Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Opium of the People

There is never a shortage of individuals misquoting Marx in order to make it appear that he presented sentiments parallel to claiming that religion was nothing more than opium, the only function of which was to drug the masses and dull the mind. This is, of course, inaccurate. What Marx actually claimed, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, was much deeper in its analysis and broader in its implication. He says in his introduction:

“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….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 cull the living flower.”

Undoubtedly many have already become acquainted with a portion of this quote, that religion is the “opium of the people,” but many have likewise failed to actually understand what Marx meant by this. He does not mean by “opium of the people” that religion drugs the masses so as to dull the mind, but, rather, religion is the opium of the people in the sense that it is that which consoles and gives comfort to those facing impossible circumstances. Marx is stating that, through class struggle, religion is wholly dependent upon and is birthed by the material and economic realities which society faces. To Marx religion is the manifestation of a societal defense mechanism, not only the expression of societies suffering but of its protest against it and this suffering is caused by material and economic injustices, political connivances. He believes that by criticizing and abolishing religion one would be able to inculcate within society the foundation for political revolution, or, at least, its evolution.