Socialism is a polarizing phenomenon in the United States, having caught the nation’s attention during the 2016 election cycle and continuing to exert an influence over the national conversation. There are many varieties of socialism, but what each has in common is an emphasis on material equality and communal property ownership.
In this post, we will focus on the most famous and widespread version of socialism—Marxism—and argue that it is a false religion that cannot deliver on its promises. But before doing so, we must first trace the broad contours of Marx’s life and thought.
Who was Karl Marx?
Marx (1820-1895) was born into a prominent Jewish family. As a teenager, he converted to Christianity. Yet, while studying philosophy at the University of Berlin, he became a committed atheist.
Having become an atheist, he wanted to be able to make sense of the world without reference to God. He became an economic determinist, arguing that the logic of human history can be revealed by studying the economic “class struggle” that inevitably must occur when some “have” and others “have not.”
What does Marx mean by “class struggle”?
Marx argued that there have been four eras in human history.
At the dawn of human history was the Asiatic (hunter-gatherer) era, in which people struggled because they were at the mercy of nature.
Following the Asiatic era was the Ancient (slave-master) era, in which slave owners lorded over hunter-gatherers. This stage soon declined because it was impractical; the primary property (slaves) can get sick, die, or run away.
Next arose the Medieval (lord-peasant) era, in which slaves were replaced by serfs. This era was more practical; unlike slaves, serfs did not run away because they owned a percentage of their labor.
Finally, the capitalist (owner-worker) era emerged, in which working class people struggle because they are at the mercy of owners who pocket most of the capital form the workers’ labor.
How does Marx think socialism will replace capitalism?
Marx argues that each of these eras was a necessary precursor to a new, socialist, era that would soon dawn. In his view, capitalism would disappear because it undermined human dignity, alienating human beings from the product of our labor (we receive calculated cash instead of a product itself), the process of labor (we cannot control the pace, rhythm, or duration of our labor), our fellow workers (we compete with them instead of communing with them), and even authentic existence itself (we do not experience fulfillment in life).
Marx prophesied that capitalism would soon destruct. He predicted that the working class (proletariat) would struggle with the owners (bourgeoisie) who oppress them, that the working class would overthrow the owners, that the world would experience material abundance for the first time, that a “classless” society would emerge, and that the state would wither away.
How does Marxism function as a false religion?
In other words, Marx viewed himself as a secular prophet pointing the way to a salvation that humanity can find in this world. In fact, Marx constructed his ideology as the antithesis to Christianity and is best understood theologically.
In Marx’s system, material equality is elevated to the level of a “god.” Marx ascribes ultimacy to material equality, urging society to submit to its dictates and seek it above all things.
Marx identifies the great “evil” of the world as material inequality and subsequently urges society to turn to the “holy scriptures” of Marxist ideology in order to find “salvation” through social revolution.
Marx’s version of “church” is pockets of classless people in the midst of an evil, capitalist world, and his “priesthood” is socialist political leaders. His church’s “ethic” is to stop at nothing to achieve the socialist state.
Finally, Marx prophesies an “end times” in which social revolutionaries abolish capitalism, achieve material equality, and therefore rid the world of evil.
In the words of Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft:
Marx, like Moses, is the prophet who leads the new Chosen People, the proletariat, out of the slavery of capitalism into the Promised Land of communism across the Red Sea of bloody worldwide revolution and through the wilderness of temporary, dedicated suffering for the party, the new priesthood….The messianic tone of communism makes it structurally and emotionally more like a religion than any other political system except fascism.
How should we respond to Marxist ideology?
Historically, Marxist states have been authoritarian and often totalitarian. Ironically, instead of liberating society, they have suppressed it, stripping citizens of basic human rights and relentlessly opposing society’s religious institutions. More ironic still, they have catalyzed mind-boggling economic inequality, with Communist Party leaders living in opulence while the working class is driven to destitution.
Therefore, while we can appreciate some of Marx’s concerns, such as his desire to help the working class, we must reject his idolatrous ideology and recognize its disastrous track record as a system of salvation.
No ideology can bear the weight of our eschatological hopes and dreams. Thus, if we wish to see our society flourish, it will not be through Marxism. It will only come when something greater—Someone greater—is on the throne. And in the meantime, before Christ returns, we will need more realistic means to seek the common good and flourishing of our nation.