Marxism and religion

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The nineteenth-century German thinker Karl Marx, the founder and primary theorist of Marxism, had an ambivalent and complex attitude to religion,[1] viewing it primarily as "the soul of soulless conditions", the "opium of the people" that had been useful to the ruling classes since it gave the working classes false hope for millennia. At the same time Marx saw religion as a form of protest by the working classes against their poor economic conditions and their alienation.[2]

In the Marxist–Leninist interpretation of Marxist theory, developed primarily by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, religion is seen as retarding human development. Due to this, a number of Marxist–Leninist governments in the twentieth century, such as the Soviet Union after Lenin and the People's Republic of China, implemented rules introducing state atheism.

Marx on religion[edit]

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

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.[3]

According to Howard Zinn, "He [Marx] saw religion, not just negatively as 'the opium of the people,' but positively as the 'sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.' This 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.".[4] Some recent scholarship has suggested that 'opium of the people' is itself a dialectical metaphor, a 'protest' and an 'expression' of suffering[5][6]

Lenin on religion[edit]

Vladimir Lenin was highly critical of religion, saying in his book Religion

Atheism is a natural and inseparable part of Marxism, of the theory and practice of scientific socialism.[7]

In About the attitude of the working party toward the religion, he 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.[8]

However, while Lenin was critical of religion, he also specifically made a point to not include it in Our Programme or his ideological goals, saying

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.[9]

Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky on religion[edit]

In their influential book The ABC of Communism, Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky spoke out strongly against religion. "Communism is incompatible with religious faith", they wrote.[10]

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."[10]

Lunacharsky on religion[edit]

In self-identified "Marxist" states[edit]

Religion in the Soviet Union[edit]

The Soviet Union was an atheist state,[11][12][13] in which religion was largely discouraged and at times heavily persecuted.[14] According to various Soviet and Western sources, however, over one-third of the country's people 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. Judaism also had many followers. Other religions, which were practiced by a relatively small number of believers, included Buddhism and Shamanism.

The role of religion in the daily lives of Soviet citizens varied greatly. Two-thirds of the Soviet population, however, 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, therefore, 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"[15]

Religion in the Socialist People's Republic of Albania[edit]

Albania was declared an atheist state by Enver Hoxha.[16] 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 nineteenth 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.[17] 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 China[edit]

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.

This attitude, however, 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.[18]

Religion in Cambodia[edit]

Democratic Kampuchea[edit]

Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, suppressed Cambodia’s Buddhist religion: monks were defrocked; temples and artifacts, including statues of 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.[19][20]

People's Republic of Kampuchea[edit]

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

Religion in Laos[edit]

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.[21]

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.[21] 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.[21]

Communism and Baha'i Faith[edit]

There are many similarities and differences between the schools of thought, however 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.[22] A book by the Association for Bahai Studies was written as a dialogue between the two schools of thought.[23] 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, libertarian municipalism, democratic confederalism, and more.

Communism and Christianity[edit]

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.

In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Friedrich Engels draws 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.

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.

— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto[24]

Communism and Islam[edit]

From the 1940s through the 1960s, Communists and Islamists sometimes joined forces in opposing colonialism and seeking national independence.[25] The Tudeh (Iranian Communist party) was allied with the Islamists in their ultimately successful rebellion against the Shah in 1979, although after the Shah was overthrown, the Islamists turned on their one-time allies. However, the MEK, an exiled communist party which opposes the Islamic Republic still have some power in their headquarters in Camp Ashraf.

Communist philosopher Mir-Said (Mirza) Sultan-Galiev, Stalin's protégé at the Commissariat of Nationalities (Narkomnats), wrote in The Life of Nationalities, the Narkomnats' journal.[26]

Communism and Judaism[edit]

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."[27] 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.[28]

Communism and Buddhism[edit]

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.[29] Regardless, Buddhists have still been persecuted in some communist states,[30] 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/post-Cultural Revolution Chinese government.

Religious criticism of communism[edit]

Because of the perceived atheistic nature of communism, some have accused communism of persecuting religion.[31] In addition, another criticism is that communism is, in itself, a religion.[32][33]

"Godless communism"[edit]

Throughout the Second Red Scare, the fear of the "Godless Communist" rooted itself as an epithet and a warning to the U.S. 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."[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lobkowicz, N. (1964). Review of Politics. 26 (3).  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ Raines, John. 2002. "Introduction". Marx on Religion (Marx, Karl). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Page 05-06.
  3. ^ Marx, Karl. "Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right". Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved 19 January 2012. 
  4. ^ Zinn, Howard. "Howard Zinn: On Marx and Marxism". 
  5. ^ 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 [1]
  6. ^ Roland Boer 'The Full Story: On Marxism and Religion' in International Socialism. Issue 123 [2]
  7. ^ Lenin, V. I. (2007). Religion. READ BOOKS. p. 5. ISBN 9781408633205. 
  8. ^ Lenin, V. I. "About the attitude of the working party toward the religion.". Collected works, v. 17, p.41. Retrieved 2006-09-09. 
  9. ^ Lenin, V. I. "Socialism and Religion". Lenin Collected Works, v. 10, p.83-87. Retrieved 2014-11-09. 
  10. ^ a b Bukharin, Nikolai; Preobrazhensky, Evgenii (1920). "Chapter 11: Communism and Religion". The ABC of Communism. ISBN 9780472061129. 
  11. ^ . JSTOR 128810.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ Sabrina Petra Ramet, Ed., Religious Policy in the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press (1993). P 4
  13. ^ John Anderson, Religion, State and Politics in the Soviet Union and Successor States, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp 3
  14. ^
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Sang M. Lee writes that Albania was "[o]fficially an atheist state under Hoxha..." Restructuring Albanian Business Education Infrastructure August 2000 (Accessed 6 June 2007)
  17. ^ 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)
  18. ^ Thomas DuBois and Chi Zhen "Opiate of the Masses with Chinese Characteristics: Recent Chinese Scholarship on the Meaning and Future of Religion."
  19. ^ "Pol Pot - MSN Encarta". Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. 
  20. ^ Cambodia - Society under the Angkar
  21. ^ a b c Savada, Andrea Matles (1994). Laos: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: GPO for the Library of Congress. 
  22. ^
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  24. ^ Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (2002). "3. I. a. Feudal Socialism". In Jones, Gareth Stedman. The Communist Manifesto (paperback) (New ed.). London: Penguin Group. pp. 246–247. ISBN 978-0-140-44757-6. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  25. ^ "Communism and Islam". Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Retrieved 15 Nov 2008. 
  26. ^ Byrne, Gerry (17 March 2004). "Bolsheviks and Islam Part 3: Islamic communism". Retrieved 15 Nov 2008. 
  27. ^ Diner, Hasia R. (2004). Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. University of California Press. p. 279. ISBN 9780520227736. 
  28. ^ Rabbis and Communism, a research article by Prof. Marc Shapiro
  29. ^ Sharma, Arvind (1995). Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced by Preeminent Scholars from Each Tradition. HarperCollins. pp. 82–83. ISBN 9780060677008. 
  30. ^ Mongolia. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  31. ^ Communism Persecutes Religion. Accessed 15 November 2008
  32. ^ The Hidden Link Between Communism and Religion, by Gaither Stewart, World Prout Assembly 12/08/07
  33. ^ Defining Religion in Operational and Institutional Terms, by A Stephen Boyan, Jr., Accessed 4-1-2010
  34. ^ Aiello, Thomas. "Constructing "Godless Communism": Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954-1960." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present) 4.1 (2005).