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Marxism as Religion 31 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory.

The September 21st New York Review of Books carried an essay about Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski by Tony Judt, in which Judt discusses at length the philosophers thoughts on Marxism. Kolakowski likens marxism to a religion or a faith statement in its social effect, and as I rode the commuter train this morning, I had one of those Eureka moments. I have never been able to make sense of the contradictions within marxism, and between the best of Marx’s ideas and the horrific outcomes of marxism in practice. I had never fully bought the apologists’ efforts to rescue Marx from his followers and practitioners, but hadn’t been able to fully comprehend why. Kolakowski’s idea that marxism is (or I would say functions like) a religion suddenly brought it all into focus.

As a graduate student, I was introduced to more in depth look at Marx’s social thought, especially his critiques of capitalism, and I even took a course where we examined Das Kapital in depth. For sociologists, Marx is one of the founders of social scientific thought, most notably in his insistence on the centrality of social relations to ideas (ideologies) and to material outcomes, his views of social systems as complex interactions, and his belief that such systems could be understood “scientifically” (that is, through systematic observation and analysis). Surely, Marx’s social science method wasn’t well developed (we owe that mostly to Durkheim and Weber), but his ideas proved central to the growing idea in European (and eventually American) universities that human societies could be understood scientifically and planned.

Marx as social theorist is pretty narrowly read today by most sociologists who don’t specialize in Marxist criticism, focusing mostly on his analysis of capitalism as a social system. In cultural studies, 20th century dialogues with Marx’s ghost is practically a rite of passage. The obvious critiques of Marx have been made over and over, particularly his historical materialism, which so often devolves into a kind of gross determinism in Marx’s writings as to make you want to throw the whole thing out. But starting with his writings on the 18th Brummaire and culminating in Kapital, Marx had shifted to a depth of analysis of how capitalism functions to mix ideologies and social relations together (his notion of the fetishism of the commodity is fucking brilliant, and more salient today than he could have imagined). That contradiction between the irritating determinism and the powerful insights has plagued my relationship with Marx for years.

As a sociologist who sometimes studies religious cultures, I instantly felt the resonance of thinking of marxism as a religion. Anyone with the most cursory knowledge of religion knows that all religious systems are morally conflicted and internally inconsistent in their morals. The same religious system can produce massive violence and suffering in one context, and on another occasion be the source of humanity’s shining moments of compassion and healing. This contradiction makes religious cultures (that is, their symbolic contents) difficult to deal with empirically, because their effects in the social world are mixed and contradictory. Further, most world religions as they have survived today rely on texts and often on founders. Again, these founders are often the source of contradictory ideas: Jesus taught both “love they neighbor” and that his religion would tear apart families and bring violence (“the sword”); Mohamed taught both that the diversity of humans was divine, and that Arabs were god’s only people; the buddha taught that enlightenment lies within and is available to alll, but forbade women to practice or learn his methods. Of course I’m being overly simplistic here to illustrate a point, that religious systems are ethically and ideologically mixed and that the mixture can be traced back to its founders.

The apologists for Marx often try to say that his followers didn’t understand his ideas; or they argue that communism wasn’t real marxism; or they insist that communism was corrupted by a handful of corrupt men. But Kolakowski sees in Marx’s determinism, specifically his view of the Proletariat as the “true people,” the ideas of inevitability and of moral certitude necessary to create the slaughters and oppressions in 20th century communist societies. Surely, Marx was in favor of a kind of radical freedom familiar to any good libertarian, but he also held ideas that, in Kolakkowski’s words, were nearly eschatological. That is, he saw history (in a modified Hegelian framework) in a way familiar to most Christians: as moving toward a glorious, if bloody, end, and the end was Good and would bring everlasting peace and happiness, despite being preceded by violence. These ideas are indeed contained in Marx, along with his biting and incisive critique of the inequalities and suffering produced by the social relations of capital.

And so to see marxism accurately, even to be able to gleen from it what is useful to me in 2006 while rejecting what is damaging or merely wrong, I can see marxism as a religion with millions of followers who, like religious originators and their followers elsewhere, truly believed what they practiced, and had in many ways left reason at least partway behind. Marxism had become, perhaps even for Marx himself, a kind of credo, an end-in-itself, an ultimate, unquestionable Good. The assumptions within Marx’s early works can and did plausibly lead to the repressions of the Soviet state; and his critiques can and did likewise lead to the social-democracies of western Europe. I think it might be interesting to actually study ‘marxists’ and see if empirically their interactions do indeed follow religious models. To be fair, I’d also love to study some market fundamentalists, a somewhat smaller and yet infinitely more powerful crew, to see if The Market doesn’t likewise function as a faith.


1. Sikandar - 26 November 2008

Hey dud,
Mohammad never said that in Islam Arabs are the only people of God.
I would suggest you to study Islam better then make comments on what you got from it.

2. Todd - 26 November 2008


In the Hadith, Mohammed does teach that Arabs are the chosen people of Allah, and that Arabic is the Holy language that god requires. Both in the Qur’an and the Hadith there is an extensive ethnocentrism around arabic (and semitic) people. During Arab imperial expansion (the first caliphates) and later the islamicization of central Asia and the subsequent spread of Islam throughout southern Asia, different schools of Islam de-emphasized that arabic-ethnocentrism in their attempts (like Christianity) to become a universal religion, that is, a religion for all peoples, that is, a reconceptualisation of the umah to include all peoples. In this revisioning of Islam, these more universalist interpretations chose to ignore much of the arab-centrism of the Hadith and the passages of the Qur’an that place Arabic culture and language in a superior position to others, choosing to highlight and focus on the passages of the Qur’an that speak of the diversity of humankind instead (for example, one of my favorite passages of the Qur’an says that the diversity of humans, their different skin colors, and languages, are evidence of Allah’s love).

In practice, Arabic remains the holy language throughout Islam and religious decrees (fatwas) from Arabic imams and mullahs (especially from Saudi Arabia) hold significantly more cultural weight throughout the Muslim world, at least in conservative and reactionary forms of Islam and in uneducated and poor muslim regions.

One historical example: Pakistan had an backlash from the Arabic world early in its formation, when they were told by the Arabic muslims that they weren’t “real” muslims because they didn’t learn arabic and didn’t practice like the Arabian immams said they should. This created early in the new republic’s history a sharp religious division between the subcontinental form of Islam that had been extensively indian-ized and integrated into Indian (especially Punjabi) cultural practices; and on the other hand the new Pakistani reactionary forms of Islam, closely related to Arabian wahabism and the source of modern Pakistani madrases. This split between liberal, secular, democratic, Indian Islam and conservative, reactionary, fundamentalist Arabic-centric Islam is still a central feature of Pakistani culture today.

However, and this is key to the point I was making, the more liberal, universalist forms of Islam have survived and thrive in many parts of the muslim world (e.g., in Bosnia and the Punjab). This is the contradition within Islam that I was highlighting above to make a larger point.

Although Islam is not one of my specialties, I have a basic understanding of its history and teachings and have read the Qur’an and much of the Hadith for teaching purposes. Adherents to any religion believe that their interpretations of their religion is the correct one; but from the outside, readers take it as a whole, a historical and cultural phenomenon, that is internally contradictory and has both beautiful and ugly aspects.

I have no horse in this particular race, other than as an observer from a social-scientific and historical perspective. And my larger point, above, is that religious thinking seems to necessarily consist of contradictory beliefs and practices contained within a single belief system.


3. Paul - 5 December 2008

You hell’a showed him Todd!
Quite the knowl how.
Thought it was a great article as well. x’

4. Paul - 5 December 2008


5. Juan P. Valderrey - 10 June 2009

Marxism had its church outside of which there was no salvation, its prophets and sacred books, its popes an bishops, it dogmas and its holy inquisition to maintain purity of the faith and extirpate heresy. It had its saints and martyrs who climbed the scaffold singing The Internationale. While it lasted had its holy see, promised heaven on earth for true beleivers and terrenal damnation for unbileibers and apostates.
If this is not a eligion, I wonder what it is,

6. Todd - 10 June 2009

The problem, however, is to distinguish among the many strands within the very large and vexed Marxist tent. While I agree that in practice, the social movements and revolutions that claimed to follow Marx’s philosophy became de facto religious movements, I do not agree that all of marxism is a religion or that Marx himself was a religious figure. In my own sociological work, Marx’s keen economic and social insights into how capitalism (re)structures society for the logic of capital remain empirically demonstrable 175 years later. Further, Leninsim and Maoism, both in the Marxist tent, are nonetheless quite different from each other; compare yet again to the Marxist guerrillas of latin america, yet another branch that is, again different; compare that to academic Marxism or to marxism in labor movements. What I’m trying to maintain, here, is a nuanced and empirically specific critique. My original point, three years ago now, was that political ideologies can bleed over and begin functioning like religions. When a political ideology reaches that point, it is beyond logic and critique, because for adherenets, it has become a visceral, lived, felt experience rather than an ideology.

7. No Frames - 22 December 2009

“the buddha taught that enlightenment lies within and is available to alll, but forbade women to practice or learn his methods”

This is grossly incorrect. The Buddhist society had four sectors, lay men, lay women, bhikku (priest) and bhikkuni (nun). And every one has the same potential to achieve “nirvana”, and gender does not matter.

8. Percy - 28 November 2010

I would argue that market fundamentalism resembles religion much more than Marxism does. Take, for example, the concept of the “Invisible Hand.” I remember when I first learned of the concept in economics class, I felt the same as I did when I learned about Christianity back in my private Christian grade school.

It takes an almost identical type of faith to actually bring yourself to believe in the theory of the “Invisible Hand.” It’s simply a way that capitalists rationalize away capitalism’s grave errors and inconsistencies.

Todd - 28 November 2010


I whole-heartedly agree. I think when I wrote this, I was responding to something specific that I had just read. But market woo-woo “rationality” is a totally faith-based system, which has been thoroughly debunked empirically for about 200 years now, but whose followers refuse to engage the evidence (reminds one of evolution or global warming, that). It’s also transcendental (in the Christian or Hegelian or Platonic sense, not the Emersonian sense), in that it believes in an Ideal Market that doesn’t actually exist in real human interactions, so it assumes that whenever anything goes wrong, it’s because people are imperfect (i.e., they have sinned).


9. Communism FAQ - 28 July 2011

[...] Re: Communism FAQ Interesting blog post on Marxism as Religion. [...]

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