Marx, Spiritualism and Power

By David G. M. Wilson, Edinburgh.

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 20 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Titus Hjelm on “Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion” (18 June 2012).

Titus Hjelm and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion

I begin this response to Titus Hjelm’s discussion of the continuing relevance of Marxist approaches to the study of religion by noting his assertion that Marx is underemployed as a source of ideas, partly because he has generally been regarded as critical of religion. A number of additional reasons are also relevant. One difficulty for Marxist scholars has been the extent to which the predictive power of Marxist models was brought into question as the twentieth century unfolded. Yet many of Marx’s particular criticisms are not only relevant to western society of his day but continue to be relevant because of their ability to highlight the extent to which particular classes (or constituencies) are still able to maintain powerful social positions. The problems and characteristics of western society that were highlighted by Marxist approaches are still with us; if the predictive power of Marxist approaches has seemed problematic, this may simply be an indication that our understanding of the mechanisms involved has been partial.

Any plea for the continuing relevance of Marx is also a plea for the continuing importance of the sociological study of religion, of attending to the many aspects of the relationships that human beings maintain with each other. In the past, this stance has often relied upon insights derived from the core Marxist idea of class struggle, which has generally led scholars to focus upon collective behaviour. As Hjelm indicates, one possible response is to pay closer attention to the socially constructed ways in which human beings individually behave, and he mentions Peter Berger as a scholar using the Marxist concept of alienation to explore through critical discourse analysis the ways in which ideologies (including the teachings of particular religious traditions) maintain themselves (Norman Fairclough). The argument, essentially, is that there is progress to be made in understanding the mechanisms involved by examining particular examples.

This is an approach that may also offer insights relevant to the cognitive study of religion; for example, it may be possible to draw upon the work of scholars such as Barbara Rogoff, who explores human cognition as a socially constructed learning outcome. I am often heard making the argument that adherence to religious (and other) traditions can usefully be comprehended as an apprenticeship outcome, but in order to understand fully what I mean by this, it is important to attend not only to the linguistic dialogues people maintain with each other but also to their other behavioural dialogues. Rogoff’s emphasis upon human cognition as the outcome of an apprenticeship based upon guided participation is extremely valuable here. The human ability to think, to problem-solve, is acquired from those who have power over us during the years when we begin to come to consciousness. Hjelm is wise, therefore, to ask why social class (or other social constituency) tends not to be explored in religion, given that it has long been recognized that class and power are closely-connected.

This nexus of issues is particularly relevant to my own scholarly interests, which focus upon western mediumship as my particular specialism within spirit communication traditions, particularly shamanism. Spiritualism is often described as a ‘working-class religion’, based upon scholarly characterization of those who generally attend demonstrations of mediumship. It tends also to be described as ‘marginal’, even though scholars such as Martin Stringer suggest that resort to mediums and psychics is a widespread form of engagement with the ‘non-empirical’ in contemporary western society, something he regards as central to what religion is ‘about’. The marginality of Spiritualism lies not in a lack of those practising and/or interested but in its marginalization by more dominant discourses. It is not only more powerful religious discourses that are guilty here: the number of western scholars willing to conduct research in this field is small, a situation that is both the product of past marginalization and an effective way of ensuring continuing marginalization.

There is obvious scope for exploring the exclusion of Spiritualism as a class issue, but there is also scope for exploring the relationships within the Spiritualist movement in terms of the different constituencies, as I call them, that subsist within it. My own forthcoming book undertakes a certain amount of work here, exploring the institution of mediumship and how that craft is learned as being central to the maintenance of the Spiritualist movement. I also draw attention to Robin Wooffitt’s work ‘The Language of Mediums and Psychics’ as a valuable example of critical dialogue analysis, exploring the maintenance of mediumistic authority vis-à-vis clients, reminding us that ‘class’ distinctions are maintained within (as well as among) religious traditions, precisely because this is key to the maintenance of authority. Comprehending the internal exercise of power (between different classes or categories of practitioner or adherent) can be crucial in understanding the persistence of particular religious traditions, and may therefore be an important component in understanding the persistence of religion generally in a supposedly secularized western society.

Hjelm notes as classically Marxist the suggestion that more welfare (in the sense of material wellbeing) should lead to less religion, based upon the perception that if peoples’ material needs are met in this world, they become less interested in the next. A difficulty for traditional Marxist approaches is that, although western society has prospered, it has become clear that both religion and class have persisted. In this, Marx may have missed the transformative role religion can play in people’s lives (often only when relieved from pressing material need), because his concern was to highlight the extent to which religion as a coping mechanism can derive from the use of religion as a controlling mechanism.* Yet although Marxist approaches may not have offered an adequate explanation, many of the issues Marx was concerned with remain, challenging us to explore.

Marx’s concept of alienation was closely allied to his perception of capitalist systems of production (like their feudal predecessors) as decreasing the available social space for individual self-expression, a point made by Terry Eagleton. Unlike some Marxists, Marx was not a scholar who comprehended society in terms of monolithic, opposed classes but was, instead, a writer, an artist, who appreciated social variety as crucial to individual flowering and who opposed social forces that might hinder it, including (if not especially) the deliberate exercise of power so as to require conformity. Hjelm’s plea for a focus upon the individual and the induction of general rules from the careful, patient study of what people actually say and do is, I suggest, more truly Marxist than many previous (supposedly Marxist) approaches; at the very least, it implies a measure of respect.

  • The distinction between coping and transformative religion is taken from Stringer.


Eagleton, T.: 2011. Why Marx was Right, Yale University Press.

Fairclough, N.: 2010. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language, Longman, (2nd edn).

Luckmann, T. and Berger, P. L.: 1991. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin.

Rogoff, B.: 1990. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press.

Stringer, M: 2008. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, Continuum.

Wilson, D. G. M.: forthcoming December 2012. Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Wooffitt, R.: 2006. The Language of Mediums and Psychics: The Social Organization of Everyday Miracles, Ashgate.

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