The Opium of the Marxists

The most infamous of Karl Marx’s remarks on religion was his demeaning assessment that religion is the “opiate” or “opium” of the masses. Few, however, are familiar with the wider context of the assessment, the larger passage that is no less reassuring, and that, like much of Marx and his disciples’ writings, becomes even more addled and infantile as one tries to unpack it. Here is the section in full, taken from a mind-grunt of Marx scribbled in December 1843-January 1844, four years before the publication of his and Engels’ Manifesto:

Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

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.

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That in itself was negative enough by Marx, depressing enough, cold and heartless enough. As usual, however, Marx was far from finished venting the acrid recesses of his bitter brain:

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.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

That is a mouthful, and not worth wasting precious moments of our lives trying to decipher the entire passage in all its futility. But a few of the thoughts stand out and are worth underscoring because of their disastrous implications:

Note that Marx began with an emphasis on the “struggle” against religion, which was a rather negative way to frame humanity’s relationship with religion. This was a “struggle against religion” that he contended was merely man-made. Like his socialist friend Mikhail Bakunin (who, like Saul Alinsky, hailed Lucifer as “the eternal rebel, the first freethinker”), Marx insisted that man badly needs emancipation. Religion is an artifice of man, he surmised, a creation not of God but of man. Man thus makes religion because he pathetically needs religion. This is a man who has already “lost himself” and thus requires “religion.” The state and society “produce religion,” which is a deformed, “inverted consciousness of the world.” This, the struggle against religion, is also a “struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.” This is why people crave religion as a kind of drug, or opiate, or “opium.” Marx coldly assessed: “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.”

That, to borrow from modern parlance (and with apologies to Marx), is the money line in the passage. Modern commentators are only familiar with the second sentence on the opium of the people. The preceding line, however, is equally revealing. It sets up the opium assertion. Look at both sentences again, in tandem: “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.”

That complete assessment by Marx is even more spiteful than the commonly abbreviated “opium of the people” snippet. It is damning. Religion is a “sigh” of an oppressed creature, of a heartless world, of soulless conditions. This is a despairing view.

Marx next used three crucial words he would also use in the Communist Manifesto: “abolition of religion.” Given what he had said in the previous line, he thus said (not surprisingly) that “the abolition of religion” is necessary for people to achieve “real happiness,” especially given that their clinging to religion (to borrow a description from Barack Obama, who in 2008 spoke sneeringly of Americans “clinging to their God”) is a mere “illusory happiness.” It was hence critical, said Marx, that the likes of him criticize religion because religion was the “halo” of a “vale of tears.” Here, of course, Marx opted for a striking religious metaphor, turning Christian imagery on its head, as he relished doing throughout his writing and throughout his life. For instance, Marx’s famous line, “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs,” is another bastardization of Christian language; in that case, Holy Scripture itself. (As Catholics know, the prayer “Hail, Holy Queen” includes the line “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears,” which some Catholics render as “vale of tears.”)

Man, said Marx, must “throw off the chain” of “imaginary flowers.” He must discard “his illusions” and regain “his senses.” Why? Marx’s answer is pure plap—the sappy, self-defeating, self-contradictory moral relativism that has appealed to and ravaged the ruminations of the wider ideological left for centuries: “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.”

This, of course, is relativistic pabulum. It is the sophistry that, unfortunately, has evolved into the modern secular-progressive zeitgeist that dominates America and the wider West today. It is the philosophical silliness that has enabled modern leftists to redefine everything from life to marriage to gender to bathrooms.

When man makes himself his own Sun—i.e., his own God—then he destroys his world. As ex-communist Whittaker Chambers observed, Marx and his minions were merely echoing the first mistake of man, initiated way back in the Garden of Eden: ye shall be as gods.

Note, too, Marx’s obsession with criticizing. The word “criticism” is used 29 times in this essay, starting with the opening sentence: “For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” This is another well-known and oft-quoted Marxist maxim, usually summed up as simply: “The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism.”

This was Marx’s mindset. It was around this same time, in an 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge, that Marx called for “the ruthless criticism of all that exists.” Marx had a special preference for Mephistopheles. He was especially fond of Mephistopheles’ line from Faust: “Everything that exists deserves to perish.” This is no surprise; it reflects the very thinking of the man who called for the “ruthless criticism of all that exists,” who in the Manifesto declared that communism seeks to “abolish the present state of things,” and who at the close of the Manifesto called for “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

In order to breach something that deep, at that level, and at such magnitude, it was imperative that religion be criticized. For Marx, criticizing religion would be at the beginning, the very foundation, of all criticism.

Marx finished his destructive passage with an exhortation to history, to philosophy, to law, to politics to undertake the secular righteous “task” to “establish the truth of this world.” What truth? That truth, alas, was Marx’s “truth.”

Ye shall be as gods.

Editor’s noteThis is an exclusive excerpt from Paul Kengor’s newly released book, The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism’s Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration (TAN Books, 2020). 


  • Paul Kengor

    Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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