The “Opium Of The People” And The Opioid Crisis

I have been thinking some lately about Karl Marx (1818–83). Now, it has been a few decades since I have read Marx but I did read him a fair bit in University as an undergraduate. I think my various Political Science professors assigned The Communist Manifest about 5 times in various courses. Beyond the reading he featured prominently in lectures. This was all before President Reagan’s 1987 “Tear Down This Wall” speech and the visible collapse of the Soviet Union, in which those who had been held hostage by Marxist-inspired communism did finally tear down the Berlin Wall in 1989.

As I watched Germans and others sitting atop the wall, an act that would have had them shot only a few years earlier, I thought that the manifest evidence of the failure of the Marxist-Leninist (Communist) project would be obvious to all but I was wrong. I was wrong because I did not understand yet that Marxism is not a mere social theory or even a theory of history, in which Hegel’s dialectical movement of history was said to have been turned “upside down” and materialized in a the dialectic of the class struggle, but a religion, an eschatology and one that is not grounded in history but solely in a vision of the future. As such, it is impervious to criticism. There are no facts, there is no history, there is no logic, there is no reasoning with one who is utterly devoted to a utopian vision of the future. See David Koresh. The FBI negotiators perhaps did not understand that Koresh really believed in a coming utopian in which he was the central, Messianic figure. There was no reasoning with him because he leveraged everything they said by his utopian view of the future.

Of course people have often tried to characterize Christianity as essentially just another religion of direct revelation (apocalyptic) about a future glory age. Thus, they try to marginalize Jesus and his apostles. One great problem with such an approach is that it fails to reckon with Christianity’s equal commitment to the past and the present. Yes, Christianity has an eschatology but it has a history. We regard the Exodus as an historical event. We regard the resurrection as historical events. In so doing, we are following the prophets, our Lord, and his apostles.

Marx is famously paraphrased as saying “religion is the opium of the masses.” In his 1843 “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” he wrote, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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.”

For Marx, religion was a subjective imagination, a distraction from the real job at hand: the development of class consciousness (essentially, the business of waking up “the proletariat to their condition, warning the upper classes, and calling the middle class to pick a side). Religion was not grounded in reality, in history, or more properly, in the progress of history. It is from the Hegelian-Marxian view of history that we get the rhetoric of being on “the right side” or “wrong side” of history—which only works if one already knows how things must necessarily turn out. The Marxist thinks he knows how things must turn out. Ultimately, history and facts are just occupations or even distractions. They are not determinative of reality.

Meanwhile, in America, the land of plenty, the land of opportunity, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” we are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Whole towns, it seems are addicted. First responders are flooded with calls to administer Narcan, to save those who have overdosed on opioids.

What hath Marx to do with the opioid epidemic? They have this in common. Both are symptoms of what happens when we trade the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the hope in the new heavens and the new earth for a this-worldly utopia brought about by “consciousness raising” or social action or material prosperity. As it turns out, the latest refrigerator and a vacation home really do not make one happy. Unemployment and poverty are real ills to be addressed properly but obviously, if people are able to buy and consume opium they are not utterly without resources. Americans have been impoverished before and even starved (I come from a place where, when famine occurs, the people have been known to eat bugs to survive) without resorting to opium or the like. The people from whom I come might fairly be called Stoic and that is just as pagan as Marxism but the Nebraska Bugeaters were mostly Methodist (back in those days). One of the first buildings in the new town of Lancaster, Nebraska (Later, Lincoln, Nebraska) in the 1860s, was a Methodist seminary. However much we ought to disagree with their theology, piety, and practice, arguably their Christian faith sustained them during some very dark times indeed.

Marx was wrong. The class conflict will not result in utopia. It will result in more conflict. We know what happened to the Marxist experiment. It led to the death of tens of millions in the Soviet Union, in China, and in Vietnam. It was a failure. Central planning and five-year plans, soviets (collectives), and the like do not work. They are at odds with the nature of things and man. Modernity was wrong. There is such a thing as nature. It cannot be re-made nor can humans be re-made. We are as God made us and as Adam’s fall corrupted us

Part 2.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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12 comments

  1. As Marx’s false god was matter he despiritualized Hegel’s pantheist dialectic giving rise to Dialectical Materialism.

    Dialectical materialism is considered to be the most highly developed philosophy of materialism. It rests on three fundamental metaphysical presuppositions:

    1. Deified Matter: The Ultimate Substance which, though non-living, non-intelligent, and non-conscious, nevertheless somehow possesses the emergent properties of life, mind, consciousness, and soul.

    2. Evolution: Since Marxist dialectic requires a theory with clashes (thesis and antithesis) and leaps (synthesis), Marxists all but abandoned Darwinism and instead embraced punctuated equilibrium:

    “Many people confound dialectic with the theory of evolution,” noted G. Plekhanov. “Dialectic is, in fact, a theory of evolution. But it differs profoundly from the vulgar (Darwinian) theory of evolution.” (Fundamental Problems of Marxism, 1929, p. 145)

    3. Spontaneous Generation: An offshoot of specifically Darwinian thought accepted unreservedly by Marxists as their dialectic requires a strictly materialist explanation for the origin of life from dead matter. In the words of M.A. Leonov:

    “Marxist philosophical materialism remains beyond all doubt that at some time or other in the remote past, life must have arisen from non-living matter.” (Outline of Dialectical Materialism, 1948, p. 494)

    In a modified version of the Stoic conception of the earth as a living organism possessed of its own soul, neo-pantheist dialectical materialism declares that earth is “one entire organism…its organs the various races and nations of men.”

    Not only is the earth alive and evolving upward on evolution’s magical escalator, but so too are history and society, for they also are living entities in a continuous state of motion. And man? In a modified conception of Atomism’s extremely dehumanizing view of man, dialectical materialism states that man is nothing but “a colonial aggregation of cells,” and to “consider him an individual would be an error.” Man—the aggregate of cells— is nothing but an extension of society, history, and earth. (Russian Textbook on Psychopolitics, Chapter II: The Constitution of Man as a Political Organism)

    From: The Materialist Faith of Communism, Socialism, and Liberalism

    • Linda, thank you for organizing these notes that portray the darkness. Investigating the warped ideas of men caught and engaged fully in God’s ‘fallen world trap’ of their own imaginations and intelligence requires a special skill.

  2. Yesterday, I read that Richard Dawkins defended Christians as the least harmful people group, warning that governments should protect Christians. I wonder if Dr. Dawkins’ attitudes have been shaped by his debates with the winsome, Dr. John Lennox, a Christian and an Oxford Professor of Mathematics?

  3. I appreciate the statement on Marxism and modern materialism, they “have this in common. Both are symptoms of what happens when we trade the bodily reasurrection of Jesus and the hope in the new heavens and the new earth for this-worldly utopia brought about “consciousness raising” or social action or material prosperity.” As the song goes, “if that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing. Break out the booze” and as it might go on, the opioids to dull the pain of the futility, and hopelessness, or worse, hurt and kill as many people as you can so that you might have a moment of infamy.

    I know of no statement in Scripture that better describes this utter desolation and sense of futility, without God, than Eph. 2:12 “you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Isreal and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world.”

    This should provide a sense of urgency to Christians, for the preaching of the only good news which can answer the plight of humanity sold under sin and misery.

  4. It seems that you are saying that Marx thought that religion was a distraction from the reality of the class struggle that we see throughout history. But then you say that Marx did not know how history ended, which is true, since the Scripture says that the end will come without any mere man knowing exactly when that will happen. So, is history just a ‘distraction’ because Marx did not know how it was going to end?

  5. “We know what happened to the Marxist experiment. It led to the death of tens of millions in the Soviet Union, in China, and in Vietnam.”

    … and counting, in North Korea.

    I remember a funny moment from when Dennis Miller was at the Update Desk on SNL, trying to make some prop work as part of a bit. It wasn’t working, and he off-the-cuffed “Even Socialism works in theory…”

  6. Hello RubeRad,

    You are saying that communism does not work because there were “tens of millions” of deaths, I guess, although you do not use this word for some reason. Is North Korea the future of communism? Why would a backwards nation be the future of communism? So, is your argument that communism does not work because it leads to the deaths of millions? If yes, then to avoid more bloodshed, should Marx’s influence be tarnished to save the lives of the people?

    • Richard, you write: “Should Marx’s influence be tarnished to save the lives of people?” Is your argument that Marx’s communist utopia is worth the lives of tens of millions of people? That we must not tarnish his influence, even if it costs the lives of people? Like the suffering and death of tens of millions of people in the name of Marxism is not already a devastating tarnish on Marx’s influence?

  7. Hello Angela,

    My argument is that I will agree with you that “the tens of millions of people” that “died in the name of Marxism” and that has tarnished “Marx’s influence”. Additionally, if one man’s idea about a “communist utopia” has cost the lives of the many, then once utopia is set up on earth, cannot those who remain enjoy each other’s company? By the way, I saw Dr. Strangelove recently and I am studying the Russian language, so I thought to put on this Marxist mask to provoke some dissent among yourselves. I mean no ill towards you, but I wanted advocate communism to promote ideological awareness.

    • You mean, you were playing the devil’s advocate. Our hope is not in the earthly, Marxist utopia that has cost the misery and death of tens of millions so that those who remain can enjoy each other’s company. Our hope is in the One who suffered and died in our place. We seek a heavenly country where we will enjoy each other’s company, with Him, forever. All that Marx’s utopia has meant, is the suffering and death of tens of millions in the hope that those who remain might enjoy each other’s company for this short, earthly existence. That is exactly the futility and meaninglessness that results from trading in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the new heavens and the new earth for a soulless, empty materialism of this short life. What is really frightening about this, is a willingness to sacrifice the lives of others for the utopian goal. It goes against conscience and against the moral law. It is the devilish dedication to an earthly utopian vision. We see it in those like David Koresh in sacrificing his cult followers for his utopian dream and in the atrocities of ISIS, bent on establishing their caliphate. It is a satanic denial of God and His righteousness. God says, love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Utopian ideologies like Marxism say deny God and kill your neighbour for material gain. It is the devil offering lies, as he did in the garden.

  8. You are saying that communism does not work because there were “tens of millions” of deaths, I guess, although you do not use this word for some reason.

    The reason is that I did not say that. Dr Clark brought up deaths historically, I tagged on with deaths in the present, and then followed up with a related anecdote.

    You present yourself as a troll, so I’m not going to stick around and engage, but the reason communism doesn’t work is because it ignores original sin and total depravity, by assuming that selfishness can be educated out of people. Capitalism works for exactly the opposite reason, because it is founded on individual selfishness.

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