Obama and Marx On Religion

Many conservatives are comparing Obama’s comments about bitter Pennsylvanian rural and working class voters clinging to guns and religion with a young Karl Marx’s discussion of the logic of criticism, which he sees as having its embryonic form in the criticism of religion (see Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, presented in his “Contribution to the Critique,” published in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher in February, 1844. They say that Obama is using Marx’s argument.

Since this is the subject of so much discussion, I thought it would useful to write a blog entry on the matter. First, here is some of what Marx said:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is this: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has already lost himself again. But, man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, it enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.You will note, first of all, that Marx is criticizing the conditions of existence, not those affected by these conditions. He does not suggest there is some psychic or emotional defect in persons who are raised to believe in the supernatural. Alienation is not a individual phenomenon, but an objective condition in which individuals collectively exist.

Second, religion is a consequence of historical forces that affect virtually everybody in segmented society, not just for those living in small towns or in some other location. Obama’s own faith in Christianity – assuming he isn’t lying about that, too – is, according to Marx, ultimately the result of the general conditions of the present state of existence human beings experience. Many liberal elites believe in a god or have adopted some form of supernatural belief and spiritual analysis as a consequence of living in a social formation where alienation is fundamental to its character.

Third, this general problem of existence in segmented society is not reducible to economic troubles under capitalism. It is, in capitalist society, the problem of capitalism itself. Under feudalism it was the conditions of feudalism, not, say, a bad harvest. Obama can’t wean small town voters from their belief in god by improving their economic conditions. The way to create the possibility for movement away from belief in the supernatural is to, as Marx would have it, turn the social order upside down. You have to put working people in charge. The more democratic a country – that is, the more control working people enjoy over their lives – the less religions they become over time. It’s not about being bitter over economic troubles but about being alienated from history and the means to make history. It’s about a fundamental level of control over one’s existence.

If we are to believe that the origin of Obama’s argument is Marx’s critique of religion, then we must emphasize that Obama got Marx very wrong. Marx wasn’t talking about small town America. He was talking about the totality of alienated society. Marx wasn’t suggesting that we find some way to make capitalists bring their factories back to small-town Pennsylvania. Marx was talking about overthrowing the conditions of an alienated existence. He was talking about overthrowing capitalism. He was talking about revolutionary socialism.

Finally, the argument Obama did make is wrong. Small Americans do not cling to religion because of poor economic conditions. Obama might have avoided this problem if he had simply asked himself why he believes so strongly in god. After all, he has made his Christianity the centerpiece of his biography.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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