Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review: Marx on Religion by Karl Marx

Central to Marx is the idea of the alienation of humanity from nature, labor, satisfaction and ultimately, from humanity itself. Humanity becomes objectified through ‘estranged labor’ which “… reduces spontaneous and free activity to a means, it makes man’s species-life a means of his physical existence” [1, p. 123] This condition is a result of global capitalism that, in the quest to find the cheapest workers, reduces all freedom to a function of itself. A dualistic class structure of bourgeoise (capitalists) and proletariat (workers) arises in the tension of labor and capital; which reduces humanity to a commodity in the formation and flow of capital. Capital is realized in money and perfected in credit with the organization of the banking system. Religion is but a reflex of reality and “[e]very history of religion…that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical” [1, p. 165]. Because humanity makes religion it is the “fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality” [1, p. 171]. History, with philosophy in its service, must unmask the self-estrangement of humanity by dismissing the ‘other-world truth’ of religion and establish the ‘truth of this world’. This will create a society “which can no longer lay claim to a historical [i.e. based in the mythical] title, but merely to a human one…” [1, p. 181]. Christianity, developed by the bourgeois, creates a society of cowardice, abasement, submission, humility which is opposite to the required attributes of the proletariat and innately hypocritical. Religion can vanish “only when the relationships of practical everyday life offer men daily visible and reasonable relationships to each other and to nature” [1, p. 196].

Marx is writing in a time when Germany was trying to validate its existence in history as a great nation. Romanticism is the backlash against the enlightenment. The brothers Grimm are codifying fairy tales into a uniquely German document of legend. Attempts are being made to connect the fair-skinned Aryan peoples of Vedic India, the ‘blonde haired’ (a mistranslation that should have been red-headed) warriors of the Teutonic woods of Germania reported by Caesar in his Commentaries and parroted by Gibbons in his Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, and the “Indo-European” people of 19th Century Germany. This, coupled with the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the exploitation of humanity as well as the new German criticism of natural history, theology and Christianity, provides the backdrop for his arguments.

Marx utilizes the idea of the objectification of humanity, posited by Feuerbach, to apply not only to Christianity but to economics and politics as well. His weakness is in his treatment of the middle class. Although he posits that the lower middle class would be forced to adopt the views of the proletariat [1, p. 152] he declares that the middle class is based on being “the general representation of the philistine mediocrity of all other classes” [1, p. 180]. Even though the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are beginning to struggle the middle class has no concept of emancipation and antiquated. Here is the difficulty of his political views: the middle class acts as a buffer between the two poles. Instead of joining in on one side or the other, the middle class gives the laborers something to aspire to outside of revolution, and the capitalists a source of indirect (and less offensive) control with the advent of middle management. Although I will concede that greed is the basis of capitalism, the gradients are less severe than have vs. have not.

Politics has certainly used religion for its own purposes throughout history but Marx is also manipulating it for a desired effect: confrontation. Although he does not address other religious beliefs than Christianity, he, like Feuerbach, presents Christianity as and object made in man’s image. This object is used as a tool of the minority bourgeoisie to control the majority proletariat. By destroying basic social beliefs, new social structures based in communism can arise. Instead of arguing for new interpretations of Christian Theology, which may lead to gradual changes, Marx strikes at the basic belief structures of Christendom in the hopes of rapid revolution.

-Safari Bob

[1] Marx, K. (2002).Marx on Religion. John C. Raines (Ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN: 1566399408

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