A letter from Neil, a student in London, raised the issue of socialists' attitude to religion in Socialist Worker two weeks ago. 'Religion is the opium of the people,' is one of the better known quotations from Karl Marx.
Opium dulls the mind, leading to a hallucinogenic stupor. Marx's view of religion is usually taken to be nothing more than a diatribe against mysticism-a call for people to kick the opium and look reality in the face. In fact, Marxists have much more to say than this. The above words come from a longer quote.
Marx wrote, 'Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature; it is the heart in a heartless world. Religion is the opium of the people.' Throughout history people have turned to religious ideas because they want a sense of community and solidarity in a world that offers neither. They have created religions and images of god because they have not understood the world around them.
Capitalism has increased humanity's understanding of nature, but it has further fragmented humanity's control over itself. The capitalist market has acted as a universal acid, dissolving human relations and replacing them with financial transactions. It has created a 'heartless world'.
We are made to feel powerless-atomised individuals buffeted by an unjust society. Tremendous technological advances lay the basis for meeting the needs of everyone. But the chaotic drive for profit means starvation and environmental destruction amidst food surpluses. Religious ideas can express a yearning for justice and human relationships. The texts of all the world's major religions contain passages which reflect that.
That is why they can gain such a following, particularly among people facing desperate oppression. Take for example the influence of Islam among the Arab masses. But religions are organised in hierarchies. Those at the top are part of the upper classes and wedded to the system-and have been throughout history. They can take people's desire for solidarity and turn it into ideas and institutions designed to keep them in their place. So religion expresses reconciliation with an unjust world as well as opposition to it.
Each of the major religions is also an official religion in some state or other. But at times people can express their revolt against the system in religious language and movements. A version of Catholicism in Latin America, liberation theology, encouraged resistance to dictatorships in this world and not waiting for justice in the next.
Radical Islamist movements have played a similar role in the Middle East and South East Asia. Even in Britain, where religion is far less significant, the horrors of Third World debt and nuclear weapons have encouraged religious opposition.
When these movements develop they clash with the religious hierarchies. The pope removed the leader of the Jesuits in Latin America, alongside hundreds of other priests, for their activities against military regimes. Christian anti-debt campaigners and pacifists in Britain find that the Church of England bishops are part of the establishment and some blessed troops sent to the Balkans and the Gulf.
That can lead people to question religion, and certainly to putting the fight for justice in this world above the promise of it in the next. Many religious people who want radical social change can be just as critical of 'organised religion' as Marxists.
Some see themselves as socialists who are also religious. They reject those ideas found within religion which strike against human liberation-condemnation of gays, seeing women as inferior to men, and others. But the ambiguity of religion means right wing Christian fundamentalist lunatics in the US can claim support from the same Bible as people who oppose everything they stand for.
Religious ideas do not offer an analysis of society or a strategy to change it, no matter how much people draw on them for moral condemnation of capitalism. An Islamist opponent of imperialism explained to me on a demonstration in support of the Palestinians recently that a successful revolution in the Middle East depended on splitting the armies of the Arab regimes along class lines. He said that working class soldiers must realise the division of interests between them and ruling class generals.
That is absolutely right. But that strategy comes from the experience of previous working class struggles, most notably in Russia, an Orthodox Christian country, not from Islam or any religion.
Marxists generalise the lessons of such struggles. That means fighting alongside people who may draw inspiration from religion while trying to show that rational socialist ideas can offer the best way forward for the movement as a whole.