‘Opium of the people’

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Column by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. December 1, 1995.

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.… For the latter, man should organise himself, struggle against class oppression, take political power and create a classless society.…

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).