Marxism and Christianity: Analogous or Incompatible?
A NUMBER of political commentators have attempted to make a comparison between Marxism and Christianity, emphasising – and with some justification – that not only does each adhere to the linear mode of history, but that they also contain a series of composite elements which follow a rather similar pattern. Indeed, on the face of it there does seem to be a large degree of truth in this assertion and if we examine some of the key tenets it is clear to see why Marxism has always been regarded by its Christian counterparts as a dangerous rival:
(a) the Garden of Eden may be said to accord with the state one finds in Primitive Communism;
(b) the Fall of Man can be compared to the economic disparity one finds in the Division of Labour;
(c) Christ’s persecution can be interpreted as a symbol of the conflict one finds in class society;
(d) the Crucifixion is akin to a situation of revolutionary upheaval;
(e) The Kingdom of God, or Heaven, is analogous to the full realisation of a Communist utopia.
Naturally, the misappropriated epithet beneath which Marxists prefer to gather is that of ‘Socialism,’ an ideology which is ordinarily described as “the name given to any one of various schemes for regenerating society chiefly by a more equal distribution of property possessed and regulated by state authority.” (1)
Needless to say, given what we now know about the ignominious outcome of Marxist ideas in the twentieth century there are many who dispute that such left-wing authoritarianism can ever be equated with the authentic Socialist values that one finds in the work of William Morris, Oscar Wilde and Robert Blatchford. Prior to the coming of Marxism, Christianity and Socialism were often seen as natural bedfellows. Robert Heilbroner explains: “The ethos of a Socialist socio-economic formation is […] likely to be ‘sacred’ rather than ‘profane’, morally accountable rather than amorally expedient, fraught with spiritual significance rather than pragmatic options […] The ideological image of Socialism. as a new socio-economic formation, seems therefore to resemble that of a religious society.” (2)
Some people would even argue that the Catholic monasteries of the Middle Ages represent a non-Marxist example of Communism in action. In the words of Marx himself, however, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people.” (3)
As far as he was concerned, religion is a collection of antiquated ideologies and unsubstantiated beliefs, and although he does not attribute Christianity to any form of ruling-class conspiracy he certainly believed that capitalism could use religion as a tool with which to control those who, in his view, are most susceptible to its bourgeois ideas.
Before I examine those aspects of Marxist philosophy which actually relate to Christianity, it is worth taking a look at the patriarchal Communist himself. Whilst it has been said that “the prevailing religious atmosphere in Marx’s house was the anaemic rational religion of the Enlightenment” (4) the fact that he was of Jewish extraction also made it far easier for him to reject Christianity. Indeed, Jews in nineteenth-century Europe were renowned for their “rootless cosmopolitanism” (5) and an increasing detachment from the host nations in which their found themselves. Although Marx had once written an essay on “how the advent of Christianity was necessary for the full moral development of humanity” (6), he soon rebelled against it once he had acquired and developed his own semi-Hegelian outlook during his time as a young student at Bonn and Berlin.
At the very root of Marxism lies the Materialist Conception of History, something which is diametrically opposed to the entire idea of spirituality. According to one of the more well known Marxist slogans, the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (7) As far as Marx and his close associate, Friedrich Engels, were concerned, men “can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.” (8)
Marxists believe, therefore, that as the forces of production develop they inevitably clash with pre-existing social relations and ideas that grew up on the basis of earlier forces of production. In other words, whilst Marxism is regarded as a progressive tendency other doctrines are considered to be inherently backward or reactionary. G.D.H. Cole argues that the Materialist Conception of History “has often been misunderstood” (9) due to the fact that, in his opinion, Marx was not advocating a society in which man is guided merely by economic motives, but one in which “the broad transformations of society from epoch to epoch arise from economic conditions, in a wide sense, and that men, from whatever motives they act, are in fact and in the mass guided by what they achieve by these conditions.” (10)
Regardless of the theoretical ease with which Marxists so frequently attempt to conceal the fact that man has been reduced to an economic unit, however, this notion is nonetheless highly discordant with Christianity’s own dependence upon what it believes to be the more spiritual and divinely orchestrated events that affect the human condition. Pope Pius XI, for example, described materialism as a theory which “teaches that matter, with its blind and hidden forces, is the only reality that exists, and that it is a matter which by a natural process evolves into a tree, an animal, or a man.” (11) Indeed, Marxists believe that human societies evolve in exactly the same way and that, over time, the perpetual conflict between the capitalist and working classes with lead to the establishment of a classless society. For Karl Marx, in other words, there is “no room for an eternal god, for a distinction between spirit and matter or between body and soul, for the survival of the soul after death, or for any hope of a future life.” (12)
Marxists also adhere to the dialectical analysis of history, a theory which asserts that as the class struggle increases the path towards a Communist society “can be accelerated by the action of one man.” (13) This process can manifest itself in the form of organised warfare and agitation, with Marxists deliberately fomenting social unrest in order to achieve their questionable ends. But if Marx was so certain that historical materialism is an essentially natural process, then why do his ideological heirs feel the need to forcibly intervene in order to unnaturally disrupt the fabric of society? Communism, of course, cannot evolve naturally and must be imposed from above by self-important intellectuals who claim to act in the interests of the downtrodden and oppressed. In truth, the full realisation of Marxism can only be achieved by the systematic deployment of bloodshed and brutality.
Such a concept is not in any way consistent with the more passive and sacrificial teachings of Christianity, but through the distortion of Hegel’s idea that, through the attainment of knowledge, mankind has the ability to progress “to the stage of self-consciousness, the understanding that allows man to analyse the world and order his own actions accordingly.” (14) Furthermore, it was Hegel who had earlier anticipated the practical implications of Marxism by formulating the view that “any present state of affairs was in the process of being negated, changed into something else.” (15) It is worth noting, too, that whilst Marxists await the impending demise of capitalism they have more than a little in common with the millenarianism that one finds in Christendom.
Despite the fact that Marx himself decided to get married and start a family, his actual philosophy undermines the very institution of the family itself and its defence is obviously a fundamental cornerstone of Christian belief. In 1842, Marx wrote an article in response to Frederick IV’s plans to reform the divorce law in accordance with his half-hearted attempts to ‘Christianise’ German society. As a consequence, Marx actually “agreed that the present law was too individualistic and did not take into account the ‘ethical substance’ of marriage in family and children.” (16) According to him, “the law thinks only of two individuals and forgets the family.” (17) This all sounds rather uncharacteristic, at least until we learn that he could not support this plan at all on the basis of his belief that “it treated marriage not as an ethical but as a religious institution and thus did not recognise its secular nature.” (18) But there was far more to Marx’s analysis of the family than meets the eye and his entire outlook was shaped by the Materialist Conception of History and, thus, reduced everything to the level of a bland and impersonal economics: “Religion, family, state, law, morality, science and art are only particular forms of production and fall under its general law.” (19) Elsewhere, however, Marx defended his proposals for the abolition of the family by claiming that he had simply “meant the abolition of the bourgeois family – whose counterpart was the practical absence of family life among proletarians, and public prostitution.” (20) Pius XI attacked Communism for being something that “scorns and rejects all the sacred functions of human life, it follows as a matter of course that matrimony and the family are considered to be a purely civil and artificial institution, originating in a particular set of economic conditions.” (21) So whilst the Marxist vision is devoid of spirituality, it naturally follows that it is equally devoid of emotion. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that so many of its followers owe their cold, calculating attitude to the process of dehumanisation which inevitably occurs when one begins to adopt this highly materialistic creed.
Marxists also believe in the abolition of private property, another issue which is antithetical to Christianity. Pius XI has noted that in a Communist society no individual is “allowed the right of ownership over natural resources or the means of production, because, these being the potential source of further wealth, their ownership must necessarily result in some men obtaining power over others.” (22) Saying that, despite Communism’s own substitution of private capitalism with state capitalism this is one particular tenet of Marxist belief that the present writer would agree with. On the other hand, whilst Marx himself made the claim that the “abolition of private property is therefore by no means identical to communism” (23), he did believe that the “proletariat would achieve the dissolution of the old order of society by the negation of private property, a negation of which it was the embodiment.” (24) As the Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton, wrote in The Outline of Sanity: “The point about Communism is that it only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.” (25) There seems little difference between Marxism’s efforts to abolish property in order to prevent its abuse and Christianity’s establishment of a moral framework that sets out to curb the darker aspects of human nature. Once again, an unlikely paradox emerges between two conflicting ideologies: each claims to advocate a higher state of human society and both require a degree of coercion to control its citizens. The only exception to this would be Christian Anarchism and I would thus urge the reader to explore the work of Wayne John Sturgeon.
Human beings, within a Marxist system, are reduced to mere cogs in a faceless, bureaucratic machine, with organic society replaced by a form of rootless economic determinism. By interpreting mankind in terms of our economic worth, Marx is no better than his professed capitalist adversary. Religion, and particularly Christianity, will always be ruthless persecuted under any such regime. According to Marx, the “difference between the present upheaval and all earlier ones lies in the very fact that man has found out the secret of this historical upheaval and hence, instead of once again exalting this practical ‘external’ process to the rapturous form of a new religion, divests himself of all religion.” (26) As will be shown in due course, this is simply not true.
For Marx, religion was little more than an ideology that would cease to exist after the implementation of a Communist system. In other words, “when it becomes possible to realise that better order upon earth in the form of Communism, then religion becomes wholly reactionary, for it distracts men from establishing a now possible good society on earth by turning their eyes to heaven. Its sanctification of the existing social order makes it a counter-revolutionary force. Thus in the course of building a Communist society, the Marxist must fight religion because it will inevitably stand in his path.” (27) As a result, Christianity would not even be tolerated as a department of state. In fact according to Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who reinforces this position, “where the Church has been separated from the State we have merely an emancipation, not a complete liberation.” (28)
By far the best way of establishing whether Marxism and Christianity are compatible is to consider the curious experiment that took place in Soviet Russia. Regardless whether Lenin or Stalin had interpreted the ideological trappings of theoretical Marxism correctly, it remains a fact that Bolshevism was the first real attempt to put the ideas of Karl Marx into practice and in the wake of the 1917 Revolution its leaders initiated a vigorous and sustained assault on all forms of religion and spirituality. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, a figure called Anatoly Lunacharsky founded his ‘God-building’ movement and “sought to replace traditional religion with human solidarity, with mankind itself as the object of worship.” (29) When Lunacharsky became the Bolshevik regime’s Commissar of Enlightenment, a decade later, he set about promoting science above religion and developing a “Communist surrogate cult with its own divinities, saints and rituals.” (30) Lenin, however, saw religion as a pillar of class society and preferred to undermine it by the promotion of atheism and not through a form of crude imitation. The Bolsheviks particularly abhorred organised religion and the Russian Orthodox Church came in for special attention, with Communists viewing it as “the last fragment of the political organisation of the defeated classes still surviving.” (31)
Eventually, the power of the Church was curtailed by the abolition of state subsidies and the confiscation of its property. Monasteries were also destroyed and converted into purely secular, administrative centres, with atheistic propaganda replacing traditional Christian teaching in Russian schools. However, such attacks were ultimately counter-productive and unable to prevent the Church’s nationalist and monarchist followers from organising themselves into an effective underground movement. In fact the Bolsheviks were never able to diminish the faith of the peasantry and the country’s rural inhabitants remained loyal to Christianity, a matter which, in line with the agenda of the Party, necessitated their eventual slaughter. Similarly, by 1926 one observer concluded that the Church had emerged victorious from its conflict with the Communists: “The only thing the Bolsheviks had achieved was to loosen its hierarchy and split the Church.” (32) In short, Marxism “is theoretically self-contradictory; psychologically opposed to the very nature of human beings; practically impossible from the point of production and distribution; religiously evil, and ultimately ruinous to social and individual liberty.” (33)
To conclude, despite their theoretical similarities it has been shown that when Christianity and Marxism encounter one another in a more practical regard they are incompatible. Whilst Anatoly Lunacharsky had sought to imitate the Christian religion and create a fusion between the two, Pius XI warned that “Those who allow themselves to be duped and who connive at the establishment of Communism in their own countries will be the first to pay the penalty of their own blunder; and the more ancient, the more flourishing the Christian civilisation happens to be in any country which Communism succeeds in penetrating, the more devastating will be their atheistic fury therein.” (34) In other words, Christianity – in this case, Catholicism – will never be permitted to prosper within a Communist society and will, inevitably, always find itself on the receiving end of state-sanctioned violence. The very fact that Marx described religion as the “opium of the people” implies that, as far as he was concerned, it is part of a much larger problem and that people would not have recourse to such a thing in the wake of a Communist revolution. Put simply, “Religious prejudice and religious separation would vanish when civil and political castes and privileges were done away with and all men enjoyed equal rights in a liberal, secular state.” (35) For Marxists, the maintenance of religion with a Communist society is completely hypothetical. Leftist utopians, after all, would clearly not wish to resurrect something which, in a previous bourgeois society, had been regarded as such a fundamental barrier to the establishment of the ‘utopia’ itself.
1. Rumble, Rev. Dr. & Carty, Rev. Charles Mortimer; Radio Replies (Radio Replies Press, 1938), p.311.
2. Heilbroner, Robert; Marxism: For and Against (London, 1980), pp.167-8.
3. Marx, Karl & McLellan, David; Writings (Oxford, 1977), p.62.
4. McLellan, David; Marxism and Religion (MacMillan, 1987), p.7.
5. Ibid., p.8.
7. Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich; Manifesto of the Communist Party (Progress Publishers, 1969), p.40.
8. Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich; The German Ideology (Moscow, 1968), pp.31-2.
9. Marx, Karl & Cole, G.D.H.; Capital, Volume 1 (Everyman, 1930), p.xx.
11. Pius XI, Pope; Divini Redemptoris (Catholic Truth Society, 1937), p.13.
12. Ibid., p.14.
14. McLellan, David; Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (Granada, 1983), p.29.
16. Ibid., p.57.
17. Marx, Karl; On a Proposed Divorce Law, Gesamtausgabe, Mega I i  (Frankfurt, 1927), p.317.
18. McLellan, David; Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, op.cit., p.58.
19. Marx, Karl & McLellan, David (Ed.); Early Texts (Oxford, 1971), p.149.
20. McLellan, David; Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, op.cit., p.183.
21. Pius XI, Pope, op.cit., p.15.
22. Ibid., pp.14-15.
23. Marx, Karl & McLellan, David (Ed.); Early Texts, op.cit., p.80.
24. McLellan, David; Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, op.cit., p.98.
25. Chesterton, G.K.; The Outline of Sanity (Carraig Books, 1974), p.3.
26. Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich; On Religion (McGraw-Hill, 1974), p.94.
27. McIntyre, Alisdair; Marxism and Christianity (Pelican, 1968), p.80.
28. Lefebvre, Henri; The Sociology of Marx (Pengion, 1968), p.128.
29. Pipes, Richard; Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime 1919-24 (Harvill, 1994), p.338.
31. Ibid., p.339.
32. Ibid., p.368.
33. Rumble, Rev. Dr. & Carty, Rev. Charles Mortimer, op.cit., p.310.
34. Pius XI, Pope, op.cit., p.44.
35. McLellan, David; Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, op.cit., p.80.