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Marx and religion

This article is over 15 years, 10 months old
Karl Marx was critical of liberals who poured scorn on religion, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue 1990
Jews look at the ruins of their house after a pogrom. Pogroms against Jews were a common feature across much of Europe in the 19th century
Jews look at the ruins of their house after a pogrom. Pogroms against Jews were a common feature across much of Europe in the 19th century

What is Karl Marx’s best known quote on religion? Many people know that Marx described religion as “the opium of the people”. But far fewer know the whole quote: “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.”

A careful examination of Marx’s writings on the subject reveals that while he certainly criticised religion, he was equally scathing about liberals who elevated criticism of religion over all other political concerns.

As with so much of Marx’s work, to understand his analysis of religion we have to take a closer look at the political struggles he was involved in throughout his life.

Marx was born in Prussia, now part of Germany, in 1818. One defining political struggle during Marx’s early career revolved around religion.

Jews in Prussia faced systematic discrimination, with laws determining where they could live and the occupations they could take up. In the 1840s there were raging debates about Jewish emancipation which parallel some of the arguments about Islam and Muslims today.

At the time, Marx was making a name for himself as a radical journalist working on liberal publications. Much of his energy was spent debating with a circle of liberal writers and thinkers known as the Young Hegelians. Prominent among them was Bruno Bauer, who had been one of Marx’s tutors at university.

Bauer started off his academic career on the right, but had shifted left politically, becoming increasingly critical of Christianity. In 1842 he was dismissed from his university post in Berlin because of his radical views.

There were good reasons why Bauer and the Young Hegelians criticised Christianity and religion in general. Prussia at the time was still an absolute monarchy with restrictive laws dating from the feudal era, propped up by the stifling ideology of the church.

The liberals in Prussia hankered for the kind of reforms that had come in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution. They were, however, considerably less keen on the messy business of actually having a revolution. Consequently they focused on demanding reforms from the creaking Prussian government – in particular parliamentary elections and the separation of church and state.

The Jewish demand for emancipation was part of this wider struggle. Marx, whose Jewish father had converted to Christianity to escape oppression, backed the campaign to scrap the laws that discriminated against Jews.

Liberal atheists

But not all liberals followed suit. In sharp contrast to Marx, Bauer came out against Jewish emancipation, mobilising in his defence a seemingly left wing argument. Many of Bauer’s comments prefigure the arguments put by some today for downplaying, ­ignoring or colluding with Islamophobia.

Bauer argued that religion was the main enemy, and therefore to support Jews demanding emancipation as Jews would be tantamount to capitulating to religion and the special pleading of a religious minority. Jews should first renounce their religion, he insisted, and only then would they deserve the support of liberal atheists.

“As long as he is a Jew, the restricted nature which makes him a Jew is bound to triumph over the human nature which should link him as a man with other men, and will separate him from non-Jews,” wrote Bauer in one essay on the question.

While this argument superficially seems to treat all religions as “equally bad”, it was rapidly backed up by another that clarified what was really at stake. In a second essay attacking the Jewish emancipation campaign, Bauer argued that while all religions were equally bad, some were more equal than others.

Specifically, Bauer now claimed that Christianity was in fact superior to Judaism: “The Christian has to surmount only one stage, namely, that of his religion, in order to give up religion altogether. The Jew, on the other hand, has to break not only with his Jewish nature, but also with the development towards perfecting his religion, a development which has remained alien to him.”

Here the parallels with arguments over Islam today are striking. Liberal secularists often insist that they are against all religion, and have no specific issue with Islam. But the specific religion that most exercises them, the one they hold predominantly responsible for social evils from terrorism through to homophobia, invariably turns out to be Islam.

Marx, who was already rethinking his relationship with the Young Hegelians, responded forcibly to his former mentor Bauer in a polemical essay called On The Jewish Question, published in 1844. Rather than join in the attacks on “Jewish backwardness”, or issue simpering pleas for “tolerance”, he turned his guns on the failings of Bauer’s liberal politics.

First, Marx noted that the restricted “political emancipation” called for by Bauer – effectively, the demand for a secular state – was nowhere near enough. In fact, it wouldn’t even get rid of religion, which was supposedly Bauer’s main target. Marx noted that the US constitution was avowedly secular, yet the US was “pre-eminently the country of religiosity”, teeming with all manner of sects and cults peddling their wares.

Social struggle

More fundamentally, Marx argued that religious faith was primarily an effect, rather than a cause, of a much more general oppression. Focusing on the religious question served to obscure this wider picture, diverting energy away from real social struggle and into sterile theological debate.

Marx also noted that liberals viewed human society as rigidly divided between a public “political life” and a private “civil society”. Political reform should be restricted to the former, they claimed, leaving untouched economic arrangements such as private property and wage labour that fell into the category of “civil society”.

Marx proceeded to tear down this artificial opposition. He explained how the supposedly atheistic demands of the Young Hegelians in fact served to conceal their own quasi-religious assumptions.

Specifically, they believed in a vision of human society composed of atomised private individuals that owned property and were motivated by self interest – a kind of Thatcherism before its time that bore no relation to how society actually worked:

“The so called rights of man are nothing but the rights of a member of civil society, the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.”

The irony here, as Marx notes, is that Bauer accuses Jews precisely of “egoism”, of deliberately isolating themselves from society, of being obsessed by money making and trading. Bauer is himself guilty of the sins he accuses Jews of and Judaism acts as a convenient scapegoat for his own political failings.

In contrast to the liberals, Marx called for the radical generalisation of “political emancipation” into a “human emancipation” that would revolutionise economic relations and the whole of society, as opposed to merely ­tinkering with the nature of the state. And this socialist political project would be based on a consistently materialist understanding of the world, not just an atheistic one.

Marx’s essay On The Jewish Question was one of a series of writings through which he settled scores with the political timidity of the Young Hegelians. Soon Marx was to become the revolutionary champion of the working class that he is remembered as today.

Bauer, by contrast, rapidly shifted to the right and later became a cheerleader for the vile anti-Semitism that emerged in Germany in the 1870s – an ideology that would eventually lead to the Nazi gas chambers.

We on the left need to rediscover Marx’s insights today. Contrary to the claims of pro-war secular liberals, Marx did not consider belief in the free market and the worship of private property to be in any way superior to religious thinking.

And he certainly had no time for those who used opposition to religion as an excuse to scapegoat religious minorities, while simultaneously singing the praises of a capitalist system that leads to poverty, racism and war.

Further reading

Marx’s essay On The Jewish Question can be read online at It is not one of his easiest works and is often misunderstood, for three reasons. First, Marx’s writing style is full of the rhetorical flourishes that were fashionable among the Young Hegelians at the time.

Second, some of the language he uses reflects prejudices about Jews that were then held almost universally. This has led some anti-Marxist propagandists to claim that Marx was anti-Semitic – missing the point that the essay was an intervention in favour of Jewish emancipation.

Hal Draper’s 1977 essay Marx and the Economic Jew Stereotype, also available at, demolishes these claims.

Third, Marx uses the jargon of Hegelian philosophy and its distinctions between the “political state” and “civil society”.

In particular, the term “political” is used in a very narrow sense, meaning legal and constitutional reforms. Nowadays we use the term much more generally.

These difficulties aside, the essay is well worth reading.

The first volume of Hal Draper’s classic study, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, contains an excellent analysis of the essay and the political backdrop to it. It is strongly recommended for those who want to find out more.

Phone Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, on 020 7637 1848 for more recommendations


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