as matters of consciousness or mere pedagogy. The criticisms of Max Stirner and Bruno Bauer in The German Ideology and The Holy Family elaborate on this conviction that it is necessary to step outside an obsessive confrontation with ‘religious representations’, precisely in order to examine and transform the very conditions of possibility for these representations, for their seemingly autonomous, ‘spectral’ existence. This is the ‘Kantian’ sense in which Marx provides us with a potent critique of the critique of religion, pointing out both the limitations and the conditions of efficacy of the latter. It would be difficult to underestimate the relevance of this gesture today, when we are confronted with anti-religious arguments, which, whatever the sincerity or nobility of their motivations, often rely on the idealist, asocial view that the sway of religious representations and ideologies over human affairs can be terminated by a mere change of consciousness. Marx indicates that consciousness always takes social forms and these forms are in turn affected by a certain quotient of necessity. His critique of the Young Hegelians asks what the conditions of production of religious representations are, in order to then ask how these conditions themselves might be transformed. The anti-theism of his contemporaries is an obstacle to a consequent political atheism inasmuch as it remains within the ambit of theological reasoning. Stirner in particular
shares the belief of all critical speculative philosophers of modern times that thoughts, which have become independent, objectified thoughts – ghosts – have ruled the world and continue to rule it, and that all history up to now was the history of theology, nothing could be easier for him than to transform history into a history of ghosts.
The vision of the struggle against religious domination as a ‘fight against [the] thoughts and ideas of the ideologist’, where hierarchy is reduced to the ‘domination of thought’ and the political structure of rule in modern times can be reduced to a ‘clericalism’ that even includes the likes of Robespierre and Saint-Just, is for Marx emblematic of the dead end of a supposedly radical thought which not only takes religion on its own terms, but succumbs to a generic fight against transcendence, unable to grasp the real conditions for the production of (and domination by) abstraction.
Aside from this methodological prescription, which in one form or another will accompany Marx throughout his work, there is also something to be learned from Marx’s attention to the importance of political conjuncture, as well as historical and geographical specificity, in the criticism of religion. Behind the attack on the Young Hegelian’s penchant for remaining at the level of theology, for fighting ghosts with ghosts, lies Marx’s estimation that anti-religious mobilisation was – despite the necessity of the demand for radical secularisation – if not a rearguard, at least an insufficient programme. Confident of a secularising trend which, spurred by revolutionary politics between 1793 and 1848 ‘sufficiently announced the direction of the popular mind in Europe’, Marx, in an 1854 article for the New York Tribune tellingly entitled ‘The Decay of Religious Authority’, remarked: ‘We are still witnesses of this epoch, which may be characterized as the era of democratic revolt against ecclesiastical authority’. But he also indicated the tendency to an ever more opportunistic, non-organic use of religious legitimation for state violence: ‘The days in which religious considerations were a governing element in the wars of Western Europe are, it seems, long gone by’. Some years thereafter, in the 1867 Preface to Capital, Marx had occasion to note – not without including one of his characteristic jabs at craven clerical authorities – that atheism itself was no longer at the forefront even in terms of its capacity to provoke authorities: ‘The Established Church … will more readily pardon an attack on thirty-eight of its thirty-nine articles than on one thirty-ninth of its income. Now atheism itself is a culpa levis [a venial sin], as compared with the criticism of existing property relations’. Some might argue that new forms of reactionary or fundamentalist religious politics have reversed this verdict, that Marx remains rooted in a historical moment that is not transposable to our own. To respond to such claims, however, it is necessary not simply to confront Marx’s critique of the critique of religion, but to consider the place of reflection on religious phenomena within the wider sweep of his thought, including his mature critique of political economy. In order to do so, I would like to treat in succession what might be seen as three aspects of Marx’s thought that speak to contemporary debates on the politics and sociology of religion: the social explanation of religion; the nature of religious-political subjectivity; the process of secularisation and the politics of secularism. I will then conclude with some remarks on the idea of a ‘religion of Capital’.
The history of a thing without history
The error of anti-theistic critique – which remains within the ambit of theology, unable to grasp the real social processes that condition the necessity and ‘objective illusion’ characteristic of religious phenomena – is part and parcel of what Marx regards as the shortcoming of the very Enlightenment tradition of which he is in many respects a proud heir. Whether we are dealing with money or with religion, the crucial error is to treat real abstractions as mere ‘arbitrary product[s] of human reflection. This was the kind of explanation favoured by the eighteenth century: in this way the Enlightenment endeavoured, at least temporarily, to remove the appearance of strangeness from the mysterious shapes assumed by human relations whose origins they were unable to decipher’. The strangeness of religion itself cannot be dispelled by referring it to clerical conspiracies or psychological delusions to be cured through mere pedagogy. But does Marx bend the stick too far the other way? After all, there is good reason to feel that the early Marx’s position vis-à-vis religious phenomena takes the guise, to borrow a term from contemporary cognitive science, of a kind of ‘eliminativist materialism’ – a denial of any autonomy or indeed reality to religion. Already in the ‘Leading Article’ of 1842, Marx had stripped religion of any causal efficacy: ‘It was not the downfall of the old religions that brought the downfall of the old states, but the downfall of the old states that brought the downfall of the old religions’. In The German Ideology, religion, alongside ‘morality … metaphysics and all the rest of ideology as well as the forms of consciousness corresponding to these’ is stripped of any ‘semblance of independence’. Marx even adumbrates a sketch of naturalist psychology whose echoes one could find today in the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett: ‘The phantoms formed in the brains of men are also, necessarily, sublimates of the material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises’. The notion of religion as a kind of non-being, an ‘inessentiality’, in the language of the 1844 Introduction, is also in evidence in the 1843 response to Bauer, ‘On the Jewish Question’: ‘since the existence of religion is the existence of a defect, the source of this defect must be looked for in the nature of the state itself. We no longer see religion as the basis but simply as a phenomenon of secular narrowness’. But as Marx moves beyond this political reduction to the secular basis of the state, into the historical-materialist accounting with real abstractions heralded by the fourth thesis on Feuerbach quoted above, a crucial factor is added to his understanding of religion – a factor which allows him to propose means of explaining, rather than merely explaining away, religious phenomena. It is not enough to ‘explain the religious restriction on the free citizens from the secular restriction they experience’, to ‘turn theological questions into secular questions’ and ‘resolv[e] superstition into history’, as Marx enjoins us to do in ‘On the Jewish Question’. Rather, we are to look to ‘the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness’ of a ‘secular basis’, to be conceived not in terms of the state but rather in those of ‘the entire hitherto existing mode of production and intercourse’.
By the time of his mature work on the critique of political economy, we can say that Marx has moved beyond the ‘eliminativist’ programme, which he polemically counterposed to the theological foibles of the Young Hegelians, to a historical-materialist incorporation of the religious phenomenon into a theory of the social emergence of different modes of ‘real abstraction’. Thus, in an important long footnote to Capital, Marx suggests – as a corollary to a discussion of a ‘critical history of technology’ that would be mindful of the role of ‘the mode of formation of [man’s] social relations’ – the possibility of a similarly critical ‘history of religion’. His methodological reflections are immensely suggestive for coming to grips with a historical-materialist understanding of religion:
It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.
This passage demonstrates the vitality and endurance of Marx’s critique of the critique of religion, his opposition to a complacent reduction of religious phenomena to their secular basis (whether this is understood in terms of species-being, the state, or even a static notion of economic intercourse), but opens up in a much more forthright manner the possibility of a historical-materialist study of religion qua real abstraction, developing ‘from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations’. In The German Ideology, Marx had made the following lapidary declaration:
‘Christianity’ has no history whatever and … all the different forms in which it was visualized at various times were not ‘self-determinations’ and ‘further developments’ ‘of the religious spirit’, but were brought about by wholly empirical causes in no way dependent on any influence of the religious spirit.
Notwithstanding the continuity in the denial of independence to the religious phenomenon, Capital, shorn of the polemical target of The German Ideology, opens up the possibility of a materialist history of religion inasmuch as, whilst denying religion any causal autonomy, it permits us to think the conditions for its ‘real-apparent’ autonomisation. In her excellent study on the status of religion in Marx and Engels, Michèle Bertrand has elaborated on this methodological suggestion by distinguishing in their work between a path of demystification and one of constitution. Commenting on Marx and Engels’s exchange on the historical-materialist explanation of the implantation of Islam in the Middle East, she writes: ‘Instead of referring religious representations back to the real world that underlies them it’s a matter of understanding why the history of real mutations has taken a religious form’. Or, in the words of Capital, ‘the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in the one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part’. It is not simply a matter of referring the illusory autonomy and separation of religious representations to a material basis, but of showing the socio-historical necessity and rootedness of the ‘phantoms’ and ‘sublimates’ of a specific religious form.
If we are to follow Derrida, religion itself can be regarded as paradigmatic of the processes of autonomisation mercilessly pursued by Marx throughout the domains of ideology and abstraction. As Derrida notes in Specters of Marx, on Marx ‘only the reference to the religious world allows one to explain the autonomy of the ideological, and thus its proper efficacy, its incorporation in apparatuses that are endowed not only with an apparent autonomy but a sort of automaticity … as soon as there is production, there is fetishism: idealisation, autonomisation and automatisation, dematerialisation and spectral incorporation’.
But if the full development of a historical-materialist critique of abstractions, moving beyond demystification to constitution, allows us to think of a critical history of religion that would surpass the eliminativist position asserted in The German Ideology, we are still faced with the problem of the plurality of religions. Indeed, as Michèle Bertrand rightly notes, is it even possible to speak of ‘religion in general’? Though as theory, religion might answer to a relatively invariant human need to render the world intelligible, and as practice, to master it, this still does not tell us why ‘this religion has found a receptive terrain, why men have been sensitive to its message. A religion only exists to the extent that a social group declares its adherence to it, drawing from it certain practices, and so on. How is a religion born? Why does it gain followers? How does its audience grow?’ Needless to say, these are questions that the mature Marx, who views religion as a waning force, is not preoccupied with answering (unlike the Engels of On the History of Early Christianity). However, we may find in Marx an embryonic theory of the correlation between certain religious forms and institutions, on the one hand, and certain social systems (and more specifically types of alienation), on the other. The outlines of such a theory are tellingly delineated in the chapter on the commodity in Capital, where Marx writes:
For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material form bring their individual, private labours into relation with each other as homogeneous human labour, Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion.
This ‘fit’ suggests that, rather than being the offspring of a clerical conspiracy, of a hieratic hierarchy, Christianity is regarded by Marx as bound to capitalism by a certain mode and intensity of abstraction. The autonomisation of material production from the communal and the concrete privileges Christianity as its superstructural correlate inasmuch as the latter perceives and presents itself as the religion of autonomy. In The German Ideology, Christianity is indeed defined by the manner in which it fights against determination by ‘heteronomy as opposed to autonomy of the spirit’. Hints in Marx’s work suggest that the apparent autonomy and abstraction attained by the value-form under commodity-production is especially well-suited by the Christian religion – indeed, inasmuch as religion is both a hypostasis of, and a manner of coping with, not just natural forces but social ones, we could say, paraphrasing Marx’s 1844 Introduction to the ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, that Christianity is in this sense a theory (or logic) of capitalism. In Marx, this insight regarding the affinity of Christianity and capitalism also takes more overtly historical and sociological hues. For instance, in the Grundrisse, Marx forwards a thesis which, as Michael Löwy notes, bears a ‘parallel (but not identity!) with Weber’s thesis’ in The Protestant Ethic, to wit that: ‘The cult of money has its asceticism, its self-denial, its self-sacrifice-economy and frugality, contempt for mundane, temporal and fleeting pleasures; the chase after the eternal treasure. Hence the connection between English Puritanism or Dutch Protestantism and money-making’. But these brief sociological apercus, not necessarily unique or original, must be thought of in the context of Marx’s methodological revolution, his formulation of a historical-materialist study of abstractions based on the real abstractions of the value-form, abstract labour, etc. Marx’s critique can now return to the attack on the personalism, atomism and false equality of the Christian state, which had defined its first moments, on a far firmer footing, whilst losing none of its dialectical bite:
The development of capitalist production creates an average level of bourgeois society and therefore an average level of temperament and disposition amongst the most varied peoples. It is as truly cosmopolitan as Christianity. This is why Christianity is likewise the special religion of capital. In both it is only men who count. One man in the abstract is worth just as much or as little as the next man. In the one case, all depends on whether or not he has faith, in the other, on whether or not he has credit. In addition, however, in the one case, predestination has to be added, and in the other case, the accident of whether or not a man is born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
And if Christianity is indeed the ‘special religion of capital’, this also means that to the very extent that the society of commodity producers it ‘fits’ is stamped with a certain necessity – indeed to the very extent that the forms of abstraction and alienation such a society implies prepare the communist socialisation of means of production – Christianity is never just a fantasy or a conspiracy, it is also an integral, if contingent and transitory, component of world capitalism. Marx’s early intuition that only human emancipation – rather than secularism or Enlightenment pedagogy alone – can snuff out the ‘illusory sun’ of religion can thus be restated: ‘The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form’.
Protest, suffering and the limits of the secular
Clearly then, Marx holds on to the perspective, evident at the very least since The German Ideology and the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, whereby only revolutionary praxis can provide the real ‘criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo’. In light of the recent theoretical preoccupation with religious matrices of militant political subjectivity (in the writings of Badiou, Negri and Zizek, among others) what can Marx tell us – beyond the historical-materialist explanation of organised religions and institutions – about the political resources of religious subjectivity? More generally, how can we link a ‘structural’ study of the material bases of religion with issues of belief, passion and agency? These questions are of particular note inasmuch as one of the forms that the criticism or repudiation of Marx’s work has taken has been that of describing it as the source for a fundamentally religious subjectivity, if not an outright fanaticism. This ‘political religion’ approach to Marxism has also relied on the idea that Marxism is somehow the (degenerate) secularisation of fundamentally Christian visions of salvation. Such an approach is pre-emptively and categorically repudiated by Marx and Engels themselves, when they condemn any attempt to fashion a ‘new religion’ to motivate and crystallise social struggles:
It is clear that with every great historical upheaval of social conditions the outlooks and ideas of men, and consequently their religious ideas, are revolutionised. The difference between the present upheaval and all earlier ones lies in the very fact that man has at last found out the secret of this process of historical upheaval and hence, instead of once again exalting this practical, ‘external’, process in the rapturous form of a new religion, divests himself of all religion.
In his own lifetime as a political organiser, Marx was of course faced with various attempts at infusing religion into the socialist politics of the workers’ movement. Despite his views on the ambivalence of religious subjectivity, both ‘the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering’; not just the religion of the state but ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’ – a view poetically summarised in the prescription whereby criticism should not merely aim at plucking ‘the imaginary flowers on the chain’ of social domination (i.e. religion), but ‘throw off the chain and pluck the living flower’ – Marx’s views on the a progressive politicisation of religion were bleak to say the least, and not based merely on his ‘specific … aversion for Christianity’. To begin with, there was a sociological judgment about what I’ve referred to, following Engels, as the ‘practical atheism’ of the working-class, to which we must of course add the desacralising effects of the epic narrated in The Communist Manifesto, in which the bourgeoisie has ‘drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour … in the icy waters of egotistical calculation’ and ‘stripped of its halo … the priest’. On the grounds of these facts and tendencies, the attempt at generating a Christian socialism is showered with scorn.
Even when he had yet to sunder his philosophical allegiance to Feuerbach, Marx already rejected ‘the possibility of translating Christian love into a love of humanity’. In his political interventions, the historical affinity between Christianity and capitalism is not accompanied, far from it, by any faith in the affinity between Christianity and capitalism’s transcendence. Though a ‘fitting’ superstructural correlate of abstract-value and the exchange of commodities between ‘equals’, Christianity is depicted as a feeble weapon against capitalism at best, and a fig’s leaf at worst. As Marx and Engels write in The Communist Manifesto:
Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.
In his scathing piece on ‘The Communism of the Rheinisch Beobachter’, Marx produces the following tirade on the idea of ‘social principles of Christianity’ as substitutes for communist revolution, again proving that, when the conjuncture demands it, and notwithstanding the subtlety of his critique of the critique of religion, he is a coruscating foe of religious hypocrisy:
The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and for the latter all they have to offer is the pious wish that the former may be charitable. … The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness, in short, all the qualities of the rabble, and the proletariat, which will not permit itself to be treated as rabble, needs its courage, its self-confidence, its pride and its sense of independence even more than its bread. The social principles of Christianity are sneaking and hypocritical, and the proletariat is revolutionary. So much for the social principles of Christianity.
In passages such as this Marx seems unequivocal in effecting a separation between politics and religion, in developing his own communist political practice on stringently irreligious grounds. This leads us to a question which is of particular significance in gauging the contemporary relevance of Marx’s thinking today: the question of the secular, to be understood both in terms of political secularism and a historical process of secularisation.
Now, in his early writings as a radical democrat Marx – chief among the them the ‘Leading Article’ of 1842 – strongly advocated a secular ‘state of human nature’, ingeniously arguing on the basis of Christianity’s supposed pioneering of secularism itself. He asks rhetorically: ‘Was it not Christianity before anything else that separated church and state?’ And he proceeds to chastise Christians that make appeal to a ‘Christian state’ which thoroughly undermines the mission of the Church: ‘Does not every minute of your practical life give the lie to your theory? Do you consider it wrong to appeal to the courts when you are cheated. But the apostle writes that it is wrong’. Marx then goes on, in a manner which could be seen to apply to contemporary political invocations of how the spirit of religion should animate political laws, to dismantle the idea of a non-theocratic state that would somehow express the religious idea. Provoking the advocates of a Christian politics, he writes: ‘It is the greatest irreligiousness, the wantonness of worldly reason, to separate the general spirit of religion from the positive religion; this separation of religion from its dogmas and institutions is equal to asserting that the universal spirit of right must reign in the state irrespective of the definite laws and the positive institutions of right’.
In Marx’s later political career, however, the idea of a secular state voided of its religious character and not interfering in the religious lives of its subjects will no longer be seen as the goal of criticism and emancipation, but merely as a necessary but insufficient ‘transitional demand’ on the way to an overcoming of the political limits of capitalism, and a fortiori of liberalism. This much is evident in the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, where Marx upbraids the intellectuals of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany for their timid remarks on ‘freedom of conscience’:
If one desired … to remind liberalism of its old catchwords, it surely could have been done only in the following form: Everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in. But the Workers' party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part it endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion. But one chooses not to transgress the ‘bourgeois’ level.
The theoretical bases of this political stance were laid more than thirty years before, in Marx’s critique of Bruno Bauer’s argument on the Jewish question. Bauer chastises Jews who wish to be emancipated as Jews for remaining at the level of religious privilege (the demand for specific religious rights) and religious prejudice (the attempt to maintain what Bauer calls ‘the powers of excommunication’ consubstantial with the being of religion). But Bauer, in order to eliminate the ‘religious opposition’ between Jew and Christian, predicates the political emancipation of the Jew (and the Christian) on the ‘emancipation of religion’, on ‘abolishing religion’ in the sense of abolishing, which is to say radically ‘privatising’, all ‘religious privileges’. It is at this point that Marx plants the seeds of doubt: ‘Bauer asks the Jews: Do you from your standpoint have the right to demand political emancipation? We pose the question the other way around: Does the standpoint of political emancipation have the right to demand from the Jews the abolition of Judaism and from man the abolition of religion?’ Marx’s negative answer, and his unique understanding of secularism, interestingly depends on turning to the example of the ‘free states of North America’ as the testing ground for investigating what happens when ‘the Jewish question lose[s] its theological significance and become[s] a truly secular question’. Where the state is no longer Christian and religious privilege is not inscribed in legislation it becomes possible to confront Bauer’s theses with a situation that supposedly presents their empirical, institutional realisation. It is only with reference to the American situation that we can ask, as Marx does: ‘What is the relationship between complete political emancipation and religion?’ The peculiar answer, still reason for much debate and investigation today, is that the politically emancipated North American free states are ones in which not only does religion exist but ‘it exists in a fresh and vigorous form’. Consistently with Marx’s overall methodology, the American case allows us to see how persistence of religion, far from being the ‘basis’ of ‘secular narrowness’ is its ‘phenomenon’: ‘We therefore explain religious restriction on the free citizens from the secular restriction they experience’. The persistence of religion is for Marx the symptom that calls for his distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation, between the secularisation of the state, on the one hand, and social liberation, on the other. Thus, ‘religious weaknesses’ are not to be criticised on their own accord but through a ‘criticism of the political state’. It is this step which, according to Marx, Bauer is unable to take, being bound, like his post-Hegelian contemporaries, to a fundamentally theological framework.
In political emancipation, according to Marx’s dialectical presentation, religion can persist, and indeed flourish (as it does in the American case), because it is ultimately the state which is ‘emancipating itself from the state religion’, and by the same token separating itself from the very civil society in which it tolerates, or indeed fosters, the continuation of private religion and private interests: ‘Political emancipation from religion is not complete and consistent emancipation from religion, because political emancipation is not the complete and consistent form of human emancipation’. A ‘state can be a free state without man himself being a free man’, not just because religion continues to be practiced in private but because freedom through the state is itself religious in form: ‘Religion is precisely that: the devious acknowledgment of man, through an intermediary’. This is the key twist in Marx’s argument against Bauer: though it might transcend religious content by separating itself from any confessional determination, the state maintains religious form by embodying the alienated freedom of man in something external to him. As he puts it: ‘The perfected political state is by its nature the species-life of man in opposition to his material life. … Where the political state has attained its full degree of development man leads a double life, a life in heaven and a life on earth, not only in his mind, in his consciousness, but in reality’. The private spirituality of atomised, private individuals in civil society is thus accompanied and compounded by the objective spirituality or transcendence (the real abstraction) of the secular state-form itself. Political emancipation ‘neither abolishes nor tries to abolish man’s real religiosity’ because it both perpetuates religion at the level of private law (where it becomes ‘the essence of difference’) and spiritualises human nature, alienating it into the transcendent domain of state sovereignty. Whence Marx’s deeply counter-intuitive dialectical affirmation that true secularisation – i.e. emancipation from alien abstractions – can only be achieved through an unsparing practical criticism and overcoming of the liberal secular state, which, through a cunning of reason, turns out to be the formal realisation of religious content:
Indeed, the perfected Christian state is not the so-called Christian state which recognizes Christianity as its foundation, as the state religion, and which therefore excludes other religions. The perfected Christian state is rather the atheist state, the democratic state, the state which relegates religion to the level of the other elements of civil society. The state which is still theological, which still officially professes the Christian faith, which still does not dare to declare itself a state, has not yet succeeded in expressing in secular, human form, in its reality as a state, the human basis of which Christianity is the exaggerated expression.
Marx, in a quasi-Hegelian vein, thus recognizes the momentous significance of this emergence of the democratic secular state, while simultaneously taking the opportunity to suggest that one must move from the criticism of political theologies to a political criticism of the state-form itself. Is this, to repeat Breckman’s criticism, to succumb to a dubious ‘metaphoric identification of secular and theological phenomena’, to portray liberalism as the bearer of a fundamentally religious form of abstraction, whose apotheosis is to be found in the separation of state and civil society?
Conclusion: The religion of everyday life
As I indicated above, while much of the structure of Marx’s critique of the Young Hegelian’s critique of religion will feed into his critique of political economy, it is also true that the ‘secular basis’ will increasingly come to signify the mode of production and social intercourse, and only secondarily the state-form itself. Nonetheless, and by way of conclusion, it is important to tackle Breckman’s charge of ‘metaphoricity’. For, as I’ve suggested, the isomorphy, correlation or affinity between seemingly secular and theological phenomena qua forms of abstraction is not just pertinent to the state-form, it is in many respects determinant for Marx’s overall understanding of capitalism. Not for nothing, when Marx tackles the elusive ontology of commodities, ‘sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social’; which make it so that ‘the definite social relation between men … assumes, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things’, he is forced to say that in order ‘to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations with each other and with the human race’. This autonomy, as Marx’s brilliant analysis of commodity-fetishism demonstrates, goes much deeper than (and in turn conditions) the autonomy of the state which ‘On the Jewish Question’ had laid bare. Marx leaves behind the critique of the religious form taken by a state in which man contemplates and is dominated by his own alienated species-being, to undertake the far more insidious ‘religion of everyday life’. In this respect, and in spite of Marx’s draining of real autonomy and real history from religion in The German Ideology, there is considerable truth to Jacques Derrida’s indication regarding ‘the absolute privilege that Marx always grants to religion, to ideology as religion, mysticism, or theology, in his analysis of ideology in general’ – if by privilege we understand the necessity of the religious ‘analogy’, for grasping the process of autonomisation that characterizes a society, that of capitalism, in which men are dominated by abstractions. This domination needs to move beyond the state-form and into the everyday of production, consumption and circulation, where men ‘have already acted … before thinking’. It is only thus, by tracking the emergence of real abstractions out of social relations, that the tradition of anti-theological criticism whence Marx himself originated may be truly surpassed. This criticism was trapped by a fantasy of omnipotence, whereby the mental critique of abstractions, the impious mastery of ideas, sufficed to dispel them. As Marx wrote of Stirner: ‘He forgets that he has only destroyed the fantastic and spectral form assumed by the idea of “Fatherland”, etc., in the brain … but that he has still not touched these ideas, insofar as they express actual relations’.
Only a study of the religion of everyday life will realize for Marx the project of moving from the criticism of Heaven to the criticism of Earth. Is this to say that a process of historical secularization of abstractions has allowed capital to replace religion in its function, to transubstantiate religion into commodity-relations? This is the perspective wonderfully conveyed in The Religion of Capital, the 1887 satirical dramatisation by Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, of an imaginary London Congress where the ruling classes of Europe meet to debate which forms of belief can best pacify labour unrest. The emblematic declaration is voiced by the ‘great English statistician, Giffen’:
Now, then, the only religion that answers the needs of the moment is the religion of Capital. … Capital is the true, only and omnipotent God. He manifests Himself in all forms and guises. He is found in glittering gold and in stinking guano; in a herd of cattle and in a cargo of coffee; in brilliant stores that offer sacred literature for sale and bundles of pornographic etchings; in gigantic machines, made of hardest steel, and in elegant rubber goods. Capital is the God whom the whole world knows, sees, smells, tastes. He exists for all our senses. He is the only God that has yet to run into an atheist.
This very insight was the object of a brilliant, if beguiling, fragment by Walter Benjamin, precisely entitled ‘Capitalism as Religion’. In contemporary theory, it has been consistently advocated, from a Lacanian and Marxisant standpoint by Slavoj Zizek, who has revisited the theory of commodity-fetishism as the basis for a theory of the ‘secular’ endurance of belief, for instance in the ‘faith in money-value’ whereof Marx speaks in vol. 3 of Capital. In light of Marx’s theory of fetishism, Zizek reads the predicament of Western capitalist societies as follows:
Commodity fetishism (our belief that commodities are magical objects, endowed with an inherent metaphysical power) is not located in our mind, in the way we (mis)perceive reality, but in our social reality itself. … If, once upon a time, we publicly pretended to believe, while deep inside us we were sceptics or even engaged in obscene mocking of our public beliefs, today we tend publicly to profess our sceptical/hedonist/relaxed attitude, while inside us we remain haunted by beliefs and severe prohibitions.
Zizek’s position dovetails quite nicely with Benjamin’s conviction that capitalism is a ‘purely cultic religion’ (the rituals of this purely ‘utilitarian’ religion include sale and purchase, investment, stock speculation, financial operations, and so on).
But can we treat the ‘religion of daily life’ as the endpoint and culmination of Marx’s development of a historical-materialist critique of religion that would also serve as a critique of the critique of religion, i.e. a critique of the idealist incapacity to grasp actual or real abstractions? While I have tried to explore both the persistence of certain theoretical themes in Marx’s confrontation with religious phenomena (chiefly the link between religion and autonomisation/alienation) and developments therein (the passage from a denial of religious historicity to the possibility of a critical history of religion; the shift of concern from the ‘religiosity’ of the state-form to that of the commodity-form), responding to the ubiquitous dismissals of Marx’s approach to religion necessitates a further step, one which perforce transcends the bounds of this article. What Marx did not do, for very comprehensible reasons of political and theoretical expediency – respectively, an acknowledgment of the ‘practical atheism’ of the workers’ movement and the conviction that for ‘Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed’ – is examine the connection between the ‘religion of everyday life’ (the forms of actual abstraction, belief and fetishism that populate ‘secular’ capitalism) and the institutions and subjectivities thrown up by religions in their specific and contested historical and political existence. In other words, to link capitalism as religion with religions in capitalism. Only such an undertaking will allow a critical social theory to come to grips with the present ‘reenchantment of catastrophic modernity’.
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