But Marxism was also a break with the Enlightenment. It developed after the retreat of the great French Revolution, long after the ossification of the English Revolution and the disappointment and slavery that issued from the American Revolution. The experience of revolt and disappointment deepened the critique of Marx and Engels. This was particularly true after their very direct experience of the German revolution in 1848, which was defeated by the treachery of the bourgeoisie, the class that had led the Enlightenment and the revolutions of the previous century. But even before Marx raised the call for permanent revolution to sweep away the bourgeoisie as well as the old feudal order, he and Engels had reached an understanding that the phenomenon of religious ideas and religious practices has to be understood as an expression of the experience of contemporary humans:
“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.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”
It was no longer the case that religion was a trick pulled on the masses by the ruling classes. Certainly the ruling class used religion for its own purposes but even if it hadn’t, the conditions of oppression would have generated it so long as the oppressed masses didn’t have the confidence themselves to resist their conditions. It was, in that sense, a painkiller – an opiate – that made oppression easier to bear. Though at this point Marx still holds that criticism of religion frees the mind of man so that he is free to resist real oppression, by the time of the Theses on Feuerbach in 1845, two years later, he argues that to get rid of religious ideas one must annihilate the social practices from which they emanate (“Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically”). Thus, I think that if we’re going to analyze religion we ought to at least start from the level that Marx began at way back in 1843 and not revert to the position of the Young Hegelians.
This marks a big step forward, I would argue, and begins to bring materialism back into the critique of religion. But, of course, Marx isn’t the final word on Marxism in general nor on the question of religion in particular. It’s interesting that in Engels and later, Kautsky, we seem some important evolution of the idea. Kautsky, for instance, quotes Engels as saying:
“The history of primitive Christianity presents remarkable coincidences with the modern workers’ movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of the oppressed; it first appeared as a religion of slaves and freedmen, of the poor, the outcasts, of the peoples subjected or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and Socialism preach an approaching redemption from servitude and misery; Christianity assigns this redemption to a future life in Heaven after death; Socialism would attain it in this world by a transformation of society…”
Kautsky agrees overall with Engels parallel but notes that there are a few limitations to Engels views: “Christianity can hardly be called a religion of the slaves; it did nothing for them. On the other hand, the liberation from misery proclaimed by Christianity was at first quite material, to be realized on this earth, not in Heaven.” What is interesting is that Kautsky traces the “collapse” of primitive Christianity into an idealistic religion of servitude and bureaucracy to many of the same kind of material pressures that transform the workers’ movement. He does not, first and foremost, fetishize the details of early Christian ideology. It is the pressure of material conditions that corrupts the Christians.
“Like Christianity, this movement is obliged to create permanent organs in the course of its growth, a sort of professional bureaucracy in the party, as well as in the unions, without which it cannot function, which are a necessity for it, which must continue to grow, and obtain more and more important duties. “This bureaucracy – which must be taken in the broad sense… - will not this bureaucracy in the course of things become a new aristocracy, like the clergy headed by the bishop? Will it not become an aristocracy dominating and exploiting the working masses and finally attaining the power to deal with the state authorities on equal terms, thus being tempted not to overthrow them but join them?”
The conclusion we ought to draw from this is that rather than dismissing religion as a phenomenon incompatible with an ideology of revolution, in general, and of Marxism, in particular, we must examine it in its concrete specificity. We also ought to have a certain amount of humility as Marxists as religiously inspired people have been resisting oppression through revolutionary struggle a lot longer than have we, though I suppose that it is in the nature of all youth to disrespect their elders.
PART 3: Would there be religion under socialism?