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)