Good Marx, Bad Marx

About 15 years ago I did a clear out of my books about Marxism. These were not quite consigned to the dustbin of history but rather the attic or the charity shop. I now see that I had made a mistake. Marxism remains the official “creed” of the world’s biggest nation (and economy), China, and, albeit in a bizarre sort of way, nuclear armed North Korea is also officially Marxist. The 2007-9 banking crisis and recession had a favourable impact on the sales of Marx’s books.

In May 2017 the UK Shadow (Labour Party) Chancellor John McDonnell MP was one of the few politicians during the General Election campaign who said what he really thought when in an interview he argued there was a lot to learn from Karl Marx and particularly his magnum opus the book Capital. Was Mr McDonnell right? More, particularly, what’s the Christian view on Marx.

First of all, Marxism is a Christian heresy; this was recognised by thinkers such as Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee and Francis Schaeffer. There are several reasons why this is so:

  • A structural similarity; Marxism has its “Fall”- concentration of ownership of property in the hands of the capitalists, an “elect”- the proletarians, and a coming “Day of judgement”- the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
  • However much he repudiated the theism of Judaism and Christianity, Marx had all the passion for social justice of an Old Testament prophet.

Second, Marx was an atheist. I think we should take seriously what Marx himself wrote. He said that the criticism of religion was the foundation of all criticism. Admittedly, a twentieth century Marxist Ernst Bloch tried to reconcile Christianity with Marxism but in every real sense Bloch remained an atheist. Marx’s atheism was no accidental feature of his thought. It was fundamental to it. Christian traditions, notably Liberation Theology, which claim that Marxism is a neutral tool, which may be bolted onto a Christian base are fundamentally flawed.

Third, Marx is more than economics but it is about economics. From the 1960s onwards attempts have been made to re-make Marx as a Romantic thinker, an early hippy or ecologist. However, Marx regarded himself primarily as an economist who had elucidated the “laws of motion” of capitalism. That, indeed, is what Mr McDonnell is mainly interested in. Marx’s record as an economic prophet is in fact a mixed one (Deuteronomy 18:22).

Fourth, Marx was a mid 19th Century “prophet” who envisaged ever-greater inequality though it is not always clear whether Marx envisaged that wage earners would suffer an absolute or relative decline in their earnings. However, I think that a Marx observing from 2017 would be surprised by how much average working class and middle class living standards have risen over the last century and a half.

Probably, what Marx was predicting was not the absolute “immiseration” of the bulk of society but ever widening inequality. Whatever may have been the perceptions that influenced voting behaviour in the recent British and American elections and votes, the long run statistical record of inequality in the UK and USA has actually been a mixed one. Inequality reached a peak just before the 1929 Wall Street crash, declined during the first couple of post-Second World War decades, rose again in the early 2000s and has probably declined since the 2008 banking crisis.

In any case, and I know many (most?) contemporary evangelicals may disagree, is the Biblical imperative towards economic inequality a very strong one? In fact, a much better case can be made that the Bible and especially the Old Testament demonstrates God’s primary concern is that absolute poverty be reduced (see Exodus 22:21-27; 2 Corinthians 8:14 is essentially about voluntary giving and “re-distribution” within the Church); absolute poverty means an inability to afford the basics of life whereas relative poverty refers to falling behind some sort of notional norm for any given society.

Marx predicted an economy characterised by big businesses and recurrent crises. He correctly foresaw the increased use of scientific research in modern industry, the emergence of super-large businesses and corporations and a repeated pattern of boom and slump. Given our belief in sin and the Fall, Christians should not be surprised that the complex, modern market economy sometimes does not work very well. That it works as well as it does may be considered providential (perhaps this was a point which Adam Smith, one of the contenders with Marx to be “history’s greatest economist”, was making in the 18th Century).

Marx argued capitalism would eventually destroy itself as the concentration of wealth created an ever-growing class of the angry and dispossessed. As a Christian who thinks there is some merit in continuing to use a market economy, one where business decisions are incentivised by the pursuit of profit, I think Marx was partly right and partly wrong.

The greatest danger facing capitalism is less a growing proletariat, or a falling rate of profit, but the possibility that uninhibited capitalism undermines the moral foundations, which it requires in terms in terms of honesty and trust. Adam Smith, again, recognised this point but, sadly, some late 20th Century right wing exponents of capitalism did not. Prime Minister May’s first speech in Downing Street implied some recognition of this point but thereafter her administration has seemed overtaken by “events”.

Sixth, Marx had a very ambiguous relationship to morality. Christians can share Marx’s passion against poverty and the instability in our existing economic system. We just do not need his economic theory to explain what’s wrong or what we should do about it. The relationship between what Marx wrote and the totalitarianism of some of his twentieth century totalitarian disciples is a complex one to be sure. Das Kapital did not make the labour camps and the purges inevitable any more than the books of Nietzsche or Wagner’s operas made Hitler inevitable (or the Bible, the Crusades). Where Marx bears some moral responsibility is in terms of the example he set of extreme political hatred and intolerance.

This is one reason why people should read Marx- they will discover the amount of vitriol he poured over his opponents. His enemies were not just the capitalists but anyone who dared have an alternative theory of socialism. The root of that hatred was ultimately a religious one- for Marx humanity has a duty to dethrone God regardless of how many are trampled in the process.

Dr Esmond Birnie is an academic economist. He was previously involved in business and was a MLA during 1998-2007.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.

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2 Responses to Good Marx, Bad Marx

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece Esmond. It’s good to have a perspective on Marx that neither lauds him as prophet nor curses him as deceiver. Last year I dug out my very old copy of The German Ideology, then I finally got round to reading The Communist Manifesto, and then read the ever entertaining Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right. While Marx’s solutions may be unconvincing I find some of his analysis of the problems of capitalism compelling; all the more so with reference to the currently dominant form of capitalism. I think he still has something to say and it would be interesting to see a critical Christian appropriation of those aspects of his though that still have purchase in our time.

  2. Jonny Watson says:

    I found this a very thought provoking and current reflection. Would Esmond Birnie agree that a person finds themselves in absolute poverty when they are reliant on food banks, are unable to heat their house or cannot find a roof over their head. Surely the rise in families needing foodbanks, significant levels of fuel poverty and the sheer number of people rough sleeping in our streets indicates that absolute poverty is not a thing of the past! Personally I think that a Marx observing from 2017 would unfortunately not surprised by how many people continue to live in absolute poverty despite the advances in technology and methods of production at our disposal since 1867. As a society we literally throw tonnes of food in land waste each day while parents skip meals to ensure their children are fed.

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