Unmasking religion : Marx's Stance, Tocqueville's Alternative


Research output: Book Chapters | Papers in Conference ProceedingsBook ChapterResearchpeer-review


I stop the first American I meet, either in his own country or elsewhere, and I ask him whether he thinks religion is useful to the stability and good order in society. He answers without
hesitation that a civilized society, especially a free one, cannot last without religion. Respect for religion, in his eyes, is the greatest guarantee of the state and of the security of individuals
[…] However, there is no country in the world where the boldest political doctrines of the eighteenth- century philosophers were more applied than in America; only their antireligious doctrines have never managed to surface, even with the advantage of an unlimited freedom of the press.
Alexis de Tocqueville (The Ancien Régime and the Revolution,
[1856] 2008, 154)

When theorists who lack a religious faith examine religious life, are they bound by some logical necessity to unmask it? Karl Marx and the Young Hegelians seem to have thought so. By their lights, religion is an inversion of human powers and possibilities. Marx is interested neither in the social contingencies of religion nor in the religious experience of different societies. Indeed, the very concept of religious experience is meaningless for him. Since there is no God, a religious experience is no more than a benighted expression of something nonreligious: the domination of one group over another. As we shall see, Marx’s unmasking of religion is abstract and apodictic. It fell, later, to Engels to sketch a materialist history of Christianity (“this religion of nonsense”) from its origins to modern times, just as it fell to him to flesh out a materialistic theory of consciousness.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s approach to religion is the antipode of Marx and Engels’. A man of unconventional faith, Tocqueville takes religion seriously, considers it in comparative perspective, and charts its myriad social and political effects. If religious practice may oppress human beings in some contexts, he says, it may help liberate them in others.

We do not know if Tocqueville read Marx, but we do know that Marx read Tocqueville. Both Tocqueville and his friend and collaborator, Gustave de Beaumont, are mentioned in “On the Jewish Question” for their view of North America as “the land of religiosity par excellence” (Marx [1843] 1975a, 217). A year later the French writers appear once more, this time in The Holy Family (1844), though here it is Tocqueville and Beaumont’s work on Franco-American penitentiary conditions that prompt Marx and Engels’s comments.

In this chapter, I describe aspects of Marx’s theory of religion paying special attention to his unmasking style. I show how Tocqueville’s theory of religion was entirely different.4 My objective is not to provide a rounded account of Tocqueville’s writings on religion but only to show their radical departure from Marxian theory.5 In a concluding section I seek to explain the continuing attraction of Marx in the academy and to explain why Tocqueville is unable to match it.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Anthem Companion to Alexis de Tocqueville
EditorsDaniel Gordon
PublisherAnthem Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781783089765
ISBN (Print)9781783089758
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2019

Publication series

NameAnthem Companions to Sociology

Bibliographical note

Research for this essay was supported by a Fellowship in the Humanities and Social
Sciences, funded by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council. Code: LU301- HSS- 13.


Dive into the research topics of 'Unmasking religion : Marx's Stance, Tocqueville's Alternative'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this