A Humanist Take on Marx’s Irreligious Criticism

In a 1845 manuscript by Karl Marx, brought to light in 1888 by Friedrich Engels in the latter’s Ludwig Feuerbach, the problem of contemplative materialism is tackled in a difficult and what feels like a preliminary way that nonetheless firms up in light of two earlier works by Marx: “On the Jewish Question” and “Introduction” to (the planned) A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, both published in February 1844 in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. (I will refer to the latter throughout as “Introduction.”)

Karl Marx

Engels named the 1945 manuscript “Theses on Feuerbach,” and in them Marx contends that materialism prior to his intervention neglects to consider reality as “human sensuous activity,” that is as practice, as well as in its subjective elements. For Marx, the materialist does not take human agency into account when contemplating the objects in his environment. The subjective side, the active side, Marx argues, is developed by idealism, but only abstractly, since idealism cannot grasp real sensuous activity. Marx argues that human activity is an objective activity objectively guided. Feuerbach, Marx complains, regards theoretical activity, that is abstract conceptualization, as the only genuine human attitude, “while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance.” What Feuerbach does not grasp, in Marx’s estimation, is “the significance of ‘revolutionary,’ of ‘practical-critical,’ activity.”

By “dirty-Jewish” Marx is not expressing an anti-Semitic attitude but rather conveying an understanding of the Jewish tradition as one of being in the world, the world of practical activity. This is in contrast to the Christian attitude, with its emphasis on logos (or the word), otherworldliness, and the ascetic life. The Jewish god—Yahweh—is a god who gets his hands dirty in making the world and man. In Genesis, “Yahweh formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”

Feuerbach makes this point in The Essence of Christianity (1841). For Feuerbach, religion is the alienated projection of human essence, and thus the work of Yahweh is revealed as an abstract idealization of the work of Jewish people or society. For Feuerbach, the work of materialism is to demythologize the world.

This argument anticipates Émile Durkheim’s arguments in his 1912 Elementary Forms of Religious Life wherein it is posited that religious ideas are expression of a people’s conceptions of their society. Persons perceive something greater than themselves, which, in the fashion of functionalism, Durkheim treats as a superorganismic thing—the conscience collective or collective consciousness—accessible through the myths and rituals we know as religion or religious-like systems. In this view, the world is separated into the sacred and profane.

For Feuerbach, alienation emerges from this separation.

In making this point, Marx is building on observations he made in his 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question,” wherein he theorizes that in its “perfected practice” (and here he is referring to Christianity after Reformation) the “Christian egoism of heavenly bliss is necessarily transformed into the corporal egoism of the Jew, heavenly need is turned into world need, subjectivism into self-interest.” For Marx, “the tenacity of the Jew” is not found in Judaism, but “by the human basis of his [the Jewish] religion,” which he identifies as “practical need” or “egoism.” Marx sees capitalism as the reflection of self-interested activity that finds it origins in religious expression, in “the ideal aspect of practical need,” suppressed for centuries by the asceticism of Catholicism until its supersession by Protestantism. (Max Weber makes a version of this argument in series of essays written between 1904 and 1905 collected in the influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.)

Marx writes that “in civil society” under Protestantism and the Enlightenment, the practical Jewish attitude is “universally realized and secularized.” “Consequently,” he argues, “not only in the Pentateuch and the Talmud, but in present-day society we find the nature of the modern Jew, and not as an abstract nature but as one that is in the highest degree empirical, not merely as a narrowness of the Jew, but as the Jewish narrowness of society.” The Jewish emphasis on market activity, marginal to European society during Catholic hegemony, finds its practical expression universalized in modernity with the result that modernity becomes narrowly focused on market activity. Peripheral in a feudalistic system, markets become central to a capitalistic system, and thus become the pivot of modern social life, the result being the progressive commodification of social life and a deepening of alienation. (Max Weber likewise argues, in a series of articles published between 1917 and 1919 in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, collected into the book Ancient Judaism, that the Jewish tradition is the pivot upon which the West moves.)

Marx sees in this development a dialectical process in which transcending capitalism is overcoming Judaism. In such a world [communism], there will be no need for Jewishness. “Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism—[that is, capitalism and its preconditions]—the Jew [as an unique identity] will have become impossible, because his consciousness no longer has an object, because the subjective basis of Judaism, practical need, has been humanized [socialized, democratized], and because the conflict between man’s individual-sensuous existence [how society has constituted him] and his species-existence [how he constitutes himself together with others] has been abolished.” Marx states, “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.” Here he means individuals with a Jewish identity are emancipated from the Jewish religious and its cultural impositions.

This argument is often interpreted as anti-Semitic. But it is not only the Jews who are emancipated from religious and cultural imposition under communism. So are Christians. Marx’s argument hails from a radical antitheism in which overcoming alienation means liberation from the all the myths and rituals created to control people in part by providing a method of dealing with the strife of alienated life conditions that does not involve actually changing society. Marx does not wish to see only emancipation from Judaism, but emancipation from all imagined communities (which today are multitudinous), a process that incubates in the womb of the nation state.

Marx argues that “Christianity sprang from Judaism.” And, in modernity, Christianity “has merged again in Judaism.” “From the outset,” he explains, “the Christian was the theorizing Jew; the Jew is, therefore, the practical Christian; and the practical Christian has become a Jew again.” He disabuses Protestants of the illusion that Christianity has transcended Judaism. “Christianity had only in semblance overcome real Judaism,” he argues. “It [Christianity] was too noble-minded, too spiritualistic to eliminate the crudity of practical need in any other way than by elevation to the skies.” In other words, you do not overcome strife with painkillers. You overcome the conditions that cause strife with revolutionary action. Christianity cannot substitute for Judaism. Humanism must replace both Christianity and Judaism. This humanism demands the elimination of the conditions that make religious possible. It is therefore not the person who identifies as a Jew or a Christian Marx wishes to see go away. It is the conditions that make such identities possible that he seeks to overthrow and replace with a universal society.

He sees this overcoming in as a historical process. “Christianity is the sublime thought of Judaism, Judaism is the common practical application of Christianity,” Marx writes; “but this application could only become general after Christianity as a developed religion had completed theoretically the estrangement of man from himself and from nature. Only then could Judaism achieve universal dominance and make alienated man and alienated nature into alienable, vendible objects subjected to the slavery of egoistic need and to trading.” Put another way, the highest level of development of Christianity, Protestantism, in the context of modernity, which it helped birth, opens society to capitalism. Protestantism brings the capitalist attitude to the masses. The result deepens man’s self-estrangement, as commerce (selling) “is the practical aspect of alienation. Just as man, as long as he is in the grip of religion, is able to objectify his essential nature only by turning it into something alien, something fantastic, so under the domination of egoistic need he can be active practically, and produce objects in practice, only by putting his products, and his activity, under the domination of an alien being, and bestowing the significance of an alien entity—money—on them.”

Contrary to those who wish to see a childish Marx and a mature Marx (Althusser, for instance), this argument is central to Marx’s thought throughout his work. Hence we find in Capital, Volume I, published in 1867, the following (in chapter seven): “We presuppose labor in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labor-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.” Because human beings realize themselves in real sensuous activity, because they are conscious, intentional, and social animals, capitalist control over labor activity is the source of alienation in modernity, sublimated as religious and other strange ideologies (such as identity).

Thus, before continuing our analysis of the 1845 manuscript concerning Feuerbach, we must recall Marx’s famous introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which appears in the same month as “On the Jewish Question,” in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. There Marx writes, “For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” Marx is again leaning heavily on Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity articulates the transformative method than Marx adapts to his own project of “a ruthless criticism of everything existing,” a goal revealed to his friend Arnold Ruge in a 1844 letter.

In that 1844 letter, Marx writes that “the socialist principle itself represents, on the whole, only one side, affecting the reality of the true human essence. We have to concern ourselves just as much with the other side, the theoretical existence of man, in other words to make religion, science, etc., the objects of our criticism.” Confirming a belief in an overarching ontology, he tells Ruge, “Reason has always existed, only not always in reasonable form.” The point of ruthless criticism is to cut through the ideological and dogmatic distortions to make plain the antagonisms and sources of strife that generate the illusions and the conditions for them. “The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions,” He writes, “nor of conflict with the powers that be.”

He writes in the “Introduction” that “Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man, where he seeks and must seek his true reality.” Hence the importance of irreligious criticism. “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again.” Marx is no relativist.

At the same time, Marx takes on Feuerbach’s notion of man as yet another abstraction, that of the solitary individual in Feuerbach, which is made clear in the “Theses on Feuerbach.” “But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world,” Marx writes. “Man is the world of man—state, society.” He then connects the two: “This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.” Religion is an ideology produced by a obscuring the contradictions in society. “Religion is the general theory of this world, … its logic in popular form, … its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.” Religion, Marx argues, “is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.” Why hasn’t human essence acquired any true reality? Are we not present as material beings? Only as species-in-itself, not as species-for-itself. Human essence is presently ascertained in the form of intersecting relations, as we shall see in the 1845 manuscript.

“The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.” This is where Marx powerfully describes religion as a painkiller: “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 solution to the religion problem is therefore not found merely in Feuerbach’s transformation, where religion is merely exposed as a projection of societal ideals, but in the transformation of actual social conditions to suit human wellbeing. (This is an argument for universal human rights.) “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness,” Marx writes. “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.”  

Irreligious criticism has a practical, humanist purpose. “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,” writes Marx. “It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.” “Thus,” he concludes, “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.”

Now moving on to the balance of the 1845 manuscript, Marx writes, “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”

He then criticizes what becomes central to the structuralist and functionalist traditions in sociology (that have so influenced identity politics), which see individuals as personifications of identities established by social relations. “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing,” writes Marx, “forgets that it is men who change circumstances.”

Marx recognizes that human beings make history even if they have lost control over the history-making process. “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” In other words: revolutionary practice is the practice of the people seizing control of the mechanisms of making history. In the “plain Marxist” language of C. Wright Mills (in his 1959 Sociological Imagination), “Democracy means the power and the freedom of those controlled by the law to change the law, according to agreed-upon rules—and even to change those rules; but more than that, it means some kind of collective self-control over the structural mechanics of history itself.”

This is the key to understand what Marx means when he writes: “Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man [or “human nature”]. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.” One may be tempted to point to this as Marx anticipating and even endorsing the postmodern attitude, which sees concrete individuals as personifications of abstract categories, a practice that falsely reifies ideological relations (such as race). Marx explains that “Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence is hence obliged [to] abstract from the historical process and to define the religious sentiment regarded by itself, and to presuppose an abstract—isolated—human individual.” Moreover, this abstract human individual “can by him only be regarded as ‘species,’ as an inner ‘dumb’ generality which unites many individuals only in a natural way.” In other words, in demythologizing the world, Feuerbach fails to find beneath religious alienation the source of human self-estrangement: the ensemble of social relations that constitutes man’s essence, which is the product of a given historic epoch and mode of exploitation, relations that represent the source of alienation. Religion is not the source but the expression of alienation. The true source, as Marx explains in his 1843 essay discussed above, are the social conditions, conditions constituted by unjust social relations, relations that have constituted essence in identity. What Marx finds valuable in this critique is its application to everything.

The humanist reading is supported by this statement: “Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionized. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.” (Marx’s argument would have been more immediately ascertainable had the theses been differently ordered.)

Marx punctuates the point in the following statements: “Feuerbach consequently does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual that he analyses belongs in reality to a particular social form.” “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” “The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.” “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.” It is in civil society that man’s essence is constituted by the ensemble of social relations—as well as the ideology of the abstract individual. This is a true but contingent fact. The revolutionary transformation of society, in abolishing contradictory social relations, replaces civil society with human society, and thus abolishes the abstract categories that keep us from being a species-for-itself.

Thus Marx concludes: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

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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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