Volume 1 - Issue 3

The meaning of man in the debate between Christianity and Marxism Part 2

By Andrew Kirk
  1. The Christian critique of Marxist anthropology

Before attempting an evaluation of the debate between Christianity and Marxism concerning man, it is necessary to set out some of those problems which the Christian faith believes that the doctrine of Marx and his followers cannot resolve.

Apart from the abysmal ignorance that Marxism has shown in its polemic against Christianity,79 somewhat improved as a result of the contemporary debate,80 there are various areas of Marxist thought and various premises and consequences of its theory and practice which a Christian is forced to question very deeply. Some of these criticisms, naturally, would be shared by non-Christian philosophies; others belong exclusively to the Christian faith.

Returning again to Marx’s concept of man we can discover both similarities to and differences from Christian anthropology.

a. Similarities between Marxist and biblical anthropologies

The similarities belong exclusively to the third and fourth stage of Marx’s thought, as we developed it earlier. Man, according to the Bible, was created to work, to dominate the whole of creation. He is a creator in his own right, a labourer, an artist. The world was created, in part, for man. Man realizes himself, therefore, when he subjects it to his own design.

Moreover, the Bible agrees with Marx that a large part of man’s alienation is manifested in man’s domination of man through work: e.g. the Hebrews in Egypt (Ex. 1:11–14; 5:4–19); the prophetic condemnation of the impersonal buying and selling of wage labour (Is. 10:1, 2; 58:3, 4; Je. 8:10; 22:13–17; Am. 2:6, 7; 5:11, 12; Mic. 2:1, 2); the traditions of the law which ‘bind heavy burdens, hard to bear’ (Mt. 23:4); James’ condemnation of man’s exploitation of man by means of unjust wages, etc. For his part, Paul considers that work is a means of service towards one’s brother, never a means of acquiring power or influence (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 9:12–15; Phil. 4:14–18; 2 Thes. 3:11–13; Tit. 3:14).

Also man in the Bible is a historical being. The Old Testament understanding of God effectively demythologizes every kind of nature religion with its cyclical view of history.81 Abraham, for example, when he obeyed God, believing his promises, made history. He was responsible for a fundamental shift in world history. The biblical faith is also responsible for eradicating every kind of historical fatalism and determinism. Man, in collaboration with God, is the subject and not only the object of history. Moreover, resisting the strong influence of Greek thought, the Bible rejects the false dichotomy between two worlds, preferring to speak of the radical distinction which exists between two different ages (e.g. Col. 1:13; Rom. 12:1, 2; Jn. 5:24).82

b. Internal contradictions in the theoretical base of Marxist thought

The considerable similarities between certain aspects of Christian and Marxist anthropology ought to be further elaborated. These points of contact give the Christian-Marxist debate a programme which is rich in possibilities. At the same time there exist certain very serious discrepancies.

One of the greatest difficulties which Marx had to face in his theoretical thought was how to give an adequate theoretical base to his affirmation that man is the subject of history. His difficulty lies in the fact that a strong dose of determinism seems to underlie his whole system of thought.83 For example, if the whole superstructure of human life (i.e., its value systems, religion, political life, ideas, art, etc.) is the immediate consequence of man’s economic situation and class-position in society, is not Marxist theory also part of this same superstructure and, therefore, equally conditioned? In other words there exists a rigorous logic at work in Marx’s thought (and he himself is unable to avoid its consequences for his own system) when he asserts that the superstructure changes with the material circumstances of man.

If the actual position of the workers’ movement is controlled by inflexible laws of history (whose discovery made Marx think that his analysis had somehow reached scientific status),84 then the revolution can no longer be an inflexible demand of the historical process (i.e. predetermined) in those countries where the capitalist system has been greatly modified in favour of the working class: it can only be a moral requirement.85 Moral duties from Marx’s point of view, however, presuppose an idealist philosophy which he had already rejected in favour of dialectical materialism. In other words, according to Marx’s most consistent thought, the capitalist system is not evil so much because it maintains unjust relationships between the owners of the means of production and the worker who sells his labour (for in that case, according to what transcendent norms would injustice be decided?) but rather because it is destined by history to disappear.86

This theoretical difficulty, with its notable practical consequences, poses itself as the central problem of the whole Marxist system. Both the originality and the central force of Marx’s thought lies in his transformation of Hegel, Feuerbach and the French Utopian socialists into a complete materialism: every kind of sacrifice for the new society is worth while because an objective analysis has already determined history’s invariable direction. History, however, obstinately refuses to move in the direction which Marxist analysis has assigned for it, and so only moral indignation against the grave injustices inherent in every form of capitalist society is left as a source of action. But moral indignation can never find its justification in mere historical analysis.

Another of Marx’s great contradictions has to do with the relation between man and matter. This contradiction can be divided into two parts:

(1) Marx’s theory that man’s conscience is the reflexive part of nature suggests a naturalism rather than a humanism.87 But such a theory does not offer an adequate explanation of the origin of this conscience. Without this explanation it is totally illegitimate to think of human history as a process which presupposes direction, purpose and progress. Moreover, man as the subject of his own history is really a sleight of hand, because there does not exist in Marxist theory a convincing explanation of the cause of his unique consciousness. Marx does not give us any clue why man is capable of objectively reflecting upon nature, of which he forms a part. Indeed, on the basis of dialectical materialism it would be extremely hard to find any theory which was able to silence the suspicion and fear that man’s world and history are absurd.88

(2) The kind of reductionism that Marx infers—matter is the only originator of being and is infinite—does not provide him with any logical reason for concluding that the world is marching towards the fulfilment of some inherent purpose. Marx presupposes (and here he shows himself to be a post-Christian humanist89), that history progresses by means of the overcoming of various antagonisms in inter-personal relationships. If the world did not begin in space and time, however, there can be no guarantee that one day it will arrive at some decisive culminating-point, the end of pre-history. It is only the biblical doctrine of creation which has rescued man from the alienation of cyclical history and every form of pantheism. From where then does Marx derive his idea of purpose in history? It could equally logically be argued that, even granted that matter develops dialectically, causing man to arise in the process as a kind of inexplicable cosmic miracle, it does in fact repeat itself in the same acts and moments in successive periods. Marx never demonstrated that his theory of the evolution of man in society is any closer to reality than the idea of the ‘eternal return’.90

In point of fact the idea of man’s perfectibility is more theological than scientific, a position of faith.91 It presupposes that history is fulfilling a command which has come to it from outside. This idea, however, belongs rather to the Hegelian anti-revolutionary speculation that whatever is is there by necessity.

We would deduce the following general conclusion from our study of the internal contradictions in Marx’s theory; his ideas about the class struggle, the eschatological annihilation of classes in a qualitatively new society and the withering away of the state are pre-established ideological requirements, necessary in order to inject meaning into the historical process. No kind of sociological analysis, which claims to be scientific, could possibly furnish them.92

c. Contradictions between the Marxist and biblical anthropologies

The most obvious similarities, as we have noted, belong to the third and fourth stage of Marx’s anthropology; the discrepancies belong to the first and second (cf. pp. 44f.).

There is a sense in which Marx’s objection to every kind of anthropological ‘essentialism’, on the grounds that man cannot be understood apart from his historical circumstances and his social relationships, could also be defended from a biblical perspective.

The Bible, for example, never thinks of man as pure spirit. It recognizes that man is an essential part of creation; his physical nature belongs to him inseparably (even in the resurrection) and it is good. Neither does it admit that man is irreducible apart from his own history (as is the case in existentialist philosophy, for example). It emphasizes that man is ‘total’ only when his relationships with his neighbour are just and pure (and individualism, in contrast to individuality, cannot be justified by biblical anthropology). Thus, God’s plan for mankind’s salvation is a new community, man reproducing his new regenerated nature in perfect social relationships.93 Man is an individual, but his significance as an individual cannot be isolated from his social relationships.94

The Bible, moreover, insists for another and even more fundamental reason that man is not an irreducible esse. Man, recognizing that he is a creature, is truly man only in a complete relationship with the one who created him. The most basic biblical presupposition of all is that man owes his existence, his being, his significance and the totality of his social relationships to an infinite and personal Creator. But it is precisely at this point, if not before, that Marxism and biblical thought totally part company. As the Mexican theologian J. P. Miranda says so succinctly, ‘whilst the Bible recognizes the existence of God, Marx does not.’95

Finally, we will allude to the differences of opinion which centre on the subject of man’s alienation.

Engels criticized Feuerbach for not having duly investigated the historical role of evil. (He could equally well have criticized Christianity for the same blindness.) Nevertheless, neither Engels nor Marx ever investigated its true origin, which would at the same time have revealed its true nature.

The appearance of alienation (a valuable way of describing the effects of evil) on the historical scene cannot be accounted for by reference to the un-historical and romantic supposition that there once existed primitive communities which enjoyed non-alienated relationships. For even if such communities existed, later becoming alienated for the first time when money (rather than goods) was introduced as the means of exchange, and when a subsequent accumulation of profits was used as a means of power and oppression, the fundamental question still remains: from where did non-alienated man derive the idea that he would benefit himself by oppressing his neighbour? In other words, with regard to the problem of evil and its removal, the question why precedes the question how.

The Bible also speaks constantly of sin in terms of man’s oppression of man. At the same time it gives a satisfactory account of the reason for this sin: namely, that man’s basic alienation is derived from the fact that on desiring to arrogate to himself the role of God he loses his true humanity.96

In the first chapter of Genesis (verses 28f.) we find the command given to man to subdue and have dominion over the earth. The earth includes every animate and inanimate creature; these are the rightful object of his sovereignty. But man is excluded. Man has no right whatsoever to subjugate his fellow man. Only God is man’s legitimate sovereign. Thus man when he refuses to live in God’s world according to God’s will makes himself, by this act, into a pseudo-god with the right to dominate and manipulate man, to be his sovereign.97

Man, therefore, becomes alienated from his Creator when he attempts to overturn the true relationship which he was meant to enjoy with God. He also becomes alienated from his fellow man when he tries to be god to him (Marx did not really contemplate the possibility of this interpretation of his belief that ‘man is the highest being for man’), and from himself internally (an area which Marx hardly explored)98 when he rejects his true humanity.

The biblical understanding of man develops both the social and individual aspects of his alienation. It is vastly superior to Marx’s concept because it takes account of the depths of his alienation. While Marx described and elaborated one of the manifestations of this alienation with great power of penetration,99 he never hit upon its root cause. As a result he did not understand how this basic alienation could be eradicated from man.100 According to Marx, given the fact that alienation is only the fruit of a particular system of relationships within a certain economic substructure, when the structure is changed the alienation is also abolished.

In its failure to get to the bottom of the problem of man’s alienation Marxism has been driven, almost automatically, to adopt the totalitarian structures of total state intervention.101 One of the greatest weaknesses of Marxism is that it has no built-in system of self-criticism.102 It represents a ‘triumphalism’ even more ominous than that of some churches at their worst moments. Justification for failures is generally sought for either in the external enemy—monopolistic capitalism—or in the internal enemy—the bourgeois attitudes of its own leaders. But it refuses to face the real reasons why they have arisen. Do not the celebrated cultural revolutions in China imply a tacit admission that alienation does not end with the advent of the socialist society?

  1. What shall be done?

Much of our discussion so far has been both intricate and disputed. In this concluding section I would like to attempt some personal thinking on some of the still outstanding subjects of debate.

When all has been said and done, the basic point of departure for any debate of this nature has to be epistemology (how one can know). It is my belief that a Christian can undertake a very fruitful debate with a Marxist on their respective views of man. He is most likely to learn from him certain insights concerning the way by which unconscious influences from man’s surroundings provoke his attitudes and actions (the relationship between substructure and superstructure). At the same time, the fundamental dimensions of man, including his origin, the meaning of his life (Adam Schaff) and the persistence of his alienation can be understood only on the basis of a methodology of knowledge which is both well-founded and also explicit.

Marx placed the epistemological debate within the context of the dichotomy between idealism and materialism. For a Christian this dichotomy is false, for although it is true that Hegel has exercised an incalculable influence on the epistemological development of the West in the last 150 years, not least in theology (e.g., Barth; the ‘death of God’ theology; Pannenberg, etc.), nevertheless a discussion which takes his dialectical method as the only point of reference is too restricted. Marx, of course, due to his philosophical debt to Hegel, does so restrict the discussion (e.g., The Holy Family; The German Ideology, etc.), especially in his reversal of Feuerbach’s ‘transcendent’ atheism.103

It is because of this philosophical constriction that Marx can divide the world so easily into idealists and materialists: the idealist contemplates man in terms of pure being and thus makes him abstract; the materialist considers him in relation to his historical circumstances and thus makes him a concrete, real person.104 The debate about man takes place, therefore, according to the Marxist, between the two poles of philosophical speculation and scientific investigation. It is hot too difficult to predict who will win!

But the Marxist statement of the epistemological problem is much too superficial. In the first place, it is unaware of the proper limits of the scientific method. When Marxism places the debate within the terms of idealism versus dialectical materialism it has already gone well beyond the limits of a true scientific method. Both idealism and materialism make reference to philosophical extrapolations which exceed the immediate competence of the scientific discipline.105 In this context Marxism commits two basic methodological errors. (1) It shares the mistake of every humanism, when it claims that man’s world is self-explanatory, being entirely knowable through scientific analysis alone. (2) It refuses to recognize that its own way of looking at things mixes empirical observation with philosophical theorizing. In the first case it ends up in an absurd reductionism; and in the second, it is blind to its own inevitably aprioristic approach to knowledge.

But Marxist epistemology, far from eliminating this philosophical debate, claims to provide a new revelationabout man. Marx sincerely believed that on refuting the idealism of Hegel and bringing Feuerbach’s utopic vision of love down to earth, he had discovered the whole secret of man’s evolution in society. It is for this reason that Marx is able to talk about an end to actual history for man. Whether he likes it or not his concept of history, even if he projects it into a limitless future, implies a final and absolute state in man.

Methodologically, Marx confuses his own analysis of history (possessing strong and weak points like any other) with so-called historical laws which somehow exist independently of their recognition by man. It was on the basis of this belief that he made his prediction of man’s future into a simple question of the unravelling of scientific laws. It should not surprise us, therefore, that on account of this methodological confusion, ‘what has been partly fulfilled has not been due to any of his “inexorable laws of development” nor to his historical stages, through which it is necessary to pass’.106 What ought to surprise us, however, is that the modern Marxist continues to confuse the scientific method, which functions with rigorous experimental controls, with a humanistic mysticism which arises out of an unconditional faith in man’s progress.

It is precisely the Marxist claim to be a new revelation that provides both its attraction and its illusion. The Marxist claims to possess both an absolute ethical imperative and a scientific certainty in the final success of his version of history. This powerful combination inevitably tends, in practice, towards a combination of ideological and political totalitarianism. And it is a totalitarianism which does not differ in principle (but only in its ideological formulation) from any other. In this sense Karl Popper has pinpointed the central dilemma of Marxism when he says that Marx’s ethic was just another form of the positivist ethic of Hegel (there is no ethic save that which exists), the only difference being that he substitutes the future for the present.107

Summarizing, we would say that Marxism is, from its very beginning, basically a collection of philosophical theories,108 which have helped to furnish an economic-political analysis of post-industrial society which is highly suggestive. Nevertheless, this analysis, like any other, is subject to verification or falsification according to man’s subsequent development in society and must submit itself to new knowledge from whatever source it may come. Unfortunately Marxism has not allowed rational criticism of either its theory or practice, because it has tended to confuse a method with a world vision, i.e., to transform one possible way of interpreting history into the principle by which all history is ‘expropriated’.

Without being able to enter into a prolonged discussion of the question, we would say that the dialectical method as a method of knowledge is an inadequate instrument to encompass the totality of man’s existence. In practice, it tends to freeze history (confusing Communist society with the moment of eradication of all man’s basic alienations) a tendency which can be overcome only by appeal to an adequate ethical absolute. The ethic based on a permanent call from an absolute future (i.e., the ethic of the continuing revolution in the thought of Trotsky and Mao Tse-tung) is not adequate on a Marxist basis, for sooner or later a post-revolutionary society will have to decide between Marx’s belief that a socialist state is fundamentally non-contradictory and Mao’s theory of the eternal conflict of opposites.

The tension between the tendency to freeze history and the appeal to an absolute ethic is at the bottom of the polemic between the actual ideological position of Russia and her satellites and European revisionism (and, for slightly different reasons, China). But Marxism has no way of resolving the tension, not even by a fresh appeal to Marx’s writings, for no form of ‘historicism’ can be made the base for ethical decision.

We need to assess one further important aspect of Marxism. It is well resumed for us in the second thesis of Feuerbach: ‘The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thought is not a question of theory but of practice. In practice, man must prove the truth, the reality and the power of his thought.’ So stated, the thesis has much to commend it. In fact, in a way, it is in line with the apostolic insistence that the practical results of faith are the only proof of the genuineness of the profession (e.g., Eph. 4:17–21; 1 Jn. 2:6, 9; 3:14–24).

At the same time we have the right to demand that contemporary Marxism submits itself to the same principle. To judge capitalism, for example, by its practical consequences and Marxism only by its theory is neither just nor in agreement with the latter’s theoretical base. Nor is the justification of today’s errors on the basis of the inevitable development of tomorrow’s history admissible, when the former arises only out of the truth or otherwise of today’s practice.

The principle of the priority of praxis over theory, however, is usually formulated in another way in certain new theological movements (e.g., ‘the theology of liberation’ in Latin America today).109 The argument generally proceeds in the following way. It is unjust (or irrational) to criticize concrete socialist projects from an a priori position, without at the same time having a specific political commitment. Criticism cannot be launched from an ecclesiastical context, for example (and even less in Latin America), because the practical results of Christianity have already been judged in this context. Any kind of criticism of socialism outside of a practical commitment to the construction of a new society is totally formal because the gospel cannot be separated from political commitment in one form or another. Put in rather a different way, theological reflection is only meaningful on the basis of a previously held ideology of practice. The only valid criticism of concrete projects is that which comes in the course of a common commitment.

This argument would seem to be very well grounded. But in fact it suffers from various conceptual confusions which have their inevitable effect in similar tactical errors committed by the church, particularly in Latin America.

(1) In the first place, Christianity does not depend for its source of truth either on its praxis or on a particular historical-political analysis. The prophetic and apostolic message of the Bible which certainly demands that truth is acted upon, that the believer walks in truth, issues out of a previous word of God which is irreducible. So the practice of human justice, for example, only makes sense, in the last analysis, in the light of the one who represents justice in his own person, God himself. The ‘righteousness of God’, however (dikaiosunē Theou), is of a different order from the formalist concept of justice, whether this latter is intrinsic to the world (Marx), or extrinsic (Kant). Rather it is to be understood in the light of him who is the new man. It includes, as a constitutive part, the free justification of the sinner through faith in the finished reconciling work of Jesus Christ (Lk. 18:9–14; Rom. 3:21–26). In other words, a full practice of truth depends on a full revelation of the truth. And the truth of revelation, because it depends upon God who reveals, is objectively true independently of whether it is believed and acted upon by man or not. Nevertheless, the genuineness of anyone’s commitment to this revelation, just because it demands a consistent practice, will be judged by that practice and not simply on the basis of a profession of belief (the meaning of faith and works in the Letter of James). At the same time, that revelation can also be evaluated according to the theoretical answers it gives, even prior to its being put into practice.

(2) In the second place, the decision to commit oneself or not (or with reservations) to a particular political programme, if one is going to avoid a mere pragmatism and activism, demands a responsible theoretical analysis of the programme before one acts. This is especially true if one believes it right to reject the absolute claim of politics to decide the correct responses to all man’s problems. It is precisely those who have denied the legitimacy of a previous criticism of available options, based on coherent ethical principles which transcend particular political action (i.e., those which can be discussed and if necessary refuted), who have finished up by elevating political praxis into the source of these principles and as a result justifying any kind of political practice. Indeed, it is difficult to see how it would be possible in practice to commit oneself to a political position without knowing it and evaluating it beforehand. Even the act of commitment requires a choice which, if it is to be responsible, implies an a priori moral decision. A Christian, especially, ought to be very careful not to be deceived by carefully directed ideological propaganda, from wherever it may come.

(3) In the third place, it is, of course, abundantly true that the gospel cannot and should not be divorced from all political commitment. It is also true that certain political commitments better express the essential content of the gospel than others. But whether or not they do so express the gospel has to be decided by the gospel, and not by an autonomous pseudo-scientific, sociological analysis. In other words the gospel possesses its own political programme,110 which is based on its own analysis of the global reality of man. The ‘ideological’ pre-understanding, or hermeneutical key, of that programme is the extraordinarily rich and highly original biblical message of ‘the kingdom of God’.

The theology which the church undertakes does not depend (in the sense of sharing their presuppositions) upon any philosophy or ideology which claims an existence independent of the judgment of the Word of God. In fact, the idea that biblical exegesis has to work with an ideological or philosophical pre-understanding (Vorauf-verständnis) is due principally to the drastic change in man’s world view which took place at the time of the Enlightenment. In other words, it is based on man’s desired autonomy in the universe which leads him, because he rejects the idea of a personal creation by a supernatural being, to approach the biblical text within the context of his rationalistic presuppositions.

We believe that the authentic Christian reply to the whole latent challenge of Marxism and its basic epistemological confusion (i.e., the false dichotomy posed between idealism and materialism, between theory and practice and between historical stagnation and humanitarianism) is biblical realism.

In conclusion, I would like to point to two characteristics of this realism which provide us with an extraordinarily powerful and unique reserve for committed action in the maelstrom of modern life.

(i) Biblical realism is a great iconoclast against every kind of idol. An idol can be defined in modern terms as any kind of system of thought, which also leads to action, which is based on the philosophical speculation that man is autonomous in the universe. Biblical faith then is needed to ‘de-idolize’ or demythologize that system when it exceeds the limits of a strict scientific methodology and converts itself into a total world view.

Marxism can demonstrate its very considerable contribution to human knowledge and to the practice of liberation only when it has passed through a process of radical demystification. When this has happened, its many strong points, which do not consistently depend upon the false aspects of its anthropological base, but respond to a genuine understanding of man’s situation in the universe, may be more clearly manifested.

After some reflection the following points of the Marxist analysis seem to me either to mirror accurately the reality of our actual societies or else to coincide with the logical consequences of the biblical message. In either case they need to be very seriously considered, perhaps challenging many who would claim to be biblically-based Christians radically to re-orientate their stance and their practice with regard to social ethics and justice: (1) the disclosure of the undeniably unjust economic stratification of present society; and the ideal of a system of payment based on the principle of ‘from everyone according to his ability; to everyone according to his need’; (2) the alienating character of work under any kind of capitalist system; (3) the necessary relationship between the expansion of capitalism and the imperalism of the capitalist nations (and thus the imposition of dependence upon the underdeveloped countries); (4) ‘fetishism’ (the ‘religious’ pursuit of an ever-increasing consumption of things) as the inevitable fruit of a free-enterprise industrial society; (5) the vested interests of the dominant classes as a decisive influence on much human culture (we would not, however, accept a too rigid application of cause and effect, and we would roundly deny that Marxist propaganda which interprets all opinion diverging from its own as due to class interests; (6) the critique of the bourgeois notion of private property and of freedom, when these are used simply as excuses to continue in positions of domination (riches create power) or of privilege (freedom is the space created by and for those who are owners); (7) the injustice of a system where the labour of a worker creates benefits only for the one who can afford to hire him but not for the worker himself (the theory of ‘surplus value’); (8) the concomitant justice of the socialization of the means of production (but only when these are effectively put into the hands of the workers, and not when a change is used as an excuse for the enrichment of a new dominant class); (9) the criticism of all religion in so far as it gives birth to illusions or covers over glaring social sins (the negative use of religious ideologies as a priori inversions of reality); (10) exposure of the lie that capitalism has solved the problem of poverty (it has not solved it, only exported it).

(ii) Biblical realism proposes a future socio-political programme which is all its own. Having demythologized the ‘titanic’ or ‘faustian’ nature of Marxism and having pointed out the serious limits of its pretended scientific status, Christianity can and must conform itself in theory and practice to God’s historical project, which is nothing less than the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus Christ. The action which is demanded of Christians, either individually or collectively, will, I believe, involve, amongst other things: (1) the establishment of justice (dependent for its content exclusively on God’s character) at every level of society and down to the smallest detail as the greatest moral imperative in the field of social responsibility; (2) solidarity, even if it involves conflict and suffering, with every oppressed person, group and class (whether oppressed by man, nature, disease or their own sin), struggling alongside them to fulfil their legitimate needs and expectations, and at the same time carrying to them the unique message of the gospel which freely offers complete liberation; (3) a contribution to the maturing of new communities of faith so that they may reflect something of the fullness of life in the kingdom; one of the most conclusive signs of the arrival of the new era in Christ will be a total abolition in the new communities of any distinction which is based on the pretended superiority of some people (due to cultural background, race, sex, etc.) over others (Eph. 2:14–16; Gal. 3:28); (4) a constructive effort towards the building of new superstructures based on the ‘de-ideologized’ substructure of the gospel. Some of the areas in which this work may be carried out will be the following: jurisprudence, politics, architecture, applied sciences, journalism and literature in general.

The purpose of Marx’s book The German Ideology, as he later explained, was ‘to settle accounts with our erstwhile philosophical conscience’. Certainly part of the conscious purpose of this study has been to try to settle accounts, from a biblical Christian perspective, with the profound and lasting challenge of Karl Heinrich Marx. We trust that at the same time it will be of some value to other Christians who likewise have felt perplexed in the face of the overwhelming plausibility of Marxist thought and the almost non-existent replies from the Christian side.



Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton & Co., 1972).

Lewis S. Feuer, Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (New York: Doubleday, 1959).

Arthur P. Mendel, Essential Works of Marxism (New York: Bantam, 1961).

Tucker contains a good selection of the early writings; the main work missing is Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. This is not to be found in Feuer either, though it does contain a good selection of Engels’ letters as well as excerpts from the main works of both founders of Communism. Mendel includes the principal works of Lenin, Stalin, Djilas, Kolakowski and Mao Tse-tung; it was published too early to include anything by another revolutionary theorist, Che Guevara.


Otto V. Kuusinen et al., Manual of Marxism-Leninism. One of the classic expositions by a group of Soviet theorists. It is very faithful to the original thought of Marx and Lenin, though naturally it treats Lenin as a consistent interpreter of Marx’s thought.

George Lichtheim, Marxism: a Historical and Critical Study (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961). A thorough contextual study of Marx and subsequent developments, concentrating on Russian Communism. The value of the book is to set Marx against his own historical background, a fundamental principle of Marxist dialectics! The same is done by Berlin’s book, below.

I. Berlin, Karl Marx: his Life and Environment2 (London: Oxford University Press, 1960). A brilliant and very readable biography. Particularly helpful is the discussion in chapter 3 of the relationship between Marx’s conceptual framework and Hegelian philosophy.

David McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx: an Introduction (London: Macmillan, 1971). Also the author of a massive biography, published in 1973. He manages an enviable objectivity in this introductory account of the main lines of Marx’s thought. His approach is both historical (an outline of the principal writings, undertaken chronologically) and by subject (i.e. synthetic). There are ample quotations to back his exposition.

Nicolas Berdyaev, The Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966); together with his The Origin of Russian Communism (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1937). Still one of the best Christian critics of the dynamics of Marxist socialism when converted into practice. One of Berdyaev’s strengths is his non-bourgeois criticism of capitalist exploitation and his sympathy for some kind of socialism.

Eric Fromm et al., Socialist Humanism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967). A non-Soviet rethinking of Marxism for the current world. Very extensive.

H. Gollwitzer, The Demands of Freedom (London: SCM Press, 1965). Some penetrating insights from a Christian perspective into the historical tendencies of Marxist socialism. Equally critical of the tendency of Christians to oppose change. Tries to grapple with the problem of Christian testimony in a socialist society.

79 Well documented, for example, in the book by H.-G. Koch (see note 72), passim; cf. also I. Lepp, op. cit., p. 80; Berdyaev, op. cit., ch. VIII.

80 Garaudy, for example, however, depends too much upon the heterodox speculations of Teilhard de Chardin for his interpretation of Christianity. This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the Jesuit’s evolutionary optimism fits in well with the Marxist’s concept of progress. For an interesting attempt to combine the two within the context of African culture cf. Leopold Senghor, On African Socialism (London, 1968).

81 The investigation of Mircea Eliade (op. cit.) in this field is definitive. It is biblical faith which has given the world the idea of linear history. Even Engels recognized the part that Christianity has played in emancipating man from the irrational forces of nature.

82 This fact is determinative for the Christian’s responsibility as a citizen in society. It can also help us to discern the true dimensions of the future.

83 Cf. D. McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, pp. 31, 36.

84 Concerning the so-called scientific status of Marxist theory we would like to make the following comments:

(i) No scientific statement is valid unless it is in agreement with controlled and verified observation; on the scientific method cf. K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations; the Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London, 1969).

(ii) Marx himself was not an experimental scientist but a philosopher (his thesis for Jena University was written on a specific aspect of Greek philosophy) who believed that his description of the dialectical nature of history was closer to the facts than the speculations of Hegel and the observations of economists like Adam Smith and Ricardo.

(iii) The fact that many of his social-political statements have been proved false by the subsequent march of history tends to undermine a too precise claim to scientific methodology.

(iv) The false understanding of how the scientific method works and what it sets out to achieve has had disastrous results in Communist societies; e.g., the medieval attitude to scientific investigation in Russia in the Stalin epoch, which still survives in certain difficulties which scientists in Russia face today. Cf. among other authors, Mendel, ‘The formation and appeal of scientific socialism’, in Essential Works, p. 3; R. Conquest, op. cit., ch. VI; Girardi, op. cit., pp. 185f. The greatest hope for a more humane Marxism seems to lie in the demythologizing of its pretended scientific base. Fortunately, certain contemporary Marxists are prepared to question it, e.g. I. Svitak, op. cit., p. 25; L. Goldmann, op. cit., p. 47. Kolakowski, op. cit., p. 183, says ‘the expectation that social sciences can be compared with mathematics in the sense that we can always proceed from one particular collection of facts to the same unequivocable answers is a chimera’.

85 Lenin’s most famous work, The State and Revolution, attempts to justify, over against ‘orthodox’ Marxists like Kautsky, his voluntary deviation from that course of history which Marx had predicted in the context of a certain ‘moralism’. Lenin’s decision to use peasants in a civil war in order to gain power and his decision to withdraw from the First World War are very interesting. They are but two examples of his many resolutions to bend history on the basis of a ‘populist morality’; cf. Mendel, op. cit., p. 97. This moralism is also the basis of every kind of guerilla activity which takes its cue from Lenin rather than from Marx. As such, it needs to be evaluated by standards which are strictly ethical. It has nothing whatsoever to do with certain so-called historical stages, a kind of ‘Leninist dispensationalism’.

86 It should be well noted that Marx, because of the attempt to universalize his theories, is obliged to personalize the word ‘history’. His theoretical base in dialectical materialism, however, does not permit such a hypostatization; in fact it is solely due to his a priori philosophical dependence upon Hegel; cf. Berlin, op. cit., ch. 6; Eliade, op. cit., p. 149. Farré, op. cit., p. 28, says, ‘If the word progress was eliminated from Marxist terminology, the whole system would disappear … the constant dialectical overcoming is what explains the Marxist enlightenment.’

87 Cf. Farré, op. cit., p. 48; Girardi, op. cit., p. 181.

88 For a magnificently tragic picture of meaninglessness, cf. the essay by A. Camus, ‘The Myth of Sysiphus’. Marxists might reply that concern with the origin of man is a typical sign of counter-revolutionary speculation. Nevertheless, (a) Marxism claims, on the basis of its dialectical materialism, to be able to give an account of the whole of life; cf. Schaff, op. cit., p. 92; (b) Marx’s anthropological statements about man’s being the reflexive consciousness of nature and the subject of history are equally philosophical speculations (or, if preferred, insights); they are not based on controlled scientific investigation. Cf. Koch, op. cit., pp. 171–177, and the book by J. Z. Young, An Introduction to the Study of Man (London, 1971), which offers the point of view of a post-Planckian scientist on the origin of man.

89 Zylstra, op. cit. Many Marxist theoreticians recognize that the analogy drawn between evolution in nature and in human history, made particularly by Engels, is really devoid of substance, cf. Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx (1883).

90 Both the power and the weakness of Marx’s thought reside in the fact that he chose to isolate economic factors as the most basic component of man’s existence in society. The error lies in the fact that he abstracted one part of history, and then erected it into a total explanation of the world. Marx is able to demonstrate a certain evolution, a certain progress, in human history, but only at the cost of ignoring other facts. As Popper says, ‘Marx shared the belief of progressive industrialists of his time in the law of progress. This naive historicist optimism is superstitious. Progress is not a law of nature. The ground gained by one generation may be lost by the next’ (The Open Society, p. 385).

91 On the Marxist view of reality as a religion of the here and now, cf. A. Dumas, Ideologia y Fe (Montevideo, 1970), pp. 49f. The first person who noted the first seeds of a fanatic faith in Marx’s thought was Proudhon who, in a letter written to Marx in Brussels in 1846, said the following: ‘Let us not set ourselves up as the masters of a new intolerance, let us not rise up as the apostles of a new religion, even though the religion be one of logic or reason’ (McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, p. 30).

92 For the basis of Marxist epistemology, cf. Engels, Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. In our opinion it is grounded on a methodological misunderstanding. Basically, the Marxist does not understand the need to distinguish carefully between phenomena and their description. Thus, on many occasions Marxist analysis is really only a description about words, chosen for the moment, and not about happenings. for example, the idea of struggle is based on a verbal contradiction, as it does not necessarily reflect any genuine reality, but only a mental short-cut (an abstraction) for a supposed historical contradiction. What is ultimately in play here is the dialectical method as an adequate method of knowing. It should not really surprise us that a Marxist, in spite of his avowed historicism, is a declared enemy of every kind of positivism; nor that genuine scientists see in the Marxist method an aprioristic, anti-scientific philosophy; cf. Conquest, op. cit., pp. 116–119; A. M. Scott, The Anatomy of Communism, ch. 4.

93 J. Moltmann (Man: Christian Anthropology in the Conflicts of the Present) proposes, in place of Marx’s utopic vision of ‘total’ man, the Christian understanding of the ‘new’ man who has risen to newness of life through incorporation in Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1–11).

94 Marxism is preferable to a non-socialist humanism in the sense that it is closer to what man truly is. Its theoretical base, however, is no more convincing than that of any other humanism.

95 Marx y la Biblia (Salamanca, 1973), p. 316.

96 Cf. my article ‘La presencia y ausencia de Dios en la revelación de su ira’ (Cuadernos de Teologia, II, 4, 1973, pp. 328–340); Moltmann, Man, ch. 4.

97 In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain, although he claims the right to the life of his brother, does not accept any responsibility for him. When Marx talks about man being the highest being for man he naively assumes, as the rest of the context bears out, that man will accept full responsibility for his fellow man; he did not really contemplate the dynamics of man’s lust for domination over man. This is why it is permissible to call Marx’s view of man romantic.

98 Cf. E. Fromm, op. cit., p. 208.

99 His insight, even in his earliest writings, is very striking. In a letter written in 1843 he says, ‘The system of profit and commerce, of property and human exploitation, leads much quicker than increase of population to a rift inside contemporary society that the old society is incapable of healing, because it never heals or creates, only exists and enjoys.’

100 According to Marx, alienation will cease when the capitalist system folds in on itself as the result of excess production, and when the proletariat administers the means of production in the name of its own class. ‘Communism … is the genuine solution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man.… It is the solution to the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution’ (Early Texts, p. 148).

101 For if the alienation does not automatically disappear as it is destined to do, it has to be banished by force. From the point of view of unique biblical realism, Lenin’s ‘statism’ is a more logical historical step than the Communism preached by Marx; cf. the very opposite criticism by Berdyaev, op. cit., pp. 227–230.

102 Cf. Metz’s criticisms of Marxism quoted by Garaudy in From Anathema to Dialogue, p. 61; and Dumas, op. cit., p. 57.

103 Cf. the discussion in Althusser, op. cit.

104 The German Ideology.

105 K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations.

106 K. Popper, The Open Society, p. 385.

107 Ibid., p. 392.

108 In general terms it is interesting to note that his first writings, up to and including 1846, largely debate philosophical issues. Then his political works began to appear, beginning with The Poverty of Philosophy(1847) and ending with The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Finally he published his famous studies on economics, The Criticism of Political Economics (1859) and Capital (1866ff.). The Grundrisse (1857–58), perhaps his most complete work, includes material on the three subjects. There are, naturally, exceptions to this scheme. Nevertheless, the order philosophy, politics, economics is highly suggestive for an interpretation of Marx.

109 E.g., J. L. Segundo, Masas y Minorias en la Dialectica Divina de la Liberacion (Buenos Aires, 1973), pp. 79ff.; J. Miguez Bonino, Revolutionary Theology Comes of Age (London, 1975).

110 Cf. especially J. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, 1972); J. A. Kirk, Jesucristo: revolucionario(Buenos Aires, 1974).

Andrew Kirk

Andrew Kirk is Dean and Head of the Department of Mission in the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham UK.