Marx and the Christian Logic of the Secular State
By Roland Boer
The Hobgoblin 2010
"If you call your state a general Christian state, you are admitting with a diplomatic turn of phrase that it is un-Christian." 
The precarious separation of church and state is, once again, under threat. From the invocation of a vague ‘Christian heritage’ by European countries, through the contradictory debates over (Muslim) head-coverings in France and Denmark, to the open avowals of Christian belief and its effect on their political lives by leaders in the UK, Australia and Malaysia, it has once again become clear that the separation of church and state is either an impossible goal or a political fiction. At the same time, a number of major studies have appeared that challenge assumptions concerning secularism. For example, Charles Taylor argues that secularism entails not the banishment of religion but other, diverse ways of being religious. And Talal Asad proposes that the separation of religion and the state is not the removal of religion from public affairs but another means for the state to control religion.
Rather than rushing to yet another new proposal concerning religion and the state, it is worth considering the rich heritage of Marxist thought to see whether there are not a few good resources that might be deployed. So I turn to an old and somewhat neglected discussion that has an increasing and surprising relevance in our own time, namely the contributions of Marx and Engels in the context of the heated debates over the issue of religion and politics in the 1830s and 1840s. They write of the situation in Germany in the mid-19th century, when Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the king of Prussia, desperately tried to hang onto the idea of a Christian state. Marx and Engels mercilessly explore the contradictions in that position. More specifically, in digging out some fascinating material from the early 1840s, we find that Marx texts manifest a tension that is still present in our own debates: on the one hand, in Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction (which ironically did not pass the censor). Marx argues that religion is a particular concern and that it really should have no part in the general matters of the state.
On the other hand, in On the Jewish Question  he points out that the secular state is born out of the contradictions within the Christian state. At this point I bring Engels into the discussion with an astute journal article from the same time, Frederick William IV, King of Prussia; here Engels takes a very similar position to the second one Marx adopted. Needless to say, while Marx’s initial position is still a common one today and has less and less mileage, the second, more dialectical, position is a far more interesting one, for it recognises the tensions within secularism itself.
Banishing the Particular
In his first journalistic article, where he reflects on the revisions to the Prussian censorship law of 1842, Marx develops an argument that leads to the following conclusion: the only way to allow a plurality of religions within any state is to have a secular state. In other words, religious tolerance is based on a secular indifference to religion. Muslims, Hindus, Greenlandic shamans, Christians and so on can all exist together as long as I am indifferent to them all. Still common today, especially with the increasing presence of religion within politics, this conclusion is in itself quite unremarkable. However, I am more interested in the way the 24 year old Marx arrives at such a conclusion.
The starting point is an old friend, namely the distinction between the general and the particular. Religion is, by definition, a particular beast. Each religion makes a truth claim, based on the specific nature of its own belief and doctrines, that excludes all others. They are, if you like, complete world-views that cannot tolerate any other complete worldview: ‘each religion believes itself distinguished from the various other would-be religions by its special nature, and that precisely its particular features make it the true religion’. It follows, then, that any idea of religion in general is a contradiction. One cannot talk about the general features of religion, since that involves denying the specific features that make each religion what it is. These features held in common must of necessity discard any positive content of any specific religion. The result: the idea of religion in general is nothing other than a non-religious position. In short, such a general religion is another version of secularism.
What is wrong with this argument? Apart from the use of the generic term ‘religion’, which should be ruled out by the argument itself, the sample pool is a little restricted. Marx’s context has something to do with this, especially in light of the Thirty Years War fought between Roman Catholics and Protestants (1618-48). In one sense, the controversies of the 1830s and 1840s provided yet another turn in the rumbling history of the Reformation. From Luther’s defiance (and assistance by the Duke of Saxony) in the sixteenth century to the Thirty Years War that raged over the German states, Italy and the Low countries, Protestants in the north and Roman Catholics in the south had dug themselves in to become deeply conservative. The Roman Catholics looked to the pope, while the Protestants (a mix of Lutherans and some Calvinists in the far north) drew upon conservative streams of pietism, marrying an inner walk with God to a tenacious hold on the Bible as the ‘word of God’. Despite all the best efforts of the Prussian state to keep both Protestants and Catholics in a civil if often fractious relationship, the mutual antagonism ran deep. Thus, during his early experiences with journalism, Marx found that one of the major dividing lines between the various newspapers was in terms of the Catholic / Protestant divide.
In fact, Marx goes on to use this difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants to argue against the push for a Christian state under the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. If it is to be a Christian state, then what type of Christianity will be the religion in favour – Roman Catholic or Protestant? Favouring one would exclude the other as heretical. Why? The ‘innermost essence (innerstes Wesen)’  of one is completely at odds with the other. Even more, all else becomes secondary, for one ‘who wants to ally himself with religion owing to religious feelings must concede it the decisive voice in all questions’.
This is not the best argument, despite the fact that it is recited regularly today. Not all religions operate with mutually exclusive worldviews, even though many do. The obvious example is Hinduism, which prides itself on the fact that it is inclusive rather than exclusive, that it is perfectly possible to be a Hindu pursuing a potentially infinite range of specific practices and beliefs. The nice catch here is that Hindus will claim that this feature makes Hinduism superior, all the while neglecting to mention the ingrained caste system. I could also cite more open-minded forms of Christianity rather than what we would now call fundamentalist exclusivism. Then there is the long story of syncretism, the gradual acquisition of all manner of ‘pagan’ practices into any religion that found itself expanding – whether Mahayana Buddhism as it moved into China and Japan, or indeed Christianity as it spread from Palestine to Rome and then across Europe, drawing in all manner of fertility and solstice festivals along with a good collection of spirits.
Aufhebung of the Christian State
Marx’s initial position, then, is to argue that the exclusive particularity of each religion rules out any generic notion of religion and that therefore the state cannot support religion in any general sense. It must either support one religion to the exclusion of all others or (since the first position is highly undesirable in the name of religious tolerance) or support none; only through complete secular indifference to religion can the state function at all.
But now we come to a disconnection with this initial argument by Marx. Over against his separation of particular and general, Marx makes a much more perceptive dialectical observation in nothing other than On the Jewish Question. Here he argues that the fully realised Christian state is not what everyone thinks it is (the ‘Christian state’ of Friedrich Wilhelm IV); rather, the true Christian is the negation of Christianity, that is, a, secular, atheistic and democratic one. The crucial point here is that the contradictions inherent within the idea and practice of a Christian state can only lead to its dissolution. These contradictions include the tension between otherworldly religion and this-worldly politics, the problems inherent in a political attitude to religion and a religious attitude to politics, the impossibility of actually living out the prescriptions of the Bible for living with one’s fellow human beings (turning the other cheek, giving your tunic as well as your coat, walking the extra mile and so on). What is the resolution of these contradictions? It is ‘the state which relegates religion to a place among other elements of civil society (der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft)’. This is the realised Christian state, that is, one that has negated itself and relegated Christianity to its own, private place among other religions and other parts of society. . This is of course the way in which religion now operates in secular Western societies. In his own time Marx espied its arrival in the United Stated, with the separation of church and state making religion a private affair.
What is intriguing about this argument is that this modern secular state arises from, or is the simultaneous realisation and negation of, the Christian state. This argument is a long way from his efforts to banish the particularity of religion from any form of the state. Marx’s argument – the simultaneous negation and realisation (the famous Aufhebung) of the Christian state in the secular state – may move in a number of directions. To begin with, one may connect it with a point made today: the secular state arose out of the Christian need for religious tolerance and pluralism and thereby as an answer to the tensions between a plurality of Christians and indeed other religious positions. Or as Marx put it, Christianity itself ‘separated church and state’. What we require is a religious secularism in which (and here the argument folds back to Marx’s initial position) the secular state is the only proper basis of religious tolerance. In order to overcome older practices of religious intolerance and in response to the sheer number of different forms of Christianity, the only viable response is a secular state that favoured no Christian denomination or indeed no religion at all.
But this argument leads to the dead-end of current debates, for it is no advance – apart from asserting the need for one more effort in order to achieve a thoroughly secular state for the sake of religious tolerance. A different line that emerges from Marx’s argument is that the new form of the state does nothing to relieve the contradictions of the old one. The secular state may be an effort to overcome the tensions of the Christian state, but as the full realisation of the Christian state, it still embodies those contradictions within the new form. In short, it is no solution at all – which I suggest is the young Marx’s real contribution to debates in our own time.
Engels and the ‘Christian King’
A third possible line to follow from Marx’s argument has a quite a sting in its tail. Before we feel that sting, I would like to bring Engels into our discussion, for in an early piece he makes a strikingly similar argument to Marx. Engels tackles the question of church and state in a rather judicious article from 1843 called Frederick William IV, King of Prussia. His main point is that the efforts of the self-described ‘Christian king’ (always in mocking quotation marks ) to establish a Christian state are doomed to collapse through a series of contradictions. The underlying problem is that the Christian-feudal model the king has in mind is, like theology itself, an ossified relic from the past that will no longer work in a world that has made huge strides in science and free thought – by which I understand Engels to mean not merely philosophy but also democracy, representation and republicanism. The result is that the king must make a whole series of compromises that doom the effort from the start.
Now Engels does not find the Prussian king an obnoxious person as such. He credits the king with having a system, even with being kind-hearted and witty, but the king is also a reactionary with an impossible agenda. Engels begins by pointing out that various obvious measures are really the outward manifestation of a deeper problem – encouraging church attendance, laws strengthening the observance of Sunday rest, tightening of the laws concerning divorce, purging of the theological faculties, changing examinations to emphasise firm belief, and appointing believers to government positions. The problem is that the Prussian king is caught in a dilemma: the logical outcome of his programme is the separation of church and state, yet he seeks to fuse the two. On the one hand, as the Head of the Evangelical Church, as summus episcopus, he seeks to subordinate the church to secular power. Even though he wants to combine ecclesiastical and state power in his own person, to join ‘all power, earthly and heavenly’ so that he becomes ‘an earthly God’,  he is in fact king first and supreme bishop second. On the other hand, such a move runs directly into the wall of Christian doctrine: one’s primary allegiance should be to God and not some temporal power, whether state or king: ‘A person who makes his whole being, his whole life, a preparation for heaven cannot have the interest in earthly affairs which the state demands of its citizens’. In other words, a full recovery of Christianity means the separation of church and state.
Engels’s argument intersects quite neatly with Marx’s: Christianity itself leads to a separation of church and state, for there is drive towards secularisation within Christianity, especially in light of the endless divergence within it. Any effort at a Christian state must decide what form of Christianity is to be favoured. Is it to be Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Congregational, or …? The existence of the Orthodox churches in their multiplicity, as well as the event of the Protestant Reformation put the lie to the claim by the Roman Catholics to be the one ‘catholic’ church. Even within the history of the Roman Catholic Church there were numerous schisms and breakaways that were either absorbed and curtailed or expelled as heretics (if you can’t absorb them, crush them). According to this argument, any Christian theory of the state must enable and allow for such diversity. The only way that can happen is through a separation of church and state: no one form of Christianity can dominate without making a travesty of theology itself.
It seems to me that this argument is implicit in Engels’s exploration of the contradictions in Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s programme. For example, this Prussian king not only recognises both Roman Catholic and Protestant, but he also freed the Old Lutherans from the enforced union in 1817 of Lutherans and Calvinists in the Evangelical Church. With the various Protestant churches now given freedom in their internal affairs, the king struggled to maintain his role as the head of the church. Which church? Is one church to submit to the state-imposed authority of another? It is a hopelessly contradictory solution and one unacceptable to the churches themselves. The more Friedrich Wilhelm IV tries to deal with each situation in question, the more confused the whole situation becomes. In the end, these efforts – like those that sought to restore feudal privilege in the context of an Enlightenment-inspired basis of Prussian law – will lead to the collapse of the so-called Christian state through internal contradictions. The solution is a secular state.
Sting in the Tail
A little earlier I suggested that this argument, shared by the young Marx and the equally young Engels, may flick back to sting us. That barb begins with the point that the secular state arises from and is a response to contradictions within the Christian state. For both Marx and Engels – in their different ways – it is possible to find a logic for the secular state within Christianity, indeed that the secular state is the full realisation of the Christian state and the resolution of its contradictions. If that is the case, then the contradictions are not resolved but reshaped. Thus, the tensions between different religious traditions do not disappear, although the ways they now make their presence felt are different from how they appeared in the Christian state. To begin with, the assumption of the secular state that religion is a private affair faces the pressure within many religions for a very public, political expression of their truth claims. Further, tolerance or indifference may be a stated virtue of the state and its various working parts, but it also assumes that the religions themselves will operate with a similar level of tolerance towards one another. One need only consider the intolerant, usually conservative elements within each religion to see that such inter-religious tolerance is often maintained with difficulty.
However, the deepest tension of the secular state is rooted in its origins. If we grant Marx’s point that the secular state arose as an attempted resolution of the tensions within the Christian state of the nineteenth century, then it follows that secularism cannot escape religion, since religion is the reason the secular state exists at all. In other words, religion and secularism are two sides of the one coin. Look at one side and it says, ‘church and state, forever separate’; flip it over and you read, ‘church and state, never to part’
Let me put it in terms of a paradox: the more church and state are separated, the more they seem to be entwined. Of course, the awareness of this paradox comes with some hindsight after a reasonable history of the secular state. For example, in the United States the separation between church and state is, as is well known and much discussed, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. Initially a response to the established Church of England, especially after the American War of Independence, it has come to be interpreted as any act by the Congress and the legislature that favours one religion over another with the possible outcome that such a religion may become established. In practice, this really means Christianity and shows up with monotonous regularity in the area of state-funded education. The Bible is not to be taught, prayer is not appropriate and one cannot teach religious doctrines in state schools.
However, in the United States the separation of church and state has become a legal fiction. The more strictly the courts apply the First Amendment, the more pervasive religion becomes in public life. An external observer cannot help noticing that religion saturates public life in the USA: the founding myth of the escape from oppression to a land of freedom is drawn from the story of the Exodus and the Promised land, presidents must be openly Christian, they make decisions with religious concerns in mind, whether on questions of sex education, stem-cell research and same-sex relationships, voting patterns follow religious lines, and, especially in the Bible Belt, there is a sharp polarisation over religion. One is either passionately Christian or passionately atheist. By comparison, states which still have an established church, such as Denmark, or those with only recently disestablished churches such as Sweden, are among the least religiously observant countries in the world.
A very different example of the paradox of the secular state may be found in Turkey. Ever since Atatürk in 1924, the separation of church and state has been central to the constitution of a secular Turkey. All levels of government and state-supported institutions, such as schools, universities, hospitals, police and the army, must operate without influence from the Sunni Muslim majority. However, in Turkey there is a specific government agency, the Department of Religious Affairs, which watches Islam very closely. The content of sermons, statements and views must avoid political content, and, like France, all female state employees are banned from wearing the hijab. The state also restricts any independent religious communities and religious schools. At the same time the state supports mosques through taxes and subsidies. In other words Turkey has a situation comparable to the established church in some western European countries. The difference is that the recognition of Islam, even to the point of providing state funds, is designed to negate the effect of Islam in affairs of the state. The state supports religion in order to watch it and maintain the separation of church and state, or rather, mosque and state.
This state of affairs has been severely tested of late. In 2002 and then again in 2007 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) achieved a majority in the Parliament with Recep Erdo?an as Prime Minister. The party’s origins lie in a number of banned parties with explicit Islamic links. The Prime Minister claims that the AKP does not have a religious basis, yet some of its measures, such as relaxing the ban on the hijab and the invocation of sharia, suggested to many that religion was infringing on the state. In 2008 the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court filed a suit with the Constitutional Court, whose task is to protect the secular constitution of Turkey. The court has the ability to ban any party that undermines the principle of secularism at the heart of the constitution. In July 2008 it found that the ruling AKP had indeed breached the provisions of the constitution, but instead of banning the party (it fell one vote short of the 7 out of 11 required to do so) gave it a severe reprimand and cut half of the funding to which it was eligible as a recognised political party. In effect, the court upheld the constitution while avoiding the massive political turmoil of banning a ruling party.
As for Marx and Engels, they were to find in their myriad journalistic pieces – let alone Engels’s later concerns with early Christianity – that the complex issue of religion and politics turns up with a persistence that belies any effort to separate them. It may be the tensions between the Russians, Turks, British and French around the Crimean War, or the French and English revolutions or even the revolutions of 1848-9. On it goes, with comments on Puritanism in the United States, on Germany, Russia, Poland, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, Hungary, China, India and the Slavic countries, on the Holy Alliance or the pope’s dealings in Italy and France, and indeed Europe in general. It was not for nothing that the ‘religious idea’ (and its relation to social, political and intellectual development) was important enough to be listed as part of the program for the Geneva Conference of 1866 of the International.
I would suggest, then, that the persistence of these tensions belies the suggestion that they are occasional anomalies in the separation of church and state but that they are inherent to it. The arguments of Marx and Engels would suggest that such endemic contradictions are the outcome of the origins of the secular state within the contradictory logic of the Christian state – more specifically, as a Christian response to the plurality of religions.
So what is to be done? I would suggest that opposition of church and state, and indeed of religion and secularism, draws the line at the wrong point. One reason why the battle lines are drawn up at this point is the underlying assumption that secularism is a progressive program. Since religion is a regressive and superstitious business, or so the argument goes, a secular program that challenges this repressive system must be enlightening and progressive. But is secularism necessarily progressive? It may well be quite reactionary, as we find in recent examples from conservative politicians in Denmark and the Netherlands. In both places the argument goes as follows: we are a secular country, where gay couples live openly, where nudity is accepted, where women and men have equal rights, and where freedom of speech is protected, so we will not tolerate any religion that challenges those features (and others) of our society. That ‘religion’ is of course none other than Islam. So we find the bits and pieces of an apparently secular society marshalled in opposition to the perceived barbarism and superstition of a particular religion. Needless to say this convoluted position in the hands of conservatives actually justifies a resurgent xenophobia, Islamophobia and religious intolerance.
Perhaps the way forward is to recognise that secularism is not necessarily progressive and that religion is not a default reactionary position. Would it not be wiser to seek the progressive dimension of both so that the concerns of this age and this world might be addressed? Is it not possible that a politics of alliance might develop between progressive elements within various religions and secular movements? Perhaps a ‘new secularism’ is in order in which this politics of alliance takes place. I close with an example of how this might work. At the various anti-capitalist and anti-globalization protests, such as those against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000 and then again at the G20 meeting in 2006, we found anarchists, greenies, ferals, socialists, feminists, various elements of the loopy left, and some religious groups for whom the protests were perfectly consistent with their convictions.
7 March 2010
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1 Marx 1975 -b: 118; 1975 -a: 106. Where Marx and Engels wrote the original text in German, I cite the English source first and then the German source.
2 Taylor 2007; Asad 2003.
3 Marx 1975 -b, 1975 -a.
4 Marx 1975 , 1974 .
5 Engels 1975 ; Engels 1985 .
6 Marx 1975 -b: 116; 1975 -a: 104
7 ‘This rationalist point of view … is so inconsistent as to adopt the irreligious point of view while its aim is to protect religion’ (Marx 1975 -b: 116; 1975 -a: 103-4).
8 This deep tension shows up in various observations and passing comments concerning German politics and society in Marx’s endless journalistic pieces. See, for example, Marx 1980 -b: 57; 1980 -c: 96, 99; 1980 -a: 127.
9 Marx 1975 -b: 118; 1975 -a: 105.
10 Marx 1975 -b: 118; 1975 -a: 106.
11 Marx 1975 : 156-8; 1974 : 357-9. Another example of Marx’s awareness of the contradictions inherent in the Christian state appears in his long discussion of thefts of fallen wood (his third piece of commentary on the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly). He points out the paradox of the Reformation’s abolition of monasteries and secularisation of their property. Although it was a necessary step to get rid an abusive institution, it also had its down side, for nothing replaced the meagre support the poor had received from the monasteries (Marx 1975 -c: 232; 1975 -d: 207).
12 Marx 1975 : 156; 1974 : 357. Or as he puts it in his debate with Bruno Bauer, the ‘modern state that knows no religious privileges is also the fully developed Christian state’ (Marx and Engels 1975 : 111; Marx and Engels 1974 : 117-18.
13 In his usual comprehensive fashion, Charles Taylor makes a similar argument, namely that secularism is another way of being religious. Taylor 2007.
14 For example, see Brett 2009.
15 Marx 1975 -b: 198; 1975 -a: 186. See Breckman 1999: 295-6, who argues that when Marx came to the conclusion that the secular state actually has a dialectical basis in theology, he saw the inadequacies of liberal, republican arguments for such a state.
16 Engels 1975 ; Engels 1985 . See also Engels’s comments in the late letters on Paul Lafargue’s efforts to bring about the separation of church and state in the French assembly. Engels 2001 -b: 320; Engels 1968 -b: 239; Engels 2001 -a: 330; Engels 1968 -a: 248.
17 For example: ‘The Prussian King, who calls himself emphatically “the Christian King”, and has made his court a most ludicrous assemblage of whining saints and piety-feigning courtiers’ (Engels 1975 -c: 515; see also Engels 1975 -b: 530).
18 Engels 1975 : 362; Engels 1985 : 431.
19 Engels 1975 : 363; Engels 1985 : 432.
20 He makes a similar point in his discussion of the Established Church of England and the English constitution in relation to ‘Dissenters’ and the Roman Catholics. See Engels 1975 -a: 501; Engels 1974 : 580-1.
21 The separation of church and state would become standard socialist policy. See Marx and Engels 1977 -a: 4; Marx and Engels 1973 -c: 4; Engels 1990 : 229; Engels 1972 : 237.
22 For Talal Asad (2003), secularism is another way for the state, especially in Muslim-majority countries, to control religion.
23 Out of a very long list of such references, in this and following notes I provide a few samples. See Marx 1986 [1856-7]: 86-7; 1986 : 178; 1991 : 120.
24 Marx 1978 : 55, 60, 77, 83, 92-3, 118, 131, 141; 1973 : 19, 24, 40-1, 47, 56-7, 81, 87-8, 94, 104; Marx and Engels 1978 : 254-6; Marx and Engels 1973 -12.
25 Engels 2004 : 74; Engels 1968 : 560.
26 Engels 1979 [1851-2]: 14-15, 23-4, 28, 35.
27 Engels 1992 ; Engels 1973 .
28 Marx and Engels 1977 -b: 339, 356-7, 359-61, 370, 380; Marx and Engels 1973 -b: 321, 338-9, 341-3, 352, 362.
29 Marx 1980 -b: 394-5, 402-5, 411, 435-6.
30 Marx 1986 : 620; 1973 : 654; Marx 1988 : 4; 1973 : 543.
31 Engels 1977 -a: 146; Engels 1973 : 93; Engels 1977 -c: 183.
32 Engels 1977 -b: 469-70; 1977 -a: 147.
33 Marx 1979 -c: 93; 1980 -a: 41-2.
34 Marx 1979 -a: 126; 1979 -b: 222.
35 Marx 1983 : 21; 1973 : 25.
36 Marx and Engels 1977 -c; Marx and Engels 1973 -a.
37 Marx 1981 : 430; 1980 : 473-4; Engels 1977 -b.
38 Engels and Kautsky 1990 : 597-8, 603.
39 Marx 1987 , 1973 ; Marx 1987 , 1973 .
COMMENT 1 - From Stéphane, co-webmaster Bataille Socialiste
16 March 2010
It is with sadness that I discovered this article. I don't agree, and regret that it uses the word "Islamophobia", a word used in France by islamo-leftists to discredit opponents of political Islam as so-called racists. We have also in France advocates of "open secularism" that denounced the "laïcisme" (as in the past did the bishops), supporters of working with people like Tariq Ramadan in the social forums, etc.. For me, I like this quote by Marx:
"Freedom of conscience"! If one desired, at this time of the Kulturkampf to remind liberalism of its old catchwords, it surely could have been done only in the following form: Everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in. But the Workers' party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois "freedom of conscience" is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part it endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion. But one chooses not to transgress the "bourgeois" level.
Marx (Critique of the Gotha Programm, 1875)
COMMENT - From Roland Boer
March 30 2010
Marx does appear in this quote to dismiss the whole idea of freedom of conscience as an irredeemable liberal position, but then he takes another step. This ‘freedom of conscience’ is actually not freedom of conscience at all, for if it was then one should be able to hold whatever religion one wants or indeed dispense with the witchery of religion completely. It is as if he is saying, you want freedom of conscience, then I’ll damn well give it to you.I suspect that Rosa Luxemburg picked up this radical sense of such freedom. She argued that socialists should embrace freedom of conscience:
"The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience (Gewissen) and personal opinion (Überzeugung) as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrat.s" [Socialism and the Churches]
Is there a liberal left-over here? Not at all. For Luxemburg, ‘liberty of conscience’ is two-edged. What lies behind her argument is the following: in challenging the brutal censorship of the Czarist regime in Russia and Poland, which persecuted Catholics, Jews, heretics and freethinkers, and in taking on the efforts of the Church to direct what people believe by whatever means available, from state power to the Inquisition, she must be consistent and argue that the socialists should not exercise the same type of censorship. The logical outcome of this argument is that freedom of conscience also applies to religious belief
COMMENT 3 - From Richard Abernethy
14 April 2010
We sometimes hear it said that religion should be kept out of politics, but so long as there are religious believers in society (which is likely to be a very long time indeed), opinions based in religious belief will remain a legitimate part of democratic debate. A privileged status for religion is a different matter and something that should be opposed. The status of the Church of England as an established church is (along with the monarchy) an archaic feature of the constitution in England and Wales. The church sanctifies the monarchy and, indirectly, the state as a whole.
In historic times, the link between state and church was very important indeed: it was one of the main issues of the Civil War. Even into the twentieth century, the parson remained a figure of real power in the English countryside. Today, however, the special status of the Anglican church is more of a curious relic than a contemporary issue. The church itself is deeply split between those who want it to catch up with modern society on equality for women and gay men, and those who are entrenched in a patriarchal past. Disestablishment would be a progressive reform (opposition to which, by the way, is antidisestablishmentarianism, sometimes cited as the longest word in the English language). It would simply put the C of E on the same standing as other religious denominations. However, of all the reforms that might be obtained within capitalism, this one is a low priority compared, say, with nuclear disarmament.
New Labour encourages "faith" in general, including support for "faith schools" (Christian, Jewish and Muslim), which are also popular with parents because they are considered to provide high-quality education. This is retrograde because it allows children and young people to be indoctrinated in a particular religion, rather than being encouraged to think for themselves while being taught about all the different beliefs in society.
Religious ideas can sometimes be an important motivation for people in freedom struggles. I have previously written about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose in Hobgoblin. We may also think of Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and many others.
In Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (Verso, 1990), Giuseppe Fiori recounts an anecdote that, I think, nicely illustrates Roland Boer's point about the possibility of alliances between Marxists and religious believers, on specific issues:
"In his account of Gramsci and L'Ordine Nuovo, Battista Santhia has described a visit he once made to the editorial office of Il Grido, where he found four young people chatting quietly with Gramsci, addressing one another politely as 'Lei':
"When the lengthy conversation was finally over, I was dumbfounded to learn that the four were young Catholics, and that their opposition to the war was quite different from ours, and founded wholly on pacifism ('We're against all wars,' they kept repeating, and upon biblical precepts. Gramsci suggested I might help them, just to provoke me. I didn't see this right away, and asked naively whether he was suggesting I ought to join in their prayers for the granting of a miraculous peace. Gramsci replied dryly: 'All they ever teach you here is a stupid anti-clericalism, quite misguided intellectually and politically. I don't go to church either, because I'm not a believer. But we must recognise that the majority of people are believers. If we carry on ignoring everyone but the atheists, we'll always be in a minority. There are plenty of bourgeois atheists who make fun of priests and never go to church, yet they are anti-socialist, interventionist, and wage war on us. But though these kids go to mass, they aren't industrialists; all they are asking is to work with us to stop the war as soon as possible.' "
Amen to that.
COMMENT 4 - From David Black
The philosopher Gillian Rose, in one of her last writings (in 1994), argued that in the modern (or post-modern) state, the “increase in subjective freedom is accompanied by the decrease in objective freedom,” whilst “the discourses of individual rights distract from the actualities of power and domination.” As against post modernism’s naïve and willful ignorance of its own historical and political pre-suppositions, she called for posing anew the question raised by Marx which Derrida’s Spectres of Marx sought to avoid at all costs: “How do we stand in relation to the Hegelian dialectic?” [Gillian Rose, ‘The Comedy of Hegel and the Trauerspiel of Modern Philosophy’, Hegel Society of Great Britain Bulletin #29 1994]
Roland Boer identifies a “turn” by the young Marx and Engels away from what was essentially the Kantian “secular state “ position. The question I wish to raise tentatively, is “How does THIS stand in relation to the Hegelian dialectic?” I will briefly examine 1) Hegel’s own “turn” away from (Kantian) secularism and 2) his opposition to both the mysticism of religious reactionaries and the rationalism of enlightenment liberals. In the 21st Century these two forces, which we are invited to (and sometimes ordered to) bow down before, all too often assume military forms: Crusades and Jihads for the reactionary religionists, and “humanitarian imperialist intervention” for the liberal secularists. In the case of the latter the right-wing stances, taken on some issues, by “New Atheists” such as John Gray and Christopher Hitchens should give the “secular left” pause for thought at the very least (for a critique of Gray’s book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, see Stephen Harper’s ‘All Cats Are Grey' on this site).
The young Hegel, under the influence of Rousseau, Lessing, Kant and the French Revolution, favoured a secular state, totally separated from religion. The liberal theologians whom the young Hegel encountered had distinguished between the “private” religion of the moral individual and what was called the “positive religion” which wages war on freedom by denigrating and abusing the needs of the private individual and propagating miracles, revelations and general obedience to unreason. Later Hegel opposed “public religion” to “positive religion.” Public religion is a Rousseau-esque concept – religion civile – which Hegel construed as the life of imagination and festivity in a free state, as he supposed had once prevailed in Greek antiquity.
Hegel saw Christianity as having undergone transformation from the moral life of individual self-regulating reason to a positive religion. In the modern state, in which factionalised Christianity oscillates between the divine and life, Hegel saw the re-enactment of the tragedy in Sophocles’s Antigone between family and state. Creon destroys Antigone, but in doing her down he also destroys himself and the state; similarly the Enlightenment destroys religion, but the “Absolute Freedom” of the Revolution in France destroys itself in “Absolute Terror.” [Merold Westphal ‘Hegel, Tillich, and the Secular’, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 223-239]
Hegel repudiates the idea of dependence on a God who is not dependent on humans. Hegel’s God has “no thoughts in which he becomes self conscious but ours, no love but ours…” [M Westphal, Hegel Society of Great Britain Bulletin 41/42 2000]
In his later work, Hegel, contrary to what many critics down through the ages have imagined, did NOT deify the State as the incarnation of the absolute idea. According to Dieter Henrich,
“Hegel never defined the state as divine, nor did he define the state as the absolute idea. What corresponds to his definition of the absolute idea is the structure of the correspondence between the will and the state, rather than the institution of the state alone. We become aware of the structure of the absolute idea when we grasp structure to which the state also belongs… in religion, art or philosophical reasoning. By virtue of this we understand the state is only the objective correlate of the will, the fulfillment of freedom.” [Dieter Henrich, Between Kant and Hegel 2003 p328]
Hegel, in his late work, the Philosophy of Religion [part 3 on ‘Christianity as the Consummate Religion’, Ed. P Hodgson 1993] says that Universal spirit in its totality has three forms:
1. The universal realm of the absolute idea, in which the subject is pure thought in and for itself, located outside of the world, beyond finitude; outside of time (as Tillich’s Platonist interpretation might put it, “it is real but does not exist”). In philosophy proper, in which for Hegel theology is subsumed, the absolute idea is Hegel’s Science of Logic.
2. As appearance in particularization, as being for others, and as representation, the universal form is made universally accessible through the medium of the church. But here the “locale” of subjective consciousness is the world of “divine history” - biblical and church history – and its representation is the world of the past. Although the community, through the church, ‘brings forth’ the content of the spiritual element, Hegel is not concerned with the way in which this happened and leaves that to “passionate disputes of bishops at church councils.” Furthermore Hegel is adamant that representation as revelation cannot and must not rule over the present.
3. The church comes to life in a community as the “representational image of the Spirit” by reconciling finite subjectivity and its spiritual content as already accomplished. But representation and particularization are thus only implicit, lacking the inwardising ”return from appearance” to the “presence to self.” As immediacy, finite subjectivity is based on feeling and sensation (and dissectible by Kantian Understanding and Feuerbachian anthropology). But through the mediation of the Concept it is thinking Reason, the thinking of free spirit. As with Aristotle’s ‘practical intelligence’ the ideals of the community imitate the higher realms. For Hegel the community can only raise itself from the earth towards heaven because in the world it has ‘heaven within itself.’ Following the kingdom of ‘naïve religion’ and the Enlightenment comes the advent of “the third estate,” the “community of philosophy.”
At the end of the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel says that philosophy ‘seems to be opposed to the church’ because, as in ‘culture’ and Kantian reflection, it refuses to be bound to the ‘form of representation’, whilst recognising the necessity of that form. But Hegel also takes a swipe at the Enlightenment for its "indifference towards the content" and the mere opinion [and] despair involved in its renunciation of the truth."
Hegel would seem to expel in advance from his community of philosophy some of the “Left Hegelians,” such as Feuerbach and Strauss, for their anthropological efforts to fight the pious on non-philosophical ground. Hegel writes:
"What is the content in and for itself? Only by philosophy can this simply present content be justified, not by history. What spirit does is no history. Spirit is concerned only with what is in and for itself, not something past, but simply what is present. That is the origin of the community."
Whereas Feuerbach consigns religion to “feeling,” as purely the product of a long distant past, which has somehow held humanity in thrall, Hegel sees in it the development of speculative theology as a branch of philosophy, whose goal is the godly goal of the Truth, the showing forth of the rational content of religion.
Hegel moved from secular-statism to a position of subsuming theology under philosophy. Marx turned from secular-statism to anti-statism and from the philosophical critique of religion to critique of bourgeois society. The transformation of the “speculative” Hegelian philosophy in Marx’s hands into a critique of Capital is itself based on a Hegelian formulation of the young Marx’s: that “The transcendence of self-estrangement follows the same course as self-estrangement [Karl Marx, ‘Private Property and Communism’, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844]
In A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right - Introduction (1843) Marx hits out at “the practical political party in Germany” which demanded the negation of philosophy “by turning its back to philosophy and its head away from it and muttering a few trite and angry phrases about it.” Marx continues, “You demand that real life embryos be made the starting-point, but you forget that the real life embryo of the German nation has grown so far only inside its cranium. In a word – You cannot abolish [aufheben] philosophy without making it a reality.”
And a little later he writes:
“The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization of philosophy.”
“Secularization,” addressed just once in Marx’s essay, is described, as actually existing, in terms of its inadequacies
“… secularization will not stop at the confiscation of church estates set in motion mainly by hypocritical Prussia any more than emancipation stops at princes. The Peasant War, the most radical fact of German history, came to grief because of theology. Today, when theology itself has come to grief, the most unfree fact of German history, our status quo, will be shattered against philosophy.”
Regarding Boers interesting “paradox”: that “the more church and state are separated, the more they seem to be entwined” it is worth pointing out that Hegel wrote of such “negative self-relation” as the “turning point” and “innermost source of all activity, of living and spiritual self-movement… for the transcendence of the opposition between Notion and reality… rest[s] on this subjectivity alone.” But the “second negative,” the negation of the negation, is the “transcendence of the contradiction... the innermost and most objective movement of life and spirit, by virtue of which a subject is personal and free.” [Hegel, Science of Logic, p836]
Given the contradictions which Roland Boer discerns in Christianity – in or out of state power – not to mention the spectacular and tragic failure of the secular-state in the old “Soviet Bloc” (yet another “means for the state to control religion”) it is tempting to speculate that, as an “opium of the masses” Christianity in its “true” form may be a gateway drug to atheism, and vice versa. But it might be more fruitful to extend Marx’s critique of “vulgar communism” to vulgar atheism. As Marx writes on the abolition of private property, “Not until the transcendence of this mediation, which is nevertheless a necessary presupposition, does there arise positive Humanism, beginning from itself.” [Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic – Dunayevskaya translation].
In the doldrums of an election campaign where only slightly different alternatives within capitalism are on offer, it is good to read David Harvey's bold call for an alternative to capitalism. I also agree with his view that the name of communism is too damaged by its bad 20th century connotations (Stalin, Mao, etc) to be reclaimed with its good 19th century connotations (Marx and Engels). However, I find his suggestion that the movement should just define itself as anti-capitalist, or the Party of Indignation, less than satisfactory. It is inadequate to declare what we are against without defining what we are for. Capitalism at least has the advantage of being the devil we know. People cannot be expected to stake their whole future on a revolutionary change of system until they have confidence that there is an alternative that will really make life better. Opponents of capitalism need to work out a positive, life-enhancing alternative (something the Left has so far failed to do) and the choice of a name should reflect this. We might take a cue from the young Marx, who described his vision of a new society as a fully developed humanism.