‘This Vale of Tears’: Marx’s Critique of Religion

Wendy Brown
Political Science
UC Berkeley

Against the received view that Marx abandoned his early interest in religion when he turned to political economy, this study argues Marx’s appreciation of religious consciousness in class societies remains crucial to his later work, even constituting elements of the epistemological foundations of Capital. Marx’s theory of religion’s source and development—developed through critical appropriations of Feuerbach—undergirds his materialism and structures his understanding of the state in bourgeois orders. His account of persistent religious consciousness in secular orders explains why capitalism requires science to penetrate its secrets and also suggests restricted prospects for spontaneous popular critical consciousness.

This thesis is developed through careful readings of Marx’s work, and is then turned toward three contemporary political-intellectual problems: the contemporary resurgence of religion that is coterminous with the global expansion and intensification of capitalism; political and scholarly debates about the nature of secularism that have destabilized easy oppositions between the religious and the secular; and the rise of political theology, including the theology of finance capital. Marx’s own appreciation of the co-existence of de-sacralization, secularization and religiosity, and of the compatibility of religion and capitalism, offers new angles on each of these problems.