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Essays, Traditions

The Marxism and Theology Project

Political Theology Today is proud to announce that one of our Contributing Editors, Roland Boer, is the winner of the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize for 2014. The prize is “awarded for a book which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition.” In this case, it was awarded for In the Vale of Tears (2014), but also in recognition of the whole Criticism of Heaven and Earth series. We have invited him to summarize his extraordinary work in this area for our readers.

Political Theology Today is proud to announce that one of our Contributing Editors, Roland Boer, is the winner of the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize for 2014. The prize is “awarded for a book which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition.” In this case, it was awarded for In the Vale of Tears (2014), but also in recognition of the whole Criticism of Heaven and Earth series. We have invited him to summarize his extraordinary work in this area for our readers.

The complex connections between Marxism and theology have fascinated me for almost thirty years. Although I had been interested in Marxism since my teens, the first spark in relation to religion happened in the 1980s. In the midst of a Bachelor of Divinity degree at the University of Sydney, I took a course on political and liberation theologies. Yet, I was unsatisfied, not least because liberation theologians only dabble in Marxism rather than engage in sustained and rigorous study. I resolved to read Marx’s works for myself. Almost three decades later, the passion for Marxism and theology has not waned, resulting in six books directly on the topic. Five comprise the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series (Brill and Haymarket, 2007-2014), and the sixth is on Lenin (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

Rather than run through the contents of these works, let me try to provide a sense of these works with a statement by the early Marx. In his introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law he writes: “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.”[1] This text appears in the midst of observations that the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism, and that religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the protest against suffering, and the opium of the people. In the text I quoted from Marx, we find a type of parallelism: on the one side are heaven, religion and theology, while on the other are earth, law and politics. Has Marxism made the move from heaven to earth, from religion to law, from theology to politics? In some respects it has, but I have found that despite their desire for a criticism of earth, law and politics, Marxists continue to devote a good deal of attention to matters of heaven, religion and theology.

Initially I decided to call the first book Criticism of Heaven. At this stage, no plans were in place for any further volumes. I was aware that some Marxists had written on religion, that Marx and Engels’ scattered comments on religion had generated much debate, and I was aware that one or two Marxists had even written on the Bible. But as I read and studied more deeply, I was surprised again and again by how much has been written by Marxists on religion, and how theology plays a deep structural role in their thought. Initially, I restricted my study to Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Soon the book grew in the writing, including Henri Lefebvre, Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Žižek. The result was a massive manuscript of almost 300,000 words. Publishers were distinctly uninterested: the manuscript was too long; no-one was interested in the question of Marxism and religion. Eventually, the Historical Materialism book series was willing to publish the book, albeit with the condition that I ‘shave off’ 100,000 words.

Since then the book appeared in paperback with Haymarket, became a must-read text for what was by now a widespread fascination with the Marxism-theology intersection, was translated into a number of other languages, and was also published in its original form (the full 300,000 words). By this time, I realised the project was much larger than I had anticipated. In a small apartment in Amsterdam in the late northern summer of 2007, I sketched out the plans for another four volumes, which would become the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series: Criticism of Religion (2009), Criticism of Theology (2010), Criticism of Earth (2012) and In the Vale of Tears (2014).


What are my aims in this project and how do I go about it? The answers to these questions have really emerged in the process of writing. I seek to:

1. To provide a comprehensive critical commentary on the interaction between materialism and religion within the work of the leading Marxist thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This tradition shows that the much-debated ‘turn’ to religion by recent left-wing critics such as Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and Giorgio Agamben is merely a continuation of the tradition.

2. To examine unknown and neglected theological writings by these critics.

3. To assess the implications of these theological engagements for the thought of each thinker as a whole.

4. To compare the various theological engagements by these figures.

5. To produce my own body of thought in response, developing insights gained on the road.

Each aim addresses what has not been done before in such a way. Apart from pointing out that there is no comprehensive commentary and assessment of what is really a tradition in its own right – the relationship between Marxism and religion – we also have a rather curious lack of historical perspective. What I mean is that for many the recent spate of writings by Marxist philosophers on the Bible and theology seems to have been created ex nihilo, especially after the supposed secularisation of political debate. To Badiou, Agamben and Žižek may be added Hardt and Negri, Eagleton, and a host of lesser lights. However, what these studies lack is a distinct historical perspective, namely, that religion has always been a constant companion for Marxist thought and politics. By contrast, this project sets the interaction between materialism and religion within the context of a longer historical tradition.

In light of such a deeper historical perspective, it soon becomes apparent that the flurry of recent interest in theology by left-wing philosophers is no more than a late addition to a long tradition. Indeed, in studying the tradition before the latest rush, I have been constantly surprised at the neglect of the writings on religion by many of the critics on whom I focus. These writings include monographs (Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Lucien Goldmann, Terry Eagleton, Karl Kautsky), sections of monographs (Julia Kristeva, Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukács, Raymond Williams), essays (Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Henri Lefebvre, Fredric Jameson, Rosa Luxemburg) and even the odd novel (Raymond Williams). In the case of Marx and Engels, at an early point a limited canon of statements on religion was gathered, thereby excluding a vast amount of their work that engages with theology. So I have read and studied outside that canon in order to assess at a deeper level what they do with theology and how they transform it.

In many cases, the engagements with theology have profound implications for understanding the rest of the work of these Marxist critics. So I am interested in asking: what is the implication for their work as a whole? Is it a peripheral concern, or is it more central? Two lines have opened up so far: either the wider principles of someone’s work will also be applied to religion (a key example here is Rosa Luxemburg), or theological categories make their way into other parts of their work. Adorno and Althusser are good examples of this second process: Adorno makes the Bilderverbot, drawn from the ban on images of the second commandment in Exodus 20/Deuteronomy 5 into a basic motif of his work; Athusser’s effort to banish the Church from his later work (it is central to his early essays) turns it into an absent cause of that work.

In the remaining two areas, little if any work has been done – a comparative critique of the various engagements with religion and a constructive response to those engagements. Thus, I seek to weigh and assess of the work of each critic in light of the others. Here I can assess whether one position criticises another, whether it is a step back or an improvement, why religion is so enticing for materialist critics, and so on. A core example concerns the transformation, or Hegelian Aufhebung, of religion itself. In Marx this took the form of the fetish, which was transformed into the very heart of capitalism itself. With Engels, the Aufhebung took place with his argument for the revolutionary nature of early Christianity. And for Ernst Bloch, such a transformation involved the ‘exodus’ out of Yahweh and into the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism.

Finally, it is all very well to comment on the work of others, however critical one might be. I have also felt the need to risk proposing my own response to the tradition. The components have arisen from the study of greater minds than mine – ideas such as theological, the political ambivalence of a religion like Christianity, the analogy of translation for understanding the complex relations between Marxism and religion, and much more. In doing so, I have pushed beyond their positions, seeking to say what they have only half-said.

To sum up, my approach is intimate, immanent, comparative, historical and constructive. In other words, I seek to read patiently and carefully, refusing to rush over texts, to ask what the implications might be for the whole body of thought of each critic, to compare, weigh and assess each contribution in light of the others, to develop a sense of the distinct history of this tradition, and then to construct my own creative and coherent body of thought in response.

Political Ambivalence

For the remainder of this overview, I would like to focus on two core issues that have emerged from this project. The first concerns the political ambivalence of Christianity. At one and the same time, it may easily support a tyrannical regime, sliding easily into the seats of power, and it may inspire revolutionary movements that seek to overthrow such regimes. It does not do to argue in terms of a truth-betrayal opposition, in which one side of the opposition expresses the core of Christianity and the other its misinterpretation. Instead, both positions are easily justifiable from the Bible and the traditions of Christianity. While I argue that such ambivalence is already found in the works of Paul in the New Testament, I offer here a slightly different example.

It concerns Marx’s famous statement that religion ‘is the opium of the people’. The statement has been repeated countless times since, usually with a certain understanding of opium. Opium, we assume, is a drug that dulls the senses. It may make us feel good for a while, but it is really not so good for us: the person who uses opium becomes useless, a drop-out from society. Opium or heroin leads to addiction, crime, disease, and early death. In this context, it is useful to reconsider Marx’s own use of the term ‘opium’.

For Marx opium was not a purely negative term, for it also had significant positive associations. Let us see why. To begin with, we need to read the text in its context:

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.[2]

The famous phrase – opium of the people – comes at the end of this text. To understand it, we need to consider the sentences that come before it. Marx points out that religious suffering may be an expression of real suffering; religion may be the sigh, heart and soul of a heartless and soulless world. But it is also a protest against that suffering. Religious suffering challenges real suffering. It question suffering, asks why we are suffering. In other words, Marx allows here a small positive role for religion – as protest. How can religion be a protest? Marx is aware that religions offer a better alternative to our current life. That alternative may be in a heaven or it may be in the future. But the imagination of a better alternative to our current life is at the same time a criticism of this life. Religion in its own says that this life is not as good as it could be, indeed that this life is one of suffering.

Second, for Marx, opium was very ambivalent: it had both positive and negative associations. In order to understand that ambivalence, we need to consider the context in nineteenth century Europe when Marx wrote, a context in which opium had a rather different meaning. On the one hand, opium was regarded as a beneficial, useful and cheap medicine, especially for the poor who could not afford a doctor. (Even in the early twentieth century, opium was still used by doctors to treat melancholy and other ailments.)It was also seen as a source for inspiring the imagination of artists and writers. On the other hand, opium was at the same time (and more so later in the nineteenth century) seen as a curse. Many began to see that opium did more harm than good, for it led to addiction, illness and early death. As a result, opium was the centre of debates and parliamentary enquiries in the United Kingdom, which had benefited so much from the opium trade.  Opium was both praised and condemned; it was seen as both a cheap medicine and a dangerous curse.

Third, it is worth noting that Marx himself regularly used opium. He took opium to deal with his liver illness, skin problems (carbuncles), toothaches, eye pain, ear aches, coughs, and so on. These were the many illnesses that were the result of overwork, lack of sleep, bad diet, chain smoking, and endless pots of coffee. On one occasion, Marx’s wife, Jenny, wrote to Engels concerning one of Marx’s bad toothaches:

Chaley’s head hurts him almost everywhere, terrible tooth-ache, pains in the ears, head, eyes, throat and God knows what else. Neither opium pills nor creosote do any good. The tooth has got to come out and he jibs at the idea.[3]

Obviously, Marx’s personal use of opium influenced his use of this ambivalent metaphor for describing religion. Like opium, religion may be source of hope, a way of curing an illness, a sigh for a better world; but it is also a result of world that is not right. It may even be a source of harm in its own right.


The second question concerns the very understanding of the relations between Marxism and religion, which I analyse and in terms of a model or analogy of translation. The model responds to two problematic approaches that dominate debates: a narrative of secularisation and an ontological claim for theology as the absolute source of political thought. According to the secularisation narrative, religious terms provide the historical background for political content. How this is understood varies: religious terms have been emptied of religious content and replaced with political content; or religion is the historical scaffolding that can eventually be dismantled to reveal the true form of political reflection; or religion plays a determining historical role which still sets the agenda for political thought. In terms of this approach, Marxism becomes another secularised form of religion: the current state of economic exploitation and alienation (sin) will be overcome by the party of the proletariat (a collective saviour), which will lead to a new socio-economic form, socialism (the New Jerusalem). Apart from the obvious problems with this common assumption – which is really the result of a thousand repetitions of a speculative thought bubble – the secularisation narrative itself has been so troubled of late that it has lost credibility, partly due to the new visibility of religion in the geopolitical sphere, and partly due to the inherent problems with the narrative. The other approach is ontological. Religion constitutes an absolute source, which sets the boundaries for and determines the “systemic structure” of political debate (Schmitt, Agamben, Taubes, Davis, Milbank, and Žižek). It is manifested in the term ‘political theology’, which really means that politics is demoted to adjectival status and the substantive position is reserved for theology (Blumenberg). This is an unhelpful proposal, for it laces political thought into an ethnocentric and imperialist version of Christian theology.

In the place of these two approaches, I propose a model of translation. By translation I mean the intersection, or ‘carrying over’ of meaning, between the two ‘languages’ of religion and radical politics. Let me give an example: Lenin wrote, ‘In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle’. He immediately suggests a translation between the theological term, miracle, and the political term, revolution. Throughout his writings he used this translation of terms, in the process redefining both revolution and miracle in arresting new ways. Other terms also appear in the work of other Marxists: grace and revolution; idolatry and the fetishism of commodities; the ‘gospel’ and the ideology of the party; eschatology and the Marxist schema of history; church and political party.

The best way to understand these connections is by a model of translation, rather than a narrative of secularisation or a claim to the ontological priority of theology. According to this model, politics and religion are understood as limited languages or codes. This model has five components. 1) The specific terms within the languages of religion and politics become semantic fields, which overlap when they meet in translation. Thus, in the example of miracle-revolution, the semantic fields of the terms in question overlap, but not in a complete and perfect fashion. Overhangs abound, parts that cannot find a place in the common territory that the two semantic fields occupy.

2) How we deal with what is left over is crucial: it may enrich the intersection, enabling senses that were not possible in the individual semantic fields. Miracle gains a whole new range of meanings when it is translated into revolution, and vice versa. At the same time, some dimensions may be lost, slipping away from either politics or theology as translation takes place. The non-human agency of miracle may disappear with its translation into miracle, while revolution may lose its transforming character and become an event outside the laws of nature. Parts of the semantic fields not initially included in the translation process may find themselves drifting away, never to be included.

3) Translation is not merely a process of some middle ground between terms. Each term offers resistance; it will not allow a complete translation to take place. Miracle resists the full absorption into revolution, and revolution resists the other-worldly focus of miracle. This resistance indicates the semi- or relative autonomy of the terms in question.

4) This resistance and semi-autonomy of the two terms means that translation is a dialectical process, a moving back and forth between the terms that is never ready to rest content with the results. The very difference of the terms means that we continually seek to deal with the difficulties and shortcomings in translation, returning now to one and now to the other semantic field. Thus, the common ground of the linked semantic fields is always contested, a process rather than a result.

5) Finally, this model does not operate with an original-secondary distinction. One language is not prior to another, for each engages in a dialectical process with the other. The model reminds us that the codes of Marxism and religion are modest, limited affairs. None is superior to the other, no matter how much they may claim for themselves.

Where to From Here?

Almost thirty Marxists – from Marx and Engels onwards – have been the focus on my interests. Each of them has engaged extensively with theology, so much so that a clear tradition of such engagements exists. Initially, my interest was in the ‘Western’ Marxists, but as I became fascinated by actual socialist revolutions and the efforts to construct socialism, I began to move eastwards. Lenin was my first stop on the way, but he died soon after the Russian Revolution. So now I am studying Stalin intensely, with a book in the works. And I have been working on Mao Zedong as well, which requires an immersion into Chinese traditions in order to understand ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

[1] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 175-87 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1844 [1975]), 176.

[2] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 175-87 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1844 [1975]), 175.

[3] Jenny Marx (senior), :Jenny Marx to Engels in Manchester, London, about 12 April 1857,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 40, 563 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1857 [1983]), 563.

2 thoughts on “The Marxism and Theology Project

  1. Thank you for your passion for study. May I, and many others, be as devoted to our own pursuit of knowledge.

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