Marx on the separation of church and state

A somewhat topical issue these days, with the likes of Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and others making statements about their religious beliefs, let alone leaders in strange little places like the USA and the UK. It is less known than it should be that Marx spent a good deal of time on the issue during his time as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in the early years of the 1840s (when he was in his early 20s) – mainly because it was a hot issue on the context of the ‘Christian state’ of Friedrich Wilhelm IV in Prussia and the theological nature of public debate in Germany at the time.

Marx deals with church and state in ‘The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung‘ (great title!), ‘Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction’ (which, ironically, was banned by the censor) and ‘On the Jewish Question’. The first two take the unremarkable position that because religion looks heavenward and is other-worldly, it should have no business with the grubby world of politics. They also argue that the contradictions within the idea of a Christian state mean it is unworkable. But Marx didn’t really make a breakthrough in his argument until he wrote ‘On the Jewish Question’ (a reply to Bruno Bauer’s argument for a secular state). Up until this point Marx too had supported a secular state.

But now Marx argues that the fully realised Christian state is simultaneously the negation and realisation (Aufhebung) of Christianity; that is, the Christian state’s logical outcome is a secular, atheistic and democratic one. The key is that the contradictions inherent within the idea and practice of a Christian state can only lead to its dissolution. These contradictions include the tension between otherworldly religion and this-worldly politics, the problems inherent in a political attitude to religion and a religious attitude to politics, the impossibility of actually living out the prescriptions of the Bible for living with one’s fellow human beings (turning the other cheek, giving your coat as well as your tunic, walking the extra mile and so on). And what is the resolution of these contradictions? It is ‘the state which relegates religion to a place among other elements of civil society (der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft)’. This is the realised Christian state, that is, one that has negated itself and relegated Christianity to its own, private place among other religions and other parts of society. This is of course the way in which religion now operates in secular Western societies. In his own time Marx espied its arrival in the United States.

Note what has happened: Marx no longer argues that the secular state is needed due to the contradictions of the ‘Christian state’; instead, the secular state arises from, or is the simultaneous realisation and negation of, the Christian state. This argument is a long way from efforts to banish religion from any form of the state. Now, it may be possible to connect this argument with a point still made today: the secular state arose out of the Christian need for religious tolerance and pluralism. Even more, the secular state is the only proper basis of religious tolerance. In order to overcome older practices of religious intolerance and in response to the sheer number of different forms of Christianity, the only viable response was a secular state that favoured no Christian denomination or indeed any religion at all. The problem with this argument is that it gives a far more positive spin on Marx’s point, since for him the Aufhebung of the secular state is no resolution at all. All it does is reshuffle the contradictions without resolving them – a situation that is only too apparent today with the myriad paradoxes of the secular state.

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8 thoughts on “Marx on the separation of church and state

  1. excellent last point… especially now with confusion and controversy in avowedly secular states such as france over the hijab in schools. This is similar to Talal Asad’s point that any attempt to define ‘religion’ vis-a-vis ‘the secular’ must be taken within “the context of [medieval] Christian attempts to achieve a coherence in doctrines and practices, and there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because of its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes”

    the contradiction as I understand it arises when the state collapses diverse sets of images and practices like intelligent design and the hijab that neither emanate from a singular logic (e.g. protestant) nor belong sociologically to a unified political formation into a domain called ‘religion’. For a long time the emergence of “society” as an organized secular body made it possible for the state to oversee and facilitate the population by redefining religion’s competence as private, but i think that neat division is facing its contradictions now.

    (i’m loving this post on a topic close to my heart… and PhD research. i might have to mention some of your elaborations on Marx)

    1. What surprises me is the way some debates develop as though this is the first time the issues have been raised. What I have found with my work on Marx and Engels for Criticism of Earth is that a good number of the questions we debate were debated in the 1830s-50s in Europe. Sure, the specific nature of the contexts is somewhat different, but the basic issues seem remarkably similar. Not that long ago, Marx’s dialectical argument might have seemed quaint, since we had supposedly moved past the issues of secularism and so on. But not any more.

  2. Hi Roland,
    This question of the separation of church and state is interesting in Australia, where Rudd and Abbott are both publicly affiliated with major churches. There is a tension between calling politicians to account (for action, inaction, poor policy, etc) on the basis of their Christian beliefs and putting this aside for the common good of a diverse secular society. Another difficulty is deciding what Christian beliefs/biblical interpretations etc one might helpfully appeal to when dealing with politicians. Perhaps, appeals to pollies to changes behaviours, policies, and law can adduce biblical literature as one among many sources from which to garner an argument, not as the only one. Tricky area. Not quite what you are talking about in the above post, but related.

    1. One of the problems is the Taylorisation or fragmentation of categories (as with production), so we get distinct categories like religion, politics, culture etc. We make up our own problems then, since we operate with the given that religion and politics are separate spheres instead of the other way around.

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