Socialist Worker

Freedom, religion and Marx

In the aftermath of the horrific Paris killings, Ken Olende looks at the Marxist attitude to satire, free expression and the role of religion

Issue No. 2436

L’Assemblée Nationale by James Gillray (1804). The Prince of Wales paid to have it suppressed and its plate destroyed

L’Assemblée Nationale by James Gillray (1804). The Prince of Wales paid to have it suppressed and its plate destroyed

The horrific  and shocking killings at the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and of Jews at a kosher supermarket have led to a chorus of people contrasting freedom of expression with religious intolerance.

The magazine has been praised for supposedly attacking all religions and authority without exception. But there is a big difference between lampooning those at the top of society and mocking the poor and oppressed. 

Making fun of those who rest secure in their wealth and position in society is not the same as seeking to further humiliate those who face a daily round of institutional racism and state attacks.  

Satire can speak truth to power but it can also trap and encourage prejudice. 

The Western establishment’s common sense view of itself is that since the “Enlightenment” in the 18th century it has been largely tolerant and secular.

But “freedom of speech” is a myth—and our rulers and the rich know it. They constrain what is said by their ownership and control of much of the media, and sometimes they directly use violence or censorship to drown out opposing views. 

Charlie Hebdo was set up after censors shut down a magazine the cartoonists previously worked for. 

It was “guilty” of posting a mock death notice for president Charles de Gaulle in 1970.

Mocking cartoons have helped expose privilege and corruption. James Gillray caricatured King George III  and politicians in the 1790s and after. 

Private Eye ridiculed Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan in the 1960s. But people defending satire like this rarely mention racist anti-Irish or anti-Semitic cartoons in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Few would support a magazine advocating child abuse being allowed to publish. Actions have consequences. A key US case ruled that people don’t have the right to express themselves by falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. 

The judgement continues, that this would “create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”.

What rulers and ruled think is reasonable varies. Both might agree that promotion of child pornography is not acceptable. 

But the US government first raised the issue during the First World War as an excuse to ban people leafleting against conscription.


Chelsea Manning is currently imprisoned for 35 years in the US for exposing what the military was doing and Nato planes bombed journalists in Serbia in 1999 for opposing the US. 

The other issue raised by last week’s killings is the role of religion. Many people who want to explain the world in a rational way see religion as one of the main problems. 

People talk of all religion, but in practise it is Islam or versions of Christianity dominant outside the West that they focus on.

There are very few articles in the press about the threat to  society posed by the Church of England or the Pope. It is Islam that press and politicians say has “questions to answer”.

In London’s Evening Standard newspaper French commentator Agnes Poirier wrote after the Charlie Hebdo attack, “Successive French governments of both left and right have undermined key French republican values—above all secularism.” 

In echoes of British politicians’ response to Ukip she says that the Front National has done so well because it was, “One of the few political parties in France actually to speak plainly of Islamism.”

Just as bluntly, the bosses’ Economist magazine recently stated, “The faith’s claim, promoted by many of its leading lights, to combine spiritual and earthly authority, with no separation of mosque and state, has stunted the development of independent political institutions.”

But such ideas which divorce religion from the events in the real world, can’t explain why people decide to do things at particular times. 

Although people have tried to logically understand the world for hundreds of years, the reality of everyday capitalism is deeply irrational, so it is not surprising that many people look to irrational explanations. 

But when we look at the main problems in the world they emerge from the material reality of capitalism, imperialism, inequality and exploitation. 

These are reflected in the ideas in people’s heads.

In the Prophet and the Proletariat Chris Harman argued that all religions adapt to the concrete circumstances. “The Roman Catholic Church originated in the late ancient world and survived by adapting itself to feudal society for 1,000 years and then, with much effort, to the capitalist society that replaced feudalism, changing much of the content of its own teaching in the process,” he wrote.

When people talk about Islam as a particularly backward religion and ask in bewilderment why people in much of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are hostile to the West, they often talk as if the West had not overrun the rest of the world. 

Religious belief is seen as pre-Enlightenment, something peculiarly backward and therefore outside modern political discourse. 

In fact modern capitalist states work with and use religion. It is simply not good enough to view religion as a delusion that has gripped the minds of millions for centuries.

Rather religious ideas, like all other ideas, are products of social and historical circumstances. Karl Marx said, “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. To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. 

“The demand to give up illusions about the existing affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs that needs illusions. 

“The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.”

It is no wonder people take refuge in belief in supernatural forces in the storm that is class society. This is truest at the heart of the beast in the US. 

Marx’s argument that the demand for a secular state is not enough is just as true today. Secularism in itself doesn’t get rid of religion, because it doesn’t deal with the reasons people have religious ideas.

Religious faith is not the cause of oppression, but a response to it. Looking at religion divorced from other social aspects is a waste of time. 

In contrast, Marx called for the radical generalisation of “political emancipation” into a “human emancipation” that would transform economic relations and society. 

This socialist political project would be based on a materialist understanding of the world, not just an atheistic one. While there is a degree of hypocrisy in the liberal defence of the Enlightenment, certain radical ideas did emerge. 

These include the idea of religious tolerance and the defence of the rights of minorities. 

Voltaire’s talk of defending people he disagreed with was largely concerned with stopping the persecution of religious minorities, the equivalent of today’s Muslims. But imperialism and racism are not hangovers from an earlier age of superstition. Both have grown up under capitalism.

The greater irrationality of capitalism is in the void between the reality of freedom it promises and the constraints—economic, political, social—it offers in reality.

That is why we should not be drawn behind hypocritical campaigns designed to bolster the tainted image of our rulers.

Nor can we give an inch to those who seek to entrench even deeper the vile racism and Islamophobia that already exists in society.  


The prophet and the proletariat by Chris Harman

The Bolsheviks and Islam by Dave Crouch

The Meek and the Militant—Religion and Power Across the World by Paul Siegel

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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