Saturday, March 14, 2009

Classical Theories of Religion: Karl Marx

As promised, I'm updating on my several-part series on some classical theories of religion. This edition will cover Karl Marx, an important thinker in many areas, and will concentrate primarily on his "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" and "Theses on Feuerbach." Both are interesting works from his fairly early years, and reference both Hegel and Feuerbach, about whom I already wrote a previous post.

In the way of a brief background, Marx was born in 1818 in the German Rhineland, and died in 1883. The Rhineland itself had in interesting history which was formative for many people in the area. In 1794, during the French Revolution, the Rhineland was taken and many reforms were incorporated. The French ruled the area for 20 years, longer than any other part of Germany, until the Prussians took it back and annexed it to Prussia in 1814. Two years later, in 1816, a year after the Congress of Vienna, which restored the monarchical status quo of Europe, Prussia published laws against Jews - reinstating the confinement to ghettos and the denial of civil service. Marx's father, inspired by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, converted from Judaism to Lutheranism. In 1824, Marx and his brothers were baptized and attended Sunday School. In 1835, Marx went to the University of Bonn to study law and basically lives a wastrel existence. A year later, he moved to Berlin and began to study the philosophy of law. he gave up on Romanticism and became interested in Hegel, eventually also reconciling with his father. In 1837, he joined a number of clubs and associations identified with the Hegelian left when people were beginning to struggle for power among the Hegelian movements.

More below the fold...

In 1841, Marx submitted his dissertation on philosophy, taking up an incredibly obscure and seemingly meaningless dispute in ancient philosophy between Democritus and Epicurus, interested int he philosophy of nature. Marx favors Epicurus for several reasons -
1) Epicurus admits to sensuous knowledge, he does not limit his philosophy to rational deduction.
2) Epicurus is less mechanistic and entertains a more complicated sense of causality, giving a detailed picture to the resistance of force.
3) Epicurus steadfastly refuses to turn philosophy into religion.

So, overall, Marx saw in Epicurus a greater materialism, more attention to dynamic relationships, and a refusal to entertain super-human "mumbo-jumbo." This may seem absolutely pedantic or unimportant, and in some ways, it may be. But this dissertation also shows the beginnings of Marx's thought. In fact, the dissertation is a detailed and impressive commentary on contemporary German philosophy, recoded through a minor debate in ancient philosophy. By entertaining this debate, Marx is able to talk fairly freely about his views on the contemporary philosophy, and a lot of it is rightly regarded as brilliant. Likewise, we see an interesting thread here in Marx's later thought - religion was important for him in his early, formative years (many philosophers begin by cutting their teeth on religion in this period), when he was more interested in law than a radical critique of society.

1841 also saw new censorship laws in Prussia. A journal that Marx published was driven out of Prussia, successively, through the Rhineland, and finally settled in Paris. A year later, in 1842, Bruno Bauer, a controversial figure in his own right, was dismissed from the University of Bonn. Bauer held a high status in Young Hegelian circles, and his dismissal was a strong factor in Marx deciding on a career in journalism instead of attempting a career in the university. Marx wanted a philosophical correction to religiosity, and began railing against private interests in general. In 1842-1843, Marx became editor in chief of a Young Hegelian journal which came under government suppression in March 1843. At this point, Marx left for Paris (in October of the same year) and proclaimed that Hegel's theories of State of Geist nonwithstanding, the state is no longer the embodiment of Spirit (He writes his "Contribution..." in 1844). Marx founded a new journal, which lasted until 1844, when the French, under Prussian pressure, shut that journal down as well. He moved to Belgium in 1845, but, of course, trouble followed him.

Marx wrote his "Theses on Feuerbach" in 1845. It's quite short, and I suggest that you read it (a link is at the top), but I will get into a discussion of it in a bit. Likewise, around this time, he began work on The German Ideology, which never found a publisher in Marx's lifetime. Marx moved to London and joined the League of the Just, renaming it to the "Communist League." In 1848, revolutions broke out across all of Europe, but they are short lived - the re-establishment of the old powers is solidified by 1849.

Alright, now to the meat of this post. First, I'll consider his "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right."

Marx begins with a direct homage to Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, in that he need not pursue a criticism of religion. Marx felt that it had already been accomplished, and done well. Likewise, he states that a criticism of religion is necessary for any other criticism. Why is this? Why does the criticism of religion allow for other criticisms? Basically, Marx recognizes the utility of a critique and long look at the material world - reality. If humans make unreality (i.e. religion), then they can unmake it, allowing them to remake reality in other forms. Marx believed the problems of suffering and distress were real, and that religion is a false promise to cure us. It is both a protest and a salve for real human misery. It misdirects human attention. Furthermore, this discourse is constituted as more than human - as sacred, and protected against challenges of certain sorts. If these (religions) are merely human propositions, then they should be open to debate and questioning. The recoding of religious propositions as sacred (instead of human-made) is a misrepresentation or mis-recognition of these propositions as coming from outside the human condition, which saves them from human criticism. When religions are returned to the human sphere, and seen as merely human inventions, all criticism become possible, nothing is sacred, and nothing is protected from debate and critique.

That's the main importance of the "Contribution to the Critique" for theories of religion, so now I will turn to Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach."

Feuerbach attempted the anthropological reduction of the theological. Marx takes on Feuerbach on the notion of the "human," arguing that there were real errors in his understanding of human, consciousness, and matter. Marx argued that Feuerbach understood men as a species-consciousness. Marx saw man as social actors with sensuous knowledge (note the ties to his dissertation). Feuerbach assumed that all humans are alike and ideal; they just needed to clear up some misconceptions and it would return all that was best to humanity. Marx argued that this was merely another form of idealism - there is nothing material or historical about this belief, and the end result of Feuerbach's argument was merely a human illusion. Marx argued that we have to look at real human beings, and when we do, we would see something rather different - all human beings are tied into societal interactions.

Marx argued that all human beings are the products of society - they resemble one another, but there is also a plurality. What is the nature of the social that it creates different positions for different humans? In this work, Marx spoke of a division of labor, which is his first step towards economics, analysis of class, and understanding the class struggle. Marx imagined pre-history, before the division of labor, when everyone did the same thing. He argued that the first division of labor was between the manual and the spiritual. The first specialists were therefore priests who depended on the rest of the community.

Why would manual labors turn over their surplus to supply for priests? Marx argues that this exchange is construed as one of good of equal value but different types. A set of religious propositions are created that marks some as a successful priestly class, which figures out how to elegantly expand their control. This movement gains success because it addresses real problem and needs, in ways that are at some level satisfying, but which never resolves the real cause of the pain (hence the famous "opiate of the masses").

Marx renamed Feuerbach's deuteroscopy to "false consciousness," feeling it better reflected the exact nature of religious propositions. Feuerbach described religious ideation as an alienation - stealing the best virtues of humanity for the religious imaginary. Marx argued that alienation of the religious sort was the product of alienation at the level of the human and the material; suffering is behind religious need, and if you removed religion, the alienation would still remain. Alienation, for Marx, was a product of actual matter - the stuff necessary for sustenance. He focuses on ownership, production activity, profit, management of goods, and economic relations. Marx begins to work out a complicated system...

He firstly wants to redirect our attention the material human, e.g., how does this person eat? He always focuses on the Mode of Production - what are the activities in which humans engage to produce the stuff of life? What is their technology and techniques? What is necessary for surplus, etc.? Marx also wants us to consider the Relations of Production - a matter of ownership and control. Is the soul recognized as a transmittable property to be bought, owned, and sold?
Marx notes the height of this thinking in medieval feudalism. He notes that asymmetries are possible in any age, however. Often, these asymmetries are necessary for initial future developments. It is also possible, however, that the relation between the Relations of Production and the Modes of Production gets far too out of sync - one class lives in luxury while doing no work while another clash is crushed under the burden of work. This is the moment of alienation for Marx - the worker loses ownership of his product of labor in exchange for a paycheck. Creativity and skill is handed over to someone whose investment in a product is small, but whose return is much larger. Alienation exists at this real, material, end of the spectrum.

So, what would it take to live a less alienated life? Marx here reflects on life, and his theory reshapes consciousness, creating practice, and opens up the possibility of real change in the world. Relationships of Production can be divided into owners and laborers - owners of Modes of Production, and those who use them. This relationship is always asymmetrical. The further out of balance this gets, the more suffering there is. As Modes- and Relationships of Production get more asymmetrical, the more chance there is for a radical change or revolution in society.

As other means than agriculture become important to a society, the noble class is challenged by a rising middle class - the city becomes concentrated and bourgeois. This became very important for the Modes of Production, but it doesn't really change the Relations of Production, which favor the landed nobility. When the bourgeois begin to sense that they are more powerful, Marx predicted there would be a revolutionary overthrow of an outmoded system where modest Relations of Production are so out of sync.

Is there an easier way to accomplish this? The division of labor into the Manual and Mental ensures that there is a class whose job it is to supply discourse, ideas, and philosophies. To ask Marx's question, how do these people eat? The "mental" group can sell their products to the owners (as they have a surplus anyway) because they produce legitimizing discourses for the owners, ensuring legitimacy, stability, ennoblement, flattery, etc). Marx argued that most thought, speech, religion, and philosophy arose from this nexus of selling a mental product to owners. Marx argued that philosophers in this system tried to persuade manual laborers that this is either the best of all possible worlds; or that there are real problems, but you have to man up to them; or there are huge problems, but nothing you can do about them. The crucial role of ideology is to misrepresent social realities as something that ought not to be changed - religion is merely one style.

Marx hoped that philosophies could be turned to the benefit of the "little guy," and saw religion as merely another discourse that legitimized those already in power. He hoped for a revolution in which humans would recognize the chains that bind them and the false hope that religions and philosophies give them and stand up for themselves and attempt to take control to improve their situation and cure the actual causes of their alienation and suffering.

That's about all I can do for tonight. I'm exhausted and have spent far too much time on this as it is. I hope that it's informative, and I'm sure The Rooster could give some additional good information for those of you who are interested. The next post in this series will probably focus on general movements in theorizing religion after Marx and will probably cover a lot of history in a fairly brief way. The next theorist I may consider in any depth could be Taylor. Or maybe Marcel Mauss. We'll see. I'm going to skip Nietzsche, as well as Freud and Jung, because they're relatively well known. If you want me to do a series on them, let me know, and I'll maybe work something up.

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