Dialectical Materialism, Karl Marx, and Christianity

Photo by Maximilian Scheffler on Unsplash

Introduction

Karl Marx. That name is likely to elicit a powerful emotional response when mentioned. For the politically conservative, thoughts of the confiscation of private property, government control of industry, and Soviet gulags are likely to dominate. For the politically liberal, thoughts of a flattened society, less inequality between poor and rich, and a socialist utopia are likely to dominate. Few names generate as much political debate and vitriol. However, Marx offered more than just political and economic theory; he offered an entire philosophical worldview that must be unpacked to grasp the implications of his ideas fully. The political ideas of Karl Marx were driven by his commitment to a materialistic philosophy, and these ideas stand in contrast to Christianity, which acknowledges both a physical/material reality and a spiritual reality.

Marx and Dialectics

The key to understanding Marx is understanding the process that informed his thinking. Marx was heavily influenced by Hegel, who employed dialectics in his philosophy. Dialectics is the idea that, in order to reach the truth of a concept, there must be conflict and contradiction. This can also be extrapolated from mere thought and into the physical world where conflict among people, countries, or classes is what drives social change. At its essence, the dialectical method uses a process to arrive at the truth that involves moving through extremes. In this process, an initial view or societal structure is discarded entirely. There is no sifting through it in hopes of finding something of value. It is only in the final stage of the process when a completely new idea is in place where balance and moderation are possible.

The dialectical process Marx used when analyzing society followed three steps. A society starts as a primitive community. All the people who make up the society are essentially equal and function similarly. In extreme one, it is the community that takes precedence over individual wants and desires and leaves individuals with little opportunity for self-determination. Marx believed that a second extreme stage emerged when societies began to develop classes. A characteristic of this stage is the movement from a society where the community was the dominant force, and individuals are given less priority to a society characterized by extreme individuality and the loss of the community as dominant. The third stage, after both extremes have entirely run their course, sees the restoration of the community but not at the expense of completely quashing individuality.

This three-stage process is thesis, antithesis, and finally, synthesis. The idea of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis or a negation (synthesis) of the negation (antithesis) is that the final result of two contradictions joined together will produce a higher level of unity. To describe this process of synthesis, Marx used the German verb, aufheben. The verb has three meanings: (1) to void, (2) to raise, and (3) to conserve. Applied to the dialectical process, it means that the negation of a negation removes the contradiction and raises the issue beyond the conflict by ultimately conserving the contradictory elements in a superior unity.

Marx and Materialism

In 1845, Karl Marx wrote his most in-depth explanation of the materialist ideas in The German Ideology, which formed the foundation for his political and economic theories. He desired to take the dialectical method used by Hegel and incorporate the materialism of the Scientific Revolution to craft a worldview that would ground the whole of existence in physical material. He believed that, while mind and spirit do exist, they do not exist independently from the material world. Instead, they are products of the material world and the physical conditions in which people find themselves. Spirit and mind are dependent upon matter. “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.” This real, material world exists outside of the mind and preceded the mind. Marx believed that any analysis of history, production, or economy had to start with the material, with the idea that man exists in nature. He said that “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living, human individuals. Thus, the first fact established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.” From that premise of the physical, material existence of man in nature, Marx contends that everything else flows from that. The ideas of man are grounded in this material first cause. The consciousness of man exists because of this material first cause. “Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. — real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces.” The formation of the ideas of men is due to the actions they take in the material world and the physical conditions in which they find themselves. Nature shapes the mind. Everything else from morality to religion to philosophy is dependent upon physical and material processes. “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”

Marx saw this materialism as standing in contrast to the dominant German philosophical ideas of his day. Marx proposed a philosophy that had its basis in the physical world. The ideas that had been dominant before Marx proposed that there was another world, a spiritual world, from which ideas came and impacted the material world. Marx turned this idea on its head. He believed that the natural laws which govern the universe are dialectical because they drive a process of constant revolutionary and evolutionary change. Human societies naturally come to reflect this state of the world by adopting a series of revolutionary transformations, much like the one nature went through in the evolutionary process. This belief in an objective reality was at odds with some of the thinking that had come before Marx but was necessary for the development of Marx’s political and economic ideas. This insistence on a solely material reality means that humanity, rightly organized, can bend and shape the material world to their collective will.

The practical implications of Marx’s dialectical materialism burst onto the world stage in 1848 with the publication of The Communist Manifesto. Over just a few short pages, Marx and Friedrich Engels launched an ideological and political revolution. Eventually, The Communist Manifesto was translated into dozens of languages, and its influence spread across the globe. Here the synthesis of both dialectics and materialism becomes clear as Marx applies both ideas to politics and societal structures.

Dialectical Materialism and Politics

Few written works have had the impact of The Communist Manifesto. In the generations since it was published, the ideas have been embraced by some cultures and rejected as dangerous to human freedom and flourishing by others. Even with the well-known and extremely harmful examples of applied Marxist ideology (Soviet gulags, China’s one-child policy), the popularity of Marxist ideas endures. In Western countries, some in the far left of the academic world maintain a positive view of communism and the work of Karl Marx. A recent poll attests to the resilience of communist ideas, where only 57% of Millennials hold that the Declaration of Independence better ensures freedom and equality than the Communist Manifesto and 37% hold a favorable view of communism in general.

The lasting appeal of The Communist Manifesto lies in Karl Marx’s keen understanding of human nature and his observations of the worst of capitalism. It is also where the practical implications of dialectical materialism become clear when extrapolated to an entire culture. If a defining aspect of the dialectical approach is the conflict of ideas, a defining aspect of Marx’s communism is the conflict of classes of society. He believed that society existed in two hostile camps: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

The bourgeoisie were the “haves” of society. They were the factory owners. They were the ones who controlled the means of production. They were the ones who held the majority of the wealth of a society. After studying the French Revolution, Marx concluded that it was the bourgeoisie, rather than the proletariat, who had instigated the revolution by using slogans such as freedom and equality to cause the proletariat to rise. Ultimately, the bourgeoisie strengthened their hold on French culture, thus leaving it ripe for a proper Marxist revolution. This upper class of people, buoyed by their control of the means of production, crushed all previous economic and societal models: feudal, patriarchal, and idyllic. The personal worth of individuals was subsumed into the machines of industry and seen merely as “exchange value.” The bourgeoise, behind a veil of religiosity and political power, engage in “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

The proletariat was the working class of society. For Marx, these were predominantly factory workers. Due to the bourgeoisie owning most of the property, holding most of the wealth, and also controlling the means of production, Marx felt the proletariat were wholly and wrongfully dependent upon the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie believes it in their best interest to keep the workers poor in order to maximize their profits. The only hope for the proletariat lies in revolt, in conflict. The workers needed to rise up in revolution and install a dictatorship of the proletariat where the working class would take ownership of all means of production. Marx believed that with the industrial revolution and rise of machines in production that the work of the proletariat had lost all individual character. Work became monotonous repetition with the worker merely a slave to the constant demands of machines. In one of his most damning critiques of industry and greed, Marx stated that “the cost of production, of a workman, is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance and for the propagation of his race.” He observed that these problems existed in numerous countries across the world and believed that the only hope was the rise of a communist movement that could represent the working-class as a force for political change.

Marx believed that two things made the Communist Party unique and distinguished it from other parties claiming to represent the working-class. First, communists worked solely for the good of the proletariat, and they did this regardless of what the nationality of the workers was. Communists stood for all workers everywhere. And second, communists represented the interests of the movement as a whole. There were to be no individual interests served but only the interests of the collective whole. Another unique aspect of a Communist society is a dramatic change in thinking. Marx believed that the historical past dominated bourgeois society. Philosophy, production, and religion were primarily focused on what had happened in the past and in maintaining the status quo. The communist revolution would shift the focus to the present with the needs and drives of the present society overwhelming and revolutionizing philosophy, production, and religion. Everything in the past of bourgeois society ceases to exist: history, individuality, family, and freedom.

There is nothing in a culture left untouched by Marx. Marxist dialectical materialism demands the upending of every structure in society in hopes of reaching a new synthesis: a communist utopia. This upending means removing the most fundamental building block of culture: the family. Marx believed that the bourgeois family existed only to serve capitalist and private gain. Thus, it was necessary that this, too, is abolished. The family would not just cease to exist among the bourgeois but also among the proletariat whose families existed only to be exploited by the bourgeois and enhance capitalistic gain. The family existed as merely another article of commerce to be used and tossed aside. Even innocent children were not safe from the machines of industry as parents sent their children off to factories to labor alongside adults. The husband/wife relationship falls victim to exploitation as well, with the bourgeois seeing a wife as just another cog in the vast machine of production and commerce who can enhance output and drive down costs.

Finally, Marx spells out his eschatological goals for a society. After the proletariat rises up and takes the means of production from the hands of the bourgeois, ownership of the means of production shifts to the hands of the people. Rather than political power existing for the benefit of a few wealthy people, power becomes a tool to be used for the benefit of all. Even if the proletariat effectively organizes themselves into something resembling a class in order to better stand against the bourgeois, the need for all classes falls away when the proletariat takes power, and the entire society is leveled, thus eliminating any need for classes. Rather than classes in conflict with each other, society exists as an association of individuals where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Marxism and Theological Liberalism

Marxism would not remain in the realm of politics and economics. Marxist thought invaded Western academies and, eventually, Western theology. Propelled by the political and ideological turmoil of the 1960s, Marxism found an intellectual home on the religious left. Theologically liberal individuals found Marx’s critique of capitalism gone awry and his focus on those of lesser means in society magnetic. To them, this lined up well with biblical ideas about caring for the poor and love of neighbor. It also found narrative bolstering in the idea that Jesus was a working-class man who pushed back against the entrenched powers of his day. Jesus was a revolutionary.

In the 1970s, the Christian left believed they had found a way around Marx’s critique of religion as an opiate because, much like Marxism, Christianity was a progressive movement capable of aligning with the working-class in a revolutionary spirit. This trajectory continued through the 70s and 80s with the Christian left aligning itself with liberation theology, feminist theology, and socialist movements in the United States.

There continues in the present to be a strong bent on the Christian left for aligning Marxist thought with liberal theology. Zhixiong and Rowland, in their 2013 article, believe that common ground exists between Marxism and liberation theology around the idea of eschatological hope. Liberation theology shares with Marxism the goal of human betterment in the material world. This hope stands in contrast to the hopeless desperation of capitalism and its constant striving for profit at the expense of human flourishing.

A practical example of the joining of Marxist thought with Christianity came to light in American politics in January 2020. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Catholic and a democratic socialist, stated that she had a spiritual awakening while protesting on behalf of Native Americans in 2016 and 2017. This spiritual awakening and a leading from God is what pushed her to run for congress. Ocasio-Cortez claims that it is her faith that drives her politics and her seeking social reform for groups like Native Americans and prisoners.

There has, however, been pushback against the Marxism-Theism partnership of the Christian left. Bancroft contends that Christians advocating for this synthesis are creating an idealistic version of Marxism that never existed in historical fact and that this waters down the potency of Marxist thought. Further, Bancroft argues that the Christian left ignores the materialistic foundation of Marxism to co-opt the political and sociological aspects of the ideology. Rather than attempting to twist Marxism into a theological system, Christians should instead partner with the true Marxists, atheists, in order to accomplish their shared social and political goals. Religion cannot bring about the necessary societal transformations, only pure historical Marxism.

Finally, Cimic believes that a Christian-Marxism synthesis is impossible due to the “radical humanism” of Karl Marx. Marx put his faith in the material world and humanity. There is no room for the transcendent ideas of Christianity as a primary force for social change in Marxist thinking.

What Marx Got Right

It is easy for theologically conservative or politically conservative individuals to completely dismiss Marx and everything he wrote. His name is rightly associated with many grave political and cultural movements. Nevertheless, to boil Marx down to 21st-century political talking points is to miss what he got right. Marx looked out at the landscape of the industrial revolution and did not like what he saw. He saw child labor. He saw men working long hours at dull, monotonous, and dangerous jobs serving machines that never grew tired. He saw the dangers of unbridled capitalism and the pursuit of wealth above the good of man. In this, we can see the barest threads of the biblical mandate that people should love their neighbor as themselves. Marx believed this was not happening, and he decided to act to change these societal ills. Marx was ahead of his time in recognizing the abuses of unfettered capitalism on children and families. Decades after his death, the United States would pass the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which put restrictions on child and youth labor, mandated safe conditions, and ensured that the work did not compromise their educational opportunities. Marx also rightly elevated human beings above industry and pointed out that without the human component, there could be no industry. He recognized the inherent humanity of workers and called out the wealthy for seeing them as little more than another cog in a machine. Marx also rightly attended to the physical conditions of the world around him. While this was undoubtedly driven to the extreme by his materialist beliefs, an appreciation for the physical world is not incompatible with Christianity. Indeed, it is required by Christianity as God created us as physical beings and entered the world as Jesus Christ as a physical being. The great Christian hope is in a new physical heaven and earth where God dwells with humanity.

A Theological Critique of Dialectical Materialism

For Christians, dialectical materialism and Marxist thought present many challenges. The greatest challenge is present in the name of dialectics Marx employed: materialism. A belief that the material world is all that there is leaves no room for God. It means that everything in the world has to be explained in physical, material terms. Love can only be the result of chemical reactions in the brain. That physical desire young lovers feel in their relationship? That is just testosterone and estrogen. That attraction that draws two people together? Why, that is dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The ongoing attachment that occurs as a relationship matures? Those feelings are just oxytocin and vasopressin. Spirituality and religion? That has to be an entirely physical phenomenon as well. Prayer, meditation, fasting, and the feelings a person has from engaging in these activities have nothing to do with engaging with God but rather with the activation of certain parts of the brain and the interaction of certain chemicals on bodily functions. Thus, the materialist must explain the spiritual in solely natural terms. There must be a “God spot” in the brain that explains the spiritual needs of humanity.

The Christian faith provides an answer and a balance. Christianity holds to a real, material world but also a spiritual world. Unlike dialectical materialism, which must explain everything in physical terms, Christianity recognizes that there is both a physical and a spiritual realm. Beyond that, Christianity holds that the material world and humanity have a purpose beyond just achieving a communist utopia on Earth. Christians joined together in their love of God and neighbors work to make the world better reflect God’s intention for creation. Christians accomplish this through evangelism and helping others learn and come to believe in God and the redemptive work of Christ. Christians accomplish this by working to alleviate physical suffering in the world by building hospitals, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, adopting children, contending for the unborn, holding up a model of marriage and family most conducive to human flourishing, and many other things.

Christianity, properly conceived, cares about both the physical world and the spiritual realm. It cannot, without extreme hermeneutical gymnastics, fit within a Marxist framework. The eschaton of Marxism is an entirely humanistic, material dream. The eschaton of Christianity is spiritual and physical. There is a new heaven and a new earth where “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3, ESV).

Conclusion

The ideas of Karl Marx have proven to be resilient. But why? A cursory glance at current events or a history book reveals the dangers of Marxism and the totalitarian bent it inspires. Marx presents a fundamentally optimistic view of humanity. Yes, there will be conflict along the way, but humanity will rise above it and will ultimately achieve a utopia where all are equal. Even if it is unrealistic, this message is appealing and enduring. Redemption comes from human striving and is always just one more revolution away from being realized. Christianity also presents an optimistic hope for humanity but is more realistic about human nature than the materialism of Marx. Christianity, bolstered by millennia of human history, understands that humans cannot be redeemed by their own striving. Humanity is fundamentally broken and requires a redemption that can only be brought about by an external force. What Marx wants, only Christ can provide. What the proletariat strives for, only Christ can provide. The utopia the communists dream of; only Christ can provide. Christianity provides a more realistic, loving, and fulfilling alternative to Marx and dialectical materialism.

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