Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background


Karl Marx was born in May 5, 1818 in Trier (Rheinish Prussia). His father, Herschel Marx, was a lawyer, a Jew who adopted Protestantism. After graduating from a Gymnasium in Trier, Marx entered the university, studied jurisprudence at Bonn, and transferred the next year to Berlin. However his preoccupation with philosophy turned him away from law. In Berlin, he joined the circle of young Hegelians called the Doktorenclub (Doctors Club), which consisted of Bauer, Strauss, Feuerbach. They are also called the “left Hegelians”, and the greatest part of their attention was devoted to the Hegelian philosophy (McLellan 1973, 32).

After graduating, Marx moved to Bonn, he hoped to become a lecturer in philosophy. However, the policy of the government refused to allow him to return to the university, and in 1841, Bruno Bauer, who was member of Doctors Club, was forbidden to lecture to Bonn due to his radical views. This led to Marx to abandon the idea of an academic career, and he began his long career as a journalist (McLellan 1973, 34; 40).

At 1842, Marx began to write his critical article about the institutions of Prussian ‘Christian State’ in an opposition paper, Rheinische Zeitung. Marx and Bruno Bauer were invited to be the chief contributors, and in October 1842 Marx became a chief editor and moved from Bonn to Cologne. The newspaper’s revolutionary-democratic trend became more and more pronounced under Marx’s editorship, and the government imposed strong censorship on the paper. The censorship was so intolerable that Marx preferred to resign on 17 March. The final issue of the paper appeared on the 31st of that month. His criticism of the deliberations of the Rhein Province Assembly compelled Marx to study questions of economic and political interests. In pursuing them, he found that jurisprudence and philosophy overlooked the material conditions of life. Many years later, Marx wrote in the preface of Critique of Political Economy:

The first work which I undertook for the solution of the doubts which assailed me was a critical review of the Hegelian philosophy of law…My investigation led to the conclusion, firstly, that legal relations as well as forms of state are to be understood neither in themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life; secondly that the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy (McLellan, 1973, 67).

In the summer of 1843, Marx married Jenny von Westphalen, a childhood friend to whom he had become engaged while he was still a student. In the fall of the same year, Marx went to Paris, and devoted his study to political economy and the history of the French Revolution. At the same time, he published a radical journal abroad, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbucher. However, this was the first and last issue of this journal.

In September 1844, Frederick Engels came to Paris for a few days, and from that time on became Marx’s closest friend. Engels was the son of a wealthy industrialist but had been under the influence of both the radical Hegelians in Germany and the English socialists.

At the insistent request of the Prussian government, Marx was banished from Paris in 1845, as a dangerous revolutionary. He went to Brussels, and stayed there, pursuing the same studies. In 1845 in Brussels, he wrote one of his major works, Theses on Feuerbach, which were published by Engels. This work and The German Ideology, written with Engels in 1845-1846, indicate Marx’s discontinuity with the young Hegelians and the emergence of his own social and economical critique of religion (McLellan 1973, 152; 154).

In the spring of 1847, Marx and Engels joined a secret propaganda society called the Communist League. After that time, they drew up The Communist Manifesto, which was written in London in 1848, and adopted by the Workers’ Congress. In 1864, Marx founded the International, which is also called First International, and in 1867, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy appeared. If it had not been for Engels’ constant and selfless financial aid, Marx would not have been able to concentrate on writing Capital. Engels published its second and third volumes in 1885 and 1894 after his death (Livingston, 188). This work contains the results of studies to which a whole life was devoted. It is the political economy of the working class, reduced to its scientific formulation. Through this work, Marx attempts to show the relation between capital and labor. Marx’s health was undermined by his strenuous work in the International and his still more strenuous theoretical occupations. He continued work on the refashioning of political economy and on the completion of Capital, for which he collected a mass of new material and studied a number of languages. However, ill health prevented him from completing Capital.

His wife died on December 2, 1881 and on March 14, 1883 Marx passed away peacefully in his armchair. He lies buried next to his wife at Highgate Cemetery in London. Marx’s children died in childhood in London, when the family was living in destitute circumstances.

2. Works (Selected List)

Theses on Feuerbach (1845); German Ideology (with Engels, 1845); The Communist Manifesto (with Engels, 1848); Wage-Labor and Capital (1849); Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859); Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (1867); The Civil War in France (1871)

3. Themes

Religion as a Projection of Alienated Consciousness

Marx gets the term ‘alienation’ from Hegel and Feuerbach. Feuerbach builds his interpretation of Christianity upon the concept of alienation that lies at the foundation of Hegel’s philosophy. Marx accepts Hegel’s view that man can be alienated from himself, but he(Marx) rejected the view that nature is a self-alienated form of the absolute mind. On the contrary, Feuerbach argues, our idea of God is really just an idea of the human essence, and the essence of religion is men’s estrangement from himself (Bloch, 83). When human beings create and put above themselves an imagined higher being, they are alienated from themselves. Feuerbach says, “ What is positive, essential in the intuition of the divine being can only be human, so the intuition of man as an object of consciousness can only be negative, hostile to man. To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing”(Feuerbach, 26). Feuerbach also thinks of alienation as a form of false consciousness, a false view of the human essence (Livingston, 185-186).

Between 1841-1844, Marx remained a true Feuerbachian, and his comments on religions during this period reflect Feuerbach’s influence. However, Marx’s discussion of man’s self-alienation in religion was much more focused on analysis of the historical and economical factors producing such an alienated consciousness. In The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), Marx said that man has found nothing but his own alienated reflection.

Man makes religion; religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, and society. This state, this society, produces religion, a reversed world-consciousness because they are a reversed world. Religion is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality (Marx 1964, 41-42).

The religious illusions not only give a sense of the emptiness and worthlessness of human life, but also offer us comfort and consolation. Alienated consciousness involves two contradicting ideas: one is that human life is alienated, unsatisfying and worthless, and the other is that human existence is not alienated once we give it the right interpretation. Hegel and Feuerbach argued that people are alienated because they misunderstand the nature of the human condition (Wood, 13). Marx kept Feuerbach’s ideas of projection and alienation. Indeed, they appear frequently in Marx’s early writings. But he saw that Feuerbach’s critique of religion touched only the theoretical side of alienation; for him, it was necessary to attack the practical side as well. Because of their own fixation on metaphysics, Hegel and Feuerbach just saw the half picture of the human condition. Thus Marx moved from the criticism of heaven to the criticism of earth, from religious alienation to political and economic alienation (Norris, 19). To eliminate a symptom is not to eliminate the disease.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world…It is the opium of the people…The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness…Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth… the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics (Marx 1964, 42).

Religion as an Ideological Superstructure and Praxis

Marx explores the real origin of religious alienation itself and finds it in the dehumanized praxis of real social life. Marx’s criticism of religion is primarily related to social conditions, that is, to the economic and social alienation of man in a class society as the source of religion. In contrast with Feuerbach’s anthropology, Marx does not comprehend the sources of religion to be anthropological and psychological. He does not regard it as the result of the fear of finitude and projection into other worldliness. Above all things, he perceives the sources out of which religion stems as being society and inhuman class conditions.

In this, Marx follows Moses Hess’ analysis, which was the first to transform Feuerbach’s concept of alienation into a critical analysis of the economic and social system of capitalism. Hess had established that what Feuerbach proclaimed to be a religious alienation was only an ideological expression. He argued that the real alienation of man’s essence was based on the economic and social level.

The influence of Hess is most pronounced in “On the Jewish Question.” Marx understood a similarity between the alienation produced by the capitalist religion and self-alienation produced by Christianity (Livingston, 191). In Marx’s understanding, Christianity and Judaism, which he regarded as typical of capitalism, are the theoretical and practical forms of man’s egoistic alienation. Marx argued that, throughout history, religion (Christianity) has served capitalism as an “ideological” superstructure (Livingston, 192). In Capital, he shows the affinity of Christianity and capitalism.

The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour-for such a society, Christianity… is the most fitting form of religion (Marx 1964, 135).

According to Marx, alienation is real in which it consists, not just in people's beliefs and thoughts, but also in their objective conditions in the world. If we feel our world to be empty and absurd, or feel ourselves to be degraded, then that is because we are. He concentrates on the sociopolitical source of man’s distress. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, written in Paris in 1844, Marx described the process of alienation in the alienated society.

(1) Marx argues that the worker is alienated from his laboring activity, because it is not the expression of himself but rather a means to prolonging his physical existence.

(2) The worker is alienated from the product of his labor, because it belongs to the capitalist and so the worker’s labor increases the power of the capitalist whose interest is in so many ways opposed to the worker’s.

(3) The worker is alienated from nature.

(4) Most importantly, he is alienated from the human essence, and so from his fellow human beings (Marx 1963, 127-129).

The self-alienated man is a man who really is not a man. On the contrary, a non-alienated man would be a man who really is a man. This man fulfills himself as a free, creative being of praxis. Marx argued that alienation is real, and we feel our lives to be empty and meaningless because we live under conditions which make a real life impossible for us (Wood, 14). The crucial problem is that alienated individuals lack the practical power to take meaningful action. In the fourth thesis of “Theses on Feuerbach” Marx claims the necessity of praxis in order to overcome human alienation. The concept of praxis makes Marx break with Feuerbach.

Feuerbach starts out form the fact of religious self-alienation, the duplication of this 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 completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done…The latter (secular basis) must itself…be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionized in practice (Marx 1959, 244; emphasis added).

Marx argues that only a “praxis” which transforms economic circumstances can free man from his alienated condition. Marx understood that consciousness could not be changed within consciousness alone, but only by changes in material acts. The misery of human being is not caused by metaphysical ideas, but by alienated praxis that one can find in the ideological consciousness. Marx increases the importance of the social dimension of human existence based on the critique of religion as ideology. He concentrates on the social relation that is the point of intersection of political and economic relations, not an abstract relation. Marx concludes: “The struggle against religion is therefore mediately the fight against the other world, of which religion is the spiritual aroma…The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion” (Marx 1964, 42). In this light, we can understand the statement: “The criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.”

Remembering Marx

One can say that Marx’s thought is congenial to Christian belief in some senses. Marx’s explanations of alienation and emancipation have a quite similar structure to the Christian ideas of sin and redemption. The hopeful future-oriented quality of this thought sounds familiar to the hope of the gospel.

Yet despite these formal similarities and positive critique of religion, the materialist orientation of Marx’s thinking based on atheism is a particular obstacle to Christian interpretation. Marx’s materialism raises an important challenge to Christian belief. If Marx was one-sidedly materialistic, Christianity traditionally has been one-sidedly anti-materialistic.

Even though it seems to be true that atheism is so essential to Marxism that Marxist goals cannot be achieved without it, if we defined Marxism as a social theory, the role played by his atheism becomes much less important. This is the starting point where Christians and Marxists (or Christian-Marxists) seek the same goal, which is the liberation from any type of human bondage. In this understanding, we can find various connections between Christianity and Marxism in liberation theology.

Marx’s condemnations of religion have a permanent validity and value when it acts to legitimize unjust structures or to pacify the oppressed. These censures have challenged Christianity and encouraged churches to be involved in issues of social justice. Many Christians who are motivated to work for social justice may not opt for Marxist revolutionary change, but they would agree that the theology has only interpreted God, human beings, and the world in various ways; but what matters is to change them.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Althusser, Louis. 1969. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Pantheon Books.

Avineri, Shlomo. 1968. The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bloch, Ernst. 1971. On Karl Marx. Trans. John Maxwell. New York: Herder and Herder.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1989. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. by George Eliot. New York: Prometheus Books.

Graham, Keith. 1992. Karl Marx Our Contemporary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Livingston. James. 1971. Modern Christian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Vatican II. New York: Macmillan.

Marx, Karl.  1959. Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Political and Philosophy. Edit. by Lewis S. Feuer. New York: Anchor Books.

Marx, Karl.  1963. Karl Marx: Early Writings. Trans. & Edit. by T.B. Bottomore. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Marx, Karl. 1964. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion. New York: Schocken Books.

Marx, Karl. 1979. Karl Marx: Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Vol. 1. Edited by Frederick Engles, Trans. by Samuel Moore. New York: International Publishers.

Mckown, Delos. 1975. The Classical Marxist Critiques of Religion: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Kautsky. Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

McLellan, David. 1973. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. New York: Haper & Row Publishers.

McLellan, David. 1987. Marxism and Religion: A Description and Assessment of the Marxist Critique of Christianity. New York: Harper & Row.

Norris, Russel. 1974. God, Marx, and the Future: Dialogue with Roger Garaudy. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Petrovic, Gajo. 1967. Karl Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century. New York: Anchor Books.

Stumme, Wayne. 1984. Christians and The Many Faces of Marxism. Minneapolis: Augusburg.

Tucker, Robert. 1967. Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wood, Allen. 1981. Karl Marx. London: Routledge & Legan Paul.

7. Internet Resources

Karl Marx, article by J. Wolff in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Marxists Internet Archive, contains full text of writings by Marx and his followers

Karl Marx, article on Wikipedia

8. Related Topics

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872)

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874)

Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996)

Choan Seng Song (1929- )


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Wonbin Park (2000).


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