A Note on Marx’s Atheistic Humanism

Karl Marx’s thought is justifiably characterized as “materialist.”  In his doctoral dissertation, he had contrasted the theories of Democritus and Epicurus, both of whom rejected Pythagorean-Platonic notions of a separate world of the “spirit” (i.e., of eternal “patterns” from which transient, this-world things supposedly derived).  Like many radical humanists of the mid-19th century, Marx was profoundly influenced by Feuerbach’s dismissal of an illusory “God” as in actuality a projection of the potential powers of humanity.  Not only Christianity but virtually all world religions had insisted on an after-worldly disposition of the immortal “soul” — transmigration, inferior reincarnation (bad karma), infernal punishment for this-worldly “sins,” and so on.  (By contrast, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra reassured the dying tightrope walker that there was no hell to fear — death was simply a termination.)

Despotic rulers, from times immemorial, had utilized priestly elites to indoctrinate their credulous “subjects” in humble obedience — lest the “God” of reigning ideology impose horrific, never-ending punishments on their recalcitrant, immortal souls.  Even into the 20th century, most people worldwide remained indoctrinated in some variant of belief in virtuous humility as a crucial basis for after-worldly “salvation” (variously depicted).  Oppressed populations, fearing disease and death, would solicit “divine” protection through prayer, and offer ritual sacrifices as a quid pro quo for divine favor.  To Marx (as well as Freud), all this was a survival of fear-dominated times, in which hapless humans, unable to comprehend the class-based origins of their oppression, desperately looked skyward for fantasized rescue.

Where did this almost-universal notion of the “soul” come from?  Nineteenth century anthropologists concluded that, in pre-modern times, the occurrence of death remained a mystery.  At one moment, the dying loved one was still talking, her features lively and animated–and then, inert stillness.  (“The rest is Silence” — Hamlet.)  To observers of such a moment, something appeared to have left the body, which remained in place but now forever motionless.  This “something,” our remote ancestors must have (falsely) surmised, must have ascended to some other realm or dimension.  Thus, the after-worldly, immortal “soul” — and, along with it, absurd, this-worldly anxieties about its “salvation.”  For Marx, such preoccupation was a terrible travesty, a deluded affront to confronting the very real, material problems of survival and to struggling to overcome the deprivations of being oppressed and exploited.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.