I first picked up The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when I was sixteen. Of course, I didn’t feel like a precocious sixteen-year-old then. I felt like a free-thinking young intellectual discovering poetry and politics, and exploring the vast literary landscape with a hunger and delight that, frankly, I wish I could maintain now. Like many significant works of literature this little book had its own killer line. Not quite the first line, but certainly as memorable as the best of them. It read: ‘The history of all societies is a history of class struggle.’ I read on eagerly. Thus The Communist Manifesto became my first conscious encounter with what I later learned was a ‘worldview’ and it was exhilarating to read something that claimed to know what was really going on in the world.
My teenage romance with Marxism didn’t last too long and suffered numerous blows as I discovered not its power to transform but, disappointingly, its consistent failure. And when I later became president of the Students’ Union at a small college in Sussex I was appalled at the sanctimonious reverence Marx was paid. The primary example of this happened not at the National Conference but at an (ironically) exclusive and somewhat secretive gathering of three Students’ Union presidents at Sussex University. Our host, the Sussex Uni president, asked us to be seated. He then proceeded to unveil, by pulling down on a little fluffy cord, a red velvet curtain, behind which were revealed portraits first of Marx, then Lenin, and finally the then General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov. Once this ceremony was complete he opened the meeting. It was both strangely religious and hopelessly sad.
But that kind of obsequious nonsense was the least of it. The philosophy itself was problematic. Apart from his impressive, often accurate view of the past, Marx’s vision for future revolution and collective ownership had already obviously failed in the terrifyingly authoritarian regimes that claimed him as their founder. Even George Orwell said – somewhere in Homage to Catalonia – that he only saw communism work once, and then only for about three weeks, after which the usual egotistical impulse for status reasserted itself. One set of status/power/money lovers had been replaced by another set who soon began to act like those they replaced.
The Significance of Marx
Marx and Engels felt they had discovered a scientific assessment of social progress akin to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The parallel is oddly appropriate for many Christians: we may agree with much of what both Darwin and Marx observed, but may also have considerable doubts about the projections they made based on the observation.
And so to Peter Singer’s highly readable, Marx, A Very Short Introduction. He asks, ‘Can anyone now think about society without reference to Marx’s insights into the links between economic and intellectual life? Marx’s ideas brought about modern sociology, transformed the study of history, and profoundly affected philosophy, literature, and the arts. In this sense of the term – admittedly a very loose sense – we are all Marxists now.’ (3)
Hegel, History, and God
There were a number of points at which the thinking of others encouraged Marx to see religion as ultimately negative (for Marx this inevitably meant Christianity). In describing Hegel and the young Hegelians who influenced Marx Singer writes, ‘The goal of history became the liberation of humanity; but this could not be achieved until the religious illusion had been overcome.’ (22) Of course! Singer has unintentionally sent us back to a conversation in Eden in Genesis 3. And later, ‘theology is a kind of misdirected anthropology. What we believe of God is really true of ourselves. Thus humanity can regain its essence, which in religion it has lost.’ (23) And in an inevitable statement of absolute naturalism, ‘Thought does not precede existence, existence precedes thought.’ (24) Christians love the fact that in the beginning was thought and word, and all creation came into existence as a result of thought and word. But Marx only saw the way religion created compliance rather than progress.
Economic Injustice and its Cure
When Marx came on to his views of economic injustice we find some of his arguments compelling but his solutions naive. When pointing out that driving wages down to as close as is necessary to merely keep workers alive, while keeping for themselves a significant amount of the value the workers create, Marx is highlighting a genuine manipulation of human resources. (33) Sure. We need just laws, and we ought to have them. But Marx asserted ‘the solution is the abolition of wages, alienated labour, and private property in one blow. In a word, communism.’ (36) and claimed, ‘Communism…is the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man…It is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ Singer adds, ‘One might expect that Marx would go on to explain in some detail what communism would be like. He does not – in fact nowhere in his writings does he give more than sketchy suggestions on this subject.’ (37)
Marx and Engels consistently preached for a kind of millennial era of liberation, freedom from oppression, and peace among men. In one sense, the very best motivations of the communist vision are a kind of echo of genuine Christianity, but with man, not God, at the centre. In fact it’s difficult to imagine the birth of Marxist philosophy in any but a Christian cultural environment, and a muscular 19th century Christianity at that. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ could have been bellowed out by William Booth and the Salvation Army; could, in fact, have been written by Luke in the Book of Acts (see Acts 2.45 [i], and 4.34 [ii]).
Marx was also echoing a widely held Christian sentiment when he asserted that history has a definite goal; that of humanity reaching its greatest potential in an era of liberation and freedom. He probably didn’t realise how much a view of God’s sovereignty, of providence, and the millennial hope he carried in his thinking about the future. Singer brings us up to post-Christian speed: ‘Few historians…now see any goal in history. They do not explain history as the necessary path to anywhere. They explain it by showing how one set of events brought about another.’ (57)
Revolution and Transformation
Marx believed that Capitalism would force its own failure as workers would realise their exploitation, rise up, and redistribute wealth on a fair and equal basis. Private property would be abolished. The State would draw the allegiance of all men and the common good would be the goal of all. Absolutely wishful thinking. Singer: ‘According to Marx’s view of history, as the economic basis of society alters, so all consciousness alters. Greed, egoism, and envy are not ingrained forever in the character of human beings. They would disappear in a society in which private property and private means of production were replaced with communal property and socially organized means of production. We would lose our preoccupation with our private interests. Citizens of the new society would find their own happiness in working for the good of all. (81) Surely only the most inexperienced revolutionary could believe that? ‘It has been said that later in life Marx developed a less Utopian view of communism, but it is difficult to find much evidence of this.’ (83)
His view was so utopian in fact that he believed communism would become fully international in its reach, and therefore single nation-states would cease to exist, thus eradicating the impulse for war between nations. Armed forces would become a thing of the past. Cue not-the-only-dreamer, John Lennon. Actually though, while it’s certainly not imaginable now, it is nevertheless a hope that’s deeply embedded in the human psyche (we’re made in the image of God after all) and it echoes an idea worked out in Christian eschatology.
How do we assess Marx’s philosophy?
Singer: ‘More than a century after Marx made these predictions, most of them are so plainly mistaken that one can only wonder why anyone sympathetic to Marx would attempt to argue that his greatness lies in the scientific aspects of his work. Judged by the standards of Marx’s time, the gap between rich and poor has narrowed dramatically throughout the industrialized world…Real wages have risen. Factory workers today earn considerably more than they need in order to remain alive and reproducing…Capitalism has gone through several crises, but nowhere has it collapsed as a result of its alleged internal contradictions. Proletarian revolutions have broken out in the less developed nations [Marx predicted it would happen in the more developed ones]. (88) He supposed ‘that real wages would remain around subsistence level; in fact the increase in productivity has allowed real wages to rise.’ (91) The ‘conception of freedom Marx espoused contains within it a difficulty Marx never sufficiently appreciated, a difficulty which can be linked with the tragic mutation of Marx’s views into a prop for murderously authoritarian regimes. This is the problem of obtaining the co-operation of each individual in the joint endeavour of controlling our society.’ (92) ‘Marx never intended a communist society to force the individual to work against his or her own interests for the collective good.’ (97)
Marx’s view of human nature was hopelessly optimistic. The economic injustices he identified were not simply the result of capitalist systems (though those systems enabled them) but of fallen human nature, sinful nature. And even though today we can see improvement to human rights and progress in many areas, enacted in many laws, the fundamental problem of human sin is still wildly underestimated. This doesn’t let capitalism off the hook of course, let alone individuals greedy for their own advancement at the expense of others. In fact, those Christian leaders and pastors living in countries with ever-widening gaps between rich and poor need to develop a healthy desire and determination to work for a more just society. Nevertheless, the communism that was experienced in the twentieth century was never the utopia Marx dreamt of; that dream of equality only ever appeared in propaganda films. Equally unconvincing are the arguments that true Marxism has never been properly tried. The reason it never lasts longer than a few weeks is because the philosophy radically over-estimates the goodness of human nature. What is needed is a philosophy that (goes beyond philosophy and) gets into the heart and changes human nature, that leads to repentance from sin and faith in Christ, and produces an unwavering resolve for social justice. To put it in the words of the most famous prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
Marx, A Very Short Introduction is by Peter Singer and published by the Oxford University Press.
Is Singer too hard on Marx? Too soft? How does the gospel address the injustices Marx raised? Comment below.
[i] Acts 2.45 ‘and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.’
[ii] Acts 4.34 ‘there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales.’
© 2019 Lex Loizides / Church History Review