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Religion: Idealism or Materialism?

Marx and Religion 01

From a Marxist perspective, is religion an idealist or a materialist phenomenon? Is it secondary or can it be a primary feature of human existence? The initial answer seems obvious: it is idealist and secondary. However, the situation is not as simple as it seems, especially if we consider the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

From a certain Marxist perspective, religion is conventionally understood as both an idealist position and a secondary phenomenon, which seems to rule out the possibility that it may be a cause of anything, let alone revolutionary activity. Here one may invoke some of Marx’s early writings to support the contention that religion is other-worldly, illusory, unreal, and thereby a subset of idealism. It simply has no place in the real world of living, breathing, pulsing human beings as they seek liberation. As a form of idealism, religion has no independent existence and therefore does not have a history.[1] He deploys this position to great effect in his engagements concerning philosophy and theology, his long and detailed critique of Hegel, and in The German Ideology (Marx 1842 [1975]-b, 1842 [1975]-a, 1843 [1975], 1843 [1974], Marx and Engels 1845-6 [1976], 1845-6 [1973]). Engels would then lay out this position in his inimitably accessible style, with the great distinction between idealist and materialist philosophical traditions (Engels 1880 [1989], 1880 [1973]). And for the Lenin of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, this distinction became the organising structure of his efforts to attack those attracted to empirio-criticism among the Bolsheviks of early twentieth century (Lenin 1908 [1962]). Indeed, for Lenin, idealism was merely a subtle form of fideism, which he defined as ‘a doctrine which substitutes faith for knowledge, or which generally attaches significance to faith’ (Lenin 1908 [1962], 19).

The argument that religion is a secondary phenomenon is closely related, drawn initially from Feuerbach’s (1989 [1841], 1986 [1841]) famous inversion in which the gods are projections of all that is good and noble in human beings. For Feuerbach, the true and refined theological task was to reclaim such attributes for human beings themselves (Feuerbach saw his project as refining theology rather than debunking it). Marx’s crucial reinterpretation argued that that religion is not so much the projection of the best in human beings, but the result of and response to alienated conditions of existence (Marx 1845 [1976], 4, 1845 [1973], 6). This position would have the intriguing result that communist parties, from the First International onwards, refused to require atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Since religion was a secondary phenomenon, it was up to the individual member to deal with the tension between religious belief and party membership. As the influential Erfurt Program of the German Social-Democratic Party put it in 1891: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’ (SPD 1891a, 3, 1891b, 3).

However, this is a rather one-sided view of the Marxist approaches to religion. A fuller picture includes the original position developed by Engels, according to which a religion such as Christianity may have a distinctly revolutionary role (Engels 1894-5 [1990], 1894-5 [1972], 1850 [1978], 1850 [1973]). It may be the early Christians, or the sixteenth century Peasant Revolution led by the ‘theologian of the revolution’, Thomas Münzer, or many other instances examined by Marxists who have followed Engels’s inspiration – from Kautsky to Žižek (Kautsky 1976 [1895-97]-a, 1976 [1895-97]-b, Žižek 2000, 2001, 2003). The question that arises here is how one accounts for such a possibility. Engels tended, especially in treatment of Münzer, to argue that theological language was a cloak for speaking of political and economic grievances and aspirations, indeed that such a language was the only one possible at the time. Of course, this enables him to argue that modern socialism breaks with that tradition, for it speaks directly of the ‘real’ issues.

This is not Engels’s strongest argument, for religion is as much a material concern as it is spiritual. Let me put it this way: a religion such as Christianity is as concerned with this world and this age (the original sense of saeculum, the basis of ‘secularism’), as it is with the world above or indeed the world to come as heaven on earth. The concern is not merely with heaven, but very much with the condition in which we find ourselves. It is not for nothing that theology has concerned itself with nature (the doctrine of creation), the human condition (anthropology), the forms of human collectivity (sociology and the ‘church’) and history itself. Another way of making this obvious – but too often forgotten – point is that any religion has its institutional forms, economic concerns and politics, without which its ideologies would be bereft of any basis.

Yet I am not content to rest with a conventional base-superstructure distinction in order to indicate that religion has a material force. So let me return to Marx by asking whether ideas themselves can have a material presence and power. In Marx’s initial reflections on fetishism – a core idea with clear religious origins he was to rework throughout his life (Boer 2011) – in the first volume of Capital, he struggles to move past the conventional opposition of real and unreal in relation to the fetish. He attempts many formulations in his effort to show that the fetish is both an idea and material reality, illusion and reality, mystical and materially grounded. Working at the limits of language, he then produces a telling phrase: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms [gesellschaftlich gültige, also objektive Gedankenformen]’ (Marx 1867 [1972], 90). Thought forms themselves may be socially valid and objectively real. The point is crucial, especially in the way Marx develops, in the subsequent volumes of Capital, the category of the fetish – originally a concept from the study of religions – to understand the core of capitalism. The implications for understanding religion from a Marxist perspective are immense, although Marx did not pursue them. If religion can be an objective thought form, both real and unreal in conventional language, then it also has a distinctly objective, material reality at the same moment that it is an idea.


Boer, Roland. 2011. “Kapitalfetisch: “The Religion of Everyday Life”.” International Critical Thought no. 1 (4):416-26.

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Toscano, Alberto. 2010. Fanaticism: On the Uses of An Idea. London: Verso.

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[1] As Engels put with his characteristic clarity in a letter to Franz Mehring in 1893, ‘What has above all deluded the majority of people is this semblance of an independent history of political constitutions, legal systems and ideological conceptions in each individual sphere. When Luther and Calvin “overcome” the official Catholic faith, when Hegel “overcomes” Fichte and Kant, or when, with his Contrat social, Rousseau indirectly “overcomes” the constitutionalist Montesquieu, the process is one which remains within the confines of theology, philosophy and political science, which represents a stage in the history of these spheres of thought and never emerges from the sphere of thought’ (Engels 1893 [2004], 164-5, Engels 1893 1973, 97). More recently, Toscano has championed such a position (Toscano 2010).

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