A Spirituality of the Commons: Where Religion and Marxism Meet

Marx describes religion as the imaginary flowers adorning the chain that holds us captive and envisions a day when we “shake off the chain and pluck the living flower.” Is this framing as anti-religious as some seem to think? Credit: Laura Beckman.

Why do contemporary megachurches and their gospel of individual well-being find more followers than the assemblies of the Left? And why, even as mainline churches lose their members, are yoga and Tai-Chi classes experiencing a steady growth? How does spirituality outside the walls of established religions, parties, and institutions bring people “on the move” together in new ways? The programs of Alcoholics Anonymous can be described as a spiritual mass movement with religious overtones—where does it fit?

In our effort to imagine another world beyond capitalism, we undoubtedly encounter religion and spirituality as perplexingly paradoxical and as contested sites on multiple levels. Is there a chance for progressives to claim and reframe the aspirations and energies of spiritual practices for this-worldly projects of economic democracy and social liberation? Let us try to take stock for a moment.

Whereas anticapitalist movements and liberation theologies in Latin America have found multiple ways to join forces and build alliances since the 1960s, the relationship between religious communities and the socialist Left in the United States is more often characterized by a deeply anchored political and cultural divide. In the eyes of many religious people, socialism (and more particularly Marxism) is the typical representative, if not of the devil on earth, then at least of a narrow “materialism.” Marxism, they claim, adheres to a shallow optimism that misses the existential, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of human life.

Many Marxists, on the other hand, consider religious folks as dupes caught up in an irrational worldview and manipulated by the powers that be. If they have the chance to meet progressive believers, they may appreciate their moral commitment, but not without a certain regret that it is not based on a sound “scientific” base. From this perspective, the term “spirituality” is usually associated with self-centered individualism, a neglect of social dimensions, and attempts to escape from real-life issues.

This blockade is harmful for both sides. It prevents people of faith from recognizing that the struggle against oppression and exploitation, as well as the hope for another world (not just in heaven but here on earth), is an integral, innermost part of their very own founding documents and traditions. It keeps socialists from realizing that it is in particular the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the poor who turn in droves to religion for help and consolation. To dismiss religion and spirituality in the usual generic way risks transforming socialist commitment into an intellectualist and ultimately elitist attitude that cuts itself off from popular common sense. We can learn from many historical examples —the Roosevelt era, the Civil Rights movements or current poor people’s movements, to name a few—that there is no chance of a sustainable progressive and popular alliance in the United States that would not comprise a vibrant religious component. The Left has to realize that the idea of doing community organizing and movement building against or without the churches and religious communities is a naive and empty pipe dream.

Flowers on a Chain: A Closer Look at Marx’s Critique of Religion

Part of the problem is a deep-rooted misunderstanding of what Karl Marx actually said about religion. A look back at his critique of religion reveals that there is much more to it than many Christians and Marxists believe there is—it’s not just a rejection of religion as “opium” and “false consciousness” or a portrayal of religion as a mere instrument of manipulation in the hands of the ruling classes.

No discussion of Marx’s critique of religion can get around his famous definition of religion as “the opium of the people,” which has been used from both the Marxist and the Church side alike to prove that there is no chance of a serious collaboration. But if we consider the two sentences that immediately precede the opium quote, the picture changes considerably:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Marx then compares religion to the “imaginary flowers” adorning the “chain” that holds the people captive, and he imagines a society in which humans “shake off the chain and pluck the living flower.” Even if Marx does not pursue this poetic line of thought, as soon as one takes these descriptions seriously, the perception of his supposedly hostile approach toward religion changes considerably.

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