Marx’s four criticisms of religion fall under the following categories: (1) religion as reconciliation, (2) religion as reversal, (3) religion as ideology, and (4) historical consciousness. Chapter four of Kee’s book addresses the third of those criticisms.
Much has been written on Marx’s critique of ideology (especially in the recent, popular writings of Zizek). However, Kee is not so much concerned with applying the critique to the social scene, but rather tracing its development. He begins by highlighting Marx’s increasing separation from the “Holy Family” (Bruno and Edgar Bauer, David Strauss, and Max Stirner). Marx’s greatest disagreement with these figures was their commitment (unrecognized commitment) to ideological idealism. Thus, while he had previously exhibited much respect for the work of the Young Hegelians, as he matured further in his critical analysis and as he developed his historical materialism he grew suspicious of the theological presuppositions that undergirded their thought. Although Marx refused to lump Feuerbach, his great mentor who provided a “philosophical basis for socialism,” into his criticisms of the “Holy Family” there is a pronounced move away from the former’s idealism. As Kee notes, the work of Feuerbach provided great impetus for creating theoretical revolution. However, it did not do the same for creating actual revolution. And Marx was increasingly becoming interested in “applied philosophy,” which he apparently did not identify in the work of Feuerbach (74).
It is at this point that Kee notes a “second conversion” in Marx, one that had been brewing for some time: that to historical materialism. According to Kee, there is a continuity between the theoretical work of Marx and his life experiences (77). Being exposed to forced christianization by the Prussian state’s relation with the christian church as a child, basically being prevented from a life of academia upon completion of his dissertation, being expelled from France by the Guizot government, and through his continual development of thought (which includes meeting and working with Engels) all constitute some of the material conditions that led to his criticism of ideology and the establishment of historical materialism.
Perhaps the greatest insight into Marx’s final break with Feuerbach is contained in the Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, which Engels published (after Marx’s death) as an appendix to his essay, “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.” Although not meant for publication, these theses clearly show Marx’s break with any form of idealism: “‘The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things (Gegenstand), reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively’ (Thesis 1)” (quoting Marx, 78). In other words, for Marx, truth is derived “from living in the world, and it is tested against actual experience. And above all, the truth of the world is subject to change, because through their active lives men and women change the world” (78). And any philosophy that primarily tends to contemplation as first-order is incapable of understanding life as social life. This leads to Marx’s famous dictum and Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
However, Feuerbach’s influence on Marx was so prominent in his intellectual development that a complete break was not achieved (which is the source of Kee’s criticism of Marx’s historical materialism as being too trapped within an unrecognized ideological framework itself… but to that we will return). Still utilizing Feuerbach’s theory of projection, Marx came to identify religion, not as mysterious as had Feuerbach, but as a mental construction of the world that actually clouds the reality of it. Thus, an ideology is “not a true picture, not a picture of the real world.” Kee continues:
Those who participate in projection and reversal are said to be unconscious of their actions; so now those who live within an ideological system are unaware that they have inherited false consciousnesses. Everything seems to be in order as it is, and it does not occur to them to question the ideological picture (80).
From whence does this tendential construction of false consciousness come? Marx’s answer is that is comes from a sub-group – the ruling class:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production” (quoting Marx, 81).
And the intent of this construction of ideology is to “distract attention from the inherent injustices of the social, political and economic system which it legitimates” (81). Thus, akin to a form of Stockholm Syndrome, citizens in a given social sphere (for Marx, the working class) work for their own slavery. And because of the latter’s blindness to the truth of the material bases of reality, it appears as though ideas guide history.
Turning to religion, Kee notes two ways in which religion is susceptible to Marx’s criticism: (1) it serves to form a false consciousness; “[every] aspect of the natural world and the social world can be understood in relation to an order which is non-human in origin… [and are thereby legitimized as being] the divine will” – this is basically Marx’s criticism of religion as reconciling is with ought; and (2) religion, as an ideology, has “consciously or unconsciously thrown in its lot with the ruling class” (83-84). Kee has addressed this second point previously in his work entitled Constantine versus Christ, where he traces the origins of Christian ideology to the fourth century leaders of the church who “identified values of the emperor with those of Christ. Or rather, how the values of the emperor replaced the values of the primitive church” (84). From this point, Kee notes that religion has been continuously entangled with the ruling class – as a brit, he notes the presence of bishops in the COE that sit in Parliament. But is it not the case that good religious folk have long fought to alleviate the suffering of the poor??? Of course! But as Kee notes (perhaps expectedly) as long as religion is maintained as a
reversal of reality, their religious commitments constitute an obstacle to the advancement of the cause they think to espouse. In their mental and spiritual lives they daily affirm that alienation without which ideology could not exist. They are the secret ambassadors of the ruling class, even if that role is kept secret also from them (86).
But maybe the religious community just hasn’t gotten it right yet. Maybe they need more time?!?! To this Kee notes a wonderful lucid and scathing response from Marx:
The social principles of Christianity have now had eighteen hundred years to be developed, and need no further development by Prussian Consistoral Counsellors. The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and are capable, in case of need, of defending the oppression of the proletariat, even if with somewhat doleful grimaces. The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and for the latter all they have to offer is the pious wish that the former may be charitable (quoting Marx, 86).
Kee concludes the chapter thus:
Marx’s fundamental criticism is ontological: as long as religion continues in its present form it will reinforce and legitimize all forms of the inversion of reality, and will consciously or unconsciously support the ideology of the ruling class. The ontological problem cannon be solved by moral means (86-87).