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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 21, New Delhi, May 8, 2021

Marxism and Religion | Anil Rajimwale

Saturday 8 May 2021, by Anil Rajimwale

In memory of 203rd birth anniversary of Karl Marx

(Paper for AIPF-All India Progressive Forum - zoom meeting of 5 May 2021.)

There is widespread impression that Karl Marx was opposed to religion and God, that Marxism does not tolerate religion and that socialism would destroy religion. This subjective and misplaced impression is based upon preconceived notions. Today the reactionary, communal and obscurantist forces are at the forefront of this propaganda. At more intellectual levels, confusion is widespread due to inadequate studies of the works of Marx and Engels.

Self-destructive opposition to religion: distortion of Marxism

Ultra-left revolutionism, Anarchism and modern-day ‘utopian socialism’ have only helped rightwing reactionary ideology by their exceedingly doctrinaire and sectarian notions of ‘fighting out religion first’ and ‘firmly’ establishing atheism as part of mission to ‘overthrow’ capitalism. They and their parties are on a self-destructive mission to ‘free’ the people first from religion and God and only then to carry out their own variety of ‘revolution’.

It is foolish, impractical and theoretically wrong, even stupid, for revolutionaries to attack religion because that only alienates masses, overwhelming majority of whom believe in religion: workers, peasants, artisans, handicraftsmen, coolies, unorganized laborers, middle classes, small and medium businessmen, shopkeepers, etc. There is nothing to show that Karl Marx fought religion and God and called for their ‘elimination’. Such an approach is a gross distortion of Marxist theory and methodology. What Marx and Engels did was to investigate the socio-economic roots of origins and development of religion, and the conditions in which it will become unnecessary and disappear gradually. Such disappearance cannot be and must not be forcibly sought. In fact elimination of religion has never been the aim of Marxism; change of socio-economic material conditions has been. Marx and Engels pointed out that their theory is not against religion/ per se but against socio-economic roots that give rise to illusions, both earthly and unearthly. Such beliefs and illusions emerged in the course of social development. At the same time, belief in God and religion is a democratic right of the people, and it is rightwing extremism that violates this right.

Marx-Engels on religion

‘Opium of the masses’ quote from Karl Marx has been widely misquoted, misunderstood and misused, including by his supporters. It is a long quotation from Marx’s work Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, wherein he scientifically explains how and why religion originated (Marx and Engels, On Religion, Moscow, 1976 edition).

Says Marx: “Religion is the general theory of that world (world in which we live-AR), its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritualistic point d’ honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of human essence…” (p38) Here Marx explains theory of religion, in popular explanation of world, as fantastic reflection of the real world. The world of state and society produces religion as its inverted consciousness of the world. This inverted reflection is the product of certain stages and conditions of the historical development of society. This fully accords with the materialist conception history discovered by Karl Marx. He explained religion, the other-worldly world, God, culture, family, mental activities and so on as emanating from certain social and economic conditions, structures and the level of means of production. Hence it was scientific and materialistic.

Marx further explains how religion represents sufferings of common masses, and is also a protest against these very sufferings: “Religious distress is, at the same time, the expression of real distress and also the protest against the real distress”. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Marx, On Religion, p39) Further on Marx says: “The task of history therefore…is to establish the truth of this world.”(Ibid) It is here that Marx talks of the maturity of the objective material conditions for human liberation.

The statement about religion being opium is preceded and succeeded by comprehensive analysis of religion. In fact, it is the obscurantist forces and obscurantist ideology that, which use religion as opium to ‘reduce’ the pain of the common people. Marx nowhere attacks religion or talks of its destruction, there is no proof of such claims. He traces its historic, socioeconomic roots. Marx, Engels and Lenin point out how reactionary obscurantism uses religion as an opiate to divert masses from their real conditions.
As another point of defence of Marx, it should be pointed out that there were many non-Marxist thinkers, who also referred to ‘religion as opium’. Among them: Charles Kingsley, a Cannon of Church of England, Heinrich Heine, idealist philosopher of the 19th century, Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno, and others. For lack of space, we cannot discuss them here.

But certainly, we may discuss Swami Vivekanand!

Swami Vivekanand on religion as opium!

People will be surprised to know that Swami Vivekanand too used the analogy of the ‘opium’ to describe religion! Says he: “…wonderful is the idea of the personal God apart from nature, whom we worship and love. Sometimes this idea is very soothing. But…the soothing is something like the effect that comes from an opiate (opium mixed medicine), not natural. It brings weakness in the long run.” What we want is strength, he says. (Complete Works of Swami Vivekanand, Volume 3, 1990, pp107-8)

As is well-known, Swami Vivekanand was a highly religious person, but at the same time he was moving towards investigating the socioeconomic roots of many problems, ideas and events.

(I am highly indebted to Sh CR Bakshi, member of NEC of AIPF, for bringing to light these quotations from Vivekanand.-AR)

Religion and workers’ movement

It will be worthwhile to study the work by Marx and Engels, On Religion, as mentioned above. Engels was in fact writing a detailed history of early Christianity, which he could not unfortunately complete. The work makes very interesting reading, and dispels many arguments raised to paint Marx and Engels, as also Marxism, as anti-religion, anti-God.

Frederick Engels has compared early Christianity with modern workers’ and socialist movement. He writes in On Religion: “The history of early Christianity has notable points in common 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 freed men, of poor deprived of all rights…Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery…” Christianity seeks it in the other world, in heaven, socialism in this world, in a transformation of society. “Both are persecuted and baited, their adherents are despised…And in spite of all persecution, nay, spurred on by it, they forge victoriously, irresistibly ahead.” (On Religion, p275) Renovated Judaism became “one of the most revolutionary elements in the history of the human mind.” (p286)

Engels even says that ‘socialism’ did exist in early times, as far as it possible, “in Christianity”. (Ibid, pp 286-87) This is a very significant statement, and needs more work. He shows that both early Christianity and socialism are closely interconnected, having common attitudes on many questions. Both Christianity and socialism were mass movements of common people. (p 286) Obviously, this applies, with modifications, to other religions too such as Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, trends among Hinduism, etc. Engels compares early religious movement with First International (1864-76), as both are movements of the oppressed (Ibid, pp286-87), containing similar contradictions, trends and ideological schools. Marx concludes that heaven can be created on this very earth in today’s conditions.

Engels says further: “In the popular risings of the Christian West… the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated.” (Ibid, p 276) Thus he points out that Christianity also attacked economic order.

These are remarkable comments from Frederick Engels, and should dispel all misunderstandings about Marxist attitude to religion.

Engels condemned efforts of extreme left, ultra-revolutionary and utopian socialists to include ‘atheism’ in party program. Commenting in 1874 on the Blanquist (Anarchist) program, he said that their declaration of war on religion is “a piece of stupidity”, which only helped the opponents. Rather the religious workers should be drawn into the widest possible class struggles. He criticized Duhring’s pseudo-revolutionary idea that religion should be prohibited in workers’ party. (Engels, Anti-Duhring)

Lenin on religion

Lenin was another great authority on the attitude of Marxism to religion. He was a practical revolutionary too, and had to face and solve a lot of practical problems. On being asked whether religious believers were permitted to join the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labor Party or Communist Party), Lenin replied clearly that giving up one’s religious belief was not a pre-condition to join the party. Anyone who agreed with party’s aims, objects and program and put them into practice could become its member. The questions of philosophy, religion, etc were those of long-term discussions. It was not compulsory to give up religious belief to join the party.

In this context, his lucid article “The Attitude of Workers’ Party to Religion” is revealing. Says Lenin very clearly: “We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions…” (Lenin, “The Attitude of Workers’ Party to Religion”, CW, Vol 15). Lenin also clearly stated that “Down with religion and long live atheism” was superficial and narrow bourgeois view because it did not go into the roots of the question. One had to fight rule of capital rather than with the results of capital. Atheist propaganda was subordinate to the main task of socio-economic transformation. (Ibid)

“If a priest comes to us to take part in common political work and conscientiously performs party duties, without opposing the program of the party”, he may be allowed to become a party member. (Lenin, Ibid) Lenin criticized pseudo-revolutionary attitude of Anarchists, who insisted on anti-religious and atheist propaganda, as distorted bourgeois view.

Lenin particularly insisted on being careful about religious sentiments in the backward eastern countries fighting for their freedom, and pointed out progressive historical role of religion against the main enemy i.e. feudalism, colonialism and imperialism.

There were several believers in Lenin’s Soviet government after revolution including education and culture minister Anatoly Lunacharsky.

Fidel Castro on Marxism and religion

The leader of Cuban revolution Fidel Castro professed a close cooperation between Marxists and Christians to fight imperialism and root out poverty and exploitation from the earth. He insisted that both had common views on many crucial questions, including socialism. His views have been published in book form (‘Fidel and Religion’) as dialogues between the two ideologies.

In his later years as the ruler of Cuba, Castro began a close cooperation with Christianity. He stated: “If people call me a Christian, not from the standpoint of religion but from the standpoint of social vision, I declare that I am a Christian.” (2009) He stated that Christianity gave the world ‘ethical values’ and ‘a sense of justice’. Castro further said that “Christ chose fishermen because he was a Communist.” “Christ multiplied the fish and the loaves to feed the people. That is precisely what we want to do with revolution and people.” (‘1998 Speech’) At the same time, he criticized certain aspects of the role of the Catholic Church.

In his book Fidel and Religion, Castro says that there is a “great coincidence between Christianity’s objectives and the ones we Communists seek.” “If instead of being born and elaborating his ideas when he did, Christ had been born in these times, you can be sure, or at least I am, that his preaching would not have differed much from the ides or the preaching that we revolutionaries of today try to bring the world.” (Fidel’s ‘1998 Speech’) He wanted to bring together all the positive teachings of Christ, Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti, Marx, Engels, Lenin and others on human liberation. (1998 Speech)

Fidel Castro had detailed discussion with the Brazilian liberation theologist Frei Betto in 1987, which came out in book form as Fidel and Religion (not available on the Internet)

Initially, after revolution, Castro followed some kind of Anarchist and atheist approach towards religion. By the 1980s and 90s this approach underwent a drastic change. The nature of the state was changed from atheist to secular. Secular state was declared after 1992.

Castro permitted church-going Catholics to join the Communist Party of Cuba. Castro and Pope John Paul II appeared side by side in public on several occasions in Cuba. Castro also attended a Roman Catholic Convent blessing in 2003 to help bless newly restored convent in Old Havana. For the first time in Latin America, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew consecrated a cathedral in Havana and bestowed an honor on Castro. After Pope John Paul II’s death in April 2005, Castro was emotionally moved and attended a mass in his honor in Havana’s Cathedral, 46 years after he had last visited it. On 20 September 2015, Castro met Pope Francis during the Pope’s 3 day visit to Cuba and discussed the problems of the world.

In fact many believers participated in the revolutions in Cuba, China and Vietnam and continue to play anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist role. For example, there are a large number of Buddhists in the CPC (China) and CPV (Vietnam), who are in positions of responsibility in the party and the state, and at the same time are firm believers in Buddhism and other religions. Many of them regularly visit Bodh Gaya!

In the Latin American countries, a large number of Christians and others take part in revolutionary and Communist movements; for example, in Chile, sections of Christians played a revolutionary role against dictatorship. There are any number of religious believers in the CPs and left parties in Latin America.

Role of religion/idealist philosophy in India

Some Marxists and leftists commit mistake of mixing up struggle against communalism with that against religion. The two are quite different. Communalism has to be opposed, while religion and religious rights have to be protected. Overwhelming number of believers in religion is anti-communal and secular. Mahatma Gandhi, the unquestioned leader of freedom movement, himself was a Hindu believer. His ‘Ram’ was qualitatively different from that of RSS: his Ram was secular while that projected by communalists is painted in rabid communal colours. Gandhiji was assassinated by rabid Hindu communalists and pseudo-religionists precisely for advocating Hindu-Muslim unity and tolerance for all the religions.

It is a peculiar turn of history that Marxists emerge as protectors of religious rights against communal attacks and distortions. Religion is basic right of people. It is the communal ideology which in fact is anti-religion.

In India, religious/philosophical trends have often played a progressive role in history, such as Charvak/Lokayat, Samkhya, Nyaya-Vaisheshika, etc, providing rich variety and depth of philosophical thought. Ayurveda was born of early natural-scientific practices of common people ostracized from society. Dr Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya in his seminal works on Ayurvedas and early technologies has shown how and why this was done. Ayurvedics, engaged in collecting plants and creatures of medicinal value, were looked down upon by ruling and exploiting castes.

Communal obscurantism refuses to recognize that Bhakti and Sufi movements played a great historical role. These movements opposed caste and communal discrimination, and showed all humans as equal before God. Figures like Kabir, Tukaram, Chaitanya, Madhva, Guru Nanak, Gyandeo, Nizamuddin Chishti, Rahim, Jaidev were leaders of these great unifying movements. They were religious, progressive and humanist; they were revolutionaries of their times. They are today sought to be blacked out ignored by communalists forces today.

Social and religious reform struggles opposed obscurantism, mysticism and upper caste domination were themselves often religious. Yet they played a great historical role in fighting obscurantism. Religious reform movements condirable freed religion of the ‘opiate’! Jyotiba Phule, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekanand and others spread ideas of enlightenment and fought out domination of religion by the narrow groups of feudal obscurantists. These positive aspects of the religious movements and religious ideologies should not be lost sight of.

In fact they fought against ‘religion as opium’ and established religion as a unifying force against all kinds of discrimination and exploitation. They firmly stood by the rights of the poorest and defended them against religious oppression by a handful of rulers. They stood against commercialization of religion and stood for genuine and honest religious belief of the individual.

During our freedom movement too, religion played mainly a progressive anti-colonial, anti-communal role. British rulers sought to divide people along communal-religious lines. This was opposed by healthy religious elements. A section of underground revolutionary movement was inspired by religious ideas and practices. Worship of gods Ganesh, Kali, Shiva and others were the medium for anti-British mobilization. The ‘Pujas’ became the form of political propaganda, and were interpreted communally only later. Social and religious reform movements played crucial role in freeing people of obscurantism considerably.

Marxist philosophy and materialist world outlook

Philosophical materialism is one of the three component parts of Marxism, the other two being political economy and scientific socialism. Marxism does not agree with religious ideology and theology. It advocates establishment of ‘heaven on the earth’, not in the skies. This is because the socio-economic conditions under industrial capitalism have created objective material conditions for creation of a new society free of exploitation. The STR or new technological revolution has further matured these conditions. In fact, objective trends have emerged in northern and Western Europe, where substantial chunks of youth are giving up religion and religious practices altogether. The attendance in the Churches is going down.

So no pressure should be and can be applied to ‘give up’ religious beliefs. At the same time, beliefs in the other-worldly forces (religion) becomes progressively weaker with the spread of new technologies and emergence of other objective material conditions, in which human beings believe more in material technologies and human work itself rather than any extra-material forces.

It is clear from the attitude of the founders of Marxism that giving up of religion and acceptance of dialectical materialism is not a precondition of joining the party of the working class. Philosophical debates are not even the starting point of the efforts to change the society. This the founders of Marxism have clearly and repeatedly emphasized. At the same time, mass workers’ movement and organizations with scientific outlook consciously try to train up members and people in general in materialist conception of history and nature. This may not assume direct forms, but indirectly emphasizing socioeconomic materials conditions itself is enough to show the primacy of material conditions. In philosophical seminars and discussions, dialectical/historical materialism should take contextual positions critical of theological interpretations of the world. Even scientists had to take side of matter in motion due purely to their scientific discoveries, whatever their personal views. Science dissolves the halo of a fantastic or other-worldly world.

It does not mean that anybody’s religion and religious beliefs should be attacked and sentiments hurt. Positive argumentative criticism is one thing, attack is another. Discussion and debates have to be persuasive. Social and economic liberation of people should take the priority, not the religious/philosophical beliefs.

In struggle for democracy, the democratic right to religious beliefs is an important component. While Marxism defends the democratic religious rights of people and individuals, it does not intervene in their private views. At the same time, it points to misuse of religion by rightwing to mislead people. Genuine religious belief and its obscurantist exploitative use are two different things. Genuine belief in religion should be respected, its commercialization and exploitation opposed.

In no way religious sentiments should be violated. Struggle for scientific views is a long drawn struggle. Scientific view should be able to show that ideas are generated from material conditions, in the ultimate analysis. Changes in material conditions bring about transformation of ideas, views and consciousness, in the long run. So there need not be any hurry. Marxism DOES NOT struggle against RELIGION per se; it struggles against the conditions giving rise to it, in the long run. Marxism is against exploitative socio-economic structure.

Democracy, socialism and religion

There can be no real socialism without democracy. Democratic rights are inalienable part of socialism, and they include religious rights. It is the rightwing reactionary communalists who attack the religious rights of the people, while Marxism and Socialism defend them. If religion and religious views are sought to be eliminated under socialism, it is not real or proper socialism. Socialist society may contain large number, may be a majority, of religious believers for long time.

Stalinist and Maoist theories and practices have done immense harm to the cause of democratic nature of socialism. Certain anti-religious practices in former Soviet Union and China, particularly during the so-called ‘cultural revolution’, damaged the reputation of socialism vis-à-vis religion. Stalinism and Maoism are modern-day Anarchism and utopian socialism, and they need to be contradicted. Historical practice has shown that religion as theory and practice must be respected as rights of the working people. They cannot be suppressed.

Only the elimination of exploitation and complete absorption of science by society in a prolonged development will prove religion as unnecessary and superfluous. People in future will give up religion, if they think it proper to do so, and adopt fully scientific attitude and temper in future conditions. No force needs to be applied.

The need is to assimilate scientific discoveries and scientific method and develop theory to higher levels of the future.

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