One of the most famous critical quotations of religion is that of Karl Marx’s where he describes it as the “opium of the people.” The quotation is however rarely displayed in its full length, and it is even rarer for the reader to understand it in its wider Marxist context where it involves the discussion of class struggle. Moreover, once the passage is explained in this context of class struggle, we begin to see that Marx’s concept of opium does not necessarily have to be limited to organized religion, but can be extended to a wide array of possible practices in culture that similarly act as opiates for the population. The profound implication of a Marxist analysis of religion then is that it becomes far-reaching and involves the entirety of culture, and that its pertinence remains even in 2015 society. The purpose of this blog post then is to explain what Marx means in the passage and to reveal its theoretical implication of how cultural opium functions to keep the working class docile in the face of its exploiting class.
The quotation comes from Marx’s work A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844) where he critiques the book Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820) by German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. Placed along with several lines that precede and follow it, the passage’s unadulterated vigor can be seen:
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.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
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.
As history’s sharpest and most successful critic of capitalism, Marx observed the widespread poverty, alienation, subordination, and misery perpetuated by the socio-economic system that its working class has to deal with. The consequent result according to Marx is that religion was possibly created to act as an anesthetic against these ills. The German critic here also argues that happiness gained from religion is illusory, and to call for its abolition is also to demand for people’s “real happiness.” Marx’s first claim in the passage is easily validated by contemporary social science; a 2009 study by Gregory Paul concluded that “religion is most able to thrive in seriously dysfunctional societies” where he examined a wide variety of factors from homicide rates to income inequality and discovered a correlation.1 Those who have trouble understanding this passage from Marx may find greater clarity in this excellent comment from French political theorist Gilles Dauvé:
The quest for the supernatural does not stem from an excessive but from a limited imagination built by millenniums of exploitation and oppression: the incapacity to be free on Earth incites humans to situate freedom out of this world. Dreams and desires are displaced persons. This is the stuff religion is made of.
In a greater discussion of Marxist class conflict, it is important to understand two crucial points. Firstly, cultural opium is not only limited to religion, but to a very long list of practices and beliefs that similarly act as an anesthetic for people enduring difficult socio-economic conditions. Secondly, and most importantly, cultural opium has a political function in society that benefits the ruling and property owning class: it placates and tranquilizes the class being exploited so that it is less likely to engage in revolution and change the system. We shall now examine a handful of case examples, the first being religious and the ones following it non-religious.
In A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, the American historian observes how US slaveowners understood that Christianity kept their slaves docile on their property, and so the slaveowners even promoted its use:
Religion was used for control. A book consulted by many planters was the Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book, which gave these instructions to overseers: “You will find that an hour devoted every Sabbath morning to their moral and religious instruction would prove a great aid to you in bringing about a better state of things amongst the Negroes.”
Zinn’s example is arguably the most conspicuous example of cultural opium easing the contradictions between classes. The American slaveowner, understanding the irreconcilable contradiction between master and slave, also understands the useful effect that religious practice creates around his slaves. He then allows and even promotes it to keep his slaves docile, which in turn promotes a continuous and smooth labor productivity from them for the slaveowner’s personal profit. In this example, religion acting as a cultural opium drugs an exploited class, but more importantly the opium is consciously used as a tool by an exploiting class to maintain their property-owning and dominant position in society and to resist change to this oppressive state of affairs.
As previously mentioned, an important thing we must extract from Marx’s passage is that from it easily follows a virtually endless list of possible cultural opiates which extend beyond religion and which also benefit the exploiting class of any exploitive socio-economic system whether past or present.
In relation to this, one possible argument that has been made before is that the spilling of the blood and the clashing of blades in ancient Roman gladiatorial arenas was not only entertainment, but also a useful spectacle for the slave-owning class of Rome to distract and placate the masses. Elaborate spectacles like these would be absolutely critical in numbing class contradictions in a society where up to a staggering 40% of the population was enslaved according to some estimates.2 Ironically and appropriately, a gladiatorial arena was the point of inception for an escape led by slave and gladiator Spartacus which evolved into a full blown rebellion. The rebellion, an early example of class conflict, culminated in the form of the Third Servile War (73-71 BC), and Spartacus’ side which began with 78 and grew to 120,000 followers won multiple battles against the Romans before the rebellion was defeated. Spartacus was the personal hero of Marx himself, who called him “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history.”3
Present day examples of cultural opium need not be restricted to something as unique as gladiatorial matches or Christianity. The most sophisticated and profound opium in 2015 is that of consumer culture, an opium that is arguably stronger than any that has come before it in the history of civilization. Contemporary consumer culture is powerful and dominating because as an enterprise of billions and billions of dollars, its sedative effect is enough to handle the possible anger and tension of a population of any size. Like in the case of property-owning slaveowners, consumer culture is also engineered by property-owning capitalists of any type, whether of a film production company, video game firm, or fast food enterprise. Most importantly, this intense sedative effect distracts the ordinary working class individual from becoming interested in change, a critically negative result as problems like growing inequality between American capitalists and the working class continues to increase, and with it the further buying off of the political system.4 Critical theorists like Theodor Adorno spilled a great deal of ink analyzing consumer culture, and in this quotation from Culture Industry Reconsidered (1963) he also explains how it creates false psychological conflicts and needs:
The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interests of human beings. Order, however, is not good in itself. It would be so only as a good order. The fact that the culture industry is oblivious to this and extols order in abstracto, bears witness to the impotence and untruth of the messages it conveys. While it claims to lead the perplexed, it deludes them with false conflicts which they are to exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives.
The central premise to be granted from a Marxist analysis of beliefs and practices in culture then is that they do not simply stand alone, but that they can also have a specific political function in society in empowering or weakening one class over another. The implication of all of this, if accepted, would mean that any attempt at social or revolutionary change would require the identification of cultural opium and the opposition of it. Social movements today against capitalists or other oligarchic and plutocratic elites would thus need to include the identification and opposition of these beliefs and practices in order to be effective at drawing ordinary working class people out from their opiate hazes and into their endeavors for revolutionary change. The failure to do this will mean that the politically and economically powerful bourgeoisie, who continue to carve capitalist society to their narrow interests and against the interests of the 99% working class, will maintain their elite position and hierarchy while we remain in an opiate haze.
– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)