From a Marxist perspective, is religion an idealist or a materialist phenomenon? Is it secondary or can it be a primary feature of human existence? The initial answer seems obvious: it is idealist and secondary. However, the situation is not as simple as it seems, especially if we consider the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

From a certain Marxist perspective, religion is conventionally understood as both an idealist position and a secondary phenomenon, which seems to rule out the possibility that it may be a cause of anything, let alone revolutionary activity. Here one may invoke some of Marx’s early writings to support the contention that religion is other-worldly, illusory, unreal, and thereby a subset of idealism. It simply has no place in the real world of living, breathing, pulsing human beings as they seek liberation. As a form of idealism, religion has no independent existence and therefore does not have a history.[1] He deploys this position to great effect in his engagements concerning philosophy and theology, his long and detailed critique of Hegel, and in The German Ideology (Marx 1842 [1975]-b, 1842 [1975]-a, 1843 [1975], 1843 [1974], Marx and Engels 1845-6 [1976], 1845-6 [1973]). Engels would then lay out this position in his inimitably accessible style, with the great distinction between idealist and materialist philosophical traditions (Engels 1880 [1989], 1880 [1973]). And for the Lenin of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, this distinction became the organising structure of his efforts to attack those attracted to empirio-criticism among the Bolsheviks of early twentieth century (Lenin 1908 [1962]). Indeed, for Lenin, idealism was merely a subtle form of fideism, which he defined as ‘a doctrine which substitutes faith for knowledge, or which generally attaches significance to faith’ (Lenin 1908 [1962], 19).

The argument that religion is a secondary phenomenon is closely related, drawn initially from Feuerbach’s (1989 [1841], 1986 [1841]) famous inversion in which the gods are projections of all that is good and noble in human beings. For Feuerbach, the true and refined theological task was to reclaim such attributes for human beings themselves (Feuerbach saw his project as refining theology rather than debunking it). Marx’s crucial reinterpretation argued that that religion is not so much the projection of the best in human beings, but the result of and response to alienated conditions of existence (Marx 1845 [1976], 4, 1845 [1973], 6). This position would have the intriguing result that communist parties, from the First International onwards, refused to require atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Since religion was a secondary phenomenon, it was up to the individual member to deal with the tension between religious belief and party membership. As the influential Erfurt Program of the German Social-Democratic Party put it in 1891: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’ (SPD 1891a, 3, 1891b, 3).

However, this is a rather one-sided view of the Marxist approaches to religion. A fuller picture includes the original position developed by Engels, according to which a religion such as Christianity may have a distinctly revolutionary role (Engels 1894-5 [1990], 1894-5 [1972], 1850 [1978], 1850 [1973]). It may be the early Christians, or the sixteenth century Peasant Revolution led by the ‘theologian of the revolution’, Thomas Münzer, or many other instances examined by Marxists who have followed Engels’s inspiration – from Kautsky to Žižek (Kautsky 1976 [1895-97]-a, 1976 [1895-97]-b, Žižek 2000, 2001, 2003). The question that arises here is how one accounts for such a possibility. Engels tended, especially in treatment of Münzer, to argue that theological language was a cloak for speaking of political and economic grievances and aspirations, indeed that such a language was the only one possible at the time. Of course, this enables him to argue that modern socialism breaks with that tradition, for it speaks directly of the ‘real’ issues.

This is not Engels’s strongest argument, for religion is as much a material concern as it is spiritual. Let me put it this way: a religion such as Christianity is as concerned with this world and this age (the original sense of saeculum, the basis of ‘secularism’), as it is with the world above or indeed the world to come as heaven on earth. The concern is not merely with heaven, but very much with the condition in which we find ourselves. It is not for nothing that theology has concerned itself with nature (the doctrine of creation), the human condition (anthropology), the forms of human collectivity (sociology and the ‘church’) and history itself. Another way of making this obvious – but too often forgotten – point is that any religion has its institutional forms, economic concerns and politics, without which its ideologies would be bereft of any basis.

Yet I am not content to rest with a conventional base-superstructure distinction in order to indicate that religion has a material force. So let me return to Marx by asking whether ideas themselves can have a material presence and power. In Marx’s initial reflections on fetishism – a core idea with clear religious origins he was to rework throughout his life (Boer 2011) – in the first volume of Capital, he struggles to move past the conventional opposition of real and unreal in relation to the fetish. He attempts many formulations in his effort to show that the fetish is both an idea and material reality, illusion and reality, mystical and materially grounded. Working at the limits of language, he then produces a telling phrase: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms [gesellschaftlich gültige, also objektive Gedankenformen]’ (Marx 1867 [1972], 90). Thought forms themselves may be socially valid and objectively real. The point is crucial, especially in the way Marx develops, in the subsequent volumes of Capital, the category of the fetish – originally a concept from the study of religions – to understand the core of capitalism. The implications for understanding religion from a Marxist perspective are immense, although Marx did not pursue them. If religion can be an objective thought form, both real and unreal in conventional language, then it also has a distinctly objective, material reality at the same moment that it is an idea.


Boer, Roland. 2011. “Kapitalfetisch: “The Religion of Everyday Life”.” International Critical Thought no. 1 (4):416-26.

Engels, Frederick. 1893 [2004]. “Engels to Franz Mehring in Berlin, London, 14 July 1893.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 163-7. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Engels, Friedrich. 1850 [1973]. “Der deutsche Bauernkrieg.” In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 7, 327-413. Berlin: Dietz.

Engels, Friedrich. 1850 [1978]. “The Peasant War in Germany.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 10, 397-482. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Engels, Friedrich. 1880 [1973]. “Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft.” In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 19. Berlin: Dietz.

Engels, Friedrich. 1880 [1989]. “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 24, 281-325. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Engels, Friedrich. 1893 1973. “Engels an Franz Mehring 14.Juli 1893.” In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 96-100. Berlin: Dietz.

Engels, Friedrich. 1894-5 [1972]. “Zur Geschichte des Urchristentums.” In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 22, 447-73. Berlin: Dietz.

Engels, Friedrich. 1894-5 [1990]. “On the History of Early Christianity.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 27, 445-69. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1986 [1841]. Das Wesen des Christentums. Stuttgart: Reclam, Ditzingen.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1989 [1841]. The Essence of Christianity. Translated by George Eliot. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

Kautsky, Karl. 1976 [1895-97]-a. Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus I: Kommunistische Bewegungen im Mittelalter. Berlin: Dietz.

Kautsky, Karl. 1976 [1895-97]-b. Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus II: Der Kommunismus in der deutschen Reformation. Berlin: Dietz.

Lenin, V.I. 1908 [1962]. “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy.” In Collected Works, Vol. 14, 17-361. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1842 [1975]-a. “Der leitende Artikel in Nr. 179 der „Kölnische Zeitung“.” In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 1:1, 172-90. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1842 [1975]-b. “The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 1, 184-202. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1843 [1974]. “Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie. Kritik des Hegelschen Staatsrechts.” In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 1, 203-333. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1843 [1975]. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 3-129. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1845 [1973]. “Thesen über Feuerbach (original version).” In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 3, 5-7. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1845 [1976]. “Theses on Feuerbach (original version).” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5, 3-5. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867 [1972]. “Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Erster Band Buch I: Der Produktionsprozeß des Kapitals.” In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 23. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1845-6 [1973]. “Die deutsche Ideologie. Kritik der neuesten deutschen Philosophie in ihren Repräsentanten Feuerbach, B. Bauer und Stirner und des deutschen Sozialismus in seinen verschiedenen Propheten.” In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 3, 9-530. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1845-6 [1976]. “The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5, 19-539. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

SPD. 1891a. Erfurt Program. In German History in Documents and Images: Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890-1918

SPD. 1891b. “Protokoll des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands: Abgehalten zu Erfurt vom 14. bis 20. Oktober 1891.” In. Berlin:

Toscano, Alberto. 2010. Fanaticism: On the Uses of An Idea. London: Verso.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2000. The Fragile Absolute, or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? London: Verso.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2001. On Belief. London: Routledge.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2003. The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. Cambridge: MIT.


[1] As Engels put with his characteristic clarity in a letter to Franz Mehring in 1893, ‘What has above all deluded the majority of people is this semblance of an independent history of political constitutions, legal systems and ideological conceptions in each individual sphere. When Luther and Calvin “overcome” the official Catholic faith, when Hegel “overcomes” Fichte and Kant, or when, with his Contrat social, Rousseau indirectly “overcomes” the constitutionalist Montesquieu, the process is one which remains within the confines of theology, philosophy and political science, which represents a stage in the history of these spheres of thought and never emerges from the sphere of thought’ (Engels 1893 [2004], 164-5, Engels 1893 1973, 97). More recently, Toscano has championed such a position (Toscano 2010).

Like what you're reading?

Join our mailing list to receive an email every time we post new content.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!