“The Opium of the People”

Amanda Zunner-Keating
3 min readNov 21, 2020

Revisiting a commonly misunderstood quote from Marx.

Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash

Marx once described religion as “the opium of the people” which is a commonly cited and commonly misunderstood quote. Many dictatorial regimes have, historically, misappropriated this Marxist argument to justify a violent crackdown on religion in their countries (Eagleton 128). At the time of Marx’s claim, opium was legal and was widely used to relieve pain. So, he was not arguing that religion was some kind of addictive drug that people behave in an unreasonable manner. Rather, he was arguing that religion was a comfort to people who were suffering (Stein and Stein 18).

Marx’s exact quote on the matter is,

“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 demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusion.”

Marx was not seeking to punish or eliminate religion but, rather, did not consider religion to be as real as a person’s material necessities required to survive (Eagleton 128). Marx and Engels did not view religion as an inherent part of human nature but, rather as a construction offered by powerful groups in order to maintain the “false consciousness” necessary to keep workers working (Stein and Stein 18). Marx argued that power flows from the top of society downward to influence the internalized ideologies of those with less power (Mascia-Lees 157).

Marx and Engels’ works have had a great influence across the world since their original publications: socialism has taken hold in a variety of degrees across the world with varying levels of success, at the same time, socialism has been rejected in other parts of the world resulting in a strengthened cultural commitment to capitalism (also with varying levels of success).

In cultural anthropology, Marx and Engels’ influence resulted in a new theoretical approach toward the study of culture which we call The Marxist Approach (Kuper 182–183). The Marxist Approach examines…