According to Marx, religion is an expression of material realities and economic injustice.
Thus, problems in religion are ultimately problems in society. Religion is not the disease, but merely a symptom. It is used by oppressors to make people feel better about the distress they experience due to being poor and exploited. For Marx, economics are what constitute the base of all of human life and history, a source which generates division of labor, class struggle, and all the social institutions which are supposed to maintain the status quo.
Those social institutions are a superstructure built upon the base of economics, totally dependent upon material and economic realities but nothing else. All of the institutions which are prominent in our daily lives — marriage, church, government, arts, etc. According to Marx, religion is one of those social institutions which are dependent upon the material and economic realities in a given society.
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It has no independent history but is instead the creature of productive forces. For this reason among others, Marx rejected religion early on in his youth and made it absolutely clear that he was an atheist. Marx studied philosophy at Bonn and then later Berlin, where he came under the sway of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich von Hegel.
Hegel was a complicated philosopher, but it is possible to draw a rough outline for our purposes. Two important ideas which developed bear mentioning here: First, that economic realities are the determining factor for all human behavior; and second, that all of human history is that of class struggle between those who own things and those who do not own things but must instead work to survive.
After graduating from university, Marx moved to Bonn, hoping to become a professor, but the because of the conflict over Hegel's philosophies, Ludwig Feuerbach had been deprived of his chair in and was not allowed to return to the university in Marx abandoned the idea of an academic career. Early in , radicals in the Rhineland Cologne , who were in touch with the Left Hegelians, founded a paper in opposition to the Prussian government, called the Rheinische Zeitung.
Marx and Bruno Bauer were invited to be the chief contributors, and in October Marx became editor-in-chief and moved from Bonn to Cologne. Journalism was to become a chief occupation of Marx for much of his life. After the failure of various revolutionary movements on the continent, Marx was forced to go to London in It should be noted that through most of his life, Marx did not work alone—he had the help of Friedrich Engels who had, on his own, developed a very similar theory of economic determinism.
The two were of like mind and worked exceptionally well together—Marx was the better philosopher while Engels was the better communicator. He lies buried next to his wife at Highgate Cemetery in London. According to Karl Marx, religion is like other social institutions in that it is dependent upon the material and economic realities in a given society.
According to Marx, religion can only be understood in relation to other social systems and the economic structures of society. In fact, religion is only dependent upon economics, nothing else—so much so that the actual religious doctrines are almost irrelevant. This is a functionalist interpretation of religion: understanding religion is dependent upon what social purpose religion itself serves, not the content of its beliefs. Much as capitalism takes our productive labor and alienates us from its value, religion takes our highest ideals and aspirations and alienates us from them, projecting them onto an alien and unknowable being called a god.
According to Marx, this new form of Christianity, Protestantism, was a production of new economic forces as early capitalism developed. New economic realities required a new religious superstructure by which it could be justified and defended.
Sociological Theories of Karl Marx
This is often misunderstood, perhaps because the full passage is rarely used: the boldface in the above show what is usually quoted. The italics are in the original. In spite of his obvious dislike of and anger towards religion, Marx did not make religion the primary enemy of workers and communists. Had Marx regarded religion as a more serious enemy, he would have devoted more time to it.
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Marx is saying that religion is meant to create illusory fantasies for the poor. Economic realities prevent them from finding true happiness in this life, so religion tells them this is OK because they will find true happiness in the next life. The problem is that opiates fail to fix a physical injury—you only forget your pain and suffering for a while. This can be fine, but only if you are also trying to solve the underlying causes of the pain.
His comments do hold for other religions with similar doctrines of a powerful god and happy afterlife, they do not apply to radically different religions. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, a happy afterlife was reserved for heroes while commoners could only look forward to a mere shadow of their earthly existence. A second problem is his claim that religion is wholly determined by material and economic realities.
Not only is nothing else fundamental enough to influence religion, but influence cannot run in the other direction, from religion to material and economic realities. This is not true.
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This caused Max Weber to theorize that religious institutions end up creating new economic realities. Even if Weber is wrong, we see that one can argue just the opposite of Marx with clear historical evidence.
A final problem is more economic than religious—but since Marx made economics the basis for all his critiques of society, any problems with his economic analysis will affect his other ideas. Marx places his emphasis on the concept of value, which can only be created by human labor, not machines. This has two flaws. At best, the return on investment is the same whether the work is done by people or machines.
Quite often, machines allow for more profit than humans. At the height of these travails, from about July , Marx delved into serious study of political economy.
By January , he was writing to Engels his first critiques of Ricardian rent theory. In April, Marx estimated he would get done going through economics "in five weeks", by June that he was writing a work on economics that would take some "six to seven weeks". By November, Marx spoke of looking for a German publisher for his forthcoming "Economy" book. It was a bit optimistic. By mid this surge of energy had apparently worn itself out, and we hear little more about it. Political events interrupted his research into economics.
In , Marx published his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon , condemning the French president's machinations to abolish the constitutional republic and transform France into an empire, elevating himself as Emperor Napoleon III. Marx resignedly recognized that France still rested on the small farmer and peasant, and his inherent conservatism formed the backbone of support for Napoleon's coup and regime.
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living", p. Marx also revised his ideas on the future direction of the Communist League and other worker organizations. The remaining central committee of the Communist League that had stayed back in Cologne were arrested by Prussian authorities and put on trial in October The Cologne communists were sentenced to various prison terms.
From London, Marx published a scathing expose of the trial, but realized there was no point in continuing and the Communist League was dissolved in the aftermath. Nonetheless, Marx refused to support the more radical plans being peddled by other German revolutionaries.
Marx mocked the quixotic efforts of German radicals who made the rounds in the exile community, trying to re-ignite the revolution from abroad. Marx had little patience for their underground societies and hot-headed adventurist schemes. For Marx, the workers' movement should be an open, mass movement, which requires patience and organization. He deplored the murky conspiracies and plots for "direct action". Marx and Engels' sarcastic Great Men in Exile written , but unpublished was directed against them..
After , Marx turned to focus more on his journalism for the Tribune. In the run-up to the Crimean War in , Marx came into the orbit of the shadowy orientalist David Urquhart, who managed to infect Marx with a rabid distaste for Tsarist Russia already the arch-reactionary feudal imperialist state in Marx's mind, it did not take much.
Marx wrote several polemical articles for the Tribune denouncing Russian designs and almost accusing British minister Lord Palmerston of being a Russian stooge. In , there was the Spanish revolution which focused his attentions. He returned to economics briefly in early , writing notes on money and commercial crises.