Further looking at the fetishisation of commodities, Marx turns his focus to the social role of religion in justifying modes of production.
We live in a world that is largely still more-or-less influenced by Greek idealism, and later Christian idealist fantasies; where ideas/ideals are seen as being superior to grubby realities; where people are seen as having some inner essence or soul that is purer or superior to the actual real person; where there is the sense that there is an ideal world just around the corner or ‘up there’ somewhere… Marx turns this on its head and says that all those lofty notions are just a reflex arising from the conditions of the real, manifest world…
“The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion.”
Marx argues that the religion which humans dream up in any given era reflects the real conditions of that society. He sees the cult of idealised humans (gods and saviours and saints, martyrs, popes etc etc) as directly related to the social practice of creating abstracted values on labour and commodities.
Protestantism emerged historically with the triumph of the mercantile class over the old feudal order of divine kings and lords. It allowed for a direct relationship with God, with less emphasis on priests and popes and intermediary saints, and dissolved the monopoly on the word of God (the Bible) by making it widely available in common languages. It was part of a less hierarchical, more socially liberal, movement that matched the relatively socially liberal conditions that free trade and capital expansion and accumulation require.
“In the ancient Asiatic and other ancient modes of production, we find that the conversion of products into commodities, and therefore the conversion of men into producers of commodities, holds a subordinate place, which, however, increases in importance as the primitive communities approach nearer and nearer to their dissolution.”
Marx sees ancient pre-trading societies as meeting their dissolution due to the development of trade.
“Trading nations, properly so called, exist in the ancient world only in its interstices, like the gods of Epicurus in the Intermundia, or like Jews in the pores of Polish society.”
The Intermundia was the place in the remote and formless voids of space where Epicurus held that the gods lived, so they were not very relevant to life here on Earth. Marx is pointing out that trading nations have been an exception to the overall history of human society, not the rule. Likewise, because the minority Jews could act outside of the Christian morality concerning trading in money and debt, they could operate within Polish society. It should be noted that while Marx came from a Jewish background he was as critical of that religion and its social practices as he was of Christian ‘morality’ and social influence.
“Those ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent. But they are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection.”
So ancient clan/group tendencies or feudal-type relations of domination by lords etc hamper the type of liberal free trade that defines bourgeois society and the capitalist mode of production.
“They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and Nature, are correspondingly narrow. This narrowness is reflected in the ancient worship of Nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions.”
Marx sees the more direct reliance on nature and the seasons that come from technologically primitive and socially conservative societies resulting in nature religions.
“The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature.”
Marx suggests a time when the socio-economic relations between classes/people and nature are clear and unambiguous. Where value is not a mystified thing that requires kings, lords, popes, priests, saviours etc and the ideologies and lofty spiritualities to justify them.