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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Did Marx Really Call Religion 'The Opiate of the People?'

Karl Marx
Many people quote Karl Marx as saying, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” But did he really say that? Well, yes and no. He never used that exact phrase, but that hasn't stopped millions of people from using that "quote" as an argument against religion. But there is more to this, as we'll see here.

Listserve.com tried to set the record straight, but they actually add to the confusion with this entry on their website:

"What he actually said: '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 bastardized quote makes more sense when it’s placed in context with Marx’s poetic words."

To read that excerpt, you could easily get the incorrect impression that Karl Marx was actually not so anti-religion after all. Listserve.com, ironically, omitted the "context" to which they themselves referred to. They presented only a very small excerpt of what Marx actually wrote in 1844.

Let's look at the "context" that listserve.com left out.  
For that, we turn to the fourth paragraph of the introduction to Marx's "Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right," published as an essay in "Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher" in Paris, February 1844 (my emphasis added):
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.
Marx had more to say about religion in his introduction. A little over half-way through, he wrote this (my emphasis added):
To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself. The evident proof of the radicalism of German theory, and hence of its practical energy, is that is proceeds from a resolute positive abolition of religion. The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for man – hence, with the categoric imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence...
From these passages it is clear that Karl Marx was no friend of religion, organized or otherwise. 

Marx made no bones about calling for the abolishing of religion, calling it a "chain" on people, and for the replacement of the worship of God with the worship of Man ("man is the highest essence for man").

Marxism debased, enslaved and abandoned millions
Marx said that religion has treated people as "a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence."

So, Marx did not say or write "Religion is the opiate of the masses," but he did write that it "is the opium of the people." While that's not the same phrase verbatim, it's very close and has exactly the same meaning. Marx essentially said that religion was used to cover up the hurt and pain of reality, and that often the misery was caused by religion itself by causing people to loath themselves ("self-estrangement in its unholy forms") and that religion is "illusory happiness."

Of course, Marx never said or wrote that communism is the hallucinogen of the masses, with its false promise of illusory Utopian happiness in which people are debased, enslaved and abandoned by the despicable essence of collectivist statism. Marx may or may not have been able to anticipate that the philosophy that would be named for him would itself become a religion (watch this video).

Marx had hoped to write a full critical analysis of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right," but that project was never completed. His introduction to his critique is brief (5,614 words, or 8.5 pages), and worth reading (you can read the entire text of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right" as a pdf).

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