Matilda Miller

What role does responsibility play in Karl Marx's critique of religion?

‘The opium of the people’ – perhaps the most stark summary of Karl Marx’s critique of religion – shows the German philosopher at his rhetorical best, unequivocal and revolutionary in his condemnation of religion, describing it as a decay of history.  Marx was inspired by German philosopher Hegel, despite their opposing views.  Marx took many of Hegel’s ideas and ‘turned them on their head’.  Arguably the biggest influence Hegel had on Marx was through his Hegelian dialectic, in which Hegel described two opposing views – the thesis and the antithesis – where both parties aim to seek out the truth – the synthesis.  We can see how Marx has taken this and applied it to his own theory, through his ideas of the two opposing classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.  A second key example of how Marx was inspired by Hegel was through his replacing of Hegel’s idealism in favour of his own materialism based on the laws of economic determinism.  Idealism is the ‘metaphysical view that associates reality to ideas in the mind rather than to material objects’ (1), while materialism ‘focuses on human societies and their development through history, arguing that history is the result of material conditions rather than ideals.’(2) An atheist, Marx was hugely critical of religion and the way in which it was used, specifically by the bourgeoisie, the oppressive upper class, as a method to control, oppress, and ultimately exploit the lower, maltreated class of the proletariat. 


One of the main roles which responsibility plays in Marx’s critique of religion is through the role of class responsibility.  By looking at the two main classes of the bourgeoisie and proletariat, Marx noted how the bourgeoisie used religion in an effective weapon-like way to control and manipulate the proletariat.  Building on from this, Marx described how the bourgeoisie used religion to obfuscate a full class consciousness and preserve the alienation from the means of production so as to prevent any acts of non-conformist rebellion by the proletariat; religion was effective in promoting a lack of full awareness of the immoral differences between the classes and indeed the power of class action in re-setting the equilibrium.  This does mean that the proletariat were unaware of what class position they were in, but rather that they did not have a full understanding as to why and how they were in such a position, whilst others lived in very different conditions. 


In maintaining the social, cultural, and economic inequalities of capitalism, Marx shows how religion is used by the ruling class to suppress the instinct to rebel and revolt by effectively obscuring how practically to fix the problems of oppression and poverty by taking effective social action.  Religion acted as a plaster, a comforting opiate for the proletariat that temporarily soothed their everyday worries and problems, but did not in any effective way contribute to solving these problems, quite the opposite in fact: the ‘plaster’ of religion simply perpetuated the oppression.  Furthermore, encouraged by the bourgeoisie, religion taught the proletariat to sustain an unrelenting level of obedience towards God, and, by implication, towards authority.  From this perspective, acting out of line in the form of rebellion against the bourgeoisie would cause them to face God’s wrath; and yet, the main goal of this obedience was for the proletariat to be reassured to suffer in this world on the basis that that, despite and perhaps because of, their awful, wretched life on earth, they would be rewarded with eternal life in heaven.  Matthew 3:5 is an example of this: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ The promises of a glorious afterlife enabled the bourgeoisie to exert their power over the proletariats and through this, God was made to appear as the archetype of the authority, thereby serving to maintain the unjust exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.


In addition, it was through their class responsibility that the bourgeoisie was able further to oppress the proletariat. Through their wealth, the bourgeoisie was able to own the entirety of the media, including the news. This means that the bourgeoisie was able completely to control and filter whatever news was distributed to the public, and, as such, they did so according to their class interests. A modern day example of this is Rupert Murdoch – a multimillionaire.  Murdoch is the owner of multiple press outlets including The Times of London and The New York Press and therefore decides what is published through the channels of the media, the agenda pre-set, ‘oven-ready’ for consumption. If someone proposed the idea of higher taxes for the rich, Murdoch would, for example, be able to make sure that those ideas are portrayed exclusively in a negative light, because the rich being taxed at a higher rate is entirely against the interests of his own class. Evidence that Murdoch recognises the influence of his power is evident in the unashamed effort to influence the proletariat to vote against their own class interest and, instead, for the interest of the ruling class. It is also important to note how in the modern day it is not just the news but other media outlets, including television and mainstream films, which tend to portray the police in a positive light. Being introduced to portrayals like this from a young age clearly influences not only the public’s views but also our social values, spoon-fed on a diet of what is ‘inherently’ right and wrong.  The media can therefore be seen as a driving force behind the suppression of the proletariat as it plays a huge role in moulding and controlling both the views and actions of the masses.  In spite of the so-called democracy of the internet, it may be argued that there remains no effective representation of the interests of the vast majority of the people in the media. This in turn leads to the Marxist view that we cannot hold the proletariat responsible for their lack in class consciousness.  Through gaslighting, the bourgeoisie continues to be effective in dismissing the idea of any class conflict, thus reinforcing the lack of full awareness in the proletariat.   


For Marx, his treatment of the individual, and, in particular, the freedom of the individual to determine their own fate, has itself often be criticised as found wanting.  In terms of individual responsibility, Marxist theory did not place responsibility on individuals in favour of focusing on the behaviour of groups of people, of classes.  Marx’s theory was collectivist, not individualist; I do not think it unfair to suggest that Marx did not view society as made up of individuals, but as a group of classes.  Attributing this grouping of people towards all classes, Marx saw how the class system in France and Germany was similar to that in Britain. 


Marx was a materialist and believed that as humans we are not driven by grand ideals, but instead by our material interests; given their exploitation and the rank inequality between the classes, the proletariat did not have the ability to control their material interests. It is perhaps in this regard that it is best to understand how in what Marx refers to as ‘real history’ the proletariat lacked class awareness. From this, the road is made clear for Marx to argue that we should not conform to the abstract ethical standards set out in Christianity, the 10 commandments for example, which he believed had no divine power behind them but were simply created by figures in history to express a form of social control. A modern day example of this social control could be the institution of marriage, in that it enforces monogamy. The Catholic Church prescribes a form of social control by teaching that marriage is strictly between one man and one woman. In Genesis 3:16, a passage promoted in strict Catholicism, it reads ‘Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ It is clear here the patriarchal institution of marriage is being reinforced.  Marx concluded that instead of supplementing this patriarchy by following Christianity, we should instead seek out the common good for mankind, this would mean freeing as many of the oppressed as possible and in so doing improving the material standard of living of the proletariat, instead of imbuing them with the opium of Christ and the moral standards set out by the false idol of the Christian religion.


Within Marx’s critique of religion, it is possible to argue that there lurks a contradiction. Marx argues how members of the proletariat class are lacking in awareness and full class consciousness, yet by arguing this the reductionist element of Marx’s argument not fully acknowledge the argument from self – autonomy.  Holding a deterministic weltanshauung (world view) means Marx does not adequately attribute enough weight to the argument from self-directed autonomy.  By arguing that proletariat individuals do not hold awareness, Marx has not only acknowledged this fact but has also failed to do justice to the individuals which have the ability to stand outside have of the class system.  By saying these individuals are entirely lacking in self - awareness, Marx has completely stripped them of their human ability to determine their own lives, how, in the words of Sartre, we are ‘nothing but the sum total of our life’s free choices’, therefore dismissing any possibility that an individual within the proletariat class would not be entirely controlled and  would hold a level of self–autonomy. 


To pursue this point further, it may be that Marx is simply stuck in a materialistic bubble, which accordingly leads him completely to dismiss any possible religious view, in particular Christianity.  Unlike religious believer Hegel who held the view of idealism, the atheist Marx of course dismissed any religious viewpoint, defaulting to materialism over idealism. 


Yet there is always the possibility that the religious believer is entirely correct, that God really does exist. This would mean that, far from being duped by the ‘illusionary happiness’ of religion, the individuals of the proletariat holding this faith would in fact be proved right – right, that is, after the fashion of twentieth century theologian John Hick’s ‘eschatological verificationism’. 


Continuing on from this, we can ask the question as to whether the class system which Marx proposed still exists today and the extent to which his theories are still applicable.  Marx wrote during the Industrial Revolution, when the class system played a much stronger role in society.  Today, it is evident that this class system is not as simplistic in the way that there are not two classes which are either the oppressed or the oppressor.  For example, one could own a small café with several employees which is evidently not comparable to a factory owner which would force its workers into horrific conditions as Marx would describe.  An employee working for a company is a member of a middle class, which wasn’t as prominent during the Marx’s time.  We could make the point from this that the radical changes in the class system mean that Marx’s criticisms are no longer relevant today. 

To conclude, Marx’s choice not to attribute responsibility towards individuals in his critique of religion is consistent with the determinism of his dialectical materialism.  Marx places the responsibility of being the oppressor on the bourgeoisie class who effectively use religion, like the other institutions and pillars of society, as an oppressive method of control over the proletariat.  Hugely critical of religion, Marx describes how the bourgeoisie have wrongly used their responsibility to liken religion to a tool, and consequently use this tool as a weapon for the subjugation of others.  With this, I led to conclude that the ultimate role which responsibility plays in Karl Mar’s critique of religion is through class responsibility. 







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