Marxism and religion

19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx, the founder and primary theorist of Marxism, viewed religion as "the soul of soulless conditions" or the "opium of the people". At the same time, Marx saw religion as a form of protest by the working classes against their poor economic conditions and their alienation.[1]

In the Marxist–Leninist interpretation, all modern religions and churches are considered as "organs of bourgeois reaction" used for "the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class". A number of Marxist–Leninist governments in the 20th century such as the Soviet Union after Vladimir Lenin and the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong implemented rules introducing state atheism.

Marxist political theorists and revolutionaries on religionEdit

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on religionEdit

Karl Marx's religious views have been the subject of much interpretation. In the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Marx famously stated:

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.[2]

According to Howard Zinn, "[t]his helps us understand the mass appeal of the religious charlatans of the television screen, as well as the work of Liberation Theology in joining the soulfulness of religion to the energy of revolutionary movements in miserably poor countries".[3] Some recent scholarship has suggested that "opium of the people" is itself a dialectical metaphor, a "protest" and an "expression" of suffering.[4][5] Certainly, Marx did not object to a spiritual life. Rather, he thought it was necessary. In the "Wages of Labour" of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx wrote: "To develop in greater spiritual freedom, a people must break their bondage to their bodily needs—they must cease to be the slaves of the body. They must, above all, have time at their disposal for spiritual creative activity and spiritual enjoyment."[6]

There are those who view that the early Christian Church such as that one described in the Acts of the Apostles was an early form of communism and religious socialism. The view is that communism was just Christianity in practice and Jesus as the first communist.[7] This link was highlighted in one of Marx's early writings which stated that "[a]s Christ is the intermediary unto whom man unburdens all his divinity, all his religious bonds, so the state is the mediator unto which he transfers all his Godlessness, all his human liberty".[7] Furthermore, Thomas Müntzer led a large Anabaptist communist movement during the German Peasants' War which Friedrich Engels analysed in The Peasant War in Germany. The Marxist ethos that aims for unity reflects the Christian universalist teaching that humankind is one and that there is only one god who does not discriminate among people.[8] Tristram Hunt attributes a religious persuasion to Engels.[9]

Vladimir Lenin on religionEdit

In his book Religion, Vladimir Lenin was highly critical of religion, stating:

Atheism is a natural and inseparable part of Marxism, of the theory and practice of scientific socialism.[10]

In The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion, Lenin wrote:

Religion is the opium of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.[11]

Nonetheless, Lenin allowed Christians and other religious people in the Bolshevik Party. While critical of religion, Lenin also specifically made a point to not include it in Our Programme or his ideological goals, arguing:

But under no circumstances ought we to fall into the error of posing the religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an "intellectual" question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie. It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.[12]

Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky on religionEdit

In their influential book The ABC of Communism, Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky spoke out strongly against religion, writing that "Communism is incompatible with religious faith".[13] However, importance was placed on secularism and non-violence towards the religious:

But the campaign against the backwardness of the masses in this matter of religion, must be conducted with patience and considerateness, as well as with energy and perseverance. The credulous crowd is extremely sensitive to anything which hurts its feelings. To thrust atheism upon the masses, and in conjunction therewith to interfere forcibly with religious practices and to make mock of the objects of popular reverence, would not assist but would hinder the campaign against religion. If the church were to be persecuted, it would win sympathy among the masses, for persecution would remind them of the almost forgotten days when there was an association between religion and the defence of national freedom; it would strengthen the antisemitic movement; and in general it would mobilize all the vestiges of an ideology which is already beginning to die out.[13]

Anatoly Lunacharsky on religionEdit

God-Building was an idea proposed by some prominent early Marxists of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Inspired by Ludwig Feuerbach's "religion of humanity", it had some precedent in the French Revolution with the "cult of reason". The idea proposed that in place of the abolition of religion, there should be a meta-religious context in which religions were viewed primarily in terms of the psychological and social effect of ritual, myth and symbolism in an attempt to harness this force for pro-communist aims, both by creating new ritual and symbolism and by re-interpreting existing ritual and symbolism in a socialist context. In contrast to the atheism of Lenin, the God-Builders took an official position of agnosticism.[14]

In Marxist–Leninist statesEdit

Religion in the Soviet UnionEdit

The Soviet Union was an atheist state[15][16][17] in which religion was largely discouraged and at times heavily persecuted.[18] According to various Soviet and Western sources, over one-third of the country's people still professed religious belief (Christianity and Islam had the most believers). Christians belonged to various churches: Orthodox, which had the largest number of followers; Catholic; and Baptist and other Protestant denominations. The majority of the Islamic faithful were Sunni (with a notable Shia minority, mainly in Azerbaijan), while Judaism also had many followers. Other religions, which were practiced by a relatively small number of believers, included Buddhism and Shamanism. However after 1941 in the Stalin era, religious persecution was greatly reduced. To gather support from the masses during World War II, the Stalin government re-opened thousands of temples and extinguished the league of militant atheists. Atheist propaganda returned to a lesser extent during the Khrushchev government, and continued in a less strict way during the Brezhnev years.

The role of religion in the daily lives of Soviet citizens varied greatly, but two-thirds of the Soviet population were irreligious. About half the people, including members of the ruling Communist Party and high-level government officials, professed atheism. For the majority of Soviet citizens, religion seemed irrelevant. Prior to its collapse in late 1991, official figures on religion in the Soviet Union were not available. State atheism in the Soviet Union was known as gosateizm.[19]

Religion in the Socialist People's Republic of AlbaniaEdit

Albania was declared an atheist state by Enver Hoxha.[20] Religion in Albania was subordinated in the interest of nationalism during periods of national revival, when it was identified as foreign predation to Albanian culture. During the late 19th century and also when Albania became a state, religions were suppressed in order to better unify Albanians. This nationalism was also used to justify the communist stance of state atheism between 1967 and 1991.[21] This policy was mainly applied and felt within the borders of the present Albanian state, thus producing a nonreligious majority in the population.

Religion in the People's Republic of ChinaEdit

The People's Republic of China was established in 1949 and for much of its early history maintained a hostile attitude toward religion which was seen as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism. Houses of worship, including temples, mosques and churches, were converted into non-religious buildings for secular use. However, this attitude relaxed considerably in the late 1970s with the end of the Cultural Revolution. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guaranteed "freedom of religion" with a number of restrictions. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples that were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.[citation needed] However, the Communist Party of China still remains explicitly atheist and religion is heavily regulated, with only specific state-operated churches, mosques and temples being allowed for worship.

Religion in CambodiaEdit

Democratic KampucheaEdit

Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, suppressed Cambodia’s Buddhist religion as monks were defrocked; temples and artifacts, including statues of the Buddha, were destroyed; and people praying or expressing other religious sentiments were often killed. The Christian and Muslim communities were among the most persecuted as well. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as an abomination. Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.[22][23]

People's Republic of KampucheaEdit

After the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, a socialist state more reflective of the values shared by Vietnam and allies of the Soviet Union was established. Oppression of religious groups was nearly totally ended and relations between religious groups and the People's Republic of Kampuchea were much more neutral throughout its existence until the restoration of the monarchy a decade later.

Religion in LaosEdit

In contrast with the brutal repression of the sangha undertaken in Cambodia, the Communist government of Laos has not sought to oppose or suppress Buddhism in Laos to any great degree, rather since the early days of the Pathet Lao communist officials have sought to use the influence and respect afforded to Buddhist clergy to achieve political goals while discouraging religious practices seen as detrimental to Marxist aims.[24]

Starting as early as the late 1950s, members of the Pathet Lao sought to encourage support for the communist cause by aligning members of the Lao sangha with the communist opposition.[24] Though resisted by the Royal Lao Government, these efforts were fairly successful and resulted in increased support for the Pathet Lao, particularly in rural communities.[24]

Communism and the Baha'i FaithEdit

There are many similarities and differences between the schools of thought, but one of the most common things they share are the time frame within which both ideologies were founded as well as some social and economic perspective.[25] A book by the Association for Bahai Studies was written as a dialogue between the two schools of thought.[26] Analysis reveals that the Bahá'í Faith as both a doctrinal manifest and as a present-day emerging organised community is highly cooperative in nature with elements that correspond to various threads of Marxist thought, anarchist thought and more recent liberational thought innovations. Such elements include, for example, no clergy and themes that relate to mutualism, libertarian socialism and democratic confederalism.

Communism and Abrahamic religionsEdit

Communism and ChristianityEdit

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote: "Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat."[27] In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels drew a certain analogy between the sort of utopian communalism of some of the early Christian communities and the modern-day communist movement, the scientific communist movement representing the proletariat in this era and its world historic transformation of society. Engels noted both certain similarities and certain contrasts.

Christian communism can be seen as a radical form of Christian socialism. It is a theological and political theory based upon the view that the teachings of Jesus Christ compel Christians to support communism as the ideal social system. Although there is no universal agreement on the exact date when Christian communism was founded, many Christian communists assert that evidence from the Bible suggests that the first Christians, including the Apostles, created their own small communist society in the years following Jesus' death and resurrection. As such, many advocates of Christian communism argue that it was taught by Jesus and practiced by the Apostles themselves.

Contemporary communism, including contemporary Christian communism, owes much to Marxist thought—particularly Marxian economics. While not all communists are in full agreement with Marxism, communists share the Marxist critique of capitalism. Marxism includes a complex array of views that cover several different fields of human knowledge and one may easily distinguish between Marxist philosophy, Marxist sociology and Marxist economics. Marxist sociology and Marxist economics have no connection to religious issues and make no assertions about such things. On the other hand, Marxist philosophy is famously atheistic, although some Marxist scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, have insisted that Marxist philosophy and the philosophy of Marx and Engels are significantly different from one another and that this difference needs recognition. In particular, Jose Porfirio Miranda found Marx and Engels to be consistently opposed to deterministic materialism and broadly sympathetic towards Christianity and towards the text of the Bible, although disbelieving in a supernatural deity.[28]

Liberation theologyEdit

In the 1950s and the 1960s, liberation theology was the political praxis of Latin American theologians, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay and Jon Sobrino of Spain, who made popular the phrase the "Preferential option for the poor". Consisting of a synthesis of Christian theology and Marxist socioeconomic analyses, liberation theology stresses social concern for the poor and advocates for liberation for oppressed peoples. In addition to being a theological matter, liberation theology was often tied to concrete political practice.[29]

While liberation theology was most influential in Latin America, it has also been developed in other parts of the world such as black theology in the United States and South Africa, Palestinian liberation theology, Dalit theology in India and Minjung theology in South Korea.

Communism and IslamEdit

From the 1940s through the 1960s, communists, socialists and Islamists sometimes joined forces in opposing colonialism and seeking national independence.[30] The communist Tudeh Party of Iran was allied with the Islamists in their ultimately successful rebellion against the Shah Pahlavi in 1979, although after the Shah was overthrown the Islamists turned on their one-time allies. The People's Mujahedin of Iran, an exiled political party which opposes the Islamic Republic, once advocated communist ideals, but has since abandoned them.

Communist philosopher Mir-Said (Mirza) Sultan-Galiev, Joseph Stalin's protégé at the People's Commissariat for Nationalities (Narkomnats), wrote in The Life of Nationalities, the Narkomnats' journal.[31]

Communism and JudaismEdit

During the Russian Civil War, Jews were seen as communist sympathizers and thousands were murdered in pogroms by the White Army. During the Red Scare in the United States in the 1950s, a representative of the American Jewish Committee assured the powerful House Committee on Un-American Activities that "Judaism and communism are utterly incompatible".[32] On the other hand, some orthodox Jews, including a number of prominent religious figures, actively supported either anarchist or Marxist versions of communism. Examples include Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, an outspoken libertarian communist, Russian revolutionary and territorialist leader Isaac Steinberg and Rabbi Abraham Bik, an American communist activist.[33]

Communism and BuddhismEdit

Buddhism has been said to be compatible with communism given that both can be interpreted as atheistic and arguably share some similarities regarding their views of the world of nature and the relationship between matter and mind.[34] Regardless, Buddhists have still been persecuted in some Communist states,[35] notably China, Mongolia and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

Many supporters of the Viet Cong were Buddhists, strongly believing in the unification of Vietnam, with many opposing South Vietnam due to former President Ngo Dinh Diem's persecution of Buddhism during the early 1960s.

The current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso speaks positively of Marxism despite the heavy persecution of the Tibetan people by the post-Mao Zedong and post-Cultural Revolution Chinese government. The Dalai Lama further stated that "[o]f all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. [...] The failure of the regime in the former Soviet Union was, for me, not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I still think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist".[36]

In India, in his essay "Buddha or Karl Marx", B.R. Ambedkar wrote: "The Russians are proud of their Communism. But they forget that the wonder of all wonders is that the Buddha established Communism so far as the Sangh was concerned without dictatorship. It may be that it was a communism on a very small scale but it was communism without dictatorship a miracle which Lenin failed to do"[37]

Religious criticism of communismEdit

Because of the perceived atheistic nature of communism, some have accused communism of persecuting religion.[38] In addition, another criticism is that communism is in itself a religion.[39][40]

"Godless communism"Edit

Throughout the Second Red Scare, the fear of the "Godless communist" rooted itself as an epithet and a warning to the United States in a changing global environment. As the perceived threat of the "Godless communist" and materialism to the American way of life grew, "the choice between Americanism and Communism was vital, without room for compromise".[41]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Raines, John. 2002. "Introduction". Marx on Religion (Marx, Karl). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Page 5-6.
  2. ^ Marx, Karl. "Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right". Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved 19 January 2012.
  3. ^ Zinn, Howard. "Howard Zinn: On Marx and Marxism".
  4. ^ McKinnon, AM. (2005). 'Reading 'Opium of the People': Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion'. Critical Sociology, vol 31, no. 1-2, pp. 15-38 "Opium as Dialectics of Religion: Metaphor, Expression and Protest".
  5. ^ Roland Boer in International Socialism. Issue 123 "The full story: on Marxism and religion".
  6. ^ Shippen, Nichole Marie (2014). Decolonizing Time: Work, Leisure, and Freedom (illustrated ed.). New York: Springer. ISBN 9781137354020.
  7. ^ a b Houlden, Leslie; Minard, Antone (2015). Jesus in History, Legend, Scripture, and Tradition: A World Encyclopedia: A World Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 357. ISBN 9781610698047.
  8. ^ Halfin, Igal (2000). From Darkness to Light: Class, Consciousness, and Salvation in Revolutionary Russia. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 46. ISBN 0822957043.
  9. ^ Hunt, Tristram (2009). The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. Metropolitan/Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 9780805080254. OCLC 263983621.
  10. ^ Lenin, V. I. (2007). Religion. Read Books. p. 5. ISBN 9781408633205.
  11. ^ Lenin, V. I. "About the attitude of the working party toward the religion". Collected works, v. 17, p. 41. Archived from the original on 20 July 2011. Retrieved 9 September 2006.
  12. ^ Lenin, V. I. "Socialism and Religion". Lenin Collected Works, v 10, p. 83–87. Retrieved 9 November 2014.
  13. ^ a b Bukharin, Nikolai; Preobrazhensky, Evgenii (1920). "Chapter 11: Communism and Religion". The ABC of Communism. ISBN 9780472061129.
  14. ^ Anatoly Lunacharsky (1908). Religion and Socialism. Moscow. p. 20.
  15. ^ Kowalewski, David (1980). "Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR: Characteristics and Consequences". The Russian Review. 39 (4): 426–441. JSTOR 128810.
  16. ^ Sabrina Petra Ramet, Ed., Religious Policy in the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press (1993). P 4
  17. ^ John Anderson, Religion, State and Politics in the Soviet Union and Successor States, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp 3
  18. ^ "Anti-religious Campaigns".
  19. ^ Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR: Characteristics and Consequences, David Kowalewski, Russian Review, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 426–441, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Editors and Board of Trustees of the Russian Review
  20. ^ Sang M. Lee writes that Albania was "[o]fficially an atheist state under Hoxha..." Restructuring Albanian Business Education Infrastructure[dead link] August 2000 (Accessed 6 June 2007)
  21. ^ Representations of Place: Albania, Derek R. Hall, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 165, No. 2, The Changing Meaning of Place in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe: Commodification, Perception and Environment (Jul., 1999), pp. 161–172, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)
  22. ^ "Pol Pot - MSN Encarta". Archived from the original on 2003-12-28.
  23. ^ Cambodia - Society under the Angkar
  24. ^ a b c Savada, Andrea Matles (1994). Laos: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: GPO for the Library of Congress.
  25. ^ "Baha'i Faith and Marxism". Retrieved 2019-11-25.
  26. ^ Studies, Association for Baháʼí (1987). The Baháʾí Faith and Marxism. ISBN 978-0920904183.
  27. ^ Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (2002). "3. I. a. Feudal Socialism". In Jones, Gareth Stedman (ed.). The Communist Manifesto (paperback) (New ed.). London: Penguin Group. pp. 246–247. ISBN 978-0-140-44757-6. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
  28. ^ Miranda, Jose Porfirio (1980). Marx Against the Marxists: The Christian Humanism of Karl Marx. London: SCM Press. ISBN 0-334-00975-8.
  29. ^ Liberation Theology Archived March 11, 2012, at the Wayback Machine., Canada & the World, February 10, 2010
  30. ^ "Communism and Islam". Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Retrieved 15 November 2008.
  31. ^ Byrne, Gerry (17 March 2004). "Bolsheviks and Islam Part 3: Islamic communism". Retrieved 15 November 2008.
  32. ^ Diner, Hasia R. (2004). Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. University of California Press. pp. 279. ISBN 9780520227736.
  33. ^ "The Seforim Blog – All about Seforim – New and Old, and Jewish Bibliography". Retrieved 2019-11-25.
  34. ^ Sharma, Arvind (1995). Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced by Preeminent Scholars from Each Tradition. HarperCollins. pp. 82–83. ISBN 9780060677008.
  35. ^ Mongolia. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  36. ^ "Dalai Lama Answers Questions on Various Topics".
  37. ^
  38. ^ Communism Persecutes Religion. Accessed 15 November 2008
  39. ^ The Hidden Link Between Communism and Religion Archived 2007-07-01 at, by Gaither Stewart, World Prout Assembly 12/08/07
  40. ^ Defining Religion in Operational and Institutional Terms, by A Stephen Boyan, Jr., Accessed 4-1-2010
  41. ^ Aiello, Thomas. "Constructing "Godless Communism": Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954-1960." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present) 4.1 (2005).

Further readingEdit

  • Smolkin, Victoria/ A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton UP, 2018) online reviews

External linksEdit