Roland Boer sets the scene for a series of articles on the complex and contradictory relations between Marxism and religion, with an introduction to some of the issues. An embedded poem by Patrick Lodge is mutually illustrative.
Two preliminary topics are important for any effort to reconsider the difficult relations between Marxism and religion: 1) the tensions between illusion versus reality, or idealism versus materialism; 2) the political ambivalence of religion.
Illusion and Reality
Religion is an illusion, an excrescence of the human brain, a response to alienated social conditions, a diversion for the working class movement, a manifestation of idealism – these and more continue to be common positions among Marxists and those on the Left more broadly. In other words, religion and its claims do not correspond to reality. The gods do not exist, nor does a supernatural world with its spirits of the dead, and we will not go to heaven or hell when we die.
I could respond by challenging a certain caricature of religion that is assumed with such positions. Or I could take the line that ‘religion’ itself is an abstraction from specific circumstances – European imperialism and the need to categorise the rest of the world in the light of Christian assumptions. But I prefer a different approach that draws on Marx’s own thought.
In some of his early works, Marx was quite clear that religion is other-worldly, heavenly and not concerned with the grim realities of this world. For example, in a piece from 1842 concerning the Rhine Province Assembly, he describes religion as mystical, arbitrary, base, fantastical, imaginary, other-worldly, and a sham that functions as a ‘holy cloak’ for political aims. Indeed, a religion like Christianity with its heavenly focus should not bother itself with this-worldly matters such as politics, economics and society.
Fortunately, this is not the only approach to religion in Marx’s works. The best example of an alternative appears with his complex use of the fetish. He had first encountered the term in the early 1840s, and was clearly conscious of its religious sense – a fetish is an object attributed with distinct powers in human transactions, powers that are simultaneously transferred and yet have a real force.
No surprise, then, that Marx found the idea immensely useful in his work for the next forty years. Each time he drew upon the fetish – in analysing labour, money, commodities and indeed capitalism itself – he deliberately mentions the religious dimensions of the fetish. Most well-known is the fetishism of commodities from the first volume of Capital, so let me make a few observations on this use. Marx was seeking a way to speak of a double process: the fetishism that attaches itself to commodities is simultaneously a transferral of powers from workers to the product of their hands and a reality of such commodities. In other words, commodities seem to gain human attributes as they interact among one another, while workers become more and more like things (reification). At the same time, the power or fetishism of commodities is very real, for it affects workers directly.
How to speak of such a process? Marx works at the edge of language, arguing that the fetishism of commodities is both illusory and real, imperceptible and perceptible, mysterious and concrete, mist-enveloped and actual. In the process, he coins a crucial phrase: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms [gesellschaftlich gültige, also objektive Gedankenformen]’. Thought forms can become objective and socially valid.
In order to gain this insight, Marx made use of a religious category: fetishism. In the subsequent volumes of Capital, he developed this initial insight much further. Indeed, he came to argue that fetishism operates at the core of capitalism. The belief that money simply produces money, without the crucial intermediate stage of commodity production is the ultimate fetish. The idea that we can generate money in and of itself, or what is now called the ‘financialisation’ of the market, is fetishism through and through. So much so that Marx coins another term: capital-fetish.
The implications are immense and not often realised. Marx’s focus was on the internal dynamics of capital, but what does this mean for religion? Can it too be seen as an objective thought form, as one that is both illusory and real at one and the same time?
One example among many will suffice for now. It concerns the political ambivalence of religion, which can just as easily slip into the seat beside despotic power as it can foster revolutionary movements that seek to overthrow such power.
For this insight we need to turn to Engels, who developed this argument over the long decades after he gave up – with much pain and soul-searching – the religious commitments of his youth. During these years, Engels had much to say about the reactionary nature of religion, but he also became increasingly aware of the radical movements inspired by religion. These were evident in his own time, such as Etienne Cabet’s Icarian communities with their slogan ‘Christianity is communism’, as well as Wilhelm Weitling, whom Engels called the ‘first German communist’.
The first extended assessment of radical religious movements was Engels’s study (1850) of Thomas Müntzer and the German Peasant Revolution of the sixteenth century. This widespread revolution was clearly fostered as much by theological concerns as by economics and political ones. Although this was the first work of its kind in the Marxist tradition, it is not Engels’s best work. He tends to see the theological language as a cloak for economic and political grievances, a language that could be cast aside with the advent of modern socialism.
Engels’s study of early Christianity is much better. Published close to his death in 1895, it argued that early Christianity was a revolutionary movement. The reasons: Christianity drew its adherents from the exploited classes of the Roman Empire; it had much in common with the socialist movement of his own day; and it succeeded in conquering the Roman Empire. While we may quibble with some of Engels’s points (especially the last), we should not miss the importance of the proposal as a whole. It was a clear recognition and analysis of the revolutionary potential of a religion like Christianity, as Christopher Caudwell recognised in 'The Breath of Discontent: A Study in Bourgeois Religion' (discussed elsewhere on this website).
The Respectable Working Class
by Patrick Lodge
Week in, week out, I give my labour for
next to nowt. I’ve doffed my cap threadbare;
tugged my forelock so fierce
my hairline recedes from the back.
I’ve seemed grateful for mistress’s
sawdust buns, for master’s leaking roof
above my head, under which I wake
each sun-up, practicing my yokel grin.
Come Sunday they want much more;
want me to deny my own self. I draw
the line at that. Aye, I’ll go, sit in the pew
bide quiet, think “more pigs, less parsons”.
I pull the curtains across the window
of my soul. I become opaque.
They prate on about heaven’s rewards
while I think of Jenny warm under the down;
afterwards, buttered toast, scalding
sugared tea, the smell of her on my skin.
I hear the choir sing – “The rich man
in his castle, the poor man at his gate”.
Amen, I’ll say, and look pious too,
but mark this, and mark it well,
when the end times come, the first will
surely be last and going straight to Hell.
Author’s note: This poem, first published in the Morning Star, was written after a trip to the Lincolnshire Wolds. There was, in particular, a spectacular church from the 1840s which stood on a hill and dominated the landscape around. The church was full of memorials to the local great and good and the pattern of land ownership around effectively left the bulk of workers as tenants owing home, hearth and livelihood to the dominant landowners. There was a story told of a requirement made for all tenants to attend Anglican services despite their tendency to Non-Conformity.
Others would carry on Engels’s approach, especially Karl Kautsky and Ernst Bloch, so much that they established the existence of a revolutionary religious tradition. This has enabled the awareness that movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as Liberation Theology and Political Theology, are the latest examples of this tradition.
So it seems that a religion like Christianity can be both reactionary and revolutionary. I am not taken with the common core-distortion position in dealing with this tension. Thus, one or the other side constitutes the core while its opposite is a distortion. Not so, for Christianity is constituted by this profound tension. Both are perfectly valid and in many respects connected to one another. However, it does require that we take sides.