Revisiting a commonly misunderstood quote from Marx.
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 power imbalances that exist within and across cultures. Specifically, the Marxist Approach considers how “material conditions” (or, the production of things that people need to survive) lead to the spread, or elimination, or maintenance of particular cultural trends, beliefs in traditions.
Explore the below topics to better understand how social scientists examine culture and society through a Marxist lens:
“Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020.
Beverley, James A. Religions A-Z. Thomas Nelson, 2005.
Bloch, Maurice. Marxism and Anthropology The History of a Relationship. Taylor and Francis, 2013.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School. Routledge, 2014.
Mascia-Lees, Frances E. Gender & Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First Century Anthropology. Waveland Press, 2010.
McCurdy, David W., et al. Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Pearson, 2016.
Moore, Jerry D. Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
Roseberry, William (1988). “Political Economy”. Annual Review of Anthropology.
Stein, Rebecca, and Stein, Phillip. Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. 3rd Ed.
Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution.
Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004). World-systems analysis: an introduction (5. print. ed.). Durham: Duke University Press.
Winick, Charles. Dictionary of Anthropology. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014.
This text is part of “Beliefs” an open-source textbook on “The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” Written and recorded on Soundcloud by Amanda Zunner-Keating and edited by Ben Shepard for Los Angeles Valley College. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License