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Neo-Marxist Views on Religion and Social Change

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 17 Jul 2018

Not all Marxists saw religion as only a conservative force. Marx’s close colleague Friedrich Engels suggested that religion had a dual character and could act as a conservative force but it was also possible for it to challenge the status quo and encourage social change. A number of Marxist and neo-Marxist writers have developed this idea further.

Dual Character and Hinduism

The idea of a dual character is exemplified well in Hinduism which, for generations, was used as a powerful conservative force, not least in the maintenance of the caste system where Indian society was divided up into immobile social classes by birth, with the Dalits or “untouchables” at the bottom of the social pile, outside the caste system itself. However, the same religion inspired huge social change in the Indian nationalist movement, and particularly the principles of non-violence and self-renunciation at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi’s ultimately successful campaign against the British Empire. Today, Hinduism is again argued to be driving social change, as a key factor in India’s economic development, according to Nanda.

Bloch - The Principle of Hope

Ernst Bloch (1954) wrote about The Principle of Hope. He argued that religions did offer people the idea of a better sort of society; a glimpse of Utopia. While Bloch, as an atheist, thought that religious faith was misplaced, he did see in it a hope for a better sort of society and a belief that people should be able to have dignity and live a good life in a good society. At the risk of over-simplifying Bloch’s work, it does include the idea that the hope for a better world inherent in religious belief can influence the desire for better things on Earth – to build a heaven on Earth, or a new Jerusalem – and can help rally people to organise to bring about revolutionary social change.


Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who wrote at great length about the way in which the bourgeoisie maintained power in capitalist societies, much of it written in prison when incarcerated by Mussolini’s fascist regime. He offered a more sophisticated understanding of the way a dominant ideology was sustained than that offered by Althusser. He argued that through culture, the bourgeoisie was able to maintain hegemony: a dominant set of ideas that come to be seen as common sense.

Gramsci agreed with Marx, Lenin and Althusser that religion played a part in that and contributed to the hegemonic control of the ruling class. However, like Engels, Gramsci did not think this was the only role religion could play. Workers were able to organise against the hegemony and develop a counter-hegemony. Just as religion could be useful for building the bourgeois hegemony, it could also be useful for building a counter-hegemony, led by organic intellectuals. For Gramsci, religious leaders could take the role of organic intellectuals, building a counter-hegemony, popularising ideas that ran counter to those of the ruling class and helping to build rebellion and protest.

Two examples of religious leaders acting like Gramsci’s organic intellectuals and using ideas in religion to campaign for significant change are:

  • The role of Martin Luther King in the US Civil Rights movement
  • Liberation theology in Latin America.

After the second world war, in the USA, a movement grew to end segregation and racist policies in the United States, and particularly to end the Jim Crow laws in the southern states. These were rules that segregated black and white people in various public places including schools and in many states prevented many black people from voting (and, as a result, from serving on juries, etc.) Terrible abuses against black people, including lynching by the Klu Klux Klan, were all too common. Campaigns for equal rights took place on a number of levels and using a number of different tactics, but the most high-profile were the civil disobedience campaigns of the Reverend Martin Luther King, a black Christian clergyman who took a leading role in the campaigns. King combined Christian teachings with the campaigning ideas of Mahatma Gandhi in order to change hearts and minds and ultimately laws in the USA. Although King was a clergyman, this was not a religious campaign. Other civil rights campaigners had different religious views (for example some of the more militant campaigners joined the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist Islamic sect, e.g. Malcolm X.) However, religion did play its part, in the following ways:

  • Churches provided sanctuary for campaigners and became local campaigning hubs.
  • The use of supportive biblical verses shamed white clergy and congregants into supporting the movement. It was hard to ignore or argue with clear commands such as “love thy neighbour.” Similarly, statements that are deep in the American psyche, such as “all men are born equal before God” took on a new significance in the light of the campaign.

The catholic church in some Latin American countries performed a clearly political role in protecting people from fascist oppression and helping to organise the fightback. This movement was known as liberation theology. Otto Maduro (1982) saw this as an example of how religious organisations could provide guidance to the working class and the oppressed as they struggled with the ruling class. Rather than being a conservative force, the Catholic Church locally performed a revolutionary role in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala in the fight against their military dictatorships. A key example is Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador. Initially Romero, as quite a conservative Catholic bishop was concerned about priests in his diocese working alongside the poor, helping them to organise groups and participating in political campaigns. However, he became increasingly angered by the oppressive nature of El Salvador’s military dictatorship and the brutal repression of the poor and of peaceful protesters, including the widespread use of death squads. As archbishop, Romero used his platform to speak out against the government, denouncing state killings and widespread torture. He also set up various schemes to assist the victims and their families. Romero was assassinated in 1980. This is a very clear example of religious figures and religious organisations not working hand-in-hand with the state and the ruling class as a conservative force, but doing quite the opposite.

Evaluating neo-Marxism

  • Although Archbishop Romero was officially declared a martyr in 2015, there was some official condemnation of liberation theology in the years in between. Pope John Paul II was highly critical of what he saw as links between liberation theology and Marxism and some leading proponents of the position were banned from speaking at Catholic events. As such, it could be argued that Romero and liberation theologists were acting against the conservative position of their international Church.
  • Similarly, some question how central religion was to the Civil Rights movement. Although King was a clergyman, the movement was multi-faith and broadly secular.
  • Even the neo-Marxist views are arguably outdated in that they, like functionalist, feminist and Marxist views, see religion as being socially very significant, whether it be as a conservative force or an engine of social change. Those sociologists that argue that there has been a rapid process of secularisation would question whether religion today plays an especially significant role in either way, conservative or reformist. However, others would criticise this as a Eurocentric position, ignoring the prominence of religion in many other parts of the world.

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