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June 2019 Pulse

In an article in The Guardian published on 4 May 2018, Philip Oltermann maintains that the thought of Karl Marx – that towering if controversial figure in the history of modern European philosophy and economics – is experiencing something of a revival. Marx’s Das Capital, writes Oltermann, ‘is climbing back into the bestseller charts and a raft of biographies and TV dramas celebrate the enduring relevance of his ideas’.

According to Thomas Steinfield, the 2008 financial crisis served as the catalyst for the renewed interest in Marxist philosophy and ideology. As Steinfield sees it, in this economic upheaval Marxism provides a strangely compelling critique of a system whose ability to deliver assurances have been taken for granted by most: ‘The economists on our business pages were only able to explain the market as a system that worked. But the crisis forced us to confront Marx’s alternative: what if markets are latently catastrophic?’

It must be remembered, however, that although Marx is routinely associated with his revolt against capitalism in its various guises, it was religion that he sought to abolish above everything else. Marx’s celebrated dictum that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ (‘Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes’), which appeared in his book, posthumously published as A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, can be said to be his basis for or Grundprinzip of his political and economic theories.

Marx was not the first to portray religion in this scathing manner. Lenin had already dismissed religion as the brandy for the masses. In fact, Marx’s view closely resembles that of Lenin, who describes in About Religion the illusory nature of religion thus: ‘All religion … is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of … external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces’.

But it was to the 19th century German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, that Marx (and to some extent Lenin as well) owes the greatest debt for his view on religion. For Feuerbach, God is a creation of the human imagination, man’s self-projection. In one fell swoop, Feuerbach has turned theology into anthropology, and theology’s God into an illusory figure made in man’s image, purposed to serve as an otherworldly panacea for his this-worldly troubles and fears.

Religion is therefore a mark of immaturity.

Following the trajectory of Feuerbach, Marx and Lenin sought to demolish the idea of a transcendent being and wean man from his dependence on such harmful illusions by the dialectical materialism they propose. Thus when Lenin declares ‘Down with God’ he is not simply saying that the idea of God must be abandoned because his existence cannot be proven; rather he is insisting that God must be categorically rejected.

In the Marxist universe, where God has been evicted, all that is left is matter. It’s therefore not surprising that Marxist metaphysics could postulate the theory of the eternality of matter. As ultimate reality, matter is the source and substance of everything that is, including human rationality, aesthetic sensibilities and morality.

Based on its secular and atheistic worldview, Marxism is highly dismissive of and antagonistic towards religion and the institutions it erects. As we have seen, religion is the product of ignorance and fear, and religious institutions like the church are seen as strategic instruments employed by rulers to control and manipulate the masses.

For Marxists, the atheistic worldview can never be reduced to a matter of personal and private convictions. Rather, atheism is truth that must be proclaimed and propagated, as the Russian daily broadsheet Izvestia makes clear when it states that ‘To be an atheist for one’s own sake, leaving others to their own ideas, does not coincide with the proletarian Bolshevist methods of Marxism-Leninism’.

Marxism is therefore a movement with extraordinary missionary zeal. It seeks to convert the masses by force if persuasion fails because it firmly believes that if God is not entirely eradicated from human consciousness, human potentials will forever be thwarted.

Marx said as much when he wrote, years after he had rejected religion, that ‘If God exists as Creator, then the human being becomes less important or indeed nothing’.

But most significantly, if God is not eliminated, the party and its ideology will never enjoy the full and unqualified allegiance that they demand.

However, even Marxists and Communists recognise just how stubborn and subtle religion and religious sensibilities can be. Here, we recall Stalin’s penetratingly perceptive remark: ‘To close Churches is easy; but the peasants build churches in their souls’.

So, if wiping out religion altogether has proved frustratingly difficult, another strategy is needed. If religion cannot be eliminated, then the next best thing to do is to tame it, to domesticate it, and to somehow make it conform to the ideals of Marxist-Leninist vision.

For example, China allows Christians to teach about God, so long as the God they portray approves of its Maoist programmes. Efforts towards the so-called sinicization of religion in China and the creation of what suspiciously looks like a civil religion are also veiled instantiations of the attempts by the state to domesticate religion.

I’ve deliberately entitled this article ‘Marxism and Religion’ because the conjunction ‘and’ can bring out the relationship between the two in quite interesting ways. We have seen one side of it, namely, Marxism’s antagonism towards religion, and its resolve to either obliterate it or tame it.

But the conjunction can also suggest another relationship between the two. For in its attempt to rid the world of religion, Marxism has presented itself as a religion of sorts, albeit a secular one. Indeed, it presents itself as a religion that is intolerant of rivals. This is where the conjunction ‘and’ is transmogrified into the adverb ‘as’ – ‘Marxism as religion’.

This, however, is not peculiar to Marxism but is the characteristic feature of any form of totalitarian regime, as the great theorist of totalitarianism, Waldermar Gurian, pointed out way back in 1939. ‘The totalitarian regime adores the god produced by itself’, writes Gurian. ‘Thus, in the last instance, if it uses the name of God, it adores its own image deifying itself’.

Having declared that ‘God is dead’, Marxism then deifies itself (or the state it creates) and usurps his place. As a secular religion, Marxism can also be said to be a form of ‘modern Messianism’, complete with its almost apocalyptic final struggle to free the world of evil (religion, capitalism) and the definitive triumph of the Good (a classless utopia).

In this way, Marxism is not very different from Nazism, as Frederick Voigt’s instructive analysis clearly demonstrates:

We have referred to Marxism and National Socialism as secular religions. They are not opposites, but are fundamentally akin, in a religious as well as a secular sense. Both are messianic and socialistic. Both reject Christian knowledge that all are under sin and both see in good and evil principles of class and race. Both are despotic in their methods and their mentality. Both have enthroned the modern Caesar, collective man, the implacable enemy of the individual soul. Both would render unto Caesar the things which are God’s. Both would make man master of his own destiny, establish the Kingdom of Heaven in this world.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.