Case for socialism: Religion and socialism

November 17, 1993

Nick Fredman

"Religion is the opium of the people." One of Karl Marx's best-known quotes seems to be saying that religion is a wholly negative phenomenon that prevents people from seeing the world as it is and changing it for the better.

In this Marx might seem to be in agreement with right-wing journalist Paul Sheehan, who is on a campaign against what he termed in the July 24 Sydney Morning Herald, "the cascade of reactionary provocations by Muslim men [against women] in this country", and with the many recent claims that Islam is particularly sexist, homophobic and anti-democratic.

However Marx's famous quote is also one that is generally taken out of context, and widely misunderstood.

Marx wrote those words in 1844, as a radical young journalist beginning to formulate his analysis of capitalism and the socialist alternative to it. He was taking part in a debate among the Young Hegelians, a group of followers of the philosopher Georg Hegel, about the role of religion in supporting oppressive social conditions.

In the Prussian state in which Marx then lived, religion was certainly an important ideological prop of the absolute monarchy and Marx acknowledged that "the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism" as "this state and this society produce religion".

However, unlike the more liberal Young Hegelians, who tended to see religion per se as the main problem and enlightened education as the answer, Marx formulated a conception of religion as a complex and contradictory reflection of social conditions and social struggles.

He wrote: "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."

That is, religion could reflect and express not just oppression, but also the struggle against oppression, albeit in a distorted or incomplete way. It might be in some cases, as opium often was in the 19th century, the best available way of managing a painful condition, more than a mind-numbing narcotic.

Frederick Engels used this insight in his 1850 book The Peasant War in Germany, in which he analysed 16th century peasant uprisings as proto-socialist movements for social liberation, with religious colourations.

As part of the mid-1840s Young Hegelian debate about religion, Bruno Bauer opposed civil rights for Jews on the grounds that this campaign encouraged a reactionary religion. Marx, in his article "On the Jewish Question", answered that civil and political rights for all were a necessary step to full "human emancipation".

This political perspective was generalised by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who argued in his famous 1902 pamphlet on building a socialist party, What Is To Be Done, that socialists must respond to "all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected".

In a 1905 article, "Socialism and Religion", Lenin argued that while a socialist party should propagate a materialist outlook and advocate a strict separation between church and state, it should also campaign against persecution of believers and should concentrate on political rather than philosophical agreement among socialists, that is, be happy to let believers into its ranks.

The latter point was a hot potato for many years within the Cuban revolution, with believers admitted to the Communist Party of Cuba only in 1991 after considerable debate.

Some secular liberals today who support the "war on terror" against "Islamo-fascism" follow Bruno Bauer in blaming a particular religion for backwardness and prejudice. They fail to see that particular social-historical conditions are the cause of oppression and that any religion, and just about any ideology in particular circumstances, can be used to justify oppression.

They fail to see that Islam can, at the same time, justify the wholly reactionary oppression of women by regimes in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and help motivate wholly progressive struggles for national liberation in Palestine and Lebanon.

They fail to see that just as the vicious anti-Jewish prejudice that began in 19th century Europe was a tool of the ruling class at the time, today Islamophobic prejudice is a handy tool for dividing the working class at home and promoting imperialist adventures abroad.

The way to overcome the negative effects of religion is not to lecture believers about their "ignorance", but to support full freedom of spiritual and cultural expression (to the extent that no-one's rights are impinged), and to encourage people of all faiths, and none, to join in struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation.

Confusion on this score can lead to such counterproductive behaviour as the support of a ban on the wearing of the hijab scarf in public schools by sections of the French left. Such discrimination can only drive working class Muslims away from the left — and into faith schools.

As Marx put it in 1844, "the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions."

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