Religion and the Left: An Introduction

By West, Cornel | Monthly Review, July-August 1984 | Go to article overview

Religion and the Left: An Introduction


West, Cornel, Monthly Review


Notwithstanding the secular sensibilities of most leftist intellectuals and activists, religion permeates and pervades the lives of the majority of people in the capitalist world. And all signs indicate that the prevailing crisis in the capitalist world is not solely an economic or political one. Recent inquiries into the specificity of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, state repression, bureaucratic domination, ecological subjugation, and nuclear exterminism suggest that we need to understand this crisis as that of capitalist civilization. To extend leftist discourses about political economy and the state to a discourse about capitalist civilization is to accent a sphere rarely scrutinized by Marxist thinkers: the sphere of culture and everyday life. And any serious scrutiny of this sphere sooner or later must come to terms with religious ways of life and religious ways of struggle.

In this introductory essay, I shall pose three crucial questions to contemporary Marxism regarding religion. First, how are we to understand the character and content of religious beliefs and practices? Second, how are we to account for the recent religious upsurges in Latin America, the Middle East, asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the United States? And third, in which ways can these upsurges enrich and enhance--or delimit and deter--the international struggle for human freedom and democracy? In the present historical moment, these queries strike me as inescapable and important.

Religion and Marxist Theory

The classical Marxist understanding of religion is more subtle than is generally acknowledged. Crude Marxist formulations of religion as the opium of the people in which the religious masses are viewed as passive and ignorant objects upon which monolithic religious institutions impose fantasies of other-worldly fulfillment reveal more about Englightenment prejudices and arrogant self-images of petty bourgeois intellectuals than the nature of religion. Contrary to such widespread crypto-Marxist myths about religion, Marx and Engels understood religion as a profound human response to, and protest against, intolerable conditions. For Marx and Engels, religion constituted alienated forms of human cultural practice under circumstances not of people's own choosing. On this view, religion as an opium of the people is not a mere political pacification imposed from above but rather a historically circumscribed existential and experiential assertion of being (or somebodiness) by dehumanized historical agents under unexamined socioeconomic conditions. Marx and Engels characterized religion as alienation not primarily because it is "unscientific" or "pre-modern," but rather because it often overlooks the socioeconomic conditions which shape and mold its expression and thereby delimits human powers and efforts to transform these conditions. In short, the classical Marxist critique of religion is not an a priori philosophical rejection of religion; rather it is a social analysis of and historical judgment upon religious practices.

For Marx and Engels, religion often overlooks the socioeconomic circumstances

which condition its expression, principally because the religious preoccupation with cosmic vision, ontological pronouncements on human nature, and personal morality hold at arm's length social and historical analysis. Hence religion at its worst serves as an ideological means of preserving and perpetuating prevailing social and historical realities and at its best yields moralistic condemnations of and utopian visions beyond present social and historical realities--with few insights regarding what these realities are and how to change them. The Marxist point here is not simply that religion alone is an impotent and inadequate form of protest, but also that without a probing and illuminating social and historical analysis of the present even the best-intentioned religionists and moralists will impede fundamental social and historical transformation. …

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