Karl Marx was born in Germany in 1818. His family was Jewish but converted to Protestantism. Marx rejected religion in his youth and made it very clear that he was an atheist. Marx studied under Georg Wilhelm Friedrich von Hegel. Hegel’s theories and philosophies influenced much of Marx’s thought and later, his theories. Hegel believed that mental concepts such as ideas and thoughts were the fundamental part of life and the universe, not matter. Material things, to Hegel, were just representations or expressions of the mental, of the Absolute or the Universal. Marx, along with other “Young Hegelians,” critiqued Hegel’s ideas as well as studying them. Marx and others argued that matter was of primary importance and that mental ideas were a reflection of material necessity. Marx is well known as a materialist and in the field of relgion, a functionalist reductionist. Marx also worked Friedrich Engels who also had similar beliefs about economic determinism.
Background and Biography of Friedrich Engels
Engels was born in Germany in 1820. In 1844, Engels met Marx when he was writing for a journal called “Franco-German Annals” in France. They had similar ideas about class struggle, economics, society, and capitalism, so it was a perfect union. Also because Marx was great at abstract thinking and Engels was a good communicator to the masses. Also, Engels supported Marx financially. They wrote many articles together, including the Communist Manifesto. After Marx died, Engels wrote many more articles and edited much of Marx’s writings and published them.
This book is a compilation of articles, letters, journals, written by both Marx and Engels, some together and others independently. The layout of the articles and letters are based on chronology. Much of Marx’s works are well known, but was difficult for me to read. They were abstract and overall sarcastic and full of contempt for religion. Engels’ articles are much easier for me to read and although it is clear he was not a religious man, he did not seem to hate religion as much as Marx, although he thought it a tool to control people.
Economic and Social Theories
Marx and Engels postulated that in the primitive era of human life, people were not thinking of grand mental conceptions or thoughts, but more concerned with material needs such as eating and surviving. Unity and working together in this way was an important part of their lives. Marx thinks that this is something to work toward in today’s society. Once the concepts agriculture and private property arose, there resulted a division of labor and separation of classes based on wealth and power- thus, causing conflict. Capitalism increases the harm done by class struggle. It also causes surplus value, which is evil, in Marx’s point of view. Engels and Marx believed in an equal value system. Value is determined by the amount of work done to produce the product. Marx and Engels also believed that economics are the base of human life. Superstructures are the social institutions that are based in economics and completely dependent on it. Some examples are government, art, philosophy, and of course, religion. They are just expressions of class conflict.
Dialectics of Nature
Marx and Engels are materialists and they believe that science can discover everything about matter, so that matter can explain everything, or the essence or reality. In the “Dialectics of Nature,” (152-192) Engels and Marx try to answer three main questions:
- What is the origin of energy or motion in nature?
- What causes galaxies, solar systems, planets, and animals of nature to constantly increase in number?
- What is the origin of life, species, and mind?
They answer this with three laws:
- The Law of Opposites: The world is comprised of opposites which cause energy or motion. For example, electricity has a negative and positive charge. There is feminine and masculine qualities (gender) and biology (sex) in the world as well. This is not an original idea of Marx and Engels, but borrowed from Hegel who said: “Contradiction in nature is the root of all motion and life.”
- Law of Negation: The idea is that in nature there is a tendency for the quantity of things to increase. Engels and Marx found that in order to reproduce in a larger amount, the entity will negate itself. For example, a plant such as the barley seed will germinate and when it dies (negation), a plant is produced. Nature is increasing due to death.
- Law of Transformation: The fact that life increases by number, developments occur, thus making “leaps” in which a new form is created. This is a parallel to Darwin’s evolution theory.
Critique of Religion
Marx states that “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.” Since Marx and Engels are functionalists, they believe that religion is a tool to keep society running the way it is. Marx and Engels state that religion is irrational because it worships something not in reality, at least not material reality. Religion is the opposite of all that is dignified in a human being because it renders one as a servant and more docile to the status quo. Marx and Engels also criticize Christianity and Judaism as hypocritical die to its high moral values, but oppressive capability. For example, Jesus helps the poor, sick and lame, but the Church merged with Roman state which enslaved people. The most famous quote that Marx wrote about religion appeared in his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” The quote is as follows:
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“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of the religion is therefore in the embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion” (41).
This quote means that the poor can use illusion of religion as comfort during their struggles. Since the poor cannot find happiness in this life, religion tells them that they can find it in the next life. Marx concludes that just as opiate based drugs, religion is only a temporary solution to suffering and can be extremely harmful because it helps one forget the real cause of the suffering. The enemy, the oppressors, are administering the drug and they are ultimately responsible for the pain.
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