In modern social and economic discussion, the legacy of Karl Marx (1818-1883) still looms large. For the progressive, Marx is the forefather of many of the pillars of their ideology, whether they know his writings or not. For the conservative, Marx is a boogeyman feared to be lurking behind every cry for justice or equality. Who is Karl Marx, and what should the Christian thinker know about him?
The Influencer's Influences
The story of Marxism begins a century before the now-famous Communist Manifesto in the philosophy of Georg Hegel (1770-1831) . Like Plato long before, Hegel's enormously influential writings argued that the true reality was found in the world of ideas. Supreme over all reality stood a quasi-pantheistic Spirit, a unity all humans shared. Hegel understood human history as a story of alienation, constant conflict moving closer to humanity’s ultimate goal of self-awareness as being one whole rather than conflicting individuals.
One of Hegel's most significant interpreters was Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) , who was a "Christian" philosopher and unrecognizable as an orthodox Christian. He argued that Hegel was correct but upside down. Feuerbach claimed that all the ideas Christians attributed to God were statements about ourselves "writ large." The goal of philosophy was not for man to resolve his alienation in a greater Spirit, but rather to know himself.
"If man is to find contentment in God, he must find himself in God."
Marx agreed with Hegel that the story of history was alienation and conflict, but he agreed with Feuerbach that God played no role in it. Humans must bring history to its climax in resolving their alienation, and the beginning of that journey is in the material world of economics.
It is difficult to define Marxism because it developed throughout Marx's life and writings and took on a life of its own in the 20th century. Marx ironically said at one point, "I am not a Marxist" !
Marx called his views "historical materialism." He understood history as the story of human beings, their desire for survival, the production of human labor, and the classes that develop between the "haves" and "have nots." Hence, the opening line of the Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles" .
People who have adequate means of survival want to retain, defend, and expand their substance. This class of people Marx calls the bourgeoisie. In the medieval world, this would have been the nobles as opposed to the serfs. In modern terms, the bourgeoisie were the capitalists who owned the factories and economic structures as opposed to the workers who contributed their own lives to the production of goods.
The lower class in society, called the proletariat, sought to survive through work and production, but they did not own the means of doing so. Their only choice was to part with the work of their hands for the sake of survival and allow the bourgeoisie to profit from it.
Marx believed this conflict was the root of all the events of human history, and the climax of history would be the overthrow of this system. Reconciliation was not on Marx's radar. If the crisis was material in nature, so must be the solution. The only option for the advancement of human society was for the lower class to realize that the upper class would never allow it to flourish. Revolution was on the agenda, and Marx often referred to the lower class as the "weapons" of his philosophy. Violent revolution became the mandate of Marxism.
The resulting classless society would be the perfection of human history. This model is called communism. It is not simply a wage hike for the lower class, but the absolution of both the concept of wages and the inequality of production. "Communism ... is the solution to the riddle of history" . Singer summarizes this agenda: "The propertyless working class, however, possess nothing but their status as human beings, and thus can liberate themselves only by liberating all humanity" .
What the Christian Might Learn from Marx
Before my inevitable tirade against Marxism, I want to spend just a moment tipping my hat to some of his better observations.
First, Marx recognized that economics and ethics were connected. American Christians tend to be silent on economics, assuming that Capitalism in its current form is more or less a byproduct of Christian doctrine. If America is a Christian nation, then the American economy must be a Christian economy. Therefore, wealth and poverty are either taboo topics at church, or worse, wealth is understood to be a sign of God's endorsement and blessing. Instead, we should notice what Halverson realized when he wrote, “Jesus Christ said more about money than any other single thing because, when it comes to a man’s real nature, money is of first importance. Money is an exact index to a man’s true character" . Economics, like every thought, must be made captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Second, Marx correctly identifies the connection between a man's work and his life: "The worker puts his life into the object and this means that it no longer belongs to him but the object" . In a system where a worker does not own the fruit of his hands, the result is potentially dehumanizing. The worker becomes a commodity and stops being a human .
That sentiment will immediately raise accusations of socialism but recall that none other than Christian author G.K. Chesterton made a similar conclusion but on Christian grounds. Chesterton was a fierce critic of both Marxist-style Socialism and Capitalism, and with his typical wit remarked, "It is my whole point that to say we must have Socialism or Capitalism is like saying we must choose between all men going into monasteries and a few men having harems'' . Chesterton's view, called distributism or "the third way," argued that men were created to be craftsmen and that wherever possible, the means of production should be owned by the worker and his family. The civil state, in Chesterton's view, was merely a collection of families. The role of the government was to safeguard the rights of each family to own for itself the means of contributing to society and providing for itself . Chesterton's distributism differs from Marxism in identifying the family, rather than the class, as the unit primary to justice, economics, and society.
Anti-Christian Tenets of Marxism
Alas, that is about all the nice things I can say about Marx. The larger part of his ideas is antithetical to Christian thought and values.
First, Marx was the quintessential modernist. He believed that thanks to human greatness, history was on a permanent upward trend and the utopian future of society was just around the corner (if only we would listen to Marx, of course). This point of view fails on two fronts.
On the theological side, it fails to recognize human fallenness and the inability for humans to right the ship of history independent of God. If Christianity is true, then no humanly-devised project will ever do what must be done through Christ alone.
On the practical side, the 20th century proved all the 19th-century modernists to be wrong. Science and rationality never brought us into Utopia's safe harbor. We never arrived at societal perfection but instead witnessed the horror of world wars, genocides, and an ever-escalating series of evils. Marxism, in particular, was tried and found wanting as a cure for history's imperfection. A century of warfare - including Marxist revolutions - produced the most violent century on record and disillusionment in the modernist dream.
Second, Christians need to be aware that Marx was decidedly opposed to all religions. In Marxism, religion is a manipulative tool to keep the proletariat quiet. In Marx's most quotable line: "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" . Trees grow from roots, and it is impossible to ignore the hostility of Marx's roots to Christian faith or religious faith of any kind. He believed that religion was an impediment to human flourishing. He decried "all the gods of heaven and earth who do not recognize man's self-consciousness as the highest divinity. There shall be none other beside it" .
Third, it is worth noticing that Marx's classless society was tainted with a toxic dose of antisemitism and racism. Marx, though of Jewish descent himself, wrote, "What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money" . Although many have attempted to mitigate the force of these and other racially bigoted statements, Michael Ezra writes, "When apologists for Marx’s antisemitism run out of explanations, they simply ignore his words" .
Fourth and worst of all, in my estimation, Marx’s lasting legacy is that of violence and alienation without reconciliation. Marx is a great philosopher if you want a violent revolution. A variety of nations have experimented with that plan in the years since Marx. Millions of deaths have been produced by Marxist regimes . The typical response from Marx's apologists is that the system was good, but it was poorly executed. However, at some point, a century of evidence becomes hard to ignore.
Marxism - like so many of the great social critiques of recent history - identifies a problem while at the same time prohibiting a true resolution. As Gandhi and MLK reminded us: an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Like Marx at his best, Jesus championed the cause of the poor and overlooked, but the tools of Jesus' ministry could not be more different than those of Marx. The genius of the Gospel is that Jesus did not use violence as a tool for social change. Instead, he absorbed violence on the cross and, by the power of God, triumphed over it. God - the very person Marx dismisses at the outset of his project - became the Savior of the fallen world. In doing so, he taught us the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In a sense, Marx is trying to resolve the same problem as the Gospel. It is understandable why his ideas are so influential. Why is man alienated from man, and can that alienation be healed? However, Marx sees man's alienation as only existing between man and man. Therefore, Marx sees the solution to this alienation as the result of human effort and even violence.
As Christians, we see the conflict between man and man as a byproduct of the greater alienation between God and man. The resolution to both riddles is not in political revolution but in divinely offered grace, humanly accepted reconciliation, and a new creation. There is much work Christians can do in the world of justice and equality, but all of it begins with a gospel-framework, rather than excluding it.
Goeff Boucher, Understanding Marxism, Understanding Movements in Modern Thought (Bristol, CT: Acumen, 2012), 47.
Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Group, 2018), 1.
Peter Singer, Marx: A Very Brief Introduction, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 29.
Richard Halverson, Perspective: Devotional Thoughts for Men (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957) 59.
G.K. Chesterton, G.K.C. as M.C.: A Collection of 37 Rare G. K. Chesterton Essays. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2015), 267.
From Marx's Doctoral Theses as cited in Singer, Marx, 20.