Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

A Christian Critique of Marxism

Karl Marx was a German born Jew who became an immensely influential atheism. Today’s New Atheism movement, Darwinism, and the Cold War communism owe some of their success to Marx’s philosophy. He is heralded as the Father of Communism[1], because his philosophies greatly influenced socialism throughout Europe. Marxism shares many similarities, and many conflicting ideas, with Christianity. The focus on community and the improvement of human conditions is one such similarity, but the rejection of supernaturalism and absolute humanism is one aspect of Marxism that clashes with Christian thought. This essay will analyze Marxism, in light of its philosophical assumptions, historical background and similarity with Christianity, and will propose approaches Christians can take when dealing with Marxism in today’s society.

Marxism

To understand Karl Marx’s philosophy is simultaneously to understand his approach to history. Marx’s philosophy is often labeled ‘dialectical materialism’,[2] or in other words an interpretation of history as progression through conflict,[3] where “man is the highest essence for man”.[4] He was influenced by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, in which he saw a pattern in the social structures.[5] Furthermore, Hegelian philosophy was a great influence. Hegel argued that the only truth comprehendible to humanity is that which is presented through reality; all human thought is a progression toward ultimate truth, which “is slowly uncovered through the unfolding evolution of the history of ideas”.[6] Hegelians argued that Christianity was merely a primitive form of this philosophy.[7]

A further influence was Feuerbach, who developed Hegelian philosophy, with a focus on materialism. He argued that religion caused alienation, of which Marx and his colleague Engels noted as “a separation from nature, and from the opportunity to act freely and creatively upon it.”[8] Marx’s personal experience of alienation was fueled by the fact that as a boy he was Jewish in a Catholic community, within a Protestant state. Thus, alienation became a major influence on his philosophies.[9]

Before entering into politics and economics, Marx studied literature and philosophy. He saw himself as an artist, “a poet of dialect”.[10] Marx became highly intelligent, and was able to present his views effectively, often quoting Shakespeare to further his point. Influenced by materialism, his atheistic approach caused him to be expelled from France in 1845, at the age of 27, hence adding to his experience of alienation. He and Engels began production of The Communist Manifesto, which was published in 1848.[11] This publication was essentially a response to capitalism and outlined his initial views of the process of history inevitably leading toward a revolution against capitalism, to be replaced by a purely socialist community.

Where Hegel believed the progression of human knowledge fueled social and political change, Marx asserted that it was the progression of economics, ultimately leading toward a change of thinking, and thus a change in society and politics.[12] At the time, capitalism was developing, with great industrialization occurring. Marx was thus influenced to define a person’s class position as determinable by ownership of property or not. The two main classes he distinguished between were the ‘Bourgeoisie’, or the land-owners, and the ‘Proletariat’, or those without property. The Proletariat were essentially the working-class, working for the Bourgeoisie, who made the profit.[13] As a result, the Proletariat had no emotional attachment with their labor, which was exclusively done for the Bourgeoisie. The Bourgeoisie exploited the Proletariat, and Marx and Engels considered this inevitable capitalist process as dehumanizing and alienating. The Proletariat were the majority, and increasingly became so; the Bourgeoisie were the minority. The former got poorer, the latter richer.[14] Marx saw this process as alienating, as “the worker is forced to bring fulfillment to someone else, instead of finding personal fulfillment.”[15]

His experience of alienation and his dialectical materialist philosophies lead him to conclude that this continuing tension would “eventually build up to such a point that a socialist revolution would occur,”[16] resulting in an economic system that, rather than alienating people from one another and from the world,[17] was devoid of private property and state implementations, effectively emancipating all humanity. Rather than attacking capitalism as unjust, as his contemporaries had done so, Marx argued that “what mattered most not that capitalism was morally wrong, but that it was already out of date and therefore historically doomed.”[18] Believing everything to be influenced by material and economic conditions, Marx insisted that history is essentially predetermined, shaped by developing economical factors.[19] In other words, communism was inevitable.

Being materialistic, Marxism places great emphasis on science, as Sheehan states, “Marxism took science extremely serious, not only for its economic promise in building a socialist society, but for its revelatory power in understanding the world.”[20] Marx combines this materialistic[21] approach to science and philosophy with dialectical materialism, arguing that the physical reality is prior to spirituality. This approach was furthered by Hegel’s influence upon Marx, causing Marx to analyze this human experience in relation to history.[22] This lead to his conclusion that throughout history, humans are bound by necessity to institutions, determined by evolving methods of production, fueled by advancements in technology.[23] Thus, capitalism was bound to eventually become obsolete – so Marx predicted – followed by communism, “a political system dominated by the majority of the population, not a minority or small elite.”[24]

Human beings, according to Marxism, are no more than a product of matter. The mind evolved from material; the nonliving formed the living. Thus, humanity was determined by material conditions, in turn influenced by economic factors, namely production. The only difference between humans and animals is that humans have the ability to produce what allows their continued existence; humans “work for their living.”[25] Hence, Marx argues it is essential for humans to work and produce.

Geisler outlines three characteristics of Marxist ethics: (1) relativism, (2) utilitarianism, and (3) collectivism. Firstly, Marx insists that there are no moral absolutes. The only “absolute is the unfolding dialectic world process,”[26] and what is considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is determined by society and economics. Secondly, what is good is whatever contributes to the implementation of communism.[27] This ethical construct inevitably involves the idea that the end justifies the means. For example, the – possibly violent – destruction of capitalism is justified by the implementation of communism. Thirdly, Marx saw the universal transcending the individual. The requirement of the implementation of this universal was, thus, necessary. This universal, Marx argued, was free will, found not individually, but expressed corporately. He argued that “in the perfect society private morals are eliminated and the ethical ideals of the community are achieved.”[28]

Marxism was highly influential for approximately a century and a half, existing at some point in most of Eurasia. The Paris Commune in 1871 – the French government in which the Proletariat expressed societal and political control – was influenced by Marxist movements,[29] and the German Social Democratic Party existed largely due to Marxism.[30] A major outworking of Marxism, however, was expressed in the Russian revolution in 1917. The Russian revolutionary, Lenin, further developed Marx’s philosophies. After Lenin, when Joseph Stalin reigned, the USSR Communist Party became the major interpreter of Marxism, justifying totalitarian rule; the result, however, obviously influenced by the belief that the end justifies the means, became quite different to Marx’s original philosophy, and became very violent.[31]

Since the end of the Cold War, it seems Marxism is not as influential. However, it is not completely diminished. Contemporary Marxists focus on the original philosophical assumptions made by Marx, and it “lives on, but in circuitous and complex ways, sometimes in strong, brilliant, defiant ways, sometimes in subtle yet influential ways, but sometimes, too, in weak, confused and debated ways.”[32] The Great Depression and the recent Global Financial Crisis have caused Marxists to speak out, assured that what has happened was predicted in Marx’s writings. Martin Jacques states, “This crisis shows that capitalism is…inherently prone to crisis…in this sense, Marx was, and is, right.”[33] The successive recovery of this crisis, however, has shown capitalism and society as it currently is to be a more than capable economic system.

Marxism and Christianity

As has been demonstrated, Marxism is essentially an all-encompassing ideology. For this reason, it functions similarly to a religion.[34] Some commentators have labeled Marxism as a secular religion, as it provides a meaning to life, as well as demanding complete commitment.[35] Despite functioning similarly to religious ideology, however, Marxism and religion do not have a harmonious relationship. Religion merely kept the Proletariat content, sustaining morals and supporting social order.[36] Religion was, according to Marx, “the opium of the people”.[37] It was essentially another force used to subjugate the working class. Furthermore, Marx believed that “religion, with its beliefs, attitudes, and value judgments, is a particular type of mans estrangement from his essence.”[38]

In 1946, the USSR Communist Representative, Molody Bolshevik stated:

The theoretical basis of the Communist Party is the philosophy of Marxism/Leninism – dialectical materialism. This is a complete and consistent world view which is incompatible with religion. Our worldview is based on scientific facts. Religious beliefs contradict science. And because the Party derives its activities from a scientific basis, it cannot but take a stand against religion.[39]

Marx argued that all religion, including Christianity, is merely an illusion,[40] and in 1964 the Marxist Konrad Farner declared Christianity to be irrelevant, superseded by something else – as has everything else in history.[41] Because Marxism is so all-encompassing, it can answer any question, and a system with gaps has no right to claim to be true. Further, “for a thing to be accepted and believed it has to be plausible for the human mind and things that are beyond its comprehension are by that very fact considered untrue.”[42] Therefore, Marxism rejects supernaturalism, a direct dissension with Christianity.

Being somewhat influenced by Judeo-Christianity[43], Marxism even has several doctrines which reflect Christian thought. Within Marxism, there is a doctrine for creation (found in the evolution of matter), original sin (division of labor), salvation (found in the Proletariat), ecclesiology (the church being the Party), and eschatology (with communism the aim and purpose of history).[44] However, as Bockmuehl outlines, there are 4 major issues which confront Christianity:

  1. Knowledge of truth,
  2. Practice of the faith,
  3. View of reality, and
  4. Purpose of life.

Firstly, Marxism confronts reality with what is believed to be truth. Establishing a ‘truth’ requires a presupposed standard to be analyzed in light of reality, reflecting its materialistic philosophy. The issue for Christians, then, is whether or not we believe in truth; “do we as Christians also have a truth which critically turns against rotten reality?”[45] Or, has Christianity become a religion of relatives? Secondly, Marxism requires an absolute commitment to the practicality of the perceived truth. Marx did not desire a change of interpretation, but a change of the world. As Christians, hence, how much do we put our faith into practice? John 13.17 and Matthew 7.24 assert that Christians must practically express their faith.

Thirdly, Marxism insists “on concrete reality as the theatre of human life.”[46] The practical outworking of truth must be absolutely determined by the physical reality. Christianity, therefore, comes under attack, as it declares supernaturalism. Marxism requires a changing of man and the world now, posing the challenge to Christians, who have often acted solely in relation to a future, eschatological judgment. In other words, the materialism of Marxism is in contrast with the spirituality of Christianity. Lastly, Marxism understands its truth to be attainable. Each adherent to Marxist philosophy understands the truths and goals of Marxism, and continues to work toward those goals. What results from this idea is that the end justifies the means, which – as history has shown – can have disastrous results. Furthermore, this idea essentially means those who do not have the means to attain these goals, such as the elderly, disabled people, less talented or intellectual people get left behind. Despite this fact, Christianity is posed with the challenge to be aware of its truths and goals and work towards it.[47]

Hanes analyzes contemporary Marxism, arguing that despite Marxism does not enjoy the same influence it once did, “attitudes are deeper than words”[48] and Marxist philosophies are still prevalent in some form. As has been outlined above, Bockmuehl asserts the major division between Christianity and Marxism comes down to truth. Christianity views absolute truth coming from the supernatural; Marxism views absolute truth as that which humanity, fueled by materialism and economics, progresses toward, completely rejecting supernaturalism. Hanes stresses the lack of an absolute truth in contemporary Marxism, as influenced by post-modernity, and “for residual Marxism the proof of truth depends much more on logical reasoning.”[49] Where a Christian would argue truth is found through experience and analysis, a Marxist would argue truth is merely an ideological tool. Further, where a Christian would argue humanism[50] is an expression of love, and charity an expression of grace, a Marxist would argue for anthropocentrism and that charity is humiliating and is resented. Hanes continues to argue that for a Christian to approach a Marxist, he/she must have a deep understanding and appreciation of Marxism and its similarities with Christianity. He further argues for a non-threatening approach, an acceptance of Marxist criticism, a presentation of the Christian alternative, and lastly, to rely on God.[51]

Conclusion

In conclusion, therefore, the atheistic, dialectical materialistic philosophy of Karl Marx, which has had great influence throughout the past 200 years, poses a challenge to Christianity, even today, albeit in minor forms. Marxism projects a philosophy deeply rooted in an understanding of the progression of history, different eras clearly marked by revolutions and violence. The alienation and dehumanization inevitable with capitalism eventually comes to a conclusion found in a giant international upheaval by the working-class, the Proletariat. This working-class will take control of the socio-economic factors inherent in community, leading through a process of socialism toward the final goal of communism, where privatization would be eliminated and all humanity experiencing true emancipation and true life, receiving dignity and meaning from the community.

Despite the few positive elements Marxism has provided, such as the improvement of working conditions, the emphasis on the person as a human rather than a tool to generate wealth, and the general goal of improving human life; Marxism’s negative elements have been its downfall. Marxism is a militant atheism, destroying imagination and purpose for the individual. Marx’s predictions of capitalism inevitably collapsing have, obviously, not found fruition[52], thus disproving his theory that economic factors function like physical laws. Furthermore, the “absolute denial of absolutes cuts its own throat…Socialist society has hardly avoided absolutism.”[53] We can conclude that Marxism is good in theory, but does not work in practice.

Bibliography

Bancroft, Nancy. “Marxism Requires Atheism: Implications for Religious Believers.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies  (n.d.): 567-575.

Benton, Ted. “Marxism.” In Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society, edited by Paul B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey. London: Routledge, 1996.

Bockmuehl, Klaus. The Challenge of Marxism: A Christian Response. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980.

Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. The Story of World Religions. California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1988.

Collins, Philip. “Karl Marx: Did He Get It Right?” The Times2008.

Farner, Konrad. “A Criticism of Christianity.” In The Church and the Problem of a Christian Society: Communio Viatorum, 1964.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999.

Hanes, Pavel. “Christianity in the Post-Marxist Context.” EuroJTh 17, no. 1 (2008): 29-37.

Holmes, Leslie. Communism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Krejci, Jaroslav. “Religion and Anti-Religion: Experience of a Transition.” Sociological Analysis 36, no. 2 (1975): 108-124.

McBride, William L. “Marxism.” In Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Roberts, J. M. History of the World: Since 1500. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976.

Roberts, J. M. Moden History: From the European Age to the New Global Era. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, Ltd., 2007.

Sheehan, Helena. “Marxism and Science Studies: A Sweep through the Decades.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 21, no. 2 (2007): 197-210.

Stokes, Philip. Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers. New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2002.

West, Charles C. “Marxism.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, 9. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.

Wheen, Francis. Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.


[1] Leslie Holmes, Communism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] Philip Stokes, Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers (New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2002). 132.

[3] Holmes. 2.

[4] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999). 440.

[5] Holmes. 2.

[6] Stokes. 103.

[7] Ted Benton, “Marxism,” in Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society, ed. Paul B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey(London: Routledge, 1996). 553.

[8] Ibid. 555.

[9] Francis Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography (London: Atlantic Books, 2006). 7-8.

[10] Ibid. 5.

[11] Geisler. 440.

[12] Stokes.

[13] Holmes. 4.

[14] Geisler. 442.

[15] Ibid. 441.

[16] Holmes. 5.

[17] Wheen. 7.

[18] J. M. Roberts, Moden History: From the European Age to the New Global Era (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, Ltd., 2007). 316, 516.

[19] Geisler. 441.

[20] Helena Sheehan, “Marxism and Science Studies: A Sweep through the Decades,” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 21, no. 2 (2007). 197.

[21] As opposed to theological.

[22] Nancy Bancroft, “Marxism Requires Atheism: Implications for Religious Believers,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies (n.d.). 569.

[23] Roberts. 317.

[24] Holmes. 5.

[25] Geisler. 441.

[26] Ibid. 442.

[27] It would not be surprising if an alleged contradiction appears here. If there is no moral code, asserted by the first characteristic, how can what is ‘good’ be determined by whether or not it helps communism? However, Marx would argue that communism is, historically, inevitable. Therefore, history leading towards communism is the dialectical absolute. Hence, what is ‘bad’, such as the continuation of capitalism, is that which is hindering history itself.

[28] Geisler. 442.

[29] Holmes. 6.

[30] William L. McBride, “Marxism,” in Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995). 466.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Sheehan. 208.

[33] Martin Jacques, Renmin University professor and previous editor of Marxism Today, in: Philip Collins, “Karl Marx: Did He Get It Right?,” The Times2008.

[34] Denise Lardner Carmody and John Carmody, The Story of World Religions (California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1988). 259.

[35] Klaus Bockmuehl, The Challenge of Marxism: A Christian Response (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980). 17.

[36] J. M. Roberts, History of the World: Since 1500 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976). 630.

[37] Roberts, Moden History: From the European Age to the New Global Era. 240.

[38] Jaroslav Krejci, “Religion and Anti-Religion: Experience of a Transition,” Sociological Analysis 36, no. 2 (1975). 108.

[39] Ibid. 111.

[40] Bockmuehl. 49.

[41] Konrad Farner, “A Criticism of Christianity,” in The Church and the Problem of a Christian Society (Communio Viatorum, 1964).

[42] Pavel Hanes, “Christianity in the Post-Marxist Context,” EuroJTh 17, no. 1 (2008). 31-32.

[43] Benton. 554. Judeo-Christianity, Benton argues, expresses a progression toward a good life. West argues that Engels saw in Christianity a universality, a vehicle for revolution. This theme influenced Bloch, was saw revolutionary themes throughout the bible, such as the exodus from Egypt. Marxism essentially “transposed the structure of Christian faith and hope into a humanist key.” (Charles C. West, “Marxism,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade(New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987). 241.)

[44] Bockmuehl. 17.

[45] Ibid. 24.

[46] Ibid. 30.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Hanes. 30.

[49] Ibid. 33.

[50] A Christian, however, would most probably avoid humanism, but should the argument rise, a Christian would likely argue for the value of human life, in light of God’s grace and love.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Even though some would argue the Great Depression and the recent Global Financial Crisis have shown Marx to be right, capitalism has continued to grow.

[53] Geisler. 443.

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