Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” #4
“Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.”
In his fourth thesis, Marx directly addresses Feuerbach’s religious notions. He opens the thesis by explicitly supporting the Feuerbachian rejection of a spiritual reality, an “imaginary world” which would float in the heavens: that is, platonic dualism. He marks the religious movement towards a spiritual realm as “self -alienation” [Selbstentfremdung], a term borrowed from Hegel.
In Hegel, “alienation” does not carry the negative connotations that the term will later acquire in Marxism, and instead simply indicates the process of objectification, the movement out of subjectivity into objectivity. For Marx however, as we have seen in the first and second theses, true reality resides solely within the subjectivity of practical activity. For this reason, Marx views any alienation (in particular, the alienation of capital from the worker) as a movement from reality to irreality, to the theoretical realm of the imaginary.
It is in light of this notion of alienation that Marx favors Feuerbach’s critique of religion, as self-alienation par excellence. However, Marx remains critical of Feuerbach, who, he argues, does not carry this analysis to its full conclusion. Instead of simply resolving the religious world into the secular world, Feuerbach should have, Marx argues, undertaken a similar critique of secularity itself. Writing that “the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm,” Marx here identifies an identical movement of self-alienation in the generation of secular reality. Like the religious world, the secular world, at least as understood by Feuerbach, is alienated from reality.
Yet, from what reality is the secular realm alienated? From true reality, which is nothing other than the subjective reality of individual, practical, human activity.