Marxism, religion and change

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Marxism, religion and change

  • Marxists are thought of as seeing religion as a conservative ideology
  • However.... this is not entirely true, as Marxists recognise that ideas can have relative autonomy (can be partly independent of the economic base of society) 
  • Religion can, therefore, have a dual character, and sometimes be a force for change 
  • e.g Marx doesn't see religion in entirely negative terms. He sees it as capable of humanising a world made inhuman by exploitation

Engles (1895)

  • argues that although religion inhibits change by disguising inequality, it can also challenge the status quo and encourage social change
  • e.g. religion sometimes preaches liberation from slavery and misery 
  • lower ranks in the church hierarchy have often supported/ inspired/organised popular protest 
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Bloch: the principle of hope

Bloch (1959): 

  • recognises religion as a positive and negative influence on social change 
  • as a Marxist, he argued that religion mainly inhibits change, but it can also inspire protest and rebellion 
  • Images of utopia can deceive people with promises of rewards in heaven 
  • However, they may also help people see what needs to be changed in this world 
  • Therefore, religious beliefs may create a vision of a better world 
  • If combined with effective political organisation and leadership, can bring about social change 
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Liberation theology

Liberation theology is a movement that emerged in the Catholic Church in Latin America at the end of the 1960's, with a strong commitment to the poor and opposition to military dictatorships. 

It was a major change of direction for the Catholic Church, for centuries being a conservative institution, encouraging a fatalistic acceptance of poverty and supporting the wealthy elites. 

The factors that led to liberation theology were:

  • increasing rural poverty and urban slums throughout Latin America 
  • human rights abuses following military take over (e.g. false imprisonments and torture) 
  • the growing commitment among Catholic priests to an ideology that supported the poor and oppressed violations of human rights 

Unlike traditional Catholicism, liberation theology set out to change society (e.g. priests helped the poor to set up support groups and helped to fight oppression under the protection of the church) 


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Liberation theology continued

... Priests took the lead in developing literacy programmes, educating the poor of their situation and raising awareness and providing support. 

In the 1970's Catholic priests resisted state terror, and were often the only authoritarians who took the side of the oppressed in Latin America' whilst dictatorships used murder squads and torture to maintain power.  BUT in the 1980's attitudes changed when Pope John Paul II condemned Liberation Theology for resembling Marxism and instructed priests to concentrate on pastoral activities.  

Casanova  (1994) 

  • liberation theology played an important part in resisting state terror and bringing about democracy in Latin American countries 
  • although Catholicism in Latin America became more conservative, it still defends the democracy and human rights brought about that were achieved by liberation theology 

The success of Liberation Theology has led some Neo-Marxists to question if religion is always a conservative force. Maduro (1994) believes religion can be a revolutionary force that can bring about change. 

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Liberation theology continued 2

.... In the case of Liberation theology, religious ideas radicalised the Catholic clergy in favour of the poor and workers, making them see that serving them was part of their Christian duty. Lowy (2005) questions Marx's view that religion always legitimate social inequality. 

Both theorists (Maduro and Lowy) see Liberation theology as an example of religiously inspired social change, but other Marxists disagree. It depends on the definition of social change. Liberation theology may have helped to bring about democracy, but it did not threaten capitalism. 

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Millenarian movements

Religion raises hope of a better world in the afterlife, it may also create a desire to change things here and now (e.g. bring about the kingdom of God on earth). Millernian movements are an example of this desire. 

Take the name from 'millennium'. In Christian theology, this refers to the idea that Christ would come into the world for a second time to rule for a thousand years; before the Day of Judgement and the end of the world. 

Worsley (1968) 

  • expect the total and imminent transformation of this world by supernatural means 
  • this will create a heaven on earth
  • the transformation will be collective, the group will be saved 

The appeal of millenarian movements is largely to the poor because they promise immediate improvements, and often arise in colonial situations. European colonialism led to economic exploitation and cultural and religious domination. It shattered traditional, tribal social structural and cultures of the colonialised people. Local leaders and God's lost power and credibility when their people were forced to work for those who lived in luxury. 

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Millenarian movements continued


  • studies millernarian movement in Melanesia, known as cargo cults
  • the islanders felt wrongfully deprived when cargo arrived for colonialists 
  • cults arose, asserting the cargo that had been meant for natives
  • unjust social order was to be overturned 
  • these movements led to widespread unrest that threatened colonial rule 

These movements combined elements of traditional elements with elements of Christianity; such as ideas where the suffering of the righteous will be rewarded , the second coming of Christ, the Day of judgement and punishment of the wicked. 

These movements are pre-political (used religious ideas and images, but united native populations in mass movements). Many secular nationalists leaders and parties that overthrew colonial rule developed from millenerian movements. 

Engles argues that they represent the first awakening of proleterian self-conciousness . 

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Gramsci: religion and hegemony

Gramsci (1971) 

  • interested in how the ruling class maintains the control over society through ideas, rather than coercion 
  • hegemony refers to the way the ruling class maintains control through ideas such as religion
  • ideological domination or leadership of society
  • the ruling class relies on popular consent to their rule 
  • e.g. 1920's Italy, Gramsci noted immense ideological power of the Catholic Church to support Mussolini's fascist regime 

Hegemony is never guaranteed! The w/c can develop an alternative view of how society should be run ( a counter-hegemony). Gramsci also sees religion as having a dual character, and notes that in some circumstances, it can challenge and support the working class. 

Popular forms of religion can help workers see through ruling class hegemony by offering a vision of a better, fairer world. Some clergy may act as organic intellectuals; educators, organisers and leaders to help workers see their situation and support working class organisations (e.g. trade unions) 

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Religion and class conflict

Billings (1990)

  • applied Gramsci's ideas in a case study comparing class struggles in two societies; one coal miners and the other textile workers 
  • both were working class and evangelical protestant, but experienced different levels of strike activity and industrial conflict 
    • miners were militant and struggled for recognition of their unions, while textile workers accepted the status quo

Differences in levels of militancy can be understood in terms of hegemony and the role of religion. 

  • Leadership
    • miners benefited from the leadership of organic intellectuals  (many preachers were themselves miners and trade union activists). They helped convert miners to the union cause. Textile workers had no such leadership, so were easily influenced by the views of the clergy. 
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Religion and class conflict continued

  • Organisation 
    • the miners were able to use independent churches to hold meetings to organise, whereas textile workers lacked such spaces; they remained in company churches that were under the control of the textile mill owners. 
  • Support 
    • the churches kept miners morale high with supportive sermons; whereas the textile workers who engaged in union activity met with opposition from local church leaders who branded them as communists. 

Religion was an important factor in affecting the level of class struggle, but he recognises that other factors played a role. For example, mining relies on team work and keeping one another safe, which partly explains their stronger sense of solidarity in opposing their employers. a

To conclude, religion can play a prominent oppositional role, and the same religion can be called upon to defend the status quo or justify the struggle to change it. 

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