For some eighty years, Marxism has been accused of being a religion. Certainly, it is hard for the casual observer not to notice some similarities between the behaviour of the more fanatical followers of Marxism and the behaviour of the more fanatical followers of various religions. But there is one crucial difference between Marxism and religion which cannot be ignored: no one who practices Marxism calls it a religion. How might we resolve this impasse?
To begin, we should review the basic tenets of this twentieth century political ideology. As set out by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and recorded principally in Marx’s book Das Kapital, the Marxist doctrine claims that the state is a political device for the exploitation of the masses by a dominant class, and further that class struggle has been the principle agency of historical change. It also holds that the capitalist system is inevitably doomed, and that eventually the proletariat (the workers) will break free from dictatorship and be superseded by a classless society organized on socialist principles.
Furthermore, Marx’s plan for revolution
presupposes that a direct transformation to a classless, socialist society is
impossible. There has to be an intermediate transitional stage. Marx was never
clear on the details of this process, however. In this sense, the
Marxism contains a number of additional assumptions, including the idea that the socialist utopia it envisions requires the abolition of religions. According to Marx, anything that supports the status quo is a barrier to the transformation of society and hence must be eliminated. Marx also contended that religion impinges upon human autonomy by postulating a higher power thus making people more willing to accept the status quo.
Karl Marx’s most famous line in regard of religion, which is oft cited, states:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.
The first major criticism of Marxism
couched in terms of comparison to religion comes from philosopher Bertrand
Russell, who wrote in 1920 (in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism):
One who believes as I do, that free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism as much as to the Church of Rome. The hopes which inspire communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically and are as likely to do as much harm.
This falls somewhat short of outright suggesting that Marxism can be seen as a religion, but other commentators have been more direct. Joseph Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy wrote:
In one important sense, Marxism 'is' a religion. To the believer it presents, first, a system of ultimate ends that embody the meaning of life and are absolute standards by which to judge events and actions; and, secondly, a guide to those ends which implies a plan of salvation and the indication of the evil from which mankind, or a chosen section of mankind, is to be saved. We may specify still further: Marxist socialism also belongs to that subgroup which promises paradise on this side of the grave.
To consider what extent Marxism can be considered a religion, we require a working definition for 'religion', and for the sake of this discussion we shall use the concise framework established earlier (and derived from Ninian Smart's more complete definition):
A religion can be understood as a belief system comprised generally of mythology (or a central narrative), metaphysics and ethics, and often relating to numinous or transcendent experiences.
How does Marxism compare to this
Firstly, there is no obvious connection to a numinous or transcendent experience, although it is possible that dedicated Marxists do experience something in this vein when they ‘feel the Truth’ of the ideology. However, this is the least critical element, since we are already aware of religions that do not necessarily contain this component such as Chinese traditional religious practices, and Christian atheism.
However, it does seem to fit the remaining
tenets of our definition. There is indeed a mythology (or central narrative) –
one which tells of the future liberation of the working class from the bondage
of a class system. There is a metaphysical component underlying both the
assumptions of the ideology itself, and in the specific criticisms of
religions, which presupposes atheism. There is an ethical component contained in
the general provisions for the idealised socialist society that Marx proposes.
Can we conclude that Marxism is a religion? I still suggest that we cannot, for in one important sense it does not seem to qualify. No practicing Marxist considers themselves to be practicing a religion. Now we could choose to assert our own conclusion in defiance of this, but the only reason we were able to form a definition for religion in the first place was because people do customarily identify those things which they practice as religion (via census data, for instance).
Although we may choose to call something a
religion that its practitioner does not, the consequence will likely be an
outbreak of finger pointing, as those hostile to particular belief systems may
choose to accuse them as being religions in disguise. It is hard to see how
this could be helpful – especially as it presupposes a negative connotation to
religion that may not be justified.
Consider, for instance, Marx’s suggestion
that religion serves only to support the status quo. This claim is flawed,
since it ignores cases where those motivated by religion have caused positive
social change – such as William Wilberforce (Christian), who was instrumental
to the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century, or Mahatma
Gandhi (Hindu), who liberated
Consider also the idea that religions
should be viewed negatively because religious wars have resulted in millions of
deaths. Putting aside the political and economic motivations behind the
Crusades, the number of deaths caused across all the Crusades has been
estimated by J.M. Robertson at nine million (about half of which were
Christians). Compare this to R.J. Rummel’s estimates for democides (murder by
government) in the twentieth century: 212 million dead, with Marxists
accounting for 148 million of this total (significantly less than the 34
million who died in open warfare in that century). While modern Marxists are no
more responsible for these atrocities than modern Christians are for the
Crusades, it nonetheless contradicts the supposition that the rejection of
religion leads necessarily to a better world.
Similarly, the idea that suicide bombing
can be used to indict religion is flawed. In fact, an analysis of suicide
bombing shows that the leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil
Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organisation in
…what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel liberal democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.
These statistics leave us with a rather negative view of Marxism, but it is important to remember that the atrocities discussed above are the result of fanatical extremism – Marxism was only the motivating ideology. Individual Marxists are no more likely to resort to suicide bombings and mass murder than individual Christians are likely to instigate a new Crusade! Any belief system can lead to extremism, and it is important to remain focussed on preventing extremism from taking root, rather than attempting to apportion blame onto specific belief systems.
Where does this leave us on the issue of
whether Marxism can be considered a religion? We have nothing to gain from
forcing the term ‘religion’ onto Marxists, who clearly do not wish to be seen
this way, therefore we need a different approach. I have been heartened by the
ease with which the term ‘nongame’ has been adopted to refer to things that are
like games in many respects, yet distinctly different in others. I suggest that
since Communists and Marxists are content to be seen as ‘non-religion’ (as with
Zhao Qizheng’s quote, posted last week) we have the option to consider Marxism
as a nonreligion.
Marxism, therefore, is similar to a religion in many respects, but is also distinctly different in certain key ways (including its decision to reject religion). By terming it as a nonreligion, we might resolve the general problem in philosophy of religion of the overt resemblance between Marxism and the collection of belief systems that it expressly rejects.
A nonreligion, therefore, might be defined as follows:
A nonreligion can be understood as a belief system that is not identified as a religion by its adherents and is comprised generally of mythology (or a central narrative), metaphysics and ethics.
Curiously, despite Marx’s original doctrine
being expressly antagonistic towards religion, this situation has shifted in
recent years. The change is perhaps exemplified by Fidel Castro’s comment that
“…between Marxism and religion, there is no antagonistic contradiction.” This
seems like a considerable change of tack for Marxists!
Donald A. Nielsen notes:
The rapprochement of Marxism and Christianity among eastern European intellectuals in the postwar era (e.g., Leszek Kolakowski) and the amalgam of Marxism and Christianity in the social reform efforts of Liberation Theology in Latin America since the 1960s (e.g., Guttiérez) are only two examples of the continuing mutual fertilization of Marxism and religion. With the demise of world communism, Marxism's new, yet not unfamiliar, situation is likely to allow its proponents once again to forge links with religion.
Indeed, there are signs of a general
softening of Marx’s original position amongst modern followers of this
nonreligion. Alex Cowper writes:
…the power of religion over people’s minds will not disappear before the social conditions that give rise to this form of alienation also disappear. That is why socialists cannot demand that people should be atheists. Many Marxists are also religious believers - such as senator Heloisa Helena of the Fourth International in
Brazil, or some comrades of the Labour Party Pakistan who say Muslim prayers before their meetings. Left secularists should therefore be the best defenders of individual rights of religious thought and expression, including in situations where one confessional group seeks to dominate another. However, that does not mean they should not argue against the influence of religious ideas.
This means that we must be firm in our defence of individual rights of religious expression. It needs to be demonstrated to members of oppressed communities that left secularists are the most consistent fighters for equality and civil rights. This will then make it easier to develop the struggle against integration of religion and state.
The idea of a nonreligion encouraging its followers to become staunch defenders of the individual rights of religious expression is surely a sign of a more mature belief system, one capable of accepting contrary viewpoints, rather than seeking to repress or oppose them. If this is the measure of where Marxism is headed, it is certainly encouraging, but it remains to be seen to what extent this recent, more liberal view of Marxist ideology can supplant the dogmas of the original Das Kapital. Nonreligions and religions share a common need: to minimise or eliminate fanatical extremism. Perhaps in mutual co-operation, this goal can be better achieved.