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