Is Religion Really ‘Opium Of The Masses’? Here’s What Marx Felt

We love to quote Marx whenever the question of religion comes up. But what did the great scholar actually mean?

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We love to quote Marx whenever the question of religion comes up. But what did the great scholar actually mean?

Whenever the question of Marxism and religion surfaces, the usual response by Marxists and non-Marxists alike, is the famous phrase "Religion is the opium of the masses", which appeared in Marx's ‘Introduction to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ (1844). This phrase, which negatively presents religion, has become the official position of Marxists, and despite much debate, this one-sentence answer to a complex question refuses to go away. In fact, in the context of rising right-wing populism across the world, it continues to assert itself particularly among those who are critical of right-wing politics.

Whenever this phrase is used, the attributes of ‘opium’ are superimposed upon religion in general.

In contemporary times, opium is generally understood as an illegal drug, with a lot of moral judgments surrounding it. While both the right-wing and left-wing use this metaphor for pursuing their ideological ends, they both share this contemporary understanding of opium. While the right-wing uses this metaphor to project communists as the enemy of religion, those in the left-wing use the metaphor to describe the horrors of violence in the name of religion.

As we will see below, Marx’s famous phrase is more nuanced than the simplistic meaning it has been reduced to today.


How Marx’s Words Have Been Used Out Of Context

This famous quote has been used out of context in two ways, which when taken into consideration, gives an entirely different picture of the metaphor. First, is the question of the phrase itself. As usual, “Religion is the opium of the masses”, occurs at the end of a paragraph, which itself is part of a page-long write-up by Marx.

There are paragraphs before and after the quote, and therefore, only a total reading of the small write-up will fully explain what Marx meant.

The paragraph at whose end this phrase appears goes like this: “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.”

Building on the criticism of religion in general and of Christianity in particular by Feuerbach, Marx understood religion through its material function in human society, and considered it as an ideology used by the ruling classes to maintain their hegemony.

As has been pointed out by several scholars and is quite evident in the text, for Marx, religion was an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.

It is because religion was at the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions, that, according to Marx, he used the metaphor of ‘opium' to describe religion. It is in the usage of ‘opium' metaphor, where the second ‘out of context' understanding of the phrase takes place.

Sociologist Andrew M McKinnon charted out the various uses and perceptions around ‘opium’ in the late 18th and early 19th century Europe, the period and universe in which Marx was writing, in his essay Reading Opium of the People: Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion.


Perspectives On Opium: Then & Now

In 19th century Europe, ‘opium’, was an unquestioned good i.e, it had several ‘positive’ usages, and was not analysed through a puritanical lens. Opium was a medicine of utmost significance, and was sold at pharmacies and was even prescribed by doctors and surgeons. It was prescribed for fatigue and depression, sleeplessness, rheumatism, ‘women’s ailments’, and was used as a treatment for all matter of bronchial infections, including pneumonia, bronchitis, and tuberculosis, as well as diarrhoea, dysentery, and cholera. It also had ‘recreational users’, especially among English romanticists.

Therefore, projecting our contemporary understanding of ‘opium’ on its 19th-century avatar would be unfair to Marx.

As McKinnon remarks, “Opium had a complex history in the nineteenth century, and yet when we, early twenty-first-century readers encounter ‘opium of the people’, we read it in a straightforward, literal, (and uniformly negative) manner that is alien to Marx's time.”

For Marx, religion was an outcome of human activity embedded in social relations; it was used by the ruling classes as an ideological tool for both oppression and its justification.

But religion was also a protest against ‘real suffering’, and provided temporary relief to the improvised, and therefore, when Marx calls for abolition/transcendence [aufhebung in German] illusions of religion, he argues for the abolition of social conditions which give rise to those illusions.


Did Only Marx Deserve Credit For The Famous Phrase?

There is another myth which is associated with the phrase which must be dispelled. In popular knowledge, the phrase ‘Religion is the opium of the masses’ is attributed to Marx. This notion is quite wrong and misguided as it was used by at least two different individuals on different occasions before Marx, while reflecting on the role and nature of religion. For example, Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenber, a German romantic philosopher, who wrote under the pseudonym Novalis, in his very first publication tilted ‘Pollen’ in 1798 uses the metaphor in one of his fragments: “Their so-called religion works simply as an opiate—stimulating; numbing; quelling pain by means of weakness”.

Similarly, Heinrich Heine, a German literary critic and also a distant relative of Karl Marx, used the analogy in the essay published by Ludwig Borne in 1840.

He says “Welcome be a religion that pours into the bitter chalice of the suffering human species some sweet, soporific drops of spiritual opium, some drops of love, hope and faith”.

It is not the case that there are only a few isolated studies on the meaning and context of the concerned phrase, but despite a lot of articles and essays and books on the concerned topic, this is misunderstood; simplistic and reduced interpretations refuse to go away. The reason perhaps lies in the way Marxists have dealt with the question of religion. Marxists have either ignored the question of religion or have tried to deal with it through the concept of secularism, which itself remains contested. Another reason perhaps lies in the marginalisation of another founding father of Marxism, i.e. Friedrich Engels, who shared a critical understanding of religion with Marx, but also saw religion as a potential revolutionary force.

(Harshvardhan Tripathy is a PhD research scholar at JNU. He tweets @chai_pioge. This is a ReadersBlog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Religion   Karl Marx   Opium 

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