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Marx, opium and despair

Tuesday, 2 Jul 2013

Karl Marx on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn First posted on Thursday, 23 August 2012 at 22:01

Kierkegaard defined the self as a conscious "synthesis" of the infinite/finite, the temporal/eternal, and freedom/necessity, all in relationship to God, who is the Source and End of self-conscious life. We will be in a state of "despair" when we attempt to deny any one of these paradoxes and thereby choose to understand ourselves apart from relationship with God.

And what is living apart from God?

By seeing the multitude of people and things around it, by being busied with all sorts of worldly affairs, by being wise in the ways of the world, a person forgets himself, forgets his own name, dares not believe in himself, finds being himself too risky, finds it much easier and safer to be like all the others, to become a repetition, a number along with the crowd.


Now this form of despair goes virtually unnoticed in the world. Precisely by losing oneself in this way, a person gains all that is required for a flawless performance in everyday life, yes, for making a great success out of life. One is ground as smooth as a pebble. Far from anyone thinking of such a person as being in despair, he is just what a human being ought to be. He is praised by others; honored, esteemed, and occupied with all the goals of temporal life. 

Yes, what we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world. They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out enterprises, make prudent calculations, and the like, and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not authentic selves.They are copies. In a spiritual sense they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything, no self for God, however self-consumed they are otherwise.

Wait a minute, did not Marx consider religion itself to be an inauthentic way of coming to terms with a heartless world? Wasn’t it the ultimate way of dulling the self against the anxieties of the world, the ultimate analgesic, the ‘opium of the people’

Surely in this view the authentic person is one free of religion. But what then is the opium-free self, the clean self, the authentic self? Well surely it begins on day one of the truly post-revolutionary world under communism, the moment perhaps when the state will have ‘withered away’. What will the authentic individual do? Well, he will do what he likes.The individual will have achieved victory over the division of labour.

Perhaps Marx's best known statement on this subject is his claim that "in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wished, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic." (German Ideology)

Yet what are these accomplishments if not various ways of papering of the cracks of Kierkegaardian despair. They are distractions from the inevitability of death and ways of forgetting God in the busying of the self. With regard to the authentic life, communism would change nothing. Marx himself said that under capitalism, ‘all that is holy’ would eventually be ‘profaned’, and how right he was. But the profanation of religion would not lead men and women to face the truth in Kierkegaardian terms, far from it. Communism, as Marx envisaged it, would simply give people more opportunities to be distracted from the truth in accomplishments devoid of God.


John Dunn.







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