The sigh of the oppressed

If religion as a way of explaining the world has been largely replaced by science, then why do so many still hold religious views?

"TOO LITTLE importance has perhaps been given to the religious character of Marxism...At bottom, it is a doctrine that the last shall be first and the first shall be last."

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

This passage from an anticommunist history book repeats an argument often used to discredit Marxists. But the dominant religious ideas in society aren't about social change.

Rather, they reflect and reinforce the status quo. To be sure, the Pope may offer sympathy for the poor. But he believes that they must resign themselves to their fate--and wait until the afterlife for their rewards.

Still, religious ideas--for example, Jesus' comment that "the meek shall inherit the earth"--have also been used by the oppressed to justify their struggles. "If we are all descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can the lords say or prove that they are more lords than we are--save they make us dig and till the ground so that they can squander what we produce?" went a typical sermon by the 14th-century English radical John Ball.

However, the fact that combatants in some social struggles have shrouded their ideas in religious imagery is hardly proof that Marxism is a religion--unless the point of using the term is to abuse anyone who fights for a better world.

The idea that some force outside of nature and human activity determines what takes place is a product of human alienation--of the way in which our destiny appears to be beyond our own control, either because nature dominates us or because we control neither the means nor the fruits of our own labor.

Primitive humans attributed conscious powers to different elements because they didn't yet have the means to understand the forces of nature that raged around them. They invented gods with humanlike attributes that created the wind, the stars, the rivers and the earth.

The religious ideas that explained human life and its relation to the cosmos became transformed, with the rise of class society, into the official ideology of the rulers, who were often seen as gods themselves, or at least representatives of gods on earth.

But for much of human history, all ideas were expressed through the prism of religion. Thus, early Christianity was initially the religion of a persecuted minority, but later was transformed into the official ideology of the Roman state.

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WITH THE rise of capitalism, science and nonreligious ideologies dethroned religion as the explanation for the workings of the universe and the justification for rule by the few. But religious ideas continue to thrive as a way of coming to terms with alienation and misery.

That's why Karl Marx called religion the "sigh of the oppressed."

"Nothing exists outside nature and man, and the higher beings our religious fantasies have created are only the fantastic reflections of our own essence," wrote Frederick Engels.

But the "essence" of human beings, as Marx argued, is "the ensemble of social relations," which isn't static but always changing. "Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like," wrote Marx. "They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence."

We therefore must go beneath the surface of what appear to be religious disputes to see that these conflicts express deeper class conflicts. "A distinction must be made," wrote Marx, "between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production...and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic--in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out."

None of this means that socialists turn their backs on those who hold religious ideas. On the contrary, Rosa Luxemburg once wrote, everyone should be able to "hold what faith and what opinions seem likely to him to ensure happiness...No one has the right to persecute or attack the particular religious opinion of others."

But when workers become conscious of their collective power to transform society--and thereby start to overcome their own sense of powerlessness--they have less need for the soothing balm of religion.

First published in the July 20, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.