Engels (and Marx) on religious belief

Louis R Godena louisgodena at ids.net
Tue Sep 3 20:36:36 MDT 1996


Karl C has been making quite a nuisance of himself by insistenting that
Engels,  especially,  hankered after a belief in a Supreme Deity,   a canard
first popularized by the notorious Kautsky,  and foolishly repeated about
every twenty years ever since.

Alas,  it has little basis in fact.

Engels was the product of a strict orthodox religious background,  and his
interest in the "culture" of religion continued until his death.     He
warned against the folly of trying to abolish religion by compulsion during
the Paris Commune ("Programme of the Blanquist Commune Refugees").    But he
himself was a strict materialist who,  while perhaps not as militant an
atheist as the early Plekhanov,  nevertheless specifically eschewed belief
in a Supreme Being.

It is important to remember that Marx and Engels began their investigations
into society in a Germany where,  as Engels later remarked,
straightforward political activity was scarcely possible.    Progressive
aspirations were realized largely in the criticism of orthodox religion,
that buttress of the social and political order.    Critiques of religion
were fundamental to the early development of both Marx and Engels.

Marx,   especially,  cut his teeth on the question of religion in society
with an early and scathing *Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right* (1843),
his first analysis of the human conditions that made religion indispensable
to mankind,  "the heart of a heartless world," the "opium of the suffering
masses," in his famous aphorism.

Shortly afterward,  Marx posed a theme that would recur in his writing
throughout the mid-1870s;  since religious delusions have no function but to
mask the irrationalities of the system of capitalist production,
capitalism itself --by commercializing all relationships--would deliver from
religious prejudice those whose lives were shaped by the new economic order,
well in advance of socialism (*The German Ideology* [1845-46]    "On the
Jewish Question" (1844),   for example,   saw Marx confidently predicting
that Judaism would vanish once the Jews themselves could be relieved of
their present life of huckstering.    In short,  Marx felt that the
withering away of religion would be one of the salutary consequences of the
reorganization of society after capitalism (*Theses on Feuerbach [4th] [1845]).

Engels,  especially,  thought that religion had exhausted all of its
possibilities.   Unlike Marx,  he was to return to the subject again and
again.    In his book on the Peasant War of 1524-25 in Germany (1855-8),  he
demonstrated how "theological disputes"--the historiographical basis for
much of modern German history--were really class struggles waged over
competing material interests.    These were often cloaked in the medieval
collisions between Church and heresy,  between Ancient and Moderns,  etc.
And in some surprising contexts.

In his later,  and more circumspect,  study of  Feuerbach (1886),  Engels
went further and declared that the entire liberal critique of religon had
not in fact sought to overturn it,  but only to "reconstruct" it,  along
"rationalist" lines.    He traced the emergence of monotheism and remarked
that religious concepts appear to stand further than any others from
"material life",  to be most completely detached from it,  as though
"borrowed" from a distant past.     He concluded,  though,  that every
"ideology"--to idealize reality--must necessarily develop out of inherited,
long cherished traditions.    He especially allowed for the possibility that
deviant trends arising out of protest against official cults are originally
inspired by new,  progressive social currents.     This was especially true,
he felt,   of the Reformation.

Engels did not give much shrift to the notion of religious "revolutions"
innocent of class content or social conditions.    In fact,  he insisted
that religious ideas evolved by responding to shifts in social conditions
and class relations.


Louis Godena



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