“…. philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thoughts and thinking expounded …”

– Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction (p. 108)[1]

“Darwin gave atheists their story of genesis; Marx gave them their eschatology.”

– Views expressed by a cleric in a Youtube video presented by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Magna, Utah[2]

/su_quote]

 

            While trying to think how to approach the subject matter without reducing the discussion to the clichés of capitalism and class, I stumbled upon the idea of treating Marxism as one of many “theologies of modernity”.[3] [4] The video declares him “the prophet of a coming apocalypse” (ibid.), and so does Schumpeter (Schumpeter, 1942)! However, one must admit that the use of this category is by no means sacred, but very secular indeed – a conception that is compatible with modernity and its rational outlook. I want to propose a thesis that Marx’s elaborate theory very well serves as a materialistic theology, a dogma albeit a scientific one as Marx would like it to be, that plays a crucial, functional role in the modern, secular consciousness filling the void left by increasing disillusionment with organized religion yet also satisfying the fundamental need to believe in supernatural in an otherwise liquid condition (Bauman, 2013).  However, before I proceed to expound on that notion I provide an overview of Marx’s conception religion as an estranging phenomenon, which is crucial for laying the groundwork of a new theology. How? Because all religions are – in their very essence – idolatry. One must cleanse the deck, get rid of the old idols to make space for the new. Marx is exactly doing that, creating a new gospel of modernity – describing a unilinear progression from the wretched condition to utopian destiny – but without realizing so.

            Marx was influenced by his mentor Bruno Bauer who described Christian doctrine as a work of fiction – a product of the religious consciousness – vis-à-vis facts and as a form of alienation, and Ludwig Feuerbach who popularized the projection theory of religion that man creates God in his self-image, and God, in turn, represents self-alienated man in contrast with Hegel who saw man as self-alienated God. Not to mention he was among Young Hegelians who wanted to secularize Hegel’s philosophy. Marx’s synthesis of religion is a reformulation of these ideas i.e., “man makes religion; religion does not make man.” (p. 53 – a similar expression on p. 20), and instead of treating religion as a sensuous experience, he treats religion as a material force originating in the specific organization of labor and production. He regards religion as, “… phantoms formed in the human brain …” (p. 154), as “opium” and “illusion” that must be abolished to make man free of the “inverted world consciousness” and lead him to true “happiness” (p. 54-55). One might object that religion itself is not the fundamental object of Marx’s critique. He does not condemn religion for what it is but condemns a religious consciousness that blinds man from realizing his condition and purpose is. He is aware of the palliative nature of religion, expressing it as an expression of and a protest against the real suffering (p. 54). If then this superstitious dogma may be replaced by a pragmatic one, it might even be a beneficial step towards the realization of man’s true nature. Marx, by cleansing the deck of the old idols, provides the man an outlook in which the man himself is the main idol who by his will and agency redeems himself from his suffering.

            One may object that Marx does not propose a new theology as there are no Gods, no prophets, no rituals, no scripture (isn’t Das Kapital?). Yet, that is the very essence of a theology of modernity. There is no supernatural being or a divine plan, but teleological progress towards perfection. Like other prophets, Marx promises an afterlife – or life-after – but unlike other prophets, he makes this heaven or utopia quite reachable through human agency. Marx’s theology is the theology of homo deus – man, the creatorcontroller, and annihilator of everything. His scientific formulation is indeed a rational religion in which the world is driven by an invisible material force – yet not hidden or esoteric, which can be controlled by humans through their revolutionary and creative endeavors. Marx’s program also includes a redemptive eschatology culminating in Communism – the utopian coda of modernity. Why theology of modernity? And why not call it just a random theology? Marx’s formulation is the representation of a rational design, a culmination of the enlightenment thinking, free of any superstitions, yet gives the individual something to believe in – a fate that by no means is predestined but can be discovered, tamed, and triumphed. 

We need to describe the material and spiritual condition of modernity to appreciate the role of Marxian theology in contemporary life.[5] Marx was writing his magnum opus when religion was still a dominant and domineering force among the masses. Fast forward a little short of two centuries, almost everyone has become an atheist in the heart (there are atheist Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc., as well as Christian atheists, Muslim atheists, Jewish atheists, etc., but that is a discussion for another time), because the world is no longer as mystical and mysterious as it was during Marx’s time. “Religion is opium for the masses” is simply no longer a valid proposition as a vast majority in the capitalist world (except for the USA) is atheist and agnostic. Yet, that does not preclude a belief in a world-plan or a universal history or maybe a common fate. I propose Marxian theology as a modern, rational alternative to premodern, irrational religion as the former serves the same function in the modern societies the latter did in the premodern ones.

            The functional need for a modern theology is underlined by many scholars of modernity Durkheim (Durkheim, 1893, 1897) to Freud (Freud, 1930). The modern man is more alienated than ever (perhaps as a product of late capitalism because the revolutionary prediction Marx made never materialized), so belief in a theo(ideo)logy is a functional necessity of modernity as a compensatory mechanism. The world has been demystified but at the expense of a growing social complexity that is difficult to comprehend in the absence of any philosophical aide. Contrary to the predictions that modernity will create a secular revolution, there is a trend leading back to religious experience (Berger, 2017). It is not essentially remystification of the world, but an adjustment, a compartmentalization, an attempt to find a neutral ground between the rational and the irrational. Marxian theology, I argue, is a theology of modernity for that very reason because it contains the elements of natural theology – God in the form homo deus in control of his fate, a community of believers in the form of the party, and an eschatology in the form of a utopia – yet presents it in a very secular form. Now that organized religion is losing its charm, Marxism becomes the religion of the oppressed masses. That could even be a welcoming development for Marx as the superstitious false consciousness is substituted for a revolutionary conscious, which lets individuals strive for altering the material conditions of modernity instead of dozing off on the false promise of an afterlife.

What Marxian theology does for modern man is that it cleanses the deck of other idols and situates itself as the new truth for the modern, alienated individuals. Marx noted, “The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that human being is the highest being for human being” (p.54). This statement is the crux of his theological thinking, which delineates a goal shared by other religions compatible with modernity like Buddhism that does not invoke God as the prime mover but champions man in quest of a supreme ideal. Implicit in Marx’s theology is the humanism of Feuerbach of man realizing that he is the estranged God. Nothing else can be called a better “theology of modernity” than this idea. A Marxian theology provides existential comfort in otherwise a chaotic era as it instills a sense of higher purpose among its believers and provides meaning to their suffering. Hence, can we call Marxism itself, “… the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” (p. 54), an “illusory condition” (ibid.), yet a redemptive theology for the modern man that makes the conditions of modernity bearable in exchange for the promise of communist heaven that is reachable through human agency and revolutionary struggle? Or can we call it, “(if religion is the opium for masses, then) Marxism is the methamphetamine for masses” as the minister in the video cited in the beginning does? Regardless, Marxian theology is a liberating theology against the pressures of modernity. It is a theology of passion, self-actualization, and rationality.

 

 

 References:

Bauman, Z. (2013). Liquid modernity. John Wiley & Sons.

Durkheim, E. (1893). The division of labor in society.

Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide: A study in sociology.

Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents.

McCarraher, E. (2019). The enchantments of mammon: How capitalism became the religion of modernity. Harvard University Press.

Schumpeter, J. A. (1942). Socialism, capitalism and democracy. Harper and Brothers.

Tucker, R. C. (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader.

 

[1] Marx celebrating the achievements of Feuerbach and his humanistic materialism against Hegel’s idealism.

[2] Marx’s Religion of Revolution: https://youtu.be/ytghbLvYuSY

[3] This might sound pompous, but it is a genuine thought that can be further elaborated analytically.

[4] What else may constitute in the same category? Buddhism, Deism, and other “new religious movements” where an invisible force (invisible hand or mode of production) regulates nature while man proceeds towards perfection.  Capitalism is also regraded by some as one of these theologies (McCarraher, 2019),

[5] Marxian theology is different from the Theology of Marx because I see the former as an emotional state, a modern collective consciousness compatible with the rational demands of modernity, while the latter could be treated as a programmatic eschatology.