Results tagged “Karl Marx” from Reformation21 Blog

Karl Marx: Still Important?


How do we evaluate the importance of Karl Marx (1818‒83) in the world? In May of this year, China commemorated his two-hundredth birthday (May 5) by donating a fourteen-foot statue of Marx to his birthplace, Trier, Germany. Indeed, hundreds of celebrations have been held throughout the world to mark his birthdate as well as to note the one-hundred seventieth year of The Communist Manifesto (1848) by Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820‒1895). Many would suggest that such tributes are merited because of Marx's liberating impact for oppressed people, whereas others would argue against such recognition, given the many people who have been oppressed in his name. Regarding his thought, some say he is the greatest philosopher in history; others will claim that he is the most influential of modern thinkers. Certainly, it cannot be denied that the Manifesto, which Engels claimed that Marx was the principle author, has become one of the most momentous political treatises in the modern era.

In the last fifty years we have seen much debate and analysis of Marx's contribution, his ongoing relevance, and even whether a true Marxist exists. This can be seen in the academy as scholars examine his massive corpus--The Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) Project which will include 114 volumes. In the socio-political realm, many viewed Marx's impact as dissipating with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ceasing of the Cold War in 1989‒91. Ten years later, however, this viewpoint seemed to crumble with the 9-11 attacks and, later, with the financial crisis of 2008. Partly in response to those two events, Marxist thought had a widespread revival throughout the world. Capitalism showed vulnerability and those sympathetic to socialist and Marxist ideas seized their opportunity to make their claims. In fact, three significant biographies of Marx (by Jonathan Sperber, Gareth Stedman Jones, and Jürgen Neffe) have appeared in this decade alone. While acknowledging Marx's shortcomings, both English Literature expert Terry Eagleton and philosopher Jason Barker have dogmatically affirmed that Marx's elementary proposition was right after all, i.e., that capitalism is driven by class conflict by which the ruling-class exploits the working class for its own profit. Further, supporters clarify that Marx's basic thesis is not merely a statement about class warfare; it encompasses an integrated weltanschauung in which socio-economic cultural life is at the center. In this view, the very structures of society that have permitted the global capitalist economy its elite seat must be completely eviscerated and transformed in order to move to a weltanschauung of communism--a truly classless and egalitarian society of liberty and fraternity.

Perhaps, to the annoyance of more moderate socialists and Marxists, self-declared revolutionary Angela Davis's recent lecture at the Nicos Poulantzas Institute in Athens offers the kind of present-day conclusions consistent with the Marx-Engels view of critical theory. To Davis, a disciple of Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School (e.g., also Max Horkheimer), no matter how socialist one may judge the tendencies of modern feminism in a person like Hillary Clinton, it is still a "bourgeoise feminism" because such feminists are caught in the trap of the "glass ceiling" in which they are part of the ruling-class minority that fails to truncate the structures of capitalism; such feminism, in Davis's estimation, will never be truly egalitarian. Moreover, as we live in a global capitalist economy, every category of existence--the state, family, religion, education, speech, media services, medical amenities, labor, vocation, arts, social and natural sciences, industry, technology, and agriculture--must be liberated from enslavement through revolution.

Much evidence exists of Marxists turning a blind eye to atrocities committed for the sake of a new "republic." In fact, those tyrannical acts toward government, family, religion, and free speech are innate in the movement of their law of history. After all, how can the structures of capitalism and its effects upon every aspect of existence be transformed unless atrocity is employed? As Immanuel Kant warned, we must not forget that too often those who replace tyranny become the implementers of tyranny themselves. We have proof of this in the deaths of millions and the witnesses of such despotism under the banner of Marx. In this light, we must not fail to clarify Marx's central influence found in his philosophy of history. His law of history--the dialectical movement of materialism--encompasses the unfinished changes of the structures of various societies affecting each cultural weltanschauung along the way until the finished product of communism looms and the supposed voice for justice towards the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

Of course, as Christians we can only effectively analyze Marx's philosophy of history and its consequences if we work from the perspective of the unfolding of the historical revelation of the Word of God, authored by the infallible hand of the Holy Spirit. The Christian must observe and seek to understand the free movement of our God's sovereign and providential hand, not only in the events that come to pass, but also in the unique eternal and eschatological structures of his own kingdom. The unique characteristics of Christ's kingdom are not given in any earthly State or any system of human projection or human speculation. Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter nine, provides a wonderful biblical narrative to help us understand the historical route of God and, in our case, to use that chronicle to counter a Marxist weltanschauung. The biblical historical narrative is referred to as "the four-fold state of man:" innocence, sin, grace, and glory. In contrast, Marx, like every system of thought, will have its own secular version of "the four-fold state of man." The Christian, clearly, needs to understand and be ready to respond to such ideas with a biblical defense to those who find the gospel a stumbling block or foolishness.

We know that by the pronounced word of his sovereign divine identity, Christ dissolves all the governments of the world, including all governments that align with the principles of Marx's mythical eschatology (Jn. 18:6; cf. Phil. 2:9‒11). Only Christ's kingdom of true righteousness and justice lasts forever (Isa. 9: 6‒7). Truly, all the arrogance and pride of the world's systems--whether monarchical, socialist, fascist, communist, imperialist, totalitarian, democratic, or systems based in political ideologies yet unknown--will be brought low by the humble rule of a child--the Christ child (Rev. 12:5; cf. Ps. 8; Isa. 9:6).

Dr. William Dennison is Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA. He is the author of Karl Marx (Great Thinkers)

Karl Marx didn't write all that much about religion, but what little he did was radical, programmatic, and rather clever. Here is almost his entire commentary on the meaning of religion as a cultural phenomenon: "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." He wrote this in 1843. 


The year is interesting. Opium had been available in Europe in limited amounts at least since the turn of the sixteenth century, but its reputation spread during the first half of the nineteenth century and by 1843 it was attracting literary attention: the addict Coleridge wrote his supposedly opium-inspired "Kubla Khan" in 1797 (published in 1816), de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater appeared in 1822, Tennyson's "The Lotus-Eaters" in 1832, and in America Poe's "Ligeia" appeared in 1838. (Opium also had a cameo in Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844.) 

But 1843 was a significant year in European opium consciousness for a more sinister reason. For several decades Britain's East India Company had been smuggling a superior form of the drug into China. The company contrived this lucrative operation to equalize the massive trade imbalance created by the English demand for tea, silk, and ceramics and Chinese indifference toward anything the English had to offer except silver. The amount of opium entering China surged in the 1830s. When the Chinese government adopted aggressive anti-drug measures, the United Kingdom declared war. After their decisive victory the British demanded China open up and cede Hong Kong (effectively ending China's ability to prevent the opium trade). They also demanded China pay Britain's war bill and, in dumbfounding arrogance, insisted they compensate opium smugglers for their losses. The year was 1842. 


This is the backdrop to Marx's opium metaphor at the center of his materialistic critique of religion: 

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. 

Religion must be intensely criticized for at least two reasons: as an act of intervention for an already addicted population and to warn everyone not already addicted away from its subtle power. 

The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true sun. 

To extend Marx's metaphor along lines laid down by Lenin, capitalists are as eager to push religion on the proletariat as East India Company traders were to push opium on the Chinese people; and the oppressed and exploited proletariat is just as greedy for more religious product as the millions of addicted Chinese were for opium. 

Critique of religion as a form of intervention was clearly in order, from the marxist perspective, and that critique combines two claims: a moral argument (MA) that religion or at least certain religious beliefs entail a particular social injustice of one sort or another and a pragmatic argument (PA) that continued religious devotion, at least to the criticized beliefs, is a hindrance or obstacle to social progress in some significant way. Hence the MA & PA case for the de-Christianization of culture. (This combination is also applied to Islamic societies--more on that some other time perhaps.) 

The MA & PA case rests on several notable assumptions. Among them, that there is an eschatological mandate to pursue social justice, that there is a known transcendent moral order that defines justice, that each social injustice represents a systemic practical problem of culture, and that the religious beliefs being criticized are obviously false. Not everyone who employs the MA & PA case seems to recognize these assumptions and some may find it difficult to account for some of them without resorting to myth. 

Awkward assumptions aside, the MA & PA case is enthusiastically employed by those eager to de-Christianize their culture in one way or another or even altogether. 


I first began to see this combo in my undergraduate studies in Geography. We were assigned Lynn White's much-discussed essay, "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," in which he argues roughly this: 

MA: What Christianity traditionally teaches about nature (creation, human dominion, etc.) has led to the great injustice of the current ecological crisis. 

PA: To make any progress in addressing the ecological crisis we must overthrow those particular influential Christian beliefs that prevent effective action. 

White, an active presbyterian and son of a presbyterian minister, advocated revising traditional Christian doctrine along lines he detected in the writings of Francis of Assisi. Although his argument is surprisingly shoddy, it was radical, programmatic, and rather clever--as rhetorically potent qualities in 1967 as 1843. 

So, Marx used the MA & PA combo to criticize religion for economic oppression and White used it to criticize Christianity for the ecological crisis. Others have used the MA & PA case to criticize supposed Christian teaching on a host of other cultural issues, including equality for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and non-heterosexually identifying people. In each instance, the critique runs more or less like this: 

MA: What Christianity traditionally teaches about X has led to the current social injustice. 

PA: To make any progress in addressing this systemic cultural problem we must overthrow those particular beliefs that prevent effective action. 

Same sex marriage is a recent example of the rhetorical potency of this critique; transgender restroom use is apparently (and bizarrely) going to be the next. 

So What? 

We must admit that these criticisms are not always or altogether unfounded. Whenever the church is criticized by the world our first response should be self-examination before God to see if there are any sinful ways in us--any harmful beliefs we hold, for example, that really do generate or perpetuate actual injustice in the world. 

But we should also recognize the MA & PA case for what it is or is often intended to be: an ideologically mandated form of cultural intervention to "protect" people from the offense of the gospel as it is preached and lived out by the church in the world. This one-two combo for the de-Christianization of culture, in other words, goes far beyond questioning the role of religious conviction in the public square; it underwrites a campaign to check and even overthrow religious conviction wherever it is found, demanding we either revise our beliefs to fit the cultural climate or abandon our intolerable faith.

Tribute to Trueman

Being an unapologetic Carl Trueman fanboy, the recent announcement of his departure from the ranks of regular contributors to the Reformation21 blog has hit me quite hard. I'm told that my feelings are not shared by all. (Apparently the Alliance has received several congratulatory letters from prominent evangelical leaders...). Nevertheless, in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I thought that I too might offer a word of tribute to Professor Trueman on the occasion of his new site launch.

Though I have benefited a great deal from his regular posts at Reformation21, his greatest impact upon me has been through his published works, which (thankfully) remain available in more permanent form. There is of course Carl's somewhat controversial foray into debates about evangelical political thought. Then there is his important contribution to what it means to be a confessional Christian. And who could ever forget his rousing cry to evangelical social engagement...? 

Personally, though, I think I will continue to draw the most encouragement and instruction from having witnessed Trueman's personal journey of self-discovery as he moved from being a mere professor in the Scottish university system to his current position as mainstay of American evangelical Christianity.

Thanks, Carl, for the memories.