Our theme for the month of June is “Celebrities and Me.” Writers were asked to select and write about a celebrity with whom they feel some connection.
For much of my life, my knowledge of Karl Marx (1818–1883), arguably one of the most influential philosophers of political economy in modern history, began and ended with his famous line about religion:
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.
This line comes from the introduction to one of Marx’s earliest and least familiar works, a book titled Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843). I’ve never read it. Until researching for this post, I’d never even heard of it, and I bet that’s true of most people who know only this quote. Truncated usually to its scariest bit, “religion is the opium of the people” has long ago exceeded the specific context that produced it. These days it’s got little to do with the apparently rarified world of nineteenth-century philosophy. These days, in fact, it’s mostly just used as a rhetorical bludgeon—a club, surprisingly adaptable, that gets swung about as much by terminally online Twitter Leftists as by anti-socialist Christians, eager to condemn Marx, Marxism, and socialism in the name of God, capital, and country.
In a sense, it’s the way this quotation gets used, as well as the attitude or posture it reflects, that lies at the heart of this essay, rather than the specific content of the quotation. And that’s a point worth emphasizing. Because I’m probably already behind the eight ball in the eyes of some readers simply for having titled this post “Karl and Me,” I want to be clear. This is not an essay that’s going to unpack Marx’s view of religion in general or of Christianity in particular. By extension, this essay is not a hagiography of Marx or a primer in Marxism, a word that, despite all the abuse heaped on it by US conservatives and liberals alike, does not mean what many folks think it means. (The same is true, by the way, of the latest conservative boogeyman, critical race theory, but I’ll leave that to others to unpack.) To a degree, therefore, this essay isn’t really about Marx at all. Marx is almost, almost, incidental to this essay.
Instead, what this essay is really about is the things that my education, my Bildung (a word I borrow from German because of its expansiveness), rendered practically unimaginable. It’s about all those things that, in the process of learning how to think, I was implicitly taught not to think.
In that respect, “religion is the opium of the people” is little more than a case in point.
For I am, after all, familiar with the latter-day use of this rhetorical bludgeon. Very familiar, actually. Born after the Cold War, I grew up with and among people who understood themselves as deeply Christian, deeply American, and often deeply conservative. For them as much as for me, Marx and his inheritors, borrowers, and sympathetic critics, both past and contemporary, were utterly and absolutely anathema. They were beyond the pale. Thus, to the extent that Marxist and Marxist-adjacent thinkers and revolutionaries figured at all in my education—which, to be clear, they didn’t—Marx’s diagnosis of religion served as a handy explanation for their absence. A clobber text of the anti-socialist variety, “religion is the opium of the people” made clear my relation to an entire body of thought and practice. And it did so not by critiquing it or by engaging with it. It did so by dismissing it.
Marxism, socialism, and anything else remotely affiliated with redistributive notions of economic justice and equality are not for you, the implication went. They are not something you should be interested in. In fact, they stand against everything you think you believe and value.
And the stunning thing, really, is not this intellectual sleight of hand. It’s not the way my education, my Bildung, made ethical and political positions stereotypically associated with Marx or broadly with the Left inconceivable. The stunning thing is how successful it was. Although I remained somewhat skeptical of its supposedly inherent anti-religiousness, I went through college and a full five years of grad school confident that Marxism and socialism were, at best, archaic—failed and, above all, dead projects that no one, save a few out-of-touch professors and people in places like China or Cuba, put much stock in. And I also thought capitalism, while maybe not ideal, was nevertheless the best there was on offer. And finally, I believed that the only way to make this world a better place—the only responsible way to aid the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth—was to continue doing what might be called the usual things. Donate to Christian non-profits. Support charitable efforts abroad to lift people out of poverty. Treat federal policy and legislation as the only legitimate vehicle for social change.
Ask Barbara Streisand. The best mode of censorship was never stamping out an idea or banning a book. The best mode of censorship was always to pretend that the idea or book never existed in the first place—or, barring that, to suggest that the idea or book asserts something very different from what it actually does.
This essay is not about Marx.
I repeat: this essay is not about Marx.
Still, I feel compelled to say this. In closing.
To the extent that, in the last few years, I’ve found myself strongly agreeing with and actively seeking out perspectives from the so-called Left—a set of views often entirely distinct from the US’s Democratic Party—on matters pertaining to white supremacy, anti-imperialism, ecological degradation, capitalism, and the failures of US electoral politics, I would give this advice. Lower your guard. Not completely, if that scares you. But a bit. Be curious. Listen, read, learn. Think. Question. And, finally, know that you’re not alone in your unease with the received wisdom of your Bildung.
That last point I want to stress.
My own learning began when I started to seek out others, many of them Christians, who were themselves asking similar questions.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.