Opiatic For The People

On becoming an undergraduate, I soon looked up Karl Marx’s well-known, and often quoted remark on religion: the opium of the people.

Nuance and subtlety drift over time. We may assume Marx dismisses religion as a soothing crutch, or more pejoratively as a harmful addiction. But we can assume nothing from one out of context quotation. For Marx and his world in 1844, opium’s connotations would have been so different from ours, it seemed to my new undergraduate brain trite and naive to assume anything at all about Marx’s remark. Besides, Karl’s pipe was tobacco-laden. It’s just a metaphor. I wanted to look at the whole text of the remark, and to understand, without prejudice, the whole argument.

The remark comes from Marx’s Introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), which begins:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

Two bold claims. Let’s see if we can unpack this.

Religion in the German Enlightenment

The German Enlightenment, according to Richard Osborne’s Philosophy for Beginners (1992), tended towards the introspective, being a little late to the party. It had a lot to deal with and think about the various tensions that had emerged in philosophy; between rationalism, romanticism, empiricism, idealism (which ‘asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of phenomena’) and materialism.

Theologian and dramatist Gotthold Lessing (1729 – 81) caught my attention for his religious views. According to his Wikipedia entry, he defended a Christian’s right to free thought, arguing against ‘the belief in revelation’ and literal interpretations of the Bible; Gotthard was later censored for publishing the manuscripts of Hermann Samuel Reimarus, who’d been putting out notions of discovering ‘God’ via reason, eliminating the need for ‘revealed’ religions, a generation earlier. Reimarus had also investigated the historical Jesus, coming to the now commonplace, but then highly dangerous view, that Jesus of Nazarath was a mortal Jewish prophet, and the religion founded on his reputation an entirely separate affair. Osborne goes so far as to assert Lessing held a ‘evolutionary view of religion’ as a mere phase though which a maturing humanity must pass.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Osborne says, felt ‘metaphysical arguments’ about god, the soul, free will etc. were beyond reason. Kant was concerned with the inability of rationalism to demonstrate existence, and empiricism’s inability to demonstrate epistemological processes, seeking to rationalise those two ideologies. According to Guyer & Horstmann (2015), Kant

can claim to have shown that when it comes to the ultimate constitution of this reality as it may be considered independently of the way it appears to beings endowed with reason and (human) sensibility we can know nothing

Kant set limits to what was knowable, splitting reality into the phenomenal and the noumenal. He felt a reasoning mind could only process sensory phenomena, but the ‘thing-in-itself’, the ding-an-sich, remains elusive, though we know it must exist. Kant combined epistemological idealism “with a kind of ontological realism”

..synthetic a priori propositions about space and time […] must be true only of the representations on which we impose our own forms of intuition, and cannot be true of things as they are in themselves. This is Kant’s chief argument for epistemological idealism, the view that the way things appear to us essentially reflects our cognitive capacities rather anything intrinsic to them, combined with indeterminate ontological realism, the view that there are things independent of our representations of them but because our most fundamental ways of representing things cannot be true of them we cannot know anything about them other than this fact itself.

Guyer & Horstman, 2015

Perhaps because of this

Kant has long been seen as hostile to religion. Many of his contemporaries, ranging from his students to the Prussian authorities, saw his Critical project as inimical to traditional Christianity.

Pasternack & Fugate,”Kant’s Philosophy of Religion”

Other commentators however feel Kant undertook an apology for and defence of conventional Christian theology, either successfully or unsuccessfully. Guyer and Horstmann go on to argue that overcoming the tension between ontological realism and epistemological idealism became the central task of the German Idealists.

Who was Hegel (1770–1831)? Osborne calls him ‘the greatest of the German idealists’. His legacy was highly contested, subject to multiple, competing interpretations by people with competing religious and political agenda. He was very systematic however:

Hegel attempted, throughout his published writings as well as in his lectures, to elaborate a comprehensive and systematic philosophy from a purportedly logical starting point. He is perhaps most well-known for his teleological account of history, an account that was later taken over by Marx and “inverted” into a materialist theory of an historical development culminating in communism […]

Guyer & Horstmann 1997, revised 2020

When I think of Hegel, the idea of overcoming and reconciling apparent opposites through a triadic dialectical process comes readily to mind. The idea of thesis-antithesis-synthesis as the sine qua non of Hegelian thought is an pathway of my mind established in my late teens. I was interested to discover then, when researching this post, that while it was formerly common to characterise Hegel’s dialectic with this famous three step formula, he only used it once and attributed it to Kant. The formulation is now considered inaccurate, in part because it suggests things being acted on, and transformed, due to some external processes. Hegel however was much more concerned with the conflict arising from internal contradictions.

Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right in 1821. This is important for our purposes because while everyone knows Marx owes a lot to Hegel, I didn’t realise the notion of internal contradictions, familiar from Marx, was so important to Hegel. Philosopher, and former associate of Trotsky, Raya Dunayevskaya apparently argues for dropping the triads altogether:

although Hegel refers to “the two elemental considerations: first, the idea of freedom as the absolute and final aim; secondly, the means for realising it, i.e. the subjective side of knowledge and will, with its life, movement, and activity” (thesis and antithesis), he does not use “synthesis”, but instead speaks of the “Whole”: “We then recognised the State as the moral Whole and the Reality of Freedom, and consequently as the objective unity of these two elements”.


According to van Leeuwen, “from the very outset Marx had had an ambivalent relationship to Hegel, compounded of admiration and aversion, love and resentment, dependence and independence, identification and dissatisfaction”. Here we approach Marx’s key difference with Hegel, on this key question of the state versus civil society. Marx’s aversion to Hegel’s apparent deification of the German State as the pinnacle of human achievement drove his alternative conception of the relations between state, society and ‘man’.

Where did Hegel come out on religion? According to his Wikipedia entry, Hegel claimed his philosophy was consistent with Christianity; “Hegel’s thoughts on the person of Jesus Christ stood out from the theologies of the Enlightenment”: Hegel saw Jesus as ‘both divine and human’. On the other hand, it has been argued Hegel sometimes equated his own concept of ‘Geist’ (spirit) with God, and drew upon classical Greek connotations of the divine. Moreover,


Hegel seemed to have an ambivalent relationship with magic, myth and Paganism. He formulates an early philosophical example of a disenchantment narrative, arguing that Judaism was responsible both for realizing the existence of Geist and, by extension, for separating nature from ideas of spiritual and magical forces


Hegel’s legacy turned out to be pretty contested:

after Hegel’s death in 1831, his followers soon split into left, centre and right factions over the issue of religion. A dispute over an appropriately Hegelian philosophical attitude to religion had been sparked by the publication in 1835–6 of David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined—the conservative right claiming that Hegelianism reflected Christian orthodoxy, the left seeing it as a humanistic doctrine concerning the historical emancipation of mankind. In fact the implications of Hegel’s philosophy for religious belief had been contentious since his rise to prominence in the 1820s. While officially declaring that philosophy and religion had the same content—God—Hegel claimed that the conceptual form of philosophy dealt with this concept in a more developed way than that which was achievable in the imagistic representational form of religion. Many opponents were suspicious that the concept of God was emptied of its proper meaning in the process of Hegel’s philosophical translations and Hegel was suspected by some of pantheism or atheism. Ultimately, then, the source of the corrosive effects of Hegel’s philosophy on religion indeed could appear to be the insistence that the content of religious belief, like everything else, be grounded on rational, in fact logical, considerations—the logical coherence of the system of philosophy itself—rather than on anything like revelation.

The domination of German philosophy by Hegelian Idealism for the first third of the nineteenth century was followed by a revival of materialism. This was in part brought on by the criticisms of Christian theology and supernaturalism in David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus and the criticisms of Christian theology and Hegelian idealism in the works of Ludwig Feuerbach, most famously in The Essence of Christianity. The revival was also given impetus by the recent successes and the increasing prestige of the natural sciences. 


Marx on opium

Of the people, Marx derives agency: man is engaged in the world. Thus Marx can begin by establishing a foundation of irreligious criticism: “Man makes religion, religion does not make man.”. He continues:

 Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Marx, 1844

Marx then turns to the subject of religious suffering; the reference to opium occurs here

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.


Christopher Hitchens, I was pleased to discover, was fond of quoting this paragraph, in order to counter the lazy assumption of what Marx meant by ‘the opium of the people’ we began with. Hitchens argues it is the most mis-quoted aphorism of the 19th century:

Marx indeed continues:

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. 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.


Where does Groucho fit in?

We can perhaps draw parallels with another Marxian view on religion, that of Groucho, with this rare snippet of information from the early website Geocities, now archived by the Oocities initiative.:

None of the Brothers was religious in a strict sense. Although from a Jewish family, there is no evidence of them observing a kosher diet or, some of their weddings apart, observing any festivals after their own bar mitzvahs; and even that was attended by Groucho solely to collect the gift of a fountain pen…

Later in life, Groucho started to attend a synagogue, probably to please Erin Fleming (qv), who had converted to Judaism. Groucho seems to have had no religious belief throughout his life: his son, Arthur, was at one time sent to Sunday school to please the boy’s maternal grandmother, and after enquiring as to the day’s lesson, Groucho systematically explained why he didn’t believe any of it. Arthur was married in a Jewish ceremony, where his father asked the officiating clergyman “Is it true you fellows breed like rabbis?” When taken to a mystic by, as he put it, “an early wife”, Groucho expressed total disbelief in the concept of the hereafter. The meeting was centred around a woman who, once in a trance, welcomed questions of any sort. “What’s the capital of North Dakota?” asked Groucho, before being thrown out.


Thus Groucho makes his own criticism of religion, his own contribution to the task Marx believed essentially complete a century before.

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