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The Break from Hegelian Idealism

Religion and the Human Prospect
by Alexander Saxton


Marx and Engels tell us their break from Hegelian idealism — and presumably from religion as well — was inspired by Ludwig Feuerbach‘s Essence of Christianity (1841).  Feuerbach had proposed a materialist account of religion, to the effect that humans in primeval times imagined gods in their own image, then projected and worshipped those same gods; as they came to realize the gods were reflections of themselves, they would gradually recognize the divine essence of their humanity.  Marx and Engels adopted a similarly “materialist” (but no less ambiguous) formulation.  Was this real or metaphorical?  Or somewhere in between?  The Prometheus of Marx’s doctoral thesis appears profoundly Feuerbachian, as does the fuzziness of the boundary drawn there between human and divine.  Well versed though he was in Greek mythology — knowing that Prometheus, born of gods and titans, had to be a god — Marx nonetheless assigned him human status: “noblest of saints and martyrs in the calendar of philosophy.”  Whence came this divine aspiration attributed to the human species?  Was it inherent in the cosmos?  Had Feuerbach simply substituted a Spinozean pantheism for Christianity’s orthodox theism?  And did Marx and Engels concur?  They soon distanced themselves from Feuerbach, yet they would not hesitate to impose on proletarians the god-like tasks of Prometheus.

Despite these ambivalences of concept and explanation, Marx and Engels remained nonbelievers and foes of institutionalized religion.  This heritage from the Left Enlightenment they powerfully transmitted to their followers thus helping to ensure that through the next century and a half Marxist parties would serve as prime targets for religion’s multitudinous defenders.  At the same time — more than any other nineteenth-century tendency of radical anti-capitalism — Marxism remained open to labor unionism and working-class politics.  Marxist activists proved influential leaders in both these enterprises.  It may not be irrelevant, therefore, to ask how successful they were in pursuing the party line on religion and whether it proved an asset or hindrance in organizing workers, nor to inquire why Marx and Engels themselves had chosen to make criticism of religion the “premise” for their project in revolutionary political economy.  Such questions may seem more pertinent to our own times than to those in which Marx and Engels actually lived.  Any investigation of their stance toward religion must begin by noting that their careers fell within the opening century of the Age of Secularism.  Nonbelief, for the first time in more than fifteen hundred years was becoming intellectually — even to some extent socially — tolerable.

Orthodox religionists, Protestant or Catholic, still controlled most major institutions such as city and state governments and universities throughout western Europe, yet they faced increasingly articulate resistance from educated opponents among the upper classes.  Thus, for example, when John Stuart Mill in England declared that the “whole of the prevalent metaphysics of the present century” constitutes a “tissue of suborned evidence in favor of religion,” he was saying approximately what Marx and Engels were saying, and targeting the same German idealist metaphysics they were rebelling against.  While for Mill the main enemy was Kant, it was of course Hegel for Marx and Engels.  Different though the systems of these philosophers were, it would not be inaccurate to describe both as idealist constructions designed to protect religion.  To protect it against what?  Against the oncoming Era of Secularism: against the rise of skeptical rationalism; against cumulative disillusionments attached to the memory of religious wars that had raged across Europe for almost two hundred years; against the encroachments of empirical science into orthodox belief.  Marx and Engels in all these controversial areas stood on solid ground to the extent that their peers in class status and education were likely to remain tolerant toward criticisms of religion that many of them already shared.  Yet obviously no such immunity would attach to radical criticisms of class hierarchy.

From Feuerbach to the Manifesto

 The Hegelian dialectic in a broad sense had idealized the cosmos as an ongoing spiritual process.  More narrowly, that portion of it that paralleled human history could be analogized to Christian doctrine.  God’s decision to create a world populated by creatures (including humans) established the antithesis.  Conflict stemmed from the willed act of human creatures to use their God-given liberty for rebellion against the creator.  Resolution, after many turns of the dialectic, must await the advent of Christ, begotten out of mortal flesh by divine spirit, and thus providing the synthesis within which the opposites — mortal and divine, creator and created — will at last be rejoined.  According to the famous legend, Marx had arrived at his class interpretation of human history by an intellectual tour de force, that is, by translating Hegel’s idealist dialectic into a materialist one.  Thus, instead of pushing the narrative through a sequence of metaphysical abstractions, the dialectic would now be made to convey human class struggles in the language of historical realism.

A full-dress presentation of the materialist dialectic occurs in the Communist Manifesto (1848).  There are some baffling conceptual problems about this transformation, of which I will mention (at this point) only one.  If history comprises a series of struggles in which exploited (therefore antithetical) classes overpower one another to establish each in turn its own dominance, there would seem no possible escape from this repetition unless a class formation occurred that somehow had the power (or lack of power!) to break out of the circle.  Recalling the original model — that is, the Hegelian dialectic that symbolically enacted the Christian story — it is obvious the crucial role belonged to Christ, who by his sacrificial death terminates the long chain of contradictions between creator and created.  Yet when the idealist dialectic is turned upside down and all the actors become “real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces,” what sort of class formation could be expected to play a comparable role?  “The idea –fundamental for Marx from then on,” writes the Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, “that the proletariat was a class which could not liberate itself without thereby liberating society as a whole, first appears as ‘a philosophical deduction rather than a product of observation.’ . . .  [Thus] ‘the proletariat makes its first appearance in Marx’s writings as the social force needed to realize the aims of German philosophy.'”  Needed, that is, to materialize the idealized figure of Prometheus.

Did Hobsbawm say deduction?  He did.  Marx and Engels always insisted on their socialist theory as scientific, rather than Christian or utopian.  Science, however (at least as understood in the nineteenth century), rests not on deduction from alleged universals, but inductions from empirical observation.  Engels, in The Condition of the English Working Class (1845), had provided an empirical and shattering portrayal of the beginnings of capitalist manufacturing.  His work undoubtedly contributed to the predictive accuracy of Capital, on which the two authors later collaborated, yet hardly offers much evidence for the Promethean (or Christ-like) role assigned to proletarians in The Communist Manifesto.  “A horde of ragged women and children swarm about here, as filthy as the swine that thrive upon the garbage heaps,” Engels wrote, describing a typical industrial slum.  “The race that lives in these ruinous cottages . . .  must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity. . . .  The neglect to which the great mass of workingmen’s children are condemned . . . brings the enfeeblement of the whole race. . . .   Liquor is almost their only source of pleasure . . . .  As inevitably as a great number of working men fall prey to drink, just so inevitably does it manifest its ruinous influence upon the body and mind of its victims.”

How could a “race” so reduced in vital energy and self-esteem find courage to break free from religious superstition and raise the banner of revolt?   Engels, no less an enthusiast than Marx, did his best to discover empirical answers to this question. “Faulty education,” he speculated, “saves [the new proletarian] from religious prepossessions, he . . .  knows nothing of the fanaticism that holds the bourgeoisie bound. . . .”  For Engels, raised in a hardshell Protestant milieu, any estrangement from religion, even if arrived at by default, was a positive factor; and he found hope also in the first flickerings of class consciousness.  “The English workingman who can scarcely read and still less write, nevertheless knows very well where his own interest and that of the nation lies.”  “They begin to perceive that, though feeble as individuals, they form a power united. . . .  The consciousness of oppression awakens . . . the workers attain social and political importance.”  Entries such as these remain few in number, cautious and tentative in tone, whereas the overwhelming thrust of Engel’s book is on despair and degradation — disease, malnutrition, wretchedness of the workers, suffering and death of their women and children.  Yet only three years later, when these same proletarians reappear in the Communist Manifesto, they have taken a new lease on life.  A key passage describing their “condition” — and announcing their historic mission — runs as follows:

Modern industrial labor, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him [the proletarian] of every trace of national character. Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests. . . .  All previous historical movements were movements of minorities . . .  The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority. . . .  The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.

What a contrast!  The industrial worker, reborn, transcends not only bourgeois nationalism, but bourgeois law, morality, religion as well, and not by default but as a result of purposeful thought.  Deconstructing the mysteries of ideology, the proletarian energizes “the immense majority” of humankind (there is no empirical evidence whatever in Engels’ book to support this assertion) whose fate now rests on the integrity of working-class consciousness.  Here is a transformation comparable to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and we need to understand they share some of the same ingredients.  Marxist theory’s worldwide impact would be inconceivable without the Promethean hero, who becomes a teacher, first of other segments of the working class, then of the human species at large.

Dialectics of  the Welfare State

Two mistakes of Marx and Engels in the 1840s were their anticipation of immediate revolution and their belief that proletarians must necessarily reject religion.  On both points, Engels had pushed beyond what his observations of English working-class life could sustain, and Marx went along with this.  Together, they developed a historical argument building upward from peasant revolts in the seventeenth century, through the great revolutions of the eighteenth and Chartism in the nineteenth, all anchored within real (empirical) history, but then leaping to an imagined future insurrection led by England’s proletarians that would engulf the nations of the world.  Revolution, Engels wrote in 1845, soon “must break out . . . in comparison with which the French Revolution . . . will prove to have been child’s play.”  They supported the revolutions of 1848 (Engels in military action in the Rhineland), but viewed these as bourgeois and constitutionalist — merely preliminary to the proletarian insurrection they were predicting.  Many years later, blaming himself for their failed prophecy, Engels ascribed it to “youthful ardor.”  I am concerned here with Marxism itself, not with apportioning credits and demerits between its founders.  I suppose Marx to have been no less youthfully ardent than Engels; they were barely two years apart in age; both were gripped by Promethean visions that perhaps led them to transcend — or at least go beyond — what the empirical evidence warranted.

Moreover, they were hampered by misperceptions inherent in their class background, especially with respect to religion.  Secularism, as I noted earlier, had, by the early nineteenth century, become tolerable in educated middle-class circles.  But this was not the case for lower-class cultures.  Engels acknowledged that most of what he knew about religion in the mill towns came from reports of Anglican or Unitarian investigative committees.  Anglicans were Conservative, Unitarians Liberal, each had their own agendas to push.  Both would be suspicious of Methodist chapels and hostile to radical sectaries such as those described by E. P. Thompson, or, for an earlier period, Christopher Hill.  The mills were already recruiting Irish immigrants, some doubtless brought their Catholic faith, which to Anglicans as well as Unitarians would seem worse than none at all.  I suspect that Engels, with respect to religion, missed a good deal of what was going on around him in Manchester and Birmingham.  So, for a variety of reasons, Marx and Engels were mistaken both in their prediction of revolution and their belief that industrial workers would reject religion.  The latter especially seemed crucial to them during the 1840s because they believed loss of religion necessary to that total alienation from bourgeois values that they expected would launch the proletarians into revolutionary orbit.

Nonoccurrence of the revolution determined the political landscape within which Marxism and religious faith pursued their complex relationships through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Since the political economy of that landscape has already been thoroughly mapped, I will simply note several of its main features and set them aside for reference.  Industrial capitalism burgeoned in western Europe and North America.  So also did the industrial working class.  Because industrialists required some degree of willing cooperation from their work force, a symbiotic relationship which we now call welfare-state capitalism developed between the two.  The keynote of welfare states was industrial growth.  The bigger the pie the larger its individual slices.  Growth made possible the maintenance — sometimes even improvement — of working-class living standards without requiring changes in the hierarchical structure of society.  Thus it mitigated class conflict and provided a buffer against revolution.  Welfare states faced outward.  Both sets of partners (capital and labor) strove to upgrade the enterprise at the expense of other nations, including similarly structured welfare states.  We know by hindsight that world war would be the eventual outcome, but such grim scenarios were not yet readily visible during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Labor radicalism, inside each welfare state, shorn of revolution, produced a cadre of radical workers together with a pseudo-middle class of trade union officials and social democratic politicians who served their constituents as spokesmen and mediators.  Continuing across successive life spans, these circumstances generated a class consciousness that was unique to the labor force of industrial capitalism.  The more diligently each worker strove to keep self, family (and party comrades) alive, the more invincible became those institutions they hoped eventually to abolish.  One might describe this as the “dialectic of the welfare state.”

Outwardly functioning as partnerships, welfare states worked inwardly as controlled arenas of class conflict.  Although the conflict was basically that of labor against capital, both sets of contestants (labor especially) remained internally divided.  A Weberian  image of this apparatus would look like a seesaw with the socialist workers on one end and religious workers at the other.  The capitalist-controlled government in the middle gives occasional nudges this way or that for fine tuning.  We are now deep into the Era of Secularism, which as we know, penetrated working classes less than other levels of society.  Details differ from nation to nation and time to time, but the seesaw image remains approximately accurate, I think, for welfare states throughout the Western world.  The social relationships it portrays entail several important corollaries.  Based in working-class communities more religious than the society at large, Marxist activists often found themselves targeted for teaching disbelief and corrupting Christian morals.  Already known as members of a movement that denied religion, they would be hampered in defending themselves.  Their logical counter-strategy would involve appeals to class solidarity combined with accusations that the Church — whatever branch happened to be dominant in that particular community — had betrayed its working-class constituency by supporting the capitalist employers.  Such indictments, containing enough empirical reality to make them persuasive, nonetheless introduced subtle shifts in the original Marxist stance on religion — shifts, that is, from critiques of religion itself to forms of anticlericalism that often seemed more concerned with purifying the church than criticizing religion.

The Problem of Liberation Theology

Marx and Engels both portrayed early Christianity as driven by the desperation of enslaved and exploited populations in the Roman empire; Engels represented the Hussites and Anabaptists as religiously inspired rebels fighting to liberate peasants from feudalism.  Why might not religion then inspire working-class rebels against industrial capitalism?  The fact is it has done so — a dramatic (and recent) example being that of liberation theology in Latin America.  While it is true that most such movements were crushed by their respective ruling classes and dominant clergies, these outcomes could be explained by pointing out that wherever religion became institutionalized, it generated privileged clerical hierarchies that merged into the existing ruling class.  Marx and Engels usually (but not always) characterized religion as reactionary because it was prone to being captured by ruling-class ideologies.  Ideology they treated invidiously, as obscurantism intended to conceal class exploitation.  They sometimes spoke of religion and ideology as identical or of the one (religion) as contained within the other.  They even suggested that religion had been invented for ideological purposes.

All this made for an empirically based and politically powerful explanatory system, yet contained two big difficulties.  The first was the absence of any satisfactory way of accounting for instances (acknowledged by Marx and Engels both), when religion actually functioned as a liberating rather than repressive force.  The second difficulty is more complicated, but takes us to the heart of the matter.  Ideological explanations necessarily locate religion’s starting point late in human culture since they begin by attaching, or equating, religion to ideology.  Ideology, however — understood as a rationalization, and camouflage, for class and gender exploitation — could hardly have originated before the division of labor.  But that left dangling the question of whether religion itself existed prior to class society.  If so, it could not be explained as an ideological construct, and its existence would precede, perhaps even run separately from, the dialectic of class struggle that for Marxist theory provides the motive force of social development.  “The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms,” Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “. . . whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other.”  Was religion, then, moving on a track separate from the rest of human history?  But that would not be an attractive alternative for nonbelievers, because it came perilously close to concurring with an idealist notion of religion.

Given the gift of hindsight, it is not difficult to specify what they needed at this juncture.  They needed a secular (materialist) account of the origin of religion separate from the origin of ideology.  This would allow religion to function (later on) as the keystone of ruling-class ideology, yet not preclude explaining its liberationist phases by reference to particular historical circumstances (such as colonial regimes, for example, or the importation of slaves, or “guest” workers).  At the same time, and perhaps more important, it would situate religion in the earliest stages of human development, before division of labor and the advent of class society.

Alexander Saxton is emeritus professor of history at UCLA.  He is the author of three novels and several historical works, including The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America.  This essay is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 11 (“Marxism and the Failed Critique of Religion”) of his new book Religion and the Human Prospect (Monthly Review Press, 2006). 
See, also, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “Freedom from Religion: An Interview with Alexander Saxton” (MRZine, 9 November 2006).

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