Bauer, Marx and religion - David McLellan

Bruno Bauer
Bruno Bauer

McLellan discusses Bruno Bauer's critique of religion and its enduring influence on the young Marx.

Submitted by Red Marriott on March 2, 2008

" ... the various alienations are like skins around the genuine centre. They have to be peeled off one after another and it is only when the outside one has been peeled away that the others are laid bare. The outer and most extreme alienation is that of religion and the criticism of this leads to the criticism of other alienations that must be dealt with in the same way. In this way, the influence of Bauer follows Marx through all his later criticism."

Excerpts from The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx; David McLellan, Macmillan Press, UK, 1980.


Bauer's view of Christianity may be roughly summed up like this: since history represents the dialectical progress of humanity's self-consciousness, and Christianity appeared at a certain moment in the past, it cannot be its final product. Certainly human self-consciousness took a step forward with Christianity, but since it submitted mankind to an arbitrary God and dogmas that he himself has unconsciously created and since mankind is now becoming conscious of its independence, Christianity is at present the most serious obstacle to universal self-consciousness. Bauer submits the texts of the Gospels to a very close examination to discover the contradictions in them and to prove that they were free compositions of individual creative minds. He also shows how the world situation in the early Roman Empire favoured the rise of Christianity and then gives a general characterisation of it.

How did the Gospels come into existence? Bauer maintained that there was an individual personality behind each one of them. But the evangelist did not merely write down what was given him: he was its creator. Christianity owed its origin to the genius of the original evangelist who wrote St. Mark. This Gospel was a work of art created by its author. Bauer maintained that the fact that a piece of writing was also a work of art not only influenced the content but created it. The community was only aware of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. They wanted more details and the evangelist supplied them and interpreted through these details the spirit of his age.

What was, according to Bauer, the situation of the world at this time that was so favourable to Christianity? Bauer showed himself a true disciple of Hegel in that, for his explanation of the, Gospels, he concentrated precisely on that period of thought to which Hegel in his Phanomenologie had assigned 'self-consciousness' - the post-aristotelian Greek thinkers. Indeed, the whole of Bauer's work in this field was, as Marx remarked,[1] a commentary on Hegel's 'Unhappy Conciousness'. They were, according to Bauer, the true basis of Christianity. Their individualism prepared the way for the universal domination oI Christianity by loosing men from all social ties as the world of the city was breaking up. The Roman world had already established the principle of individuality. The Emperor concentrated aII rights and interests in his own person and there was nothing left to link together the individual citizens. The people lost confidence in themselves and doubted their ability to enjoy a valid political life. Viewed in this context, Bauer described Christianity as 'the religious expression of this unbelief ... and the dissolution of political and civil relationships into their magic reflections.'[2] It is 'an expression of the disgust that antiquity felt against itself"[3] and again 'the fright caused to antiquity by the disappearance of its political institutions, its art and science'.[4]

The universal domination of Rome and the impact of Greek philosophy could not liberate man properly because religion had still a great influence on human consciousness: so the revolution had to take place inside a religious context. In this still alienated sphere previous limits were done away with and the religious alienation could become total. The following vivid quotation gives a good idea of Bauer's view: with the appearance of Christianity
the ego was everything and yet it was empty; it had become the universal power, yet, still among the troubles of the world, it was afraid of itself and doubt assailed it because of what it had left behind. The empty and all-embracing ego was fearful of itself, it did not dare to conceive of itself as everything and the universal power, that is it remained a religious conception and completed its alienation in that it placed its own universal power over against itself and worked in the sight of this power in fear and trembling for its preservation and holiness. It saw the guarantee for its support in the Messiah who merely represented what it itself was in reality, that is the universal power, but the universal power that it was itself, one in which all feeling for nature, all ties of family race or state, all forms of art had disappeared'.[5]

Bauer's attitude towards Christianity is thus ambivalent. On the one hand, it was a necessary stage in human development, yet it was to be deplored and condemned. On the other hand, it represented an advance and progress vis-a-vis previous religions, yet it was at the same time the worst religion. The necessity of Christianity Bauer explained as follows:
These contradictions [that is, of Christianity], however unnatural they may seem, are still not unnatural; however much they contradict man's essence, they are nevertheless a consequence of it. They are contradictions against man himself, but it lies in the nature and vocation of man that in his historical development he enter into contradiction with himself and bring this contradiction to a culmination before he can attain to harmony with himself.[6]

Christianity, as well as being necessary, is also in one way a genuine progress. For the religions of antiquity had as their powers nature, the family and the spirit of genius of the people. In Christianity mankind freed itself from this attachment to nature. Judaism had indeed preceded Christianity here, by expressing the dependence of the world on human consciousness in its belief that God created the world. Christianity adopted a more human approach, though still in a religious form, by seeing the essence of man in all things.

But if Christianity was universal and did not know the limits of previous religions, it was at the same time the worst religion: 'Christianity is the religion that promised men most, that is all, and took back most, that is all'.[7] Bauer attempts to explain this ambivalence of Christianity thus: the nearer that religious consciousness approaches to truth, the more it alienates itself there from. Why? Because, qua religious, it takes the truth that is only to be attained to in self-consciousness away from self- consciousness and places it against self-consciousness, as though it were something alien to it. What is opposed to self-consciousness as alien is not only formally separate from self-consciousness (in that it stands outside it, is in heaven or comprises the content of some long past or far in the future events), but also this formal separation is backed up by an essential and real separation from all that goes to make up human nature. When religion has reached the point that man makes up its content, then the climax of this opposition has been reached. In antiquity the extent of the religious alienation was still hidden and Bauer has a touching description of this type of religion:
The sight of nature fascinates, the family tie has a sweet enchantment and patriotism gives the religious spirit a fiery devotion to the powers that it reveres. The chains that the human spirit bore in the service of these religions were decked with flowers and man brought himself as a victim to the religious powers festooned in an admirably decorative way. His very chains helped to deceive him about the harshness of his service.[8]

But in Christianity, by contrast, the freedom of the children of God was also freedom from all important worldly interests, from nil art and science, etc. It was an inhuman freedom, in which what was only gained and kept through the use and development of the powers of the spirit disappeared. It was a freedom presented as a gift to be received with unconditional subjection. This freedom was therefore unlimited slavery under an authority against which there was no possibility of appeal. Thus in Christianity the alienation had become total, and it was this total alienation that was the biggest obstacle to the progress of selfconsciousness.


During 1843 Marx first took open position against some of the doctrines of Bauer. The beginning of this process can be seen very clearly at work in the manuscript of Marx's Kritik des Hegelschen Staatsrechts, written in the middle of 1843, where Marx in several places crosses out the term 'self-consciousness' which he had originally written and substitutes another term more evocative of practical realities.

In his review essay 'Zur Judenfrage', published in 1844 in the Deutsche-franzosische Jahrbucher, Marx explained precisely what he disagreed with in Bauer's views. Bauer's position is admirably summed up by Marx:
he requires on the one hand that the Jew renounce his Judaism and, in a general manner, that man renounce religion in order to be emancipated 'civically'. On the other hand, as a logical consequence, he considers that the 'political' suppression of religion is equivalent to the suppression of all religion. The state that presupposes religion is not a true and real state'.[9]

Marx is also in favour of abolishing religious ideas. But, unlike Bauer, he believes that the secularisation of the state is not sufficient to achieve this nor is it sufficient to free man from his real servitude. For the root of this servitude is not religious alienation but political alienation: 'We do not see in religion the foundation, but only the manifestation of secular deficiencies'.[10]

But Marx was very far from being in total disagreement with Bauer. He agreed with a large part of Bauer's thesis, and at the beginning of his article paid him this compliment: 'Bauer analyses the religious opposition between Judaism and Christianity and explains the essence of the Christian state; and does all this with dash, clarity, wit and profundity, in a style which is as precise as it is pithy and vigorous'.[11] What Marx admired and took over from Bauer's view of the Christian state was firstly his picture of present civil society as one of atomised individuals with no communal link and secondly the association of this with the 'egoistic' influence of Christianity. For the first, Bauer expresses himself at the beginning of the Judenfrage as follows
Need is the powerful drive that sets civil society in motion. Each man uses the other to satisfy his own needs, and is again used by him for the same purpose.... It is precisely this foundation, need, which, while it ensures for civil society its existence and its necessity, yet exposes it to constant dangers, preserves within it an unsure element and produces the constant oscillation between poverty and riches, destitution and superfluity.[12]

Bauer's second point was that ultimately Christianity was responsible for this egoism, in that, as he says in Das entdeckte Christentum, it 'shuts off man from the great social interests of the world ... from art and science, it destroys his social being, his social customs, and inter-human links, it makes him single and isolated, an egoist, and brings about the sacrifice of all human aims and ends'.[13] Marx takes up both these points in a passage at the end of his essay:
Civil society only reaches its perfection in the Christian world. Only under the sway of Christianity which objectifies all national, natural, moral and theoretical relationships, could civil society separate itself completely from the life of the state, sever all the species-bonds of man, establish egoism and selfish need in their place and dissolve the human world into a world o(' atomistic antagonistic individuals.[14]

These similarities show that Bauer was by no means as abstract and content with merely religious criticism as a superficial reading of Marx would suggest. The above quotations are sufficient to show that Bauer, too, thought that a political emancipation would be necessary in addition to a religious one. At the very end of his essay he even went so far as to do, with as much clarity as Marx ever achieved, precisely what Marx criticised him for omitting: he explains 'The religious servitude of citizens by their secular servitude' and 'transforms theological questions into secular ones'.[15] Bauer's comment here is so strikingly akin to Marx that it deserves a long quotation.

[In the Middle Ages] religious prejudice was at the same time a prejudice for their corporations, religious privilege was only the supernatural conformation of civil privilege and religious exclusion only the presupposition, model and ideal of civil and political exclusion. Men have never done anything historical merely for the sake of religion. They have undertaken no crusades, they have waged no wars. When they imagined that they were acting and suffering for the sake of God, we can now not only affirm in the light of our modern insight into 'the things of God' that these actions and sufferings were much more about what man had to be and become, but we can also say that in all religious development, undertakings, struggles, tragedies and campaigns . . . it was always political interests or their echoes ... that governed mankind. We would be understanding religious history falsely, that is as it understands itself, if we wished to think that it was only concerned with the divine and other-worldly. This other-world is rather the self-alienated world of men's interests projected into another world, the shape of this world is only an imagination of the order prevailing in human society, and its heresies and struggles only an attempt to bring the understanding of worldly interests into this imaginary world in a violent and inverted manner.[16]



It is evident that while Marx was writing this article, where his idea of the development of history and the forces that control it first took shape, he had the writings of Bauer much in mind. It is a very striking fact that almost all the metaphors in the first two brilliant pages where Marx summarises his views on religion are borrowed from Bauer who is still his first and foremost model in this field.

Marx's remark that 'man who has found in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a supernatural being, only his own reflection, will no longer be tempted to find the semblance of himself - a non-human being - where he seeks and must seek his true reality'[17] recalls Bauer's description of religion as an 'imaginary reflection'[18] and his idea of God as 'non-human' or even 'sub-human'.[19] When Marx calls religion the 'moral sanction of this world'[20] he is echoing Bauer's phrase about Christianity as 'the sanction of the imperfection of present circumstances'.[21] Bauer, too, says that religion is the 'expression' of these circumstances, and Marx follows this in saying that religious misery is 'the expression of human misery.[22] The famous metaphor of the opium of the people was also anticipated by Bauer in his book Die gute Sache der Freiheit where he talks of how religion 'in the opium-like stupefaction of its destructive urge, speaks of a future life where all shall be made new',[23] and again in Der christliche Staat of the 'opium-like influence'[24] of theology on mankind, though the expression was used by many of the Young Hegelians who may well have taken it from Hegel's description of Indian religion.[25] The image of the flowers on the chain - 'criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not in order that man shall bear the chain without caprice or consolation, but so that he shall cast off the chain and pluck the living flower'[26] was used by Bauer, who may have taken it from Rousseau, at the end of his Kritik der Synoptiker. 'The chains that man bore in the service of these religions (that is religions of nature) were wound round with flowers ... his chains themselves deceived him concerning the harshness of his service'.[27] Marx's image of the 'illusory sun about which man revolved as long as he does not revolve around himself'[28] is also drawn from Bauer, who used it to indicate how near and yet how far Christianity was from expressing man's true nature: Christianity's 'nearness to the sun is also its furthest distance therefrom'.[29] Finally Marx proclaimed that with the assistance of philosophy 'criticism of theology transformed itself into a criticism of politics'.[30] This transition had already been begun by Bauer in such essays as Der christliche Staat and indeed Herwegh said of Bauer in 1843 in this connexion that all theory was now turning into practice. 'Theology has, through Bauer, for example, become politics'.[31]

Here Bauer's influence on Marx is very clear. He was by training a theologian and it was his criticism of religion that was of primary importance for Marx, who adopted it entirely and - this is the essential point - applied the same method of criticism to other and, as he thought, more essential fields. The first words of the Einleitung are: 'For Germany, the criticism of religion has been largely completed; and the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism'.[32] This means that the various alienations are like skins around the genuine centre. They have to be peeled off one after another and it is only when the outside one has been peeled away that the others are laid bare. The outer and most extreme alienation is that of religion and the criticism of this leads to the criticism of other alienations that must be dealt with in the same way. In this way, the influence of Bauer follows Marx through all his later criticism.

The effect Bauer had can best be shown in Marx's own words when he criticised both the wings of the Young Hegelians; of the wing led by Feuerbach (though Marx does not name him), which he calls the 'practical party', he says:
It supposes that it can achieve the negation of philosophy by turning its back on it, looking elsewhere and murmuring a few trite and ill-humoured phrases. Because of its narrow outlook it does not take account of philosophy as part of German reality, and even regards philosophy as beneath the level of German practical life and its theories. You demand as a point of departure real germs of life, but you forget that so far the real germ of life of the German nation has sprouted only in its cranium. In short, you cannot abolish philosophy without realising it.[33]

This means that all that has been achieved by philosophy will be incorporated into future action, the revolution that is to put Germany at the head of European progress. The only trouble with Bauer's party, as Marx says in his next paragraph, is that they 'believed they could realise philosophy without abolishing it'.[34]

Bauer's influence was thus not something that Marx passed through and then completely left behind: it was permanently incorporated into his way of thinking. This influence can be seen also in the Paris MSS. in spite of the scorn poured on 'critical theologians'[35] in the preface. The central and all-inclusive position given here to the idea of communism proclaimed as the 'solution to the riddle of history'[36] recalls the same place Bauer gave to self-consciousness which he, too, described as 'the solution of all riddles'.[37] The paradigmatic use that Marx made of the criticism of religion is shown by the number of times he introduces an economic point with a religious parallel. For example: 'just as in religion the spontaneous activity of human fantasy, of the human brain and heart, reacts independently as an alien activity, so the activity of the worker is not his spontaneous activity. It is another's activity and a loss of his own spontaneity'.[38] Similarly Marx comments on the fact that the worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object by saying that 'it is just the same as in religion. The more of himself man attributes to God the less he has left in himself'.[39] This makes plain the nature of Bauer's influence on Marx, an influence on the approach and structure of Marx's thought. A similar example would be the parallel between Bauer's 'catastrophic' view of the history of ideas and Marx's catastrophic view of the history of classes. The plot is the same though the characters are very different.

By the end of 1844 Marx and Engels felt obliged to render account publicly of their disagreements with Bruno Bauer and the Berlin Young Hegelians. This they did in Die heilige Familie, a work which, as regards similarity between Bauer's thought and that of Marx, contains little of interest since Marx is taking issue with a position of Bauer's very different from that which he held during their years of close contact. Thereafter Marx has hardly any reference to Bauer, though Engels always acknowledged a debt to his researches on the origins of the Gospels. There is no doubt that this is Bauer's major contribution and the one to which he was the most attached, a work that Schweitzer has called `the ablest and most complete collection of the difficulties of the life of Jesus which is anywhere to be found'.[40]

As long as the Young Hegelians were of any importance in Germany Bruno Bauer was pre-eminent among them and appreciated even by men like Rosenkranz who had little in common with their way of thinking yet who could write that `among the so-called "Free Thinkers" in Berlin Bruno Bauer is undoubtedly the most important, in character as in culture and talent'.[41] It would be a mistake to allow his difference in subject matter to obscure the influence of Bauer on some of the patterns of Marx's thinking.



1] MEGA, I, i, 2, p. 308.
2] B. Bauer, Die Judenfrage, p. 47.
3] B. Bauer, Christentum, p. 141.
4] Ibid. p. 143.
5] B. Bauer, Synoptiker, III, p. 310.
6] B. Bauer, Das entdeckte Christentum, p. 138.
7] B. Bauer, 'Die Fahigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen frei zu werden', in 21 Bogen aus der Schweiz, ed. G. Herwegh (Zurich and Winterthur, 1843) p. 69.8] B. Bauer, Synoptiker, III, p. 309.
9] K. Marx, Fruhe Schriften, I, p. 455.
10] Ibid. p. 457.
11] Ibid. pp. 452f.
12] B. Bauer, Die Judenfrage, p. 8.
13] B. Bauer, Christentum, p. 112.
14] K. Marx, Fruhe Sclzriften, I, p. 486.
15] Ibid. p. 458.
16] B. Bauer, Die Judenfrage, p. 114.
17] K. Marx, Fruhe Schriften, I, p. 488.
18] B. Bauer, 'Die Fahigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen frei zu werden', in 21 Bogen aus der Schweiz, ed. G. Herwegh (Zurich and Winterthur, 1843) p. 68.
19] B. Bauer, Christentum, p. 156.
20] K. Marx, op. cit. p. 488.
21] B. Bauer, Die gute Sache der Freiheit (Ziirieh and Winterthur, 1842) p. 217.
22] K. Marx, Fruhe Schriften, I, p. 488.
23] B. Bauer, Die gute Sache der Freiheit (Zurich and Winterthur, 1842) p. 213.
24] B. Bauer, 'Der christliche Staat', in Hallische Jahrbucher (1841) p. 538.
25] Cf. E. Benz, ' Hegels Religionsphilosophie und die Linkshegelianer' in Zeitschrift fur Religions- und Geistesgeschichte (1955).
26] K. Marx, op. cit. p. 489.
27] B. Bauer, Kritik der Synoptiker, III, p. 309.
28] K. Marx, op. cit. p. 489.
29] B. Bauer, Review of D. F. Strauss, 'Die christliche Glaubenslehre' in Deutsche Jahrbucher (1843) p. 87.
30] K. Marx, op. cit. p. 489.
31] Quoted in V. Fleury, Le Poete Georges Herwegh (Paris, 1911) p. 336.
32] K. Marx, Fruhe Schriften, I, p. 488.
33] Ibid. p. 495.
34] Ibid. p. 496.
35] Ibid. p. 508.
36] Ibid. p. 594.
37] B. Bauer, Das entdeckte Christentum, p. 160.
38] K. Marx, op. cit. p. 565.
39] K. Marx, op. cit. p. 562.
40] A. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London, 1954) p.159.
41] K. Rosenkranz, Aus einem Tagebuch (Leipzig, 1853) p. 113.