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This short philosophical essay dives into the atheistic philosophy of Karl Marx, author of the, ‘Communist Manifesto.’ In particular this paper will focus on his beliefs about Christianity derived from his 11 theses penned in response to Ludwig Feuerbach’s book ‘The Essence of Christianity’ (1881).

The 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach published his magnum opus titled ‘The Essence of Christianity’ in 1881.[1]  This prompted Karl Marx to author eleven theses in response to Feuerbach’ work, which was subsequently published as part one of the ‘The German Ideology.’[2] This essay will analyse Marx’s response to Feuerbach’s writings, namely Marx’s ‘Theses on Feuerbach,’ examining his conceptualisation concerning god.  Specifically, this essay will address Marx’s philosophical inheritance as received from Georg Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, before exploring Marx’s critique of religion, which in this context was Christianity that was considered to be the absolute truth and underpinned the Prussian State.[3]  Finally, this essay will attempt to analyse Marx’s idea and expression of god or idol, proposing this to be the ‘enlightened’ individual; the being that is fully aware of their own objective power and free from all class oppression as a result of revolutionary action.

Feuerbach can be understood as a philosophical link between the great German philosopher Georg Hegel and Karl Marx.  Hegelian philosophy emphasised rationality and idealism and maintained the idea that God could be defined and understood as creator, objective, distant, and greater than creation itself.  Whilst the ‘right Hegelians’ took Hegel’s philosophy in a conservative direction, the ‘young Hegelians’, including Feuerbach, explored Hegel’s ideas and developed radical critiques against religion, due to its perceived restriction upon individuals’ freedom and reason.[4]  

In Feuerbach’s analysis of Hegelianism, he denotes it to be speculative theology.[5] In his work, Feuerbach designs a more grounded approach to God, describing him as the product of human projections.  Feuerbach states, “Man is the God of Christianity; Anthropology the mystery of Christian Theology”.[6]  Here he posits that God is the product or consequence of man’s projections, suggesting that God is both man and man- made.  Subsequently, man is Feuerbach’s essence of Christianity.

Marx echoes in part Feuerbach’s reasoning concerning God, suggesting that “religion is inverted consciousness”.[7] Marx in the first thesis, however, criticises Feuerbach for not grasping the significance of human and revolutionary activity.[8]  Marx suggests that Feuerbach remains shackled in contemplation and idealism, the Hegelian mode of abstract thought.  For Marx this only further contributes to the “decomposition of the Hegelian philosophy”.[9] Marx continues to reinforce his position in the third thesis, promoting man as the agent of change.  This language of man-made revolution, change, and praxis is a consistent theme throughout the eleven theses.  Marx aspires to deracinate Hegel’s abstract-God, progress beyond Feuerbach’s projectionist-God, and replace man’s self-made religion with revolution in which “circumstances are changed by men”.[10]

It can be suggested through analysis of these writings that Marx is not what can be described as a negative theologian, the philosopher intent on negating God, as Hegel and Feuerbach may have been.[11]  Marx can be more aptly depicted as a serious atheist, as described by Kojeve who stated, “For the serious atheist God is not”.[12]  Marx directs his focus towards what can be attributed to the human being and does not debate the existence of God as would a negative theologian.  For Marx the idea of atheism was futile as Clarkson captured stating, “In other words, atheism – which asserts the existence of man through the negation of God – becomes an impossibility in the classless society, because that society is the realisation of man as a social being.”[13] 

Marx makes a rare mention of god in his poem “Invocation of One in Despair”, in which he pronounces, “So a god has snatched from me my all, Nothing but revenge is left to me!”.[14]  Although poetic in nature, these lines suggest that Marx’s view of God was as a malevolent being and therefore by default his chosen course will subsequently be revenge against God.  This may be one way in which Marx’s legacy can be interpreted.  Despite this, Marx himself presented less interested in revenge through negation of God, but rather through the criticism of religion, which he perceived to be a blight on the human being.[15]

The sixth and seventh theses deal with what Feuerbach describes as the human essence, defined as “the determination of its being-outside-of-itself”.[16] Whilst Marx agrees with Feuerbach’s resolving of the religious essence into the human essence, he criticises Feuerbach for overlooking that “religious sentiment is itself a social product.”  According to Marx, any conceptualisation of God was entirely man-made and constructed, resulting in Marx’s conclusion that “Man makes religion, religion does not make man”.[17]  

Veres’ proposed that Marx’s goal was in fact the “divinization of the human being”.[18] Whilst Marx upholds the sentiment of god to be a product of man’s own creation, he acknowledges the centrality of religion in assisting humanity’s need to survive, describing it as “the heart of a heartless world”.[19] Marx further explains religion designating it to be man’s “protest against real suffering”, and famously as the ‘opioid’ that kills the pain of life’s reality.[20]

While it is evident that Marx wanted to free humankind from what he perceived to be the restrictions of religion and the inverted consciousness of belief in god, he was also able to acknowledge the value of religion as a stage of humanity’s development.  This suggests that rather than annihilating religion, Marx’s foremost desire is to separate man from it. Veres’ idea of Marx as a militant atheist beset on slaying religion could possibly be biased due to his examination of Marx retrospectively through the lens of modern Marxism.

It appears for Marx that God was addressed swiftly through his early poetry and it was religion upon which he focused his concern.  This was due to the perception that the religious burden upon humankind was appropriate at a certain historical stage and necessary for the development of people groups, but had to be superseded by communism. This was Marx’s great solution to the human condition.[21]  

The final thesis composed by Marx can be interpreted as the crux of all eleven theses, which states, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.[22]  As discussed, Marx affirmed Feuerbach’s idea of God to be man’s projection of his own divine-like virtues.  In this final thesis, Marx depicts Feuerbach, Hegel and all his predecessors to be as interpreters, while he himself as more similar to a liberator, redeeming the human being through the means of revolution.  If Marx ever did envisage a god or being to be idolised it was that of which he viewed himself as; the enlightened individual who did not look to an outside source such as god for direction or strength, but was free from conditions of worth, fully aware of one’s own objective power and enabled to evoke change through a revolutionary consciousness.  This, Marx believed, would result in a person positioned to pursue the greatest good, that of absolute equality.

Marx proposes that for the individual to change history, he must be free not only from the shackles of guilt and self-degradation imposed by religion, but also free from the oppression of the bourgeois, the class of capitalist owners of production.[23] Marx states, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” and his adamant response to this class struggle was revolution.[24]  Most of Marx eleven theses mention the necessity of revolutionary practice and the importance of practical activity.  Given Marx’s emphasis on action, he presents as underwhelmed with Feuerbach’s emphasis on contemplation.  In thesis one, Marx specifically critiques contemplation as the “defect of materialism”.[25]  He further states that it lacks, “sensuous human activity, practice”.[26]  

Marx believed history must be reinterpreted based on production and economics, which started with addressing the alienation of man (Loy p.10).  Marx concurs with Feuerbach that religion has alienated man and applies this same idea to the alienation of man from his product. Volf describes this stating,  

“in alienated societies the products of human activity acquire an independent existence and rule their creators. Essentially, Marx’ critique of alienation is the critique of people’s dependence on their own creation which is based on Marx’ belief that human beings are their own highest beings.”[27]

This highest being, the enlightened man, must unite with a revolutionary movement of proletarians, including labourers, slaves, plebeians, and the working class.  The Communist confession of faith details the rationale for necessary revolutionary action.[28]  It is Marx’s profession of the individual as god, in which faith is in the proletariat’s ability to act in revolutionizing society and unshackling all people from the constraints of labour.  Marx descriptively declares, “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win”.[29]

Karl Marx presents as a true Atheist.  He largely rejected the Hegelian influenced approach of god adopted by Feuerbach, opting to focus on the freedom of humanity from their alienating religion and charting a course of activity and change that would lead to the liberation of the individual.  Marx was dogmatic concerning the necessity of the enlightened man, which can be viewed as Marx’ god or idol, and Communism his belief system.  

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Feuerbach, Ludwig, and G Eliot. The essence of Christianity. (Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 1989).

[2] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, C J Arthur. The German Ideology. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974).

[3] Horii, Mitsutoshi. “Contextulaizing “religion” of young Karl Marx: A preliminary analysis.” (Critical Research on Religion , 2017), 170-187.

[4] Redding, Paul. “Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel.” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Paul Redding. Santa Clara: Metaphyscis Research Lab, Stanford University, 2018).

[5] Feuerbach and Eliot. The essence of Christianity.

[6] Feuerbach and Eliot. The essence of Christianity, 336.

[7] Marx, Karl, and Joseph O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’. (1970).

[8] Marx, Karl, and Fredrick Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.” (Marx/Engels Selected Works, 13-15. Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers, 1969).

[9] Marx and Engels. The German Ideology.

[10] Marx, and Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.”

[11] Turner, Denys. “How to be an Atheist.” (New Blackfriars, 2002), 317-335.

[12] Kojeve, Alexandre, and Jeff Love (Eds.). Atheism. (New York, USA: Columbia University Press, 2018), 11.

 

[13] Clarkson, Kathleen, and, David Hawkin. “Marx on Religion: The Influence of Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach on his thought and its implications for the Christian-Marxist dialogue.” (Scotland Journal of Theology, 1978), 533-555.

[14] Marx, Karl. Marxists Internet Archive. n.d. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1837-pre/verse/verse11.htm (accessed September 6, 2019).

[15] Marx, and O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’.

[16] Gooch, Todd, and Edward Zalta (ed.). “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach.” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Santa Clara: Stanford Univeristy, 2016).

[17] Marx, and O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’.

[18] Veres, Tomo. “The ambivalence of Marx’s atheism.” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1985), 549-560.

[19] Marx, and O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’.

[20] Marx, and O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’.

[21] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. (London, UK: Penguin Books, 2002).

[22] Marx, and Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.”

[23] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

[24] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

[25] Marx, and Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.”

[26] Marx, and Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.”

[27] Volf, Miroslav. “God, Freedom and Grace: Reflections on the Essentiality of Atheism for Marx and Marxism.” (Biblijsko-teoloski Institut, 1989), 213-229.

[28] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

[29] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

 

 

References

Clarkson, Kathleen, and, David Hawkin. “Marx on Religion: The Influence of Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach on his thought and its implications for the Christian-Marxist dialogue.” Scotland Journal of Theology, 1978.

Feuerbach, Ludwig, and G Eliot. The essence of Christianity. Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Gooch, Todd, and Edward Zalta (ed.). “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Santa Clara: Stanford Univeristy, 2016.

Horii, Mitsutoshi. “Contextulaizing “religion” of young Karl Marx: A preliminary analysis .” Critical Research on Religion , 2017.

Kojeve, Alexandre, and Jeff Love (Eds.). Atheism. New York, USA: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Marx, Karl. Marxists Internet Archive. n.d. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1837-pre/verse/verse11.htm (accessed September 6, 2019).

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. London, UK: Penguin Books, 2002.

Marx Karl, Friedrich Engels, C J Arthur. The German Ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.” In Marx/Engels Selected Works, 13-15. Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers, 1969.

Marx, Karl, and Joseph O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’. 1970.

Redding, Paul. “Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Paul Redding. Santa Clara: Metaphyscis Research Lab, Stanford University, 2018.

Turner, Denys. “How to be an Atheist.” New Blackfriars, 2002.

Veres, Tomo. “The ambivalence of Marx’s atheism.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1985.

Volf, Miroslav. “God, Freedom and Grace: Reflections on the Essentiality of Atheism for Marx and Marxism.” Biblijsko-teoloski Institut, 1989.