Out of all the phrases in Marx’s 1844 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the one that has stuck is: “religion is the opium of the people.” Careless readers – and aren’t we all? – have a Jack Horner like tendency to stick our thumb in the pie and pull out a plumb, destroying the pie’s structure, the cooking that went into it, its mix of tastes. In this case, to collapse Marx’s essay into this one plumb is an act of barbarity.
Marx was in his young twenties at the time he wrote the essay – later, as a middle aged man with persistent sores that kept him bedridden in agony, he learned to appreciate the power of opium, which is not a little thing. But the opium crack is only one of the comparisons to which religion gives rise. These comparisons are expressed in the exuberant style favored by a certain Berlin crowd that liked to be scratchin Hegel and Heine. There’s a study by Bercovitch of the American Jeremiad as an essential American style – the essential style of modernity in Germany, from Lichtenberg to Brecht, echoes with this Berlin tone. It is repulsive to a certain Anglo-American sensibility – I think the general sense is still in agreement with one of Marx’s glossers, Donald Kelley, who wrote that Marx’s essay contained “no poetry” and a “large amount of convoluted and ill humored philosophizing.” I think, on the contrary, that this may be the most Heine-like of Marx’s essays. Its style is not separate from its argument – which may well be the object of revulsion by Anglo-Americans who have traded style for specialization and thus distrust rhetoric as the mark of the amateur. The poetry, here, has to be seen as a sort of futuristic act – to be anachronistic. Marinetti, though, would have appreciated Marx’s phrase that critique should not be an anatomical scalpel, but a weapon. In fact, the weapon Marx devised in this oddly gay romp is rather like our old friend, the improvised explosive devise. It is a combination of deadly technologies tied together on the spot, in the midst of everyday life, and meant to explode both the façade of ‘modern’ society and the, in Marx’s view, ‘pre-modern’ level of society in Germany.
I think it is a good piece to read in the light of the Charlie Hebdo murders and the response to them, especially (and perhaps provincially ) by the high hats of the American left and the lowdowns of the street.
So I think this is what I will do for a while.