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Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

Tearing Down the Heavens: Marx’ Critique of Religion, Atheism, and Political Economy

For Marx, religion is more than “the opium of the people,” it is the mirror of society turned upside down. This essay examines Marx’s critique of religion as well as his critique of other contemporary critiques of religion. This critique of religion became the starting point of his critique of political theology and, later, political economy.

Karl Marx was an atheist. In his youth, he was close to the Young Hegelians and partook in their critique of religion as an abstraction from and alienation of humanity’s universality and potential. However, he soon grew critical of their fixation on religion and argued that it was necessary to turn to the social and political conditions that gave rise to religion, thereby commencing a critique of the critique of religion. Marx’s sublation [aufhebung] of the Young Hegelian critique of religion relied on its conceptual resources to move beyond its inconsistencies and begin to formulate a critique of the contradictions within the world of humankind that occasioned religion. This initially took the form of a reformatory critique of political theology, which became the point of departure for his subsequent critique of political economy and may also provide crucial resources for reinterpreting it.

I. Contemporary critiques of religion

G.W.F. Hegel had written and lectured extensively on religion, yet the exact relationship between his philosophy and religion (in particular protestant Christianity) became the subject of the fierce controversy that split the Hegelian school after his death. The so-called Young Hegelians formulated distinctly Hegelian critiques of religion (Christianity), which inverted and sublated the traditional religious conception of the relationship between God and humankind, arguing that God was a creation of humankind but functioned as an abstraction and alienation of its universality and limitless potential, which the critique of religion had to uncover and recover.

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach formalized this approach in the form of his method of “reformatory critique,” which he described as the (re-)inversion of subject (God) and predicate (humankind) in theology in order to reveal its truth. He also extended this method to Hegel’s speculative philosophy, which he accused of being “the last refuge and the last rational mainstay of theology” on account of the central role played by “spirit” [Geist] amongst other things in his “Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy” (p. 168).

II. Marx’s critique of the critique of religion

Marx was close to the Young Hegelians during his time as a student in Berlin and their influence is evident in his doctoral thesis Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, which hesubmitted in 1841. Already in the preface, Marx boldly asserted that it was written under the banner of Prometheus and his hatred of the gods (p. 30). However, Marx soon grew critical of some of the Young Hegelians’ critique(s) of religion, proposing instead that “religion should be criticized in the framework of criticism of political conditions rather than that the political conditions should be criticized in the framework of religion […] for religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to earth, and with the abolition of this inverted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself” in a letter to Arnold Ruge (pp. 394-5). Marx’s central point was that a consistent critique of religion should consider its earthly origins rather than treating it as a matter of divine revelation.

Marx’s critique of the critique of religion was developed more systematically in the “Introduction” he wrote for a planned revision of his draft manuscript “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” that he published in the German-French Yearbooks. In this text he started by identifying the Young Hegelian critique of religion as the necessary prerequisite of his own projected critique:

For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism […] The basis of irreligious criticism is: the human being makes religion, religion does not make the human being […] But the human being is no abstract being encamped outside the world. The human being is the world of humankind, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world (p. 175).[1]

However, Marx simultaneously challenged the abstract philosophical anthropology underlying the Young Hegelian critique of religion, insisting that the human being was a complex of social and political relations and institutions. The Young Hegelian argument that the human being makes religion must therefore be understood as the equivalent of asserting that these relations and institutions make religion.

III. The critique of political theology

The critique of religion can only be completed if it turns into a critique of the ‘inverted world’ of humankind that occasions religion as a distinctly ‘inverted consciousness’ of this world. In the incomplete manuscript “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” that is exactly what Marx did, extending the reformatory critique to the inverted relationship between the seemingly sovereign state and (civil) society, which found its foremost theoretical expression in Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Marx identified Hegel’s conceptualization of the state as a sovereign subject (“objective spirit”) transcending and exercising absolute power over society as part of a much wider tradition of “political theology” in his notebooks.

Marx’s reformatory critique of this political theology showed that the state did not transcend or exercise absolute power over society; rather, it was the collective but differentiated participation of civil society [bürgerliche Gesellschaft] that constituted the state. However, because of the inherent competition and (class) conflict over private property in civil society, its members were continuously divided against one another and therefore unable to recognize their collective agency as the basis of the state.

The state therefore appeared as a transcendent and sovereign subject and, to the extent that the members of civil society accepted this appearance and acted in accordance with it, participating in and subordinating themselves to its institutions, they conferred a social and material reality upon it, which in turn allowed the state to function as if it was a sovereign subject. However, Marx’s reformatory critique of this political theology showed its popular foundations and thereby also the possibility of (re-)inverting this inverted world of humankind, that is to say, carry out a revolution.

IV. Towards a critique of political economy

Marx refers to a subsequent section analysing the dynamics of the system of private property in civil society in a number of passages in the unfinished manuscript of “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law,” which were unfortunately never completed. However, he started pursuing this topic shortly thereafter and continued to do so throughout the rest of his life, starting with his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” compiled the following year, and continuing all the way up to his magnum opus Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. As he explained in the outline of his intellectual itinerary offered in the preface to his 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, his “critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law” had showed that in order to understand the state and the legal system it was necessary to analyse civil society, more specifically political economy; a principle that became the “guiding thread” of his subsequent work (p. 262).

The first volume of Capital commences with the commodity, which Marx describes as “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (p. 163). He goes on to explain that the commodity as well as its exchange value “appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own,” which is the crux of the fetishism of commodities (p. 165). Indeed, Marx goes on to argue that capital, understood as “self-valorizing value,” appears as an “automatic subject” independent of the definite social relationships between human beings that constitute and animate it (p. 255), much like Hegel’s spirit. This opens the possibility that Capital can be read as a reformatory critique of economic theology meant to reveal the social foundations of the seeming omnipotence and transcendence of capital and thereby also the possibility of overthrowing it.

V. Conclusion

Marx was an atheist. He criticized the religious conception of God as an abstraction and alienation of humankind’s universality and limitless along with his fellow Young Hegelians. However, he became critical of their critique(s) of religion, which he suggested continued to treat religion religiously, i.e., as some sort of transcendent truth revealed by God, rather than as a product of this world, the world of humankind. Marx argued that the inverted relationship between humankind and God, was a reflection of the inverted world of humankind, where the seemingly sovereign state appears to transcend and determine society. Marx’s reformatory critique of this political theology showed that this appearance was based on the collective agency and participation of society. However, since society was divided by the individualizing economic pressures and class contradictions occasioned by the modern system of private property (capitalism) it could not recognize its own collective agency in and as the state. This formed the starting point of Marx’s subsequent critique of political economy, which may have relied on many of the same methodological and theoretical resources, to analyse the inner contradictions of capital, which likewise appeared as a seemingly omnipotent subject, transcending and determining society.


[1] Many translations rely on the outdated and unnecessarily gendered translation of the German Mensch as “man.” I have updated this throughout this essay.

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Tearing Down the Heavens: Marx’ Critique of Religion, Atheism, and Political Economy

For Marx, religion is more than “the opium of the people,” it is the mirror of society turned upside down. This essay examines Marx’s critique of religion as well as his critique of other contemporary critiques of religion. This critique of religion became the starting point of his critique of political theology and, later, political economy.

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