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.
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.