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Marxism and Christianity Redux

12 March 2023


“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. 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 realization 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. 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.”

(Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

Almost everyone knows Marx’s famous denunciation of religion as the “opium of the people.” It acidic spirit has been appropriated as the basis for many a Marxist critique of religion whose usual throughline runs something like this: Invoked to tranquilize the alienated masses and reconcile them to their fate, the job of a critical Marxism is to awaken the working classes to their exploitation through the ruthless critique of religious superstition. With a transition to socialism and then communism, human beings will at last see through the ideological veil thrown over the world and confront their real material conditions without the need for such (un)pleasant illusions. And since humanity’s real needs will be fully gratified through the transition to a society where for the first time “the development of human powers becomes an end in itself” there will no longer be an emotional need for religion either. On the flip side, the conventional wisdom that Marxism is fundamentally hostile to Christianity has provided a great deal of ammunition for the political right. During the fusionist heyday of the mid-20th century American conservatives would consistently contrast virtuous and religious individualism with the atheistic materialism of the communist states. Even today Jordan Peterson recently got into a one sided Twitter spat with Pope Francis after the latter that Christianity be committed to social justice, rejecting such a “Marxist” take as anti-individualist.

The ubiquity of these views makes it surprising that a great number of important left intellectuals have found a great deal of affinity between Marxism and Christianity. These include Ernst Bloch, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, Cornel West, Gary Dorien, and Paul Tillich to just name a few. For these authors, orthodox Marxism and Christianity naturally differ on many important metaphysical and moral points. But they are kin in their commitments to radical emancipation for the “wretched of the earth.” This makes a dialogue between the two traditions important; especially as it becomes clear that, far from withering away, religion and spirituality have evolved and remain potent social and political forces in our post-modern epoch.

A Genealogy of Christian Morality

For much of history, the ruling ideologies of the time held that human beings were fundamentally unequal. Most intelligent commentators agreed with Aristotle’s sentiment in the Politics that some were better fitted to rule by nature or divine ordinance, and that plenty of people had little use beyond serving as “natural slaves.” Or as Strauss put it in Man and the City, for ancient thinkers “political inequality is ultimately justified by the natural inequality among men. The fact that some men are by nature rules and others by nature ruled points in turn to the inequality which pervades nature as a whole: the whole as an ordered whole consists of beings of different ranks.” Aligned with this was a conception of society that was deeply unequal; justified on the basis of what Charles Taylor in Modern Social Imaginaries called modes of “hierarchical complementarity.” Each rung of the social pyramid needed the one below to hold it up, but this by no means required they be regarded as equal in dignity or status.

“Premodern social imaginaries, especially those of the hierarchical type, were structured by various modes of hierarchical complementarity. These needed and complemented each other, but this didn’t mean that their relations were truly mutual, because they didn’t exist on the same level. Rather, they formed a hierarchy in which some had greater dignity and value than others…It was clear that each needed the others, but there is no doubt that we have here a descending scale of dignity; some functions were in their essence higher than other.”

By contrast, the conviction that all individuals are morally equal was a radical and transformative idea. Its hard to tell when it was first conceived. Jack Donnelly holds that moral equality was first gestured to in the Buddhist tradition; particularly under the humanistic rule of the Indian Emperor Ashoka. For Martha Nussbaum, the notion of moral equality was first articulated by the Roman stoic philosophers, who famously insisted that Emperor and slave alike were fragile mortal beings equally destined for the grave. In a European context it was Christianity which did more than any other doctrine to popularize moral equality through its insistence that all human beings were equal before the throne of God. And more importantly, that God paid special attention to the suffering and impoverished. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus even insisted that the Kingdom of heaven belonged to the poor, and in the Gospel of Matthew instructed a rich man to “sell all your possessions and give them to the poor” to store up treasure in heaven.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of these ideas, including on emancipatory struggles. While Christianity could certainly be mobilized as an ideological bludgeon of reaction, its potential to inspire was just as frequently invoked by the egalitarian left. Early liberal revolutions often appealed to derivations of the principle that “all men were created equal” to justify attacking the Ancien regimes of Europe. This was true of more radical movement. As Karl Polyani points out in The Great Transformation the Quaker’s radical insistence on collective self-help would later evolve into the “heat of all later socialist thought on the subject of poverty.” Or later in the book “from the point of view of the community as a whole, socialism is merely the continuation of that endeavor to make society a distinctively human relationship of persons which in Western Europe was always associated with Christian traditions.”

The affinity of Christian morality to egalitarian humanism has not been lost on the most creative reactionaries. Easily the most significant was Nietzsche, who in has mature period, characterized virtually every major egalitarian doctrine as a secularized offshoot of Christian morality. In The Anti-Christ he venomously denounced the Christian origins of socialism, denouncing the “rabble of Socialists, the apostles to the Chandala, who undermine the workingman’s instincts, his pleasure, his feeling of contentment with his petty existence—who make him envious and teach him revenge.... Wrong never lies in unequal rights; it lies in the assertion of “equal” rights.... What is bad? But I have already answered: all that proceeds from weakness, from envy, from revenge.—The anarchist and the Christian have the same ancestry.” This was echoed a few decades later in the writings of the self-described “superfascist” Julius Evola, who in Revolt Against the Modern World lamented that the “advent of Christianity re[presents] a fall; its advent characterized a special form of that spiritual emasculation typical of the cycles of a lunar and priestly type.” Evola went on the sneer at “Christian egalitarianism, based on the principles of brotherhood, love, and community” for propagating a false belief in “human equality” which undermined “hierarchical social order.”

The Marxist Critique of Religion

Given these associations it is important to rethink what the Marxist critique of religion was attempting to accomplish. Here Alasdair MacIntyre’s minor classic Marxism and Christianity is very helpful. MacIntyre begins by analyzing the treatment of religious thought in the German idealist tradition. He points out how, while Hegel gestured to religious pieties and affirmed the importance of Christianity’s ethical emphasis on freedom and equality, the great idealist reconceived them in more secularized terms. For Hegel, the Christian religion symbolically represented the transition to self-consciousness that his own philosophy had made explicit. In his reading of the Genesis myth, Hegel stressed how God does not simply condemn Adam and Eve as sinners for violating the command the divine king before casting them out of Eden. Instead God acknowledges that through eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, humanity had become like God in attaining a level of self-consciousness both alienated them from nature and elevated them above it. Consequently they could no longer live like animals in blissful ignorance, but had to participate in the odyssey of creation. Nature gave way to human history, where rather than organizing ourselves on the basis of pure instinct human being’s self-consciously constructed and then reconstructed our social world as part of the struggle for freedom.

MacIntyre goes on to point out how Marx was deeply sympathetic to many elements of this Hegelian story. But he rejected the conservative and idealist climax Hegel gave to it, where in the Philosophy of Right he affirmed the Prussian state as the divine ideal realized and approved how religion helped reconcile the masses to its authority. For Marx, this demonstrated how religious idealism could function as a reactionary tool to sublimate human power with the appearance of divine sanction. Reactionaries like Burke even self-consciously acknowledged doing this in Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“Such sublime principles out to be infused into persons of exalted situation; and religious establishments provided, that may continually revive and enforce them. Every sort of moral, every sort of civil, every sort of politic institution, aiding the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are not more than necessary, in order to build up that wonderful structure, Man; whose prerogative it is, to be in a great degree a creature of his own making, and who when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in the creation. But whenever man is put over men, as the better nature ought ever to preside, in that case more particularly, he as nearly as possible be approximated to his perfection.”

Moreover, since religious idealism stressed the divine nature of power, this meant that political antagonisms could not be the result of flaws in the social form itself. Instead they could be blamed on the influence of corrupting ideas, which stirred discontent in what Joseph de Maistre called a “Satanic” way. This could be used as a very effective tool for reactionaries to explain away the origins of social dissatisfaction by redirecting attention from the substance of criticism to the critics themselves-who came to be blamed for stirring up the normally contended masses against their sublime leaders by stripping away what Burke called “all the pleasing illusions” that made submission easier.

Finally, as Marx learned from Feuerbach, religion could play a reactionary role by insisting that flourishing for all humanity could only be achieved through divine intervention. Religion represented unhappy humanity’s projection of its desires for justice and non-alienation onto a transcendent figure. In the person of Jesus humanity had conceived of a God-man who had reconciled freedom and necessity in his person, symbolically expressed the possibility of resolving our alienation from one another and promising to come again to bring peace, equality, and love. While psychologically understandable, Marx insisted that humanity should instead try to achieve justice and non-alienation in this world rather than pacifically reconciling one’s self with the symbolic help of faith. This required understanding that the roots of social discontent could never be resolved through idealist symbology, but only through material transformation of social relations and the free development of each becoming a condition for the free development of all.

Conclusion: The Faith of a Materialist

MacIntyre points out how many of the reactionary forms of religion deserved Marx’s critique. They’d surrendered their ethical seriousness to idolatry, and came to function as the handmaidens of power rather than its critics. Never the less he points out how the spirit of Christian egalitarianism and solidaristic humanism persists in the young Marx’s work and can even be recognized as late as Capital Volume Three. Marx rejected strict equality of resources in his “Critique of the Gotha Programme” on the basis that different individuals had different needs and abilities. Nevertheless his ideal society of “associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature..” has a distinctly egalitarian and humanist quality to it. Echoing Hegel’s own reading of Genesis, it describes human history as a long progression from being simple animals governed by brute necessity, to one where we create our history but not under conditions chosen or even understood by us very well, and finally to the “true realm of freedom” where the development of human powers becomes a self-conscious end in itself for the first time. By contrast, the world of capitalism was one not all that different from Dante’s hell: one where the coercive necessity of market dynamics compelled humanity to destroy nature in a brute competition to valorize capital. It was Marx’s faith that one day the world of capital too would pass; and it is faith without guarantees that many of us share.


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