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Opiate of the People

Karl Marx famously declared that religion is the opiate of the people.

There are a few conflicting translations of the quote, so that sometimes religion is the “opium of the masses,” and sometimes it’s the “opiate of the people,” but the main idea remains the same. 

Origin of “Opiate of the People”

Writing in 1843, in a relatively obscure work about the philosophy of Hegel, Marx argued that religion was being used as a drug, an “illusory” source of happiness. If mankind abandoned religion, with its illusions, then they might have a real shot at happiness. He wrote:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“Opiate of the people” is probably one of Marx’s best-known quotes. It has taken on a life of its own, far removed from its original association with religion. Since 1843, writers have played with the wording to criticize just about every facet of modern society.

Take sports, for example. A political scientist working out of Western Kentucky University has argued that in the American south, at least, college football is the opium of the people: “sport functions to preserve the status quo, to maintain the position of the “haves” vis-à-vis the “have nots.” To do this, sport must act as a kind of “opiate” for the “have nots” so that they will accept the inequities and injustices of the social system.” 

Television has also been compared to drugs. Back in 1957, Time Magazine published an article under the declarative headline, “Television: Opiate of the People.” The piece featured an interview with Edward R. Murrow, who invited TV producers to “sit still” and think about what really matters in life. Murrow said, “If television and radio are to be used to entertain all of the people all of the time, then we have come perilously close to discovering the real opiate of the people.”

In 2008, CBS News published a thought piece which suggested that possibly, politics is also the opiate of the people. 

“I would like to amend Marx’s statement to better fit our modern American context: Politics is the opiate of the people,” wrote Shane Nassiri. He went on to explain:

There is this false optimism that somehow our political process will offer the cure for all that ails our society. If we only elect the right candidate, we can solve the problems we face. What ensues is mostly an attempt by either candidate to cast the other as a wrong choice that will bring certain doom.

In other words, just about anything can serve as an “opiate” or distraction from the “real” problems of our day, such as the disparities between rich and poor.

Just as Marx argued that religion was dulling people’s minds and stopping them from productively improving their lot in life, so today’s pundits argue that spectator politics, or television, or sports can distract us from the actual issues that confront us.

Use of “Opiate of the People” in a sentence

  • Many critics argue that popular entertainment serves as the “opiate of the people,” distracting them from pressing political issues.
  • Some believe that the government’s generous welfare programs are merely an “opiate of the people,” keeping them content and passive.
  • Historically, regimes have used propaganda as the “opiate of the people,” numbing them to the realities of their political situation.