Theory read

The Contradictions of Bourgeois Secularism

We live in a conjuncture characterized by the resurgence of fascist groupings. This has meant the activation of religious fanaticism, in which spirituality breaks out of the confines of secularity to openly assert undemocratic identities. The inability of the modern epoch to preempt the emergence of primitive fundamentalism is a result of its internal contradictions.

In “On the Jewish Question,” Karl Marx writes that feudal civil society “secluded the individual from the state as a whole and…converted the particular relation of his corporation to the state as a whole into his general relation to the life of the nation, just as…[it] converted his particular civil activity and situation into his general activity and situation.”

This specific configuration of social organization meant that “the unity of the state, and also the consciousness, will, and activity of this unity, the general power of the state…appear[ed] as the particular affair of a ruler and of his servants, isolated from the people.

The advent of bourgeois political revolution changed this situation by smashing “all estates, corporations, guilds, and privileges, since they were all manifestations of the separation of the people from the community.” Henceforth, state affairs would become affairs of the people, a matter of general concern.

Thus, the bourgeois political revolution “broke up civil society into its simple component parts; on the one hand, the individuals; on the other hand, the material and spiritual elements constituting the content of the life and social position of these individuals.”

This division of humanity into the abstractness of political society and the concreteness of civil society “set free the political spirit, which had been, as it were, split up, partitioned, and dispersed in the various blind alleys of feudal society. It gathered the dispersed parts of the political spirit, freed it from its intermixture with civil life, and established it as the sphere of the community, the general concern of the nation, ideally independent of those particular elements of civil life.”

However, the “political revolution resolves civil life into its component parts, without revolutionizing these components themselves or subjecting them to criticism. It regards civil society, the world of needs, labor, private interests, civil law, as the basis of its existence, as a precondition not requiring further substantiation and therefore as its natural basis.”

Further, “man as a member of civil society is held to be man in the proper sense, homme [man] as distinct from citoyen [citizen], because he is man in his sensuous, individual, immediate existence, whereas political man is only abstract, artificial man, man as an allegorical, juridical person.”

In other words: “The real man is recognized only in the shape of the egoistic individual, the true man is recognized only in the shape of the abstract citizen…Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and, on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person”.

This disjunctive dimension of bourgeois modernity has special implications for secularism. Insofar that the bourgeois state does not abolish real distinctions in the realm of civil society and feels itself to be universal only in opposition to the particularity of the latter, religion under capitalism is not weakened but simply displaced from the state into civil society. In short, capitalism privatizes religion.

Marx writes:

“Man emancipates himself politically from religion by banishing it from the sphere of public law to that of private law. Religion is no longer the spirit of the state, in which man behaves…as a species-being, in community with other men. Religion has become the spirit of civil society, of the sphere of egoism…It is no longer the essence of community, but the essence of difference. It has become the expression of man’s separation from his community, from himself and from other men…It is only the abstract avowal of specific perversity, private whimsy, and arbitrariness”. This conversion of religion from the social medium of public life to the individual language of private life ensures that religion continues to exist as the irrational counterpart of rational secularism.

In fact, the abstract secularism of capitalist modernity can exist only through its constant juxtaposition to the parochial religiosity that makes up the concrete content of civil society. This is because the bourgeoisie does not want to radically transform the social relations that prevail in society; it is content with the empty idealism of the state. Such idealism does not eliminate the egoism that is found in feudal civil society. Instead, it accepts the “egoistic man…[as] the basis, the precondition, of the political state. He is recognized as such by this state in the rights of man. The liberty of egoistic man and the recognition of this liberty…is…the recognition of the unrestrained movement of the spiritual and material elements which form the content of his life. Hence, man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom.”

Since the capitalist privatization of religion perpetuates the existence of undemocratic spirituality in civil society, we need a communist transformation of political society that replaces its thin conception of juridical generality with the thick conception of socially evolved universality.

This would entail the democratization of religiosity, the fostering of communicative rationality wherein participants would critically argue and question stereotypical suppositions about religion. While this won’t necessarily translate into a radical conversion or the adoption of a totally different point of view, it would certainly facilitate the creation of a public discourse that has a willingness for democratic dialogue and self-critical examination.

In this democratically-collectively managed spirituality, one will gain the ability to be both religious and rational, and take part in a praxis of communicative rationality without being hindered by any dogmas.

Originally published on Photo credit: Félix Joseph Barrias – The Temptation of Christ by the Devil (public domain).

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.

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