Marxism and Christianity: An Unlikely Kinship

The goal of Marxism has been compared to the work of a Medic, a self-thwarting individual who does himself out of a job once the cured patient no longer needs him. In the same way, so long as the disease exists – capitalism – so will Marxism. Hence, “Marxists want nothing more than to stop being Marxists” (Eagleton, 1).

A resurgence of Marxist thought has more or less emerged in fascinating ways throughout the last half century. Philosophers, economists and even theologians have given special attention to Marxist thought from secular and religious perspectives alike. However, what’s interesting to me is so much the supposed kinship between Christianity and Marxism, seen through books like Marxism and Christianity (1968) by Alister MacIntyre and Marxism: An American Christian Perspective (1980) by Arthur McGovern.

For instance, MacIntyre argues in his book that Marxism is the ‘historical successor of Christianity’, for Marxism in ways similar to Christianity shares content and functions that have to do with interpretations of human existence. This matter is three fold.

First, Christians are in various ways dissatisfied with the imbalance of economic equality between the wealthy and the poor, where (furthermore) spending is more so directed towards military needs and luxury goods rather than basic human needs being met. Second, Christians have developed a ‘new awareness’ of their faith that takes a stand against this level of injustice, and hence a siding with the oppressed and the poor to transform the world. Third, and lastly, ways to alleviate or rid of these problems have ultimately failed. Hence, according to Arthur McGovern’s book, Christians have looked to the Marxist analysis for help.

Now, all this seems rather strange. We are all too familiar with that famous phrase from Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people” (Hitchens, 65. emphasis added).

Marxists would later change the phrase to “opium for the people.” The idea of this phrase is to show how religion – even Christianity in particular – is counter-revolutionary; keeping the people from rising up and revolting against capitalism. Hence, it is why religion must be done away with if our socialist utopia is to be obtained.

However, what one has to understand is that Marxists have faith more so in Marxism rather than in Marx, just as Christians have more faith in Jesus Christ rather in Christian ethics, economics or politics (Johnson, 110). This (in part) means that the goal-outlook of Marxism is somewhat missional in terms of its substitution of religion, paving the way “for Marxism itself to become a secularized religion” (Ibid.). I am reminded of an interaction between a Christian and a Marxist from Czechoslovakia over lunch. The Christian expressed that he had a hard time following the train of conversation, and so the Marxist asked why.

He explained that he did not fit into the image of a Marxist that he brought with him from the West. Particularly, as he says, he did not quote Marx at every turn. The Marxist sympathized with his confusion and explained that he treats Marxism as more of a method rather than a dogma. For instance, he took note of Marx’s analysis of a concrete historical situation, and hence felt the freedom to start the same way but fresh and anew.

Of course, he would return to Marx here and again for insight wherever needed, however he did not feel as though it was right to be “strait-jacketed” to Marx strictly. To remember, Marx was critical of philosophers who were purely speculative and descriptive about the world; the point was to change it. As the Christian concluded from that conversation, the Marxist was not a Marxist because of Marx’s ideas and theories, but rather because he saw the need to create a more just world and that Marx simply had the insights to initiate those changes.

Milan Machovec’s A Marxist Looks at Jesus (1975) is one of the first attempts to demonstrate harmony in the Christian-Marxist dialogue. However, the “demythologized” Jesus of Machovec’s analysis is one who urges people to fundamentally change their lives, someone a Marxist might unquestionably be sympathetic with. In this respect Machovec doesn’t necessarily bring to light the fundamental or ‘essential’ orthodoxy of both sides, but is nonetheless insightful for various points of view.

 

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Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. 2011. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Hitchens, Christopher. The Portable Atheist. 2007. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.

Johnson, J. G. God and Marxism. PDF available. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ijt/21-1-2_107.pdf

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