Karl Marx (Holzschnitt)


This article first appeared in the April 26, 1968 issue of Commonweal

  Can a true Marxist be a religious believer? During an international conference of Marxist scholars two years ago, I asked that question of three Eastern European philosophers. All three agreed that Marxists and believers can peacefully coexist and cooperate. Two also thought that religious beliefs would be no obstacle to the adoption of Marxist doctrine. The third one, a highly intelligent liberal, had serious doubts whether religion and Marxism could be combined. His negative answer, however, was not based upon the materialism and scientism that are part of the official doctrine of most Communist states. All agreed that these apocryphal theories are quite foreign to the spirit of Marx's philosophy. The real reason why religion cannot be combined with Marxism lies, according to the one dissenter, in Marx's theory of action. Who is right?

     It is obvious that the tension between most Communist regimes and the Christian Churches has softened. The expediency of atheistic propaganda is openly questioned in Communist countries. Political pragmatism has replaced dogmatic rigidity. Positive cooperation between Communism and the Churches now seems to have become a distinct possibility. The dialogue already exists. Does it also justify hopes for a full doctrinal reconciliation? Could the two greatest moral forces in the world ever join in the creation of a new humanism? Of course, such a spiritual merger would require that the Christian abandon some of his other-worldly detachment toward social problems and that the Communist become somewhat less simplistic in the economic interpretation of history. But neither one of these conditions implies the reversal of an essential position, and both parties could only gain by such a compromise. On one point, however, no compromise is possible: atheism must be dropped. Can this be done without jeopardizing the essential doctrine of Marx? According to some participants in the dialogue (mostly Christians), atheism was never an essential part of authentic Marxism. The latter rejects only idols: the refusal of true religion is, however genuine, incongruous with Marx's philosophy. All it would take, then, to reconcile religion with Marxism is to relinquish the spurious elements of both doctrines.

     While fully supporting cooperation in constructing a more human world, I am less optimistic about a doctrinal reconciliation. Atheism understood as a denial of any God belongs to the essence of Marx's philosophy. A Czech Communist, Julius Tomin, put the matter quite correctly in an article, "Beginnings of Dialogue," in the Prague Literary Weekly: "Marxism cannot be content with a struggle which only touches religion but is unable to refute it or which refutes only the utterly reactionary and backward forms of religion. It is important to refute religion even in its most developed forms." This position by no means renders the dialogue with Communism useless. On the contrary, a more serious study of Marx's attitude toward religion could lead to the abolition of the speculative, belligerent sort of atheism which is still prevalent in most Communist regimes. For theory or practice directly aimed at the abolition of religious beliefs conflicts with Marx's philosophy. What ought to be attacked is the basis of these beliefs, namely, the social frustration which religion merely expresses and mythologizes. To attack religion itself rather than the conditions which produce it, is both ineffective and wrong according to Marx. Marx's own negative attitude toward religion was never based upon speculative arguments for the non-existence of God. He rejected religion because it was incompatible with his theory of action. That is why the sort of "scientist," speculative atheism advocated in the Soviet Union, which stems from Engels, Lenin and Stalin, basically conflicts with Marx's philosophy, even though Marx is indirectly responsible for it.

Inheritance from Feuerbach

     It is true that Marx was an atheist long before he developed his theory of action. He inherited a speculative atheism from Feuerbach. But as his own theories grew, this atheism underwent such basic changes that the two can no longer be considered to be of the same kind. Feuerbach's atheism is rooted in a speculative theory of man. According to Feuerbach, religion expresses man's relation to his own nature, but to his own nature not recognized as such. Since all the predicates which man ascribes to God are purely human, Feuerbach argues, there is no reason why the subject of these predicates should not be human also. Man is his own God. The God of religion is an extrapolation of man's own powers of striving, thinking and feeling. Such an extrapolation is inevitable in the earliest stages of the development of consciousness. As long as man is unable to conceive of human nature as a reality that far transcends its individual realizations, he projects his own infinite powers onto a superhuman being. Unfortunately, at a later stage when man ought to know that the potential of the human race far surpasses the powers of single individuals, he nevertheless maintains this projective attitude. Feuerbach attributes man's strange refusal to reappropriate what is his own to an immature desire for sharing the humiliating restrictions of one's private existence with the entire human species.

     In The Essence of Christianity, we read: "Man identifies himself immediately with the species—a mistake which is immediately connected with the individual's love of ease, sloth, vanity and egoism. For a limitation which I know to be merely mine humiliates, shames and perturbs me. Hence to free myself from the feeling of shame, from this state of dissatisfaction, I convert the limits of my individuality into the limits of human nature in general." The notion of alienation in Hegel's philosophy describes the dialectical opposition between the thesis and the antithesis of the dialectical movement. Feuerbach now applies it to the operation by which man estranges part of his own powers and projects them into an external, infinite being. For Feuerbach God is the alienation of man: the self-estrangement preceding the reappropriation of the divine into the human.

     The young Marx accepted Feuerbach's view of religion as an alienation of man and never changed his position on that issue. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 which inaugurate his own philosophy, Marx writes: "If I know religion as alienated human self-consciousness, what I know in it as religion is not my self-consciousness but my alienated self-consciousness confirmed in it. Thus my own self, and the self-consciousness which is its essence, is not confirmed in religion but in the abolition and supersession of religion." At the same time he felt that Feuerbach did not explain satisfactorily the origin of this alienation. There must be more serious grounds for maintaining man's self-estrangement than sloth and vanity. In an early commentary on Hegel's Philosophy of the State written under the direct influence of Feuerbach, Marx points to the social and economic conditions of modern life as the source of man's alienation. In fact, these conditions are man's true alienation. Religion is only an expression of it: man takes refuge in the phantasy world of the beyond because he is profoundly frustrated in his earthly existence. Nor is religion the main culprit in maintaining these frustrating conditions. For it is the political structure which legalizes and protects the social status quo. Feuerbach's theory of alienation, therefore, applies to the State more than to religion. "The political constitution was, until today, the religious sphere, the cult of people's life, the heaven of its universality, as opposed to the earthly existence of its reality." Yet, neither State nor religion reveals the roots of alienation, for these lie in the economic conditions of a society determined by private property.

     How much religion is subordinated to man's social-economic conditions Marx illustrates in an early article on the Jewish question. His former friend, Bruno Bauer, had proposed the thesis that the Jewish problem could be solved instantly if the Jew would cease to claim religious privileges from the State. By doing so, he maintains the religious State in existence and prevents his own as well as other people's emancipation. The emancipation of man requires a secular State that recognizes neither Christianity nor Jews. Marx agreed that the existence of religion always indicates an incomplete emancipation, but he denied that religion is the cause of the problem and, for that matter, that political rights are the solution. Bauer simply identified religion with alienation and political equality with emancipation. But political emancipation is by no means human emancipation. In fact, political emancipation may very well coexist with a thriving religious life. "To be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation" (Early Writings). The situation of the United States offers an interesting illustration of this point. The American State is entirely separated from the Church and Americans should, therefore, be fully emancipated, according to Bauer's theory. Yet, Marx points out, the U.S.A. is considered to be the religious country par excellence. Far from implying the suppression of religion, political emancipation grants man the right to worship according to the religion of his choice. Even if the State would suppress religion, its own existence would remain a profane expression of an alienation which in time would irresistibly produce its religious form. So, instead of being a remedy against religious alienation, the secular State is the purest symptom of its presence. More than religion, the State keeps alive the inhuman conditions that separate man from his fellow man and thereby prevent mankind from realizing its full potential. If religion means deception, the State is more religious than the Church. "The members of the political State are religious because of the dualism between individual life and species-life, between the life of civil society and political life. They are religious in the sense that man treats political life, which is remote from his own individual existence, as if it were his true life; and in the sense that religion is here the spirit of civil society, and expresses the separation and withdrawal of man from man" (Early Writings).

     However, religion is not merely an expression of alienation—it also is a protest against it. In his "Introduction to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," written around the same time, Marx uses the famous expression that religion is the opium of the people. Yet, he adds immediately: "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is the call to abandon a condition which requires illusions." The French Marxist Roger Garaudy concludes from this text that only the reflection aspect (the ideological content) of religion is illusionary, while the element of protest expresses a profound truth about the human condition. It would be mistaken, according to him, to describe Marx's view of religion only in terms of alienation. As an expression of human misery and protest against it, religion rightly questions the structure of society. Religion is false only in its answers, but it is most true in the questions which it raises.

It is small comfort to religion that Marx considers it an authentic cry of distress as long as he does not take seriously the content of this cry.

Garaudy's interpretation is entirely correct, but it does not provide a legitimate basis for the continuance of religion in the Marxist society. Nor does it justify its present existence. For the religious way of questioning man's situation already implies a wrong answer. The right answer cannot be given as long as the protest remains religious. So, even as a form of social protest, religion can only slow down the advent of the Communist society. The first step toward a solution, therefore, would be to abandon a way of posing the problem which makes a solution impossible. Yet the abandonment of religion is merely a pre-condition and not, as Marx's atheist friends believed, the solution itself. Communism is much more than the atheism, even though atheism is a preliminary requirement for it. "Communism begins where atheism begins, but atheism is at the outset still far from being Communism; indeed it is still for the most part an abstraction" (Early Writings).

     It is small comfort to religion that Marx considers it an authentic cry of distress as long as he does not take seriously the content of this cry. For Marx religion is a symptom of social disease, not an articulate symbol. To expect the symptom to provide a cure would be most unreasonable. Rather will the symptom disappear with the disease. Marx's distaste for Feuerbach's atheism does not originate in a more open attitude toward religion but rather in his conviction that atheism alone is insufficient to cure the ills of the human situation. Atheism attempts to cure the symptoms without eradicating the disease itself, namely, man's social-economic condition in capitalist society. Theism will never be compatible with a free society, yet neither is atheism sufficient to produce such a society. That religion must be unmasked as a deception is self-evident to Marx, but more important is the question: What causes man to deceive himself? Neither Feuerbach nor any other atheist philosopher ever seriously attempted to answer that question. If they had, "the critique of heaven would have been transformed into a critique of earth, the critique of law, the critique of theology into a critique of politics" (Early Writings).

The Atheism-Communism Link

     In the important Manuscripts of 1844, Marx attempts to determine the precise connection between atheism and Communism. Again he states that a full reappropriation of what man has alienated from himself cannot be achieved by a mere annulment of God, but only by an annulment of the social structure of private property which produces the need for God. Private property and religion are complementary aspects of the same alienation, while Communism and atheism are the two facets of the same reappropriation. "Atheism as the annulment of God is the emergence of theoretical humanism, and Communism as the annulment of private property is the vindication of real human life as man's property. The latter is also the emergence of practical humanism, for atheism is humanism mediated to itself by the annulment of religion, while Communism is humanism mediated to itself by the annulment of private property....Atheism and Communism are not a flight or abstraction from, or loss of, the objective world which men have created by the objectification of their faculties. They are not an impoverished return to unnatural, primitive simplicity. They are rather the first real emergence, the genuine actualization of man's nature as something real." Although the reappropriation process has a theoretical aspect, it ultimately consists in reestablishing the true relationship between man and nature, and this relationship is an active one, a praxis. For Marx as for the existentialists, to be human is not to be something but to do something. Not leisure and contemplation but work and material production constitute man's fulfillment.

     It is most incorrect to brand this productive view of man as materialism. In a few remarks jotted down in 1845 and later published by Engels as Theses on Feuerbach, Marx clearly rejects materialism as a simplistic reduction of consciousness to nature. "The chief defect of all materialism up to now (including Feuerbach's) is that the object, reality, that we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the object or contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice; not subjectively. Hence in opposition to materialism the active side was developed abstractly by idealism--which of course does not know real conscious activity as such." Only the praxis holds both poles of the human reality, nature and consciousness, as well as their relationship, simultaneously present. All interpretations of man or of nature which explain either consciousness or nature independently of the active relation to the other term, are a priori false. Marx rejects such purely theoretical constructions as "ideologies." All idealist systems in which consciousness is the only active element are obviously ideological. But materialism is just as ideological, for any theory that considers nature independently of consciousness, in which alone nature reveals itself, is an abstract, mental construction. The only true philosophy is the philosophy of action, for the truth of man is in what he does, not in what he knows or claims to know independently of his active relation to nature. This is the meaning of Marx's famous dictum in Thesis XI on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is to change it." Atheism as a speculative philosophy is not based upon the praxis and is therefore pure ideology. It misses the practical origin of all ideas, its own as well as the idea of God. Its entire approach to truth is therefore wrong even though it accidentally results in correct conclusions. Its mistake lies in the assumption that ideas are independent of the social conditions of action and, consequently, that they can be changed without changing these conditions. The recent emphasis on Marx's anti-materialist attitude and of his final rejection of speculative atheism, has aroused new hope of reconciling religion with Marxist pragmatism. To me this hope seems unjustified. For to open Marxism to religion it is not sufficient to prove that Marx was neither a materialist nor a speculative atheist. The very same argument which disposes of speculative systems as atheism and materialism, also disposes of religion. Any theory that does not have its roots in man's active relation to nature and the social conditions necessitated by this relation lacks the only possible basis of sound theory. Now this is obviously the case for religion, for in religion man claims precisely to transcend his relation to nature.

Is Religion Positively Excluded?

     However, one might ask, does the absence of a foundation in the praxis positively exclude religion? Could one not argue that a consistent Marxist pragmatism ought to adopt a neutral rather than a hostile attitude toward any private beliefs that do not positively counteract the progress of socialist humanism? Such is already the attitude of most socialist parties in Western Europe. Why could it not be adopted by Communist regimes as well? Individual Communists have argued, like Roger Garaudy in From Anathema to Dialogue, that religion may have some practical justification in the fact that religion, as all ideologies, is a "project" and that all action requires some "projecting" in order to transcend the given and to anticipate a new reality.

     Interesting as this acceptance of a transcendent dimension is, it cannot change the Marxist position on religion, for the Marxist transcendence must always remain within the immanence of human possibilities. Action compels us to project beyond the present, but does not allow us to project beyond the human. Garaudy himself seems to be aware of this, for he writes about the transcendence projected by Communism: "This new frontier of hominization, making of every man a man, questioning and creative, will mark a new detachment from the earth. The detachment, this time, will be from all the alienations which have been crystallized for thousands of years and have become so thoroughly customary as to seem to us like a given nature, like earth itself. It will free the spiritual energies of each man and of all men with such force that it is absolutely impossible… to imagine their nature and their use. This future, open to the infinite, is the only transcendence which is known to us as atheists." This frank and unambiguous statement shows how much the Communist has in common with the believer. It also shows why they can never agree on the basic issue, even after the believer has disposed of all his idols and the Communist of all his prejudices. The Communist transcendent cannot be God, for, as Garaudy writes, "it is impossible to conceive of a God who is always in process of making himself, in process of being born." The Communist transcendent is transcendent with respect to the present, not to the future of man. Any absolute transcendence is out of the question. That is the reason why, from a Marxist point of view, religious belief must always conflict with a truly humanist attitude. Creationist dependence and full human autonomy arc incompatible. As Marx writes in the Manuscripts: "A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the favor of another considers himself a dependent being. But I live completely by another person's favor when I owe to him not only the continuance of my life but also its creation, when he is its source" Even the question of creation cannot come up for Marx, because it conflicts with the praxis.

     Does not such a positive exclusion of an absolute transcendent constitute a return to speculative atheism, and hence to pure ideology? Not really, for the independence of man which Marx asserts is primarily an independence of acting. Atheism as denial of supernatural reality is merely a conclusion concerning the independence of man's being which is implied in his independence of acting. That is the only reason why Marx supports his practical humanism by some atheistic considerations. If it were not for the ontological implication of an autonomous praxis, Marx would not even bother to call himself an atheist. For atheism is speculative and negative, while the entire attitude of the Communist is practical and positive. "Creation conflicts with the choice of autonomy: that is the core of Marx's argument. He does not undertake a metaphysical analysis of the structures of the real or a phenomenological description of dependent behavior. His considerations are not true proofs, they rather provide apologetic weapons to support a thesis accepted on a different ground: creation is not possible because it conflicts with the choice of autonomy; that is a postulate" So George Cottier notes in L'athéisme du jeune Marx.

     For Marx the praxis is an absolute which admits no further questioning. The speculative question: 'How did man and nature originate?' is ultimately meaningless because it views as non-existent the very act from which all questions of existence must originate. Marx mentions spontaneous generation, but that is merely an expression to shrug off the problem. No questions of being can be asked beyond the praxis.

     Two conclusions follow from the preceding. 1) Religious beliefs are totally incompatible with the philosophy of Marx. 2) Atheism, which was the original starting-point of Marx's philosophy, gradually lost its primary importance until it was reduced to a mere implication of the praxis. Primary now is an absolute autonomy of the praxis which excludes any transcendent principle of acting. This closed autonomy is what gives Marx's philosophy its forceful simplicity. But Marx pays a high price for this simplicity. For aside from excluding an entire dimension of human experience in which man knows himself as a contingent being, Marx's philosophy unduly restricts the praxis to a material production process. Space does not permit me to do full justice here to a thesis which I have developed at length in a work on The Philosophical Foundations of Marxism. But even a superficial look shows that Marx's theory of superstructures has unjustifiably narrowed his interpretation of action. Marxist man is autonomous only in his material life process. All cultural values intrinsically and indissolubly depend upon this original process. It is the economic character of the praxis which has led Communist theoreticians in the past to interpret Marx in a materialist way. The interpretation is wrong, but tcxts as the following (The German Ideology) on the origin of ideas show how much responsibility Marx himself bears for the misinterpretation: "We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men developing the material production and their material intercourse alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking." All claims of independence are "ideological" mystifications and embellishments of social conditions that need idealization. Consciousness is determined by social-economic relations, and these relations are determined by forces of production.

     Yet Marx never denies the originality of consciousness. He says explicitly that man could no more establish social-economic relations without consciousness than he could be conscious without social-economic relations. The same mutual causality applies to the relation between nature and consciousness. Marx never reduces consciousness to a physiological or chemical process of nature. The production process which determines man's thinking presupposes an active relationship with nature in which consciousness has as much impact upon nature as nature upon consciousness. Consciousness as such is not a product of nature. The moment it becomes consciousness it opposes itself to nature.

     Engels, who is usually held responsible for Marxism's later development toward materialism, goes even further and admits at one point a mutual causality between the production process and the other processes of consciousness. "Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic condition is the cause and alone active, while everything else only is a passive effect." If this line of thinking had been pursued, the situation of Marxism with respect to religion would have looked entirely different. For in that case Marxism would merely have asserted the interdependence of the various levels of consciousness as well as their dependence upon the economic production process. The thesis that all states of consciousness are conditioned by the attainment of a certain level of economic production is perfectly compatible with the acceptance of religious values. But that is not what Marx and Engels say. They claim that all states of consciousness are intrinsically determined (which is quite different from conditioned) by the economic production process. Even Engels' just quoted text, which is probably the most reconciliatory in the entire Marxist literature, concludes with the following sentence: "There is, rather, interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself." This implies that the ultimate explanation of all ideal values is to be found in economic processes. Such an economic determinism leads to unsatisfactory results in all fields of culture. To religion it strikes the death blow, for it excludes the existence of any reality independent of the material production.

     The economism of the concept of praxis, then, as well as its absolute autonomy are the ultimate reasons why Marxism is incompatible with religious belief. Are they also the final word on Communism's attitude toward religion? The question amounts to asking whether Communism must necessarily retain all the principles of Marx's philosophy. Several have been abandoned already. Marx's prediction about the demise of capitalism and the proletarization of the masses, is one important example. Lenin's "adaptation" of Marxism to the Russian situation is another. In some parts of Eastern Europe it is considered poor taste to quote Marx on economic matters. So then, why could Marx's theory of the praxis not be widened from a closed economism into an open humanism? True enough, autonomy and economic determinism belong to the core of Marxism, which cannot be changed without deviating from Marx's basic intuition. Yet even Marx's authority should remain subordinate to the cause of socialist humanism which he brought to the world. As long as the authority of its prophet remains an obstacle to the further development of its content, Marxism cannot claim to have fully overcome the anti-humanist dogma of Stalinism. Communism in the past has constantly decried revisionism as a half-hearted return to bourgeois theory. But has the time not come to incorporate into its theory the changes which are taking place in its own living praxis? Such an attitude would ultimately be more consistent with Marx's philosophy than the rigid preservation of a theory which is rapidly proving too narrow to interpret the fullness of human action.

Louis Dupré, a professor at Georgetown, is the author of The Philosophical Foundations of Marxism (Harcourt, Brace).

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