Marxism and religion

Marxism and religion

Marxism and religion refers to the relationship, both in theory and in practice, between the socio-political worldview and political ideology of Marxism, and various different forms of religion. The founder and primary theorist of Marxism, the nineteenth century German sociologist Karl Marx, had an ambivalent attitude to religion, viewing it primarily as "the opiate of the masses" that had been used by the ruling classes to give the working classes false hope for millennia, whilst at the same time recognizing it as a form of protest by the working classes against their poor economic conditions.[1]

In the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of Marxist theory, developed primarily by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, religion is seen as negative to human development, and socialist states that follow a Marxist-Leninist variant are atheistic and explicitly antireligious. Due to this, a number of avowedly Marxist governments in the twentieth century, such as the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, implemented rules introducing state atheism. However, several religious communist groups exist, and Christian communism was important in the early development of communism.


In theory

Marx on religion

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

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. 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 abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.[2][unreliable source?]

The esoteric nature of the quote has led to some confusion among historians, who are divided as to whether Marx was speaking in favor of or against organized religion. Though Marx does state that religion is "the heart of a heartless world," and that "the demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions" (which could be taken to mean that religion is a necessary component of society, true or false), the quote is often used by atheists.[citation needed]

Lenin on religion

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.[3]

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.[4]

Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky on religion

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.[5]

In self-identified "Marxist" states

Religion in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was an atheist state,[6][7][8] in which religion was largely discouraged and heavily persecuted.[9] 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 various other Protestant sects. 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"[10]

Religion in the Socialist People's Republic of Albania

Albania was declared an atheist state by Enver Hoxha,[11] and remained so from 1967 until 1991.[12] The trend toward state atheism in Albania was taken to an extreme during the regime, when religions, identified as imports foreign to Albanian culture, were banned altogether.[12] 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

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.

Religion in Democratic Kampuchea

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 completely 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.[13][14]

Religion in Laos

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.[15]

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.[15] 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.[15]

Religion in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan

Once it came to power in Afghanistan, from the period it ruled for, 1978 to 1992, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan aggressively implemented state atheism.[16][17] They also imprisoned, tortured or murdered thousands of members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment, and the intelligentsia.[18]

Communism and Christianity

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.[19]

Communism and Islam

From the 1940s through the 1960s, Communists and Islamists sometimes joined forces in opposing colonialism and seeking national independence.[20] 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.

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.[21]

Communism and Judaism

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."[22]. 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 [23].

Communism and Buddhism

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.[24] Regardless, Buddhists have still been persecuted in communist states[25], 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 1960's.

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, speaks positively of Marxism, despite the heavy persecution of the Tibetan people by the Chinese communists.

Communism and Hinduism

Some principles of Hinduism can be seen as compatible with communism, though it is a definite theistic religion, its followers worshipping many gods, and therefore contradicts the atheistic element of communism.

However, a vast number of followers of Nepalese Maoist leader Prachanda and members of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) follow Hinduism, preferring the communist system to the Nepalese monarchy, despite Mao Zedong's hostility towards religion.

Religious criticism of communism

Because of communism's atheism, some have accused communism of persecuting religion.[26] In addition, another criticism is that communism is, in itself, a religion.[27][28]

See also


  1. ^ Raines, John. 2002. "Introduction". Marx on Religion (Marx, Karl). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Page 05-06.
  2. ^ Cline, Austin. "Karl Marx on Religion". Retrieved 15-Nov-2008. 
  3. ^ Lenin, V. I. (2007). Religion. READ BOOKS. pp. 5. ISBN 1408633205, 9781408633205.,+Introduction+to+Religion. 
  4. ^ Lenin, V. I.. "About the attitude of the working party toward the religion.". Collected works, v. 17, p.41. Retrieved 2006-09-09. 
  5. ^ Bukharin, Nikolai; Evgenii Preobrazhensky (1920). The ABC of Communism. pp. Chapter 11: Communism and Religion. ISBN 0472061127, 9780472061129. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Sabrina Petra Ramet, Ed., Religious Policy in the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press (1993). P 4
  8. ^ John Anderson, Religion, State and Politics in the Soviet Union and Successor States, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp 3
  9. ^
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ 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)
  12. ^ a b 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)
  13. ^ "Pol Pot - MSN Encarta". Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. 
  14. ^ Cambodia - Society under the Angkar
  15. ^ a b c Savada, Andrea Matles (1994). Laos: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: GPO for the Library of Congress. 
  16. ^ Maley, William (1998). Fundamentalism reborn?: Afghanistan and the Taliban. NYU Press. pp. 276. ISBN 0814755860, 9780814755860.  p. 8
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ Avakian, Bob (22 June 1997). "Early Christian Communalism and Real Communism". Revolutionary Worker (RW Online) (912). Retrieved 15-Nov-2008. 
  20. ^ "Communism and Islam". Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Retrieved 15-Nov-2008. 
  21. ^ Byrne, Gerry (17 March 2004). "Bolsheviks and Islam Part 3: Islamic communism". Retrieved 15-Nov-2008. 
  22. ^ Diner, Hasia R. (2004). Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. University of California Press. pp. 279. ISBN 0520227735, 9780520227736. 
  23. ^ Rabbis and Communism, a research article by Prof. Marc Shapiro
  24. ^ Sharma, Arvind (1995). Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced by Preeminent Scholars from Each Tradition. HarperCollins. pp. 82–83. ISBN 0060677007, 9780060677008. 
  25. ^ Mongolia. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  26. ^ Communism Persecutes Religion. Accessed 15 November 2008
  27. ^ The Hidden Link Between Communism and Religion, by Gaither Stewart, World Prout Assembly 12/08/07
  28. ^ Defining Religion in Operational and Institutional Terms, by A Stephen Boyan, Jr., Accessed 4-1-2010

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