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Marxism and religion

Faline Bobier

December 22, 2013

Probably the most well-known, widely shared and least understood notion of Marx’s take on religion is encapsulated in Marx’s phrase that religion is the “opium of the masses.” This is variously interpreted by thinkers, right and left. Ironically, in some ways left and right thinkers can converge in their understanding, or misunderstanding, of Marx’s famous statement.
Essentially the argument is that Marx is implying that religion is like a drug for the ignorant, who are dupes, believing in superstition, rather than science. For so-called left-wing thinkers, such as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, religion is the root of all evil and can be wiped out through logical argument, as in Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.
And in the post 9/11 world, most pernicious of all, thinkers who once considered themselves to be on the left, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, aligned themselves with politicians like former president George W. Bush.  Hitchens ended up supporting American and British intervention in Iraq and the “War on Terror” because of the supposed backward and bloodthirsty nature of Islam and, by extension, the followers of Islam.
Thus Hitchens ended up supporting the forces of Western imperialism as they launched bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created immense death and destruction whose consequences continue to this day. And although Bush et al couched their wars in the language of a modern-day crusade against the evil-doers of Islam, it’s clear to any casual observer that oil was the real materialist basis for the aggression.
Bush used his own kind of Christian “fundamentalism” in launching US attacks, by his implication that Christianity is an “enlightened,” rational, set of beliefs, whereas Islam is a backward religion, breeding terrorism, focused against the West.
This is clearly nonsense. There are as many versions of Islam as there are of Christianity and all other world religions. Religious ideas are not monolithic and they have been used variously by reactionary and progressive forces. Catholicism can be and has been a reactionary force used to oppress ordinary people, often working with a repressive state. By the same token, we can look to the liberation theology of radical Catholics in Latin America.
The attacks on the Twin Towers in September 2011 were decried by Western leaders as proof of the irrational, terrorist, fundamentalist nature of Islam. Of course, they couldn’t afford to look at the real causes, the continuing oppression and exploitation of peoples in the Middle East, with the collusion and support of US and Western imperialism.
They also had to create a bogeyman that would justify their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Islamic fundamentalism. Of course, this served as a cover for the real reasons for their intervention. What could be more terrorist than dropping bombs on innocent civilians—killing men, women and children who had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks? Obviously most Muslims, as most Christians, Buddhists, people of the Jewish faith, etc. practice their religion for personal reasons that have nothing to do with supporting terrorism.
Islamophobia is a tool that Western ruling classes are also using to divide and conquer here at home. As austerity bites and working people face job loss, cuts to public services, attacks on union rights, our governments use anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim racism to defend military spending and focus people’s anger on their neighbours, rather than on corrupt and venal politicans and their corporate bosses.
Some base their understanding of the Marxist approach to religion on the experience of Stalinism—which condemned religion as reactionary, and demanded atheism from the parties and countries it ruled. But Stalin represented a counter-revolution that turned Marxist theory and practice on its head.
It’s instructive to look at the rest of the quote from which Marx’s famous “opium of the masses” phrase is taken: “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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo…Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”
In other words, religion is a creation of human beings, which helps them to deal with the alienation inherent in an unjust world. But this doesn’t mean only passive suffering and acceptance. Religion can also be a tool that people use in their attempt to fight back, and socialists need to be part of this fightback, building unity across faiths.
Lenin and the Bolshevik party in Russia organized in a country and at a time where masses of people looked to very conservative religious ideas and where racism against Jews and other national minorities held a strong influence among workers and peasants. The tsarist ruling class actively encouraged this racism in order to divide and conquer, in the same way that our governments use racism today. However, the Bolsheviks’ attitude was not one of calling for religion to be outlawed, or of abstractly propagandizing against religious ideas. This is because, following Marx and Engels, they had a materialist, not an idealist, conception of the roots of religion. Religion is a product, not of the ideas in people’s heads, but of the material conditions in which they find themselves, and as an attempt to explain the alienation in their circumstances.
As Lenin explained in his 1909 article, The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion: “Why does religion retain its hold?... Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressivist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: ‘Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!’ The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view… It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way… The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment… No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of masses who are crushed by capitalist hard labour, and who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way.”
Lenin explains, in the same article quoted above, why this was important, in terms of uniting all workers in a fight against their common oppressor: “The proletariat in a particular region…is divided, let us assume, into an advanced section of fairly class conscious Social Democrats , who are of course atheists, and rather backward workers…who believe in god, go to church, or are even under the direct influence of the local priest… Let us assume furthermore that the economic struggle in this locality has resulted in a strike. It is the duty of a Marxist to place the success of the strike movement above everything else, vigorously to counteract the division of the workers in this struggle into atheists and Christians, vigorously to oppose any such division. Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be both unnecessary and harmful—not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle, which in the conditions of modern capitalist society will convert Christian workers to Social Democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda. To preach atheism at such a moment and in such circumstances would only be playing into the hands of the priest and the priests, who desire nothing better than that the division of the workers according to their participation in the strike movement should be replaced by their division according to their belief in God. An anarchist who preached war against God at all costs would in effect be helping the priests and the bourgeoisie.”
It followed that there is no contradiction between someone of faith joining a socialist organization: “We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social-Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it.”
We have something to learn today from the experience of the Bolsheviks. Currently in Quebec the Parti Québecois government is attempting to use Islamophobia as a way to divide and conquer, by focusing on their so-called Values Charter, which targets Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, as emblems of values which are antithetical to those of others in Quebec.
The PQ is doing this as a way of deflecting criticism of their neoliberal agenda. They have nothing to offer ordinary Quebec citizens, other than cuts and tuition hikes. They are hoping that people won’t stop and think about who the real enemy is.
Luckily teachers’ organizations and others in Quebec are opposing the racism of the Values Charter. It is critically important, in the context of government attacks on the right of Muslims to practice their religion, that people in Quebec, whatever their religious affiliation, build solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters.
Far from calling for bans on religion, socialists should defend the individual’s right to practice their religion, both as a simple matter of freedom of expression, and as the only way to create the solidarity needed if we are to smash this system—which creates the very conditions of oppression and exploitation that give birth to religious ideas in the first place.
Paradise on earth
As Lenin argued in Socialism and Religion, written in 1905 during the first Russian Revolution, socialists call for the separation of state and religion but the defense of freedom of religion: “Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, ie, to be an atheist…Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated."
Socialists do not preach against religion but work to build unity among the 99%, regardless of their faith, so that we can collectively overthrow capitalism and create a world free from exploitation, oppression and war: “It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.”

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