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On Religion
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On Religion

by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels

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When Karl Marx declared religion the opium of the people, he voiced a central tenet of the philosophy that bears his name. In this collection of essays and letters by Marx and his colleague, Friedrich Engels, the founders of Marxism discuss their perspectives on the origins and essence of religion. These writings constitute the theoretical basis of proletarian


When Karl Marx declared religion the opium of the people, he voiced a central tenet of the philosophy that bears his name. In this collection of essays and letters by Marx and his colleague, Friedrich Engels, the founders of Marxism discuss their perspectives on the origins and essence of religion. These writings constitute the theoretical basis of proletarian Marxist atheism.
The authors trace the rise of religious belief from primitive humans' struggles to explain natural phenomena to the modern-day exploitation of the working classes. They explore the role of religion in social structure, defining it as a method of oppressing the masses, who surrender their hopes for earthly fulfillment in exchange for dreams of paradise. The philosophers further examine the conflict between science and religion, illustrating the church's long-standing opposition to the development of scientific thought. Written between the 1840s and the 1890s, the essays and letters appear in chronological order and include editorial notes. Students of history and political science will find this volume a thought-provoking introduction to Marxist theory.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Books on History, Political and Social Science Series
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5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

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On Religion

By Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12283-0




The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that the thing [Gegenstand], reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object [Objekt] or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was developed by idealism—but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really differentiated from the thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective [gegenständliche] activity. Hence, in the Essence of Christianity, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical form of appearance. Hence he does not grasp the significance of "revolutionary," of "practical-critical," activity.


The question whether objective [gegenständliche] truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.


The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example).

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice.


Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world and a real one. His work consists in the dissolution of the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after this work is completed the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular foundation detaches itself from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm is really only to be explained by the self-cleavage and self-contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself, therefore, first be understood in its contradiction, and then revolutionized in practice by the removal of the contradiction. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be criticized in theory and revolutionized in practice.


Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, appeals to sensuous contemplation; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.


Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:

1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment [Gemüt] as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract—isolated—human individual.

2. The human essence, therefore, can with him be comprehended only as "genus," as an internal, dumb generality which merely naturally unites the many individuals.


Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the "religious sentiment" is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyzes belongs in reality to a particular form of society.


Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.


The highest point attained by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not understand sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals in "civil society."


The standpoint of the old materialism is "civil" society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or socialized humanity.


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.



(From Chapter I)

... The fact is, therefore: definite persons who are productively active in definite ways enter into definite social and political relations. Empiric observation must in every single case reveal the connection of the social and political organization with production, empirically and without any mystification or speculation. The social organization and the state constantly arise from the life-process of definite individuals, of those individuals not as they or other people imagine them to be, but as they are really, i.e., as they act, as they materially produce, consequently as they are active under definite material limitations, provisions and conditions which do not depend on their free will.

The production of notions, ideas and consciousness is from the beginning directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of human beings, the language of real life. The production of men's ideas, thinking, their spiritual intercourse, here appear as the direct efflux of their material condition. The same applies to spiritual production as represented in the language of politics, laws, morals, religion, metaphysics, etc. of a people. The producers of men's ideas, notions, etc., are men, but real active men as determined by a definite development of their productive forces and the intercourse corresponding to those productive forces up to its remotest form. Consciousness [das Bewusstsein] can never be anything else but conscious being [das bewusste Sein], and the being of men is their real life-process. If in the whole of ideology men and their relations appear upside down as in a camera obscura this is due as much to their historical lifeprocess as the inversion of objects on the retina is due to their immediate physical lifeprocess.

In direct opposition to German philosophy, which comes down from heaven to earth, here there is ascension from earth to heaven. That means that we proceed not from what men say, fancy or imagine, nor from men as they are spoken of, thought, fancied, imagined in order to arrive from them at men of flesh and blood; we proceed from the really active men and see the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of their real life-process as proceeding from that life-process. Even the nebulous images in the brain of men are necessary sublimates of their material, empirically observable, materially preconditioned, life-process. Thus, morals, religion, metaphysics and other forms of ideology and the forms of consciousness corresponding to them no longer retain their apparent independence. They have no history, they have no development, but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, with this, their reality, their thinking and the products of their thinking also change. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness. In the first view one proceeds from consciousness as from the living individual; in the second, in conformity with real life, from the real living individuals themselves, considering consciousness only as their consciousness....

* * *

Consciousness is therefore from the start a product of society, and it remains such as long as men exist at all. At the beginning consciousness is of course only consciousness of the immediate sensuous surroundings and consciousness of the limited connection with other persons and things outside the individual becoming conscious of itself; at the same time it is consciousness of nature, which at the beginning confronts man as a completely alien, almighty and unassailable power to which man's attitude is a purely animal one and to which he submits like a beast; it is therefore a purely animal consciousness of nature (nature worship).

It is immediately obvious that this nature worship or this definite attitude to nature is determined by the form of society and conversely. Here as everywhere the identity of man and nature is so apparent that the limited attitude of men towards nature conditions their limited attitude to one another and their limited attitude to one another determines their limited attitude towards nature for the very reason that nature has yet hardly been modified by history; on the other hand, consciousness of the necessity of intercourse with surrounding individuals is the beginning of consciousness of living in society at all. This beginning is as animal-like as social life itself at this stage; it is mere herd consciousness, and man is distinguished from the sheep only by his consciousness taking the place of instinct or by his instinct being a conscious one. This sheep or stock consciousness receives further development and education by increased productivity, the multiplication of needs and the multiplication of the population underlying both the former. At the same time division of labour develops, being originally nothing else than the division of labour in the sexual act, then division of labour which took place of itself or "naturally" as a result of natural aptitudes (e.g. bodily strength), needs, coincidence, etc., etc. The division of labour becomes real division only from the instant when the division of material and spiritual labour takes place. From this instant consciousness can really fancy that it is something else than consciousness of existing practice, that it really imagines something without imagining anything real; from this instant consciousness is able to emancipate itself from the world and to go on to the forming of "pure" theory, theology, philosophy, morals, etc. But even if this theory, theology, philosophy, morals, etc., enter into contradiction with the existing relations, this can happen only because the existing social relations have entered into contradiction with the existing production forces. This, by the way, may also happen in a definite national sphere of relations because the contradiction lies not within that national sphere but between that national consciousness and the practice of other nations, i.e., between the national and the universal consciousness of a nation (as is the case in Germany today).

For the rest, it makes no difference what consciousness undertakes by itself: out of all this rubbish we retain only one result: that these three factors—the production forces, the social condition and consciousness—can and must enter into contradiction with one another, because the division of labour implies the possibility, nay, the reality, that spiritual and material activity—enjoyment and work, production and consumption fall to different individuals; the only possibility that they will not enter into contradiction lies in the abolition of the division of labour. It is self-evident that the "ghosts," "bonds," "higher being," "concept," "doubtfulness" are but the idealistic spiritual expression, the idea of the apparently isolated individual, the idea of very empiric fetters and limitations within which the mode of production of life and the forms of intercourse corresponding to it move....

* * *

... The basis of this conception of history is, therefore, to disclose the real production process, with the material production of immediate life as the starting-point, to conceive the form of intercourse connected with and engendered by this mode of production—hence civil society in its various stages—as the foundation of all history, to represent this society in its state activity and to explain by society all the various theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, morals, etc., and to trace its coming into being to them. Thereby the process in its totality (and hence the interreaction of these various sides) can be represented. This conception of history has not to seek a category in every epoch like the idealistic conception of history, but it remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice by the idea but explains the formation of ideas by material practice. Accordingly it comes to the result that all forms and products of consciousness can be dissolved not by spiritual criticism, not by dissolution in "self-consciousness," or transformation into "phantoms," "ghosts," "freaks," etc., but by the practical overthrow of the real social relations which gave rise to these idealistic humbugs; that not criticism but revolution is the motive force of history as well as of religion, philosophy and all other forms of theory. It shows that history does not end by dissolving itself in "self-consciousness" as "the spirit of the spirit" but that there is present in it at every stage a material result, a sum of production forces, a historically created relation to nature and of individuals to one another handed down to each generation by its predecessor, a mass of production forces, capitals and circumstances which, on the one hand, are modified by the new generation but which, on the other hand, prescribe to that generation their own conditions of life and give it a definite development, a special character—that circumstances, therefore, make man just as much as man makes circumstances. This sum of productive forces, capitals and forms of social intercourse which every individual and every generation finds already in existence is the real basis of what the philosophers imagined to be the "substance" and "essence of man," what they apotheosized and fought against, a real basis which is not in the least disturbed in its action and influence on the development of man by those philosophers, as "self-consciousness" and "ego," rebelling against it. These already existing conditions of life of the various generations also decide whether the revolutionary upheavals that periodically recur in history are strong enough to overthrow the basis of all that is in existence; if these material elements of a complete overthrow, to wit, on one side the existing production forces and on the other the formation of a revolutionary mass which revolts not only against individual conditions of hitherto existing society but against the very "life-production" hitherto existing, the "whole of the activity" on which it is based—if these material elements are not to hand it is absolutely indifferent for practical development, as the history of communism proves, whether the idea of that revolution has already been formulated a hundred times.


Excerpted from On Religion by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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