What Is the Opium of the People?

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.”

Whipped American slave Gordon, 1863

Whipped American slave Gordon, 1863

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

Marcus Licinius Crassus, who Spartacus' nemesis, crucified thousands of Spartacus' followers (The Damned Field by Fyodor Bronnikov)

Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was Spartacus’ nemesis, crucified thousands of Spartacus’ followers (The Damned Field by Fyodor Bronnikov)

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)


1. http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP07398441_c.pdf

2. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37086

3. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1861/letters/61_02_27-abs.htm

4. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/princeton-experts-say-us-no-longer-democracy

How Capitalism Influences Our Morality

When most people criticize capitalism and its corporations for allegedly creating certain problems in society, they are keen to expose and analyze problems that are very clear and conspicuous. These problems can range from starving minimum wages, pollution of the planet, profit-driven war, inequality of wealth, inefficiency and many other social issues that are concrete and visible. There is one peculiar and more abstract social theory however that is less widely known, and it is the ability in capitalism or any socio-economic system to create and control our ethical beliefs, beliefs that can render our public verdicts on anything from illegal substances, abortion, racism, premarital sex or any particular issue of the day. By use of a known Marxist theory, in this post I shall examine a couple of historical and contemporary ethical issues to draw direct causal links from the economic phenomenon of capitalist profit to ethical behavior or belief. Moreover, because of issues like these I’ll defend that the theory ought to be taken more seriously at least in regards to the morality of our day.

In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and other works, Karl Marx argued for a particularly bold social theory called the base and superstructure. For Marx, the base is the given socio-economic system of a time period, “socio-economic” in the sense of how people work, who owns and manages their workplace, and who picks the fruits of the laborer’s work in the format of profit. The superstructure is essentially the category which contains every other aspect of human society, which includes morality/ethics, religion, family, the state, politics, law, media and so forth. Marxist theorists have argued that the base is what creates and influences the superstructure, and moreover that the superstructure is something which rationalizes and defends the base. Since the two groups are connected, a particular superstructure changes only when the base does too. In his Critique of Political Economy, Marx gives us a rough outline of how this theory works:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

[…] No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives. (image author unknown)

Marx is very firm and adamant about drawing a direct causal link between the economic system of a time and the previously described phenomena that compose the superstructure. Since his original theory is radical in arguing that most everything reduces to an economic system, many contemporary social scientists do not agree that is the case for absolutely every element of the superstructure. Acknowledging this criticism however, is it possible to understand at least moral opinion or behavior in the context of this theory? Let’s examine two possible applications of Marx’s theory, of which the first will be a function of racism against American blacks in the days of slavery and the second of the legal and moral views on marijuana.

In his highly influential A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn not only plays his historian’s role of detailing the atrocities of racism in the 19th century US but also boldly argues for its material function in society in the master-slave relationship. Far from racism simply being a result of physical discrimination of persons who look very much different from another, racism is a crucial tool for the slaveholding capitalist class to keep slaves in their subservient position required for the slaveholder’s profit:

It may be that, in the absence of any other overriding factor, darkness and blackness, associated with night and unknown, would take on those meanings. But the presence of another human being is a powerful fact, and the conditions of that presence are crucial in determining whether an initial prejudice, against a mere color, divorced from humankind, is turned into brutality and hatred.


Racism was becoming more and more practical. Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as “natural” to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control. “If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.”

By this view, racism would rest in the superstructure and function as something created and guided by Marx’s base, which in this specific scenario is capitalist slavery. The capitalist has legal ownership and management of the slave’s workplace and the slave’s created profit from the products the slave creates but does not keep. It would be absurd for us to imagine an American slave society, which Zinn argues was historically of the time one of the worst in the world, as being absent of viewing the subjugated group as a lower people. As mentioned before, the superstructure often does prop up and defend the base, which would give racism the function of legitimizing and rationalizing the capitalist base. For example, one common point of racist ideology was and is to compare blacks to wild monkeys in appearance, behavior, and intelligence and to deduce from this that a black person is not socially fit to live independently from slavery. Clearly showing superstructural belief, the racist slaveholder in this case argues that slavery and their participation in it is a vital necessity for society.

More than a century later, American capitalism continued to grow in concentration and de-emphasize smaller level hierarchy like with chattel slavery and instead focus on the corporate model. This also paved the way for new and more complex methods to influence law and ethics. For most of human history, including in the US, cannabis was a substance that was freely produced and consumed.1 In 1619, the Jamestown Colony went as far as to mandate and encourage the growth of the plant because of its immense economic benefits. Not including the many contemporary US presidents who admit to cannabis use, cannabis was also a substance that was used and farmed by many Founding Fathers from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson.2 Lacking any moral and social stigma for much of American history, the legal and ethical climate behind marijuana began to dramatically change starting with the 20th century.

The eventual increased ease and affordability of processing cannabis into many other valuable forms, such as paper and plastic, seriously began to threaten the profit models of established capitalists who owned businesses related to these materials.3 William Randolph Hearst, one such capitalist who owned the nation’s largest chain of newspapers, regularly published propaganda in his papers. In one example, black men became berserk because of cannabis use and raped white women. The chief financial backer of the petrochemical company DuPont, which still exists today, appointed Harry J. Anslinger to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931 who campaigned against marijuana. Anslinger also lobbied for the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act which passed in 1934 allowing individual states to regulate the substance.4 The definition of illegal use of cannabis was continuously expanded over the years by additional laws to ultimately bring us to the status quo.

Starting with the 20th century, American capitalism and government began to successfully propagandize the masses to disapprove of cannabis

Starting with the 20th century, American capitalism began to successfully propagandize the masses to disapprove of cannabis

Even today, lobbying against the growing acceptance and legalization of the plant continues to be purely dominated by capitalist interests whose profit models would be seriously threatened by legal and more widespread use of the plant. Among the top five special interest groups doing so include alcohol companies, private prisons, and the pharmaceutical industry.5 Alcohol companies would face more serious competition in regards to what people recreationally consume, and so they lobby against laws to legalize and tax the plant like with California’s Proposition 19 in 2010. Private prisons, whose populations are composed of huge portions of drug offenders allowing them to make millions of dollars through incarceration, frequently bankroll anti-cannabis politicians and worm their way into our state to combat legalization. Pharmaceutical corporations understand that cannabis is a highly effective replacement for countless prescription drugs that have side effects, and so they are the second most tenacious lobby against legalization. The latest data shows that a majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, and yet this corresponds to a majority of states keeping it strictly illegal.6 With the previously described capitalist businesses, it becomes clear then that there is a huge potential for economics being a primary culprit in this with corporations influencing the legal and ethical superstructure.

If Marx’s theory holds any kernel of truth in regards to culture and morality, then there is a serious systemic problem brought on by capitalism which exists in our society and impacts this. If the problem is systemic, then certain social approaches we believe need to be more aggressively pursued will hold little to no societal sway due to attacking the symptoms and not the disease. For example, many anti-capitalists believe that the US government should have gone on a spree of legal prosecution of bankers and other capitalists who contributed to the current economic crisis like in Iceland.7 Presumably such an event would create a legal and moral precedence against others who play the capitalist game to not ever repeat such a catastrophe. A systemic approach to attacking capitalist ethics and behavior would unfortunately not find such a thing effective, as behind the courtrooms and legal codes still exists the socio-economic system of capitalism which drove such behavior in the first place.

By this approach, a paradigm shift is then necessary for all reformers and anti-capitalists if they wish to truly become more effective in reducing capitalism’s power in shaping our moral beliefs and behaviors. Instead of appealing to raw ideas about justice, equality, and altruism within capitalist society in hopes of fighting its morality, we should instead play the role of the social scientist as Marx would recommend and locate the systemic problem: capitalism itself. By doing so we would rattle the foundations of Marx’s base and consequently cause its collapse and that of the superstructure also. Society would finally be free of such economic relations built on hierarchy and self-interest which have a stranglehold on our morality, and we would be able to pave the way for a new economic system which allows the possibility in society to finally enter into the ethical relationships we desire.

– Dino Mehic


1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html

2. http://norml.org/marijuana/industrial/item/introduction-5

3. http://wafreepress.org/article/090304marijuana.shtml

4. http://brainz.org/420-milestones-history-marijuana/

5. http://www.republicreport.org/2012/marijuana-lobby-illegal/

6. http://www.gallup.com/poll/165539/first-time-americans-favor-legalizing-marijuana.aspx

7. http://rt.com/op-edge/iceland-bank-sentence-model-246/