Marxist Dictionary

A set of beliefs, rites and ceremonies that through the promotion of a series of values, asserts and maintains the characteristic morality of a given social organization.

Historically, religions have been the great ideological containers that attempted to give coherence and unity to the set of values and beliefs used to sustain a certain mode of production and the social dominance of its ruling class.
In themselves they do not necessarily include belief in supernatural beings, but the common meaning usually limits the term to churches and cults that are inheritors of one form or another of feudalism. This is not innocent.

Why did the bourgeoisie embrace “Reason” and claim to be a-religious?

Being the first class that carries out the extraction of the product of labor by fundamentally economic, apparently spontaneous and “natural” means, the bourgeoisie did not necessarily need to attach itself to a supernatural narrative, much less choose one among them, in order to legitimize its power.

The Latin word “religio” from which “religion” derives only resembles its original pronunciation; in the classical world “religio” was not a group of beliefs or doctrines, but a set of public administrative rituals. There were no dogmas or sacred texts such as those of the revealed religions, and most of the “priests” were elected public officials. Taking part in the rituals was a public duty, but there was no need to “believe” in the gods. One could even be mocked for it; the job of various philosophical circles was to make sure that “superstitio” – irrational belief – did not get out of control, calling into question social relations and the state, even while formally maintaining the religio.

When Christianity came to Rome, it was denounced as atheism by the authorities. “Religio” used in its representations the ancestral customs and rituals of groups from the Roman Empire, but Christians were a new group without any history which also refused to follow the administrative rites. For Christians, belief took precedence over rites, exactly the opposite of the rest of the world. To try to escape Roman persecution, Christianity will have to invent its own past. As there is no ritual past before Christ, everything will have to focus on doctrine. This will lead to the church fathers announcing that in reality all religions follow a corrupt version of the same original Christian doctrine. They thus invented Christian “world history” with a common beginning, the coming of Christ to “settle the matter” and begin a historical march towards salvation. When Christianity triumphs over Rome, the meaning of “religion” will already have been almost completely reversed from the original. And so for over a thousand years.

When the wars of religion returned to Europe in the 16th-17th centuries, at the end of the great crisis of the agrarian world, these questions were reopened. Is not belief more important than liturgy and ritual? Protestantism gives rise to religious groups that are becoming less and less liturgical and with a god that is more and more abstract, returning to the concern for “natural religion”. At the height of the 18th century’s wave of rationalization, the switch between an abstract god and universal reason began to take place.

From there, it takes half a step to throw Christ out the window, while retaining all Christian presuppositions transformed into “universal reason”. “Religion” had been redefined several centuries ago as belief, and therefore irrational, so moderns pretend to have no religion at all. For the Enlightenment religion was superstitious belief, it was enough to eliminate belief and sift the good from the bad through the filter of reason.

The three religions of capitalism

But the worship of universal reason will soon reveal itself not to be an excessively useful tool for the government of the social masses. If state religion was the characteristic ideological form of feudal class rule, the combination of political ideology and nationalism will be the characteristic of the bourgeoisie.

Its effort at “secularization” was immense: it wrenched education out of the greedy hands of the churches, instituted national cults for the flag and the fallen, temples to its own art and science (the “museums”, dedicated to the forgotten Greek muses), let the muezzin sing in his own time while building networks of communication -mass media- capable of bringing its message into every living room…

But in spite of all this, especially while it had -or where it still has- large peasant masses, it could not do without the old ecclesiastical juggernauts inherited from feudalism (Roman and Orthodox Catholicism, Anglicanism, Maliki Islam, Buddhism…) and its first ideological assertions (the “Protestant Reformation”). However, the bourgeoisie “modernized” them, purged them of feudalism with a necessarily watered-down “church-state separation” and, after not a few clashes and battles, put them to work in its service.

Religion under capitalism will thus be configured in three layers:


What the bourgeoisie calls religions, that is, the religions before the establishment of capitalism. Religions that the bourgeoisie, at first, could only fight. Firstly as part of their assault on the state. Secondly because it needed a morality that was functional to the new order. That battle was called “secularization”, and if it was never complete it was not -as the “secularists” came to say- because there were feudal remains to be destroyed. Churches and cults are now as much feudal remnants as the university, another feudal institution that has been reconverted a thousand times according to the needs of the current ruling class.


Political religion, the bourgeois equivalent of the Roman “religio”: the set of ceremonies, rituals and beliefs that make up “the political community”.

Its fundamental expression, the political religion of the bourgeoisie par excellence is nationalism. Why? Because wages and capital are capitalist social relations, but capitalism is a complex and scale-dependent system. There cannot be “capitalism in one company” or “in one region”. Sprouts of the wage/capital relationship appear from Roman times and the Florence of the 14th and 15th centuries will have advances of the bourgeois utopian and capitalist program with Savonarola and even a proletarian insurrection, that of the Ciompi; but until the bourgeoisie succeeded in articulating a sufficiently broad national market, turning land into a commodity, subduing the peasantry and raising agricultural productivity, it was unable to establish the “double circuit” -circulation of commodities and circulation of capital- that allowed for the systematic and relatively “automatic” accumulation of capital, which is what we call capitalism.

That is why the history of the bourgeoisie’s struggle for the establishment of capitalism is the history of the nation, which in turn is nothing other than the effective leadership of the bourgeoisie over the social whole it is creating. If nationalism emerges again and again it is because it is the ideological glue that reflects that social whole and the bourgeoisie’s leadership.

The rituals, the ceremonies, the hymns, the “irrational belief” in the peculiarity of the national culture, in the originality of the institutions, in national uniqueness… reveal the immediate mold in which the patriotic religion was formed. “Secularization” was also the absorption and transcription by the state of quite a few celebrations of feudal religion. The Basque “aberri eguna” superimposed on Catholic Resurrection Sunday, the Mexican Guadalupe, the Covadonga and the Spanish Santiago -only halfway through October 12- among many others, from Poland to Argentina, testify to the extent to which secularization from a certain point onwards was not so much a battle as the negotiation of a symbiosis.

A symbiosis that is not always complete. Especially when the “political religion” is blurred at the local level. The old “cofradías” are still being reconverted to provide complementary social services to those of the state and football, which reproduces feelings of belonging to the state in parts equivalent to the guild structure with the Catholic Church, has not managed -although it tried to in its beginnings- to become linked to the workplace. Even on a smaller scale, social and family ceremonies such as Christmas or Halloween are also part of the capitalist political religion, a sometimes slightly problematic reconversion of old pre-capitalist traditions into messages characteristic of commercial society.


The religion of the commodity. The deepest and most abstract level of capitalist religion. When Marx speaks of “commodity fetishism” he is not engaging in an obscure semiotic game or metaphor, he is exposing the fetish character of money, the “magic object” in the religio that provides the ideological basis for the whole system.

What other name can be given to money in a society where its mere circulation seems to be what creates value? Like all fetishes, this “magic” is nothing more than a way of covering up relations of exploitation and subjugation. Obviously, it is not money which creates value by multiplying reciprocal exchanges between equals, it is the exploitation of the work of one class by another. One class, the bourgeoisie, keeps part of what is produced and attributes it to the magic of exchange. This fetishistic character of money, which is generally invisible to us, was nevertheless obvious to the pre-capitalist societies that met the European imperialisms head-on in Asia and Africa.

It was said of the Bakweri of Cameroon that they were apathetic, squandered the land and had no interest in increasing their profits. If they accumulated some property, it was only to destroy it in potlatch ceremonies. The few who were associated with the colonial plantations and improved their economic status had the reputation of belonging to a new association dedicated to witchcraft. They allegedly killed their relatives and even their children by turning them into zombies to put them to work in a distant mountain, driving trucks, where the witches supposedly had a modern city. The word “sombi” means pledge or pawn; it was thus believed that under the new colonial plantation economy, kinsmen were turned into pledges or pawns so that a few could earn wealth. […] The elders warned that no money should be taken from the ground because it was being scattered to lure men to the waterside, where the “Frenchmen” would use them as zombies to build the new port.

Michael Taussig, The devil and commodity fetishism in South America

The religion of the commodity has its great fetish -money- its rituals -receiving the payroll, paying for purchases, etc.- and even its little icons -coins. Ceremonies and objects that dress up as relevant social facts supposed “individual decisions” and as sovereign economic acts the commodification of the satisfaction of our needs. All of this is aimed at promoting the belief in the self-sovereignty of the individual and at representing complex capitalist social relations as the “natural” product of the “spontaneous aggregation” of millions of individual sovereign decisions. The trick? Presenting as relations between things the relations between human beings divided into classes. To this end, the individual expressions of universal human needs become, without explanation, acts of freedom oriented to the maximization of individual pleasure (utility).

And it is that the religion of the merchandise constitutes the individual as subject and provides him with a very particular morality, the morality of mercantile exchange. A morality that is multiplied through a thousand cultural expressions, from music to television programs, and that in the end always leads to the same place: the individuation of universal needs and the universalization of the commodity through the commodification of human relations and the sanctification of “free” exchange, converted by definition into “fair” and “egalitarian”. It is this morality that allows one to pretend that the exchange of equals (all commodities are exchanged for another of equal value) would produce, by mere repetitive magic, an increase in global wealth. In the end, every religion has an “irrational”, incongruous heart, which is nothing but the shady area that allows the exploiting class to get hold of the results of surplus labor.

This morality, which emerges from the religion of the commodity, permeates all of bourgeois society. In the first place the subjects: it is clear that classes did not cease to exist with feudality, however the morality of the commodity is a morality that makes them invisible by creating a new abstract subject: the “individual”. This construct is defined by its sovereignty over itself. That sovereignty is claimed under the concept of freedom. What does it mean? Simply that the social bond of exchange -the basis of the exploitation of labor power- is voluntary and does not generate greater responsibilities in the one who buys labor power than in the one who buys any object: paying a wage. A wage that is no more than the social value of that labor force by virtue of the equality of everything being voluntarily exchanged. As exploitation is not an individual but a class relationship and as the capital-labor relationship becomes invisible under a “fair” and “free” exchange and therefore between socially “equal” values… exploitation disappears into thin air! The bourgeoisie still adds a coda to it, projects it up to the higher level with a third explicit value: fraternity, national fraternity of free and equal individuals that serves as a bridge between mercantile religion and politics.

The religion of the commodity and capitalist morality

The morality of bourgeois society shapes how “individuals” should be and what they should expect from others and society. Its core, the religion of the commodity, has nothing to do with norms and restrictions, with social prudishness and sexual repression. On the contrary, the religion of the commodity is a religion of freedom and equality whose main sacrament is exchange, buying and selling. It establishes the individual as an abstract being in permanent conflict with the environment, it makes exploitation invisible and above all it educates in the “naturalness” of scarcity, in the need for private property and in the acceptance of the reification of relationships and human needs. Its mechanism, if it were not so cynical, would even be beautiful in its sophistication, especially when we compare it to the first feudalism when exploitation was not disguised as an economic mechanism but directly appeared as a levy, as an imposition through force normalized by custom.

This permanent individual cornered and on the defensive of others is then “socialized,” that is, moralized by the state and political religion. Layers of nationalist morality in all cases, sometimes democratic as well, will instruct him in a false “brotherhood” with his exploiters from the most abstract -the nation- to the closest thing: the fraternity or the club. And the family, that pre-capitalist communal remnant, will still be given the opportunity to season all this with a bit of bourgeois feudal “superstition”. Organized superstition that, in large numbers, tends to decrease as more generations mediate between those who are being asked and the last peasants in their family. An atavism that is reborn to fill the gaps of despair created by the system itself but which is still a superficial layer of the [[alienation|alienating++ moral edifice of capitalism.