Michael Loewy calls the Critique “pre-Marxist” because it was written before Marx had absorbed the lesson of the French socialists that class struggle was the fulcrum of society. I can see Loewy’s point, but the essay not only carries the essential voice of Marx – his way of mixing the prophetic and the sarcastic in his most characteristic rhetorical ploy, inverting relations – but it also expresses Marx’s concern about the place of modernity in universal history – a history that he tried to write in the Grundrisse. For us, one of the great interests in the piece is that Marx treats Germany as a ‘pre-modern’ country – essentially as a piece of the third world. Marx is the spirit that haunts all post-colonial discourse for good reason – he founded it. Or at least, he was one of the people who gave it shape.
There’s a historical school that claims that Germany’s history did not travel the path of modernity like other European countries. The Sonderweg school is associated with the right, but there is some truth in it for the left as well. At least for Marx, Germany was a lesson in underdevelopment. Unlike the Sonderweg historians, Marx doesn’t take Germany to be more “authentic” in its struggle with modernity – rather, he takes it to be politically and culturally half-made in an interesting way: one can see, in the forces that fail to synthesis into civil society and industrial capitalism in Germany, the forces that are in operation in the so-called “modern” societies. For Marx, these societies have not come to rest in modernity; they, too, are fractured. The ancien regime might have been overturned, Marx says, but it exists in the unconscious as a trauma with multiple effects on everyday life.
It is in this situation that Marx wants us to think about religion.