‘Opium of the people’

Published : Jan 15, 2010 00:00 IST

TRENCHANT critics, as well as some ardent supporters, of the Marx-Engels-Lenin theory of Dialectical and Historical Materialism appear to agree that the essence of the Marxist theory concerning religion is the celebrated observation “religion is the opium of the people”.

Non-Marxist rationalists therefore criticise Marxist-Leninists for ignoring the Marxist theory on religion when Marxist-Leninists join hands with religious leaders on questions of struggle for national independence, democracy, world peace and social justice.

On the other hand, dedicated religious leaders turn their guns against Marxists for sticking dogmatically to Marx’s formulation that “religion is the opium of the people”.

Both, however, forget the context in which Marx made the observation. In his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx says: “Man, who looked for a superman in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but the reflection of himself, will no longer be disposed to find but the semblance of himself, the non-human (Unmensch) where he seeks and must seek his true reality.”

He goes on:

“Man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a reversed world-consciousness, because they are a reversed world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore mediately the fight against the other world, of which religion is the spiritual aroma.”

He then concludes:

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”

The religious leaders in their criticism of Marx and the Marxist who consider the opium formally to be the essence of Marx’s approach to religion have therefore taken that particular formulation out of context. What it really means is that, helpless in the oppression of class society, man seeks imaginary help from religion. That help is provided by religion but only temporarily, just as opium relieves the agony of someone suffering excruciating pain. That immediate relief is no substitute for a real and permanent cure of the malady. In the same way, religion gives temporary relief to the oppressed man but does not give permanent relief. For the latter, man should organise himself, struggle against class oppression, take political power and create a classless society.

Against this background, it can be seen, religion has a positive element – temporary relief – which however is inadequate. The real solution is class struggle. Such is the crux of the Marxist theory of religion.

Now let us go to a piece of writing by Marx’s celebrated collaborator, Friedrich Engels. In a piece on the history of early Christianity, Engels traces the development of two major religions of the world – Christianity and Islam:

“The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people. It first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery.”

Engels goes on, “Christianity places salvation in a life beyond, after death, in heaven; socialism places it in this world, in a transformation of society. Both are persecuted and baited, their adherents are despised and made the objects of exclusive laws, the former as enemies of the human race, the latter as enemies of the state, enemies of religion, the family, social order. And in spite of all persecution, nay, even spurred on by it, they forge victoriously, irresistibly ahead. Three hundred years after its appearance, Christianity was the recognised state religion in the Roman World Empire, and in barely 60 years socialism has won itself a position which makes it victory absolutely certain.”

Engels adds in a footnote: “A peculiar antithesis to this was the religious risings in the Mohammedan world, particularly in Africa. Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, that is, on the one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industries, on the other to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the ‘law’. The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet.”

While Marx was describing the process of the origin and growth of religion in general, Engels applied it to the origin and development of two major religions in the world. Neither Marx nor Engels however had the time or opportunity to study the origin and growth of other religions in the world. We do not therefore have a comprehensive understanding of the origin and growth of religion in every country.

But Marx’s description itself is sufficient to show that religion in general is a way out of human suffering in class society, which however would not be required in a classless society which would emerge after a short period of proletarian dictatorship. Religion, like other natural and social phenomena in the world, has its origin, growth and also fall. It is therefore unscientific on the part of non-Marxist rationalists to consider the struggle against religion in the abstract, in isolation from the class struggle in present-day class society. Equally unscientific is it for certain religious leaders to think that religion is a force which will continue for all time, even after class oppression ends and a classless society emerges.

This integration of the struggle against religion and class struggle was graphically described by the close disciple of Marx and Engels, V.I. Lenin, in his pamphlet “To the Rural Poor”. “The Social Democrats further demand that everybody shall have full and unrestricted right to profess any religion he pleases. Of the European countries, Russia and Turkey are the only ones which have retained shameful laws against persons belonging to any other faith than the Orthodox, laws against schismatics, sectarians and Jews. These laws either totally ban a certain religion, or prohibit its propagation, or deprive those who belong to it of certain rights. All these laws are as unjust, as arbitrary and as disgraceful as can be.”

Then he goes on to lay down the lines along which a modern democratic society should deal with religion: “Everybody must be perfectly free not only to profess whatever religion he pleases, but also to spread or change his religion. No official should have the right even to ask anyone about his religion; that is a matter of each person’s conscience and no one has any right to interfere. There should be no established religion or Church. All religions and all Churches should have equal status in law. The clergy of the various religions should be paid salaries by those who belong to their religions, but the state should not use state money to support any religion whatever, should not grant money to maintain any clergy, orthodox, schismatic, sectarian, or any other. That is what the Social-Democrats are fighting for, and until these measures are carried out without any reservation and without any subterfuge, the people will not be freed from the disgraceful police persecution of religion, or from the no less disgraceful police hand-outs to any one of these religions.”

These, it can be seen, are the principles of 19th century bourgeois liberalism, adapted to the requirements of the modern working-class movement. The question therefore arises: what is the attitude of the revolutionary political party of the working class towards religion? This question is answered by Lenin in an article entitled “Socialism and Religion”. He makes three major observations:

First, “Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair as far as our party is concerned. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority.

“So far as the party of the socialist proletariat is concerned, religion is not a private affair. Our party is an association of class-conscious advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs. We demand complete disestablishment of the Church so as to be able to combat the religious fog with purely ideological weapons and solely ideological weapons, by means of our press and by word of mouth.”

Secondly, Lenin answered the question, “Why do we not declare in our programme that we are atheists?” and then explains:

“Our programme is based entirely on the scientific, and moreover the materialist, world outlook. An explanation of our programme, therefore, necessarily includes an explanation of the true historical and economic roots of the religious fog. Our propaganda necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism; the publication of the appropriate scientific literature, which the autocratic feudal government has hitherto strictly forbidden and persecuted, must now form one of the fields of our party work…. But under no circumstances ought we to fall into the error of posing the religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an intellectual question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie. It would be stupid to think that in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat which is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven” (emphasis added).

Thirdly, “That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in our programme; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating themselves with our party. We shall always preach the scientific world outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various ‘Christians’. But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development” (emphasis added).

These long extracts from the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin on religion and its linkage with class struggle would show

1. That we do not fight religion as the non-Marxist rationalists do, in the abstract, separate from class struggle.

2. That we help the backward elements in the democratic and proletarian movements who flock into our ranks but who still have vestiges of religious prejudices to overcome these prejudices through the experience of class struggle and education in the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of Dialectical Materialism.

That is why, even while fully cooperating with the leaders and ranks of religious communities, which we are prepared to carry with us on general questions of national freedom, national unity, world peace and advance towards a world socialist society, we certainly have to combat the ideology of religion to which many of our friends are still committed.

We cannot give up our determined struggle for dialectical and historical materialism, even while fully cooperating with the religious-minded masses and their leaders in the common struggle.

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