Richard Clarke outlines how religion, like any other cultural activity, is capable of both promoting political and social liberation, and being manipulated and controlled by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.
Most Marxists would say that it is none of their business to judge or comment on any individual’s sincere and deeply-held religious beliefs, provided that these do not encourage prejudice, intolerance or result in harm to others.
Some religious groupings, notably the Quakers, have been prominent in the peace and anti-war movement. Many Jews – not just secular Jews but ultra-orthodox religious Jews as well – oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Catholic ‘liberation theology’ has been a feature of progressive movements in South America. Many individuals – of all faiths – have managed to combine their religious conviction with a commitment to socialism, even Marxism.
In Britain, the fusion of Marxist theory and Christian beliefs called Christian socialism has a long and honourable tradition. Keir Hardie (1856-1915), the founder of the modern Labour Party declared that “Any system of production or exchange which sanctions the exploitation of the weak by the strong or the unscrupulous is wrong and therefore sinful.” And Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury (1931-1963) was a supporter of the October Revolution, a life-long friend of the Soviet Union, and a chair of the Board of the Daily Worker, the predecessor of today’s only socialist national newspaper, the Morning Star.
Religion in and of itself is no indicator of people’s political orientation or of their personal qualities. At the same time Marxists would challenge the liberal exhortation to ‘celebrate all faiths’. The ‘faiths’ that are purportedly celebrated are not, of course, just matters of individual conviction. They are institutionalised belief systems. Religion is primarily a social and historical phenomenon. As Marx observed, ‘Humanity makes religion, religion does not make humanity.’ Britain’s own Head of State is, after all, also the head of the ‘established’ Church of England.
On a philosophical level, Marxism questions the truth of any religion that assumes the existence of a supernatural being not subject to the laws of nature but who responds to the adulation and entreaties of his/her/its worshippers. In engaging with religious believers, however sympathetically, Marxists do not conceal their materialist belief that everything that exists is part of nature and subject to laws which – in principle at least - can be discovered by human action and used by humanity to shape our own future.
However, notwithstanding the gendered language of his time, Marx’s position on religion is a lot more subtle and sympathetic than is commonly thought:
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, the state, society. This state and this society produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a 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 because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.
Probably the best known observation of Marx on religion is that it is the ‘opium of the people.’ This is sometimes taken to mean that he saw it as a mechanism of control from above, prescribed by those in power to secure compliance and docility. To the extent that this is true it is only part of Marx’s analysis. The full passage from Marx makes his own meaning clear:
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 conditions. It is the opium of the people.
As Roland Boer points out, Marx used opium himself to give some relief from a variety of ailments including toothache, ear aches and carbuncles; the opium metaphor had some meaning to him. Religion, in his view, provided at least some comfort and hope to the oppressed. In an uncertain world it promises a degree of certainty; it provides an apparently alternative authority to corrupted secular institutions, and to those suffering physical or psycho-social distress, it offers comfort. Above all, it offers hope, however illusory. Marxists understand this, which is why they don’t challenge genuine individual faith.
Marxists realise the limitations of individual good works, and question those that are driven primarily by expectations of a better life hereafter. More than a century ago, the communist organiser Joe Hill’s ballad ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ (popularised by Woodie Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen amongst others) challenged the ‘pie in the sky when you die’ of organised religion. ‘It’s a Lie’ goes the final line of each stanza.
As Marx concluded in his ‘opium of the people’ passage: ‘challenging religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.’ John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ tries to do just this ‘imagine there’s nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too; imagine all the people, living life in peace… no possessions… no need for greed or hunger…’ And of course, the Internationale declares ‘No saviour from on high delivers.’
Institutionalised religion can impose its own form of alienation on its adherents. That alienation is expressed wonderfully for one individual in Dire Straits’ song Ticket to Heaven (ironically taken by some to be an endorsement of religious faith rather than a critique of it). The ‘narrator’ of the song gives more than she can afford to ‘save the little children in a far country’ – sending money to ‘the man with the golden ring. – a reference to evangelical Baptist ministers like Billy Graham, spiritual adviser to a number of American presidents including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and a significant influence on Donald Trump). As a consequence she has ‘nothing left for luxuries, nothing left to pay her heating bills’ but ‘the Good Lord will provide’ – she has her ‘Ticket to Heaven’.
Religion can also be a cloak, a justification for greed and avarice. TV evangelists in the US (and elsewhere) promote the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich, inverting Feuerbach’s assertion that ‘only the poor man has a rich God’’ and reimagining the life of an itinerant Jew who believed that you couldn’t serve God and mammon to be ‘a poster boy for the super-rich.’
As Giles Fraser (former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre) has pointed out, Donald Trump is both a product and a perpetuator of the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich: ‘Being “blessed” has become a moral alibi for America’s greed. It is a nauseating smile of faux-gratitude that says: God gave this to me, so it’s not about me having too much.’’
In Britain the Alpha Course, that gospel’s more restrained, English equivalent, promotes a parallel message of personal fulfilment or quiescence, devoid of any notion of collective social progress.
All religions demand a degree of submission in religious observance – attendance at mass, praying five times per day, acceptance of a higher authority than one’s own conscience. And most are accepting of the status quo – on this earth as well as the next. That lovely hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ has for its third verse:
The rich man in his castle,/ The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,/ And ordered their estate.
But religions are not ‘all the same’. Religion presents a world of contrasts and contradictions both between and within faiths. It would be difficult to conceive of an Islamic liberation theology, for instance. The prophet of Christianity – a poor single man who ‘turned the other cheek’ and gave what he had to the poor contrasts with the prophet of Islam – a trader and military leader who accumulated wealth and power through war. Pope Francis’ 2017 encounter with Donald Trump (who arrived at the Vatican in a motorcade; the Pope came in a Ford Focus) spoke volumes. The Pope had previously suggested that Trump’s threat to build a Mexican wall meant he could not be a Christian (Christians build bridges) to which Trump responded by calling the Pope ‘disgraceful’ for doubting his faith.
For some, religious conviction offers comfort, disengagement, a shelter from the world. For others, it offers a justification for greed, bigotry and even violence. And for some it is the route to social action, challenging injustice, exploitation and evil.
Marxists need to take a careful, dialectical view on religious belief. Like any other cultural activity, it is capable of promoting political and social liberation. But it is always subject to manipulation and control by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.
Richard Clarke works at Westminster Business School, Birkbeck College, and runs a consultancy in heritage management.