The Compatibility of Christianity and Marxism

The common wisdom of both Christians and Marxists is that Christianity and communism are incompatible; when looking at the history of relations between the two ideologies as well as the ideologies themselves, it is understandable why many come to this conclusion. Communists have traditionally believed that Christianity has been a tool of the ruling classes to keep proletarians and peasants in chains. Marx, in his essay “On the Jewish Question” claims that religion provided an escape from the alienation of proletarian life. As this alienation would not exist in communism, religion would no longer be necessary.

Since people would find fulfillment in their day-to-day labor, the worship of deities would simply fade away. In addition, he believed that humans should strive for authenticity themselves rather than project ideal humanity onto a non-existent being. Many Christians see Marxism a materialist, secular philosophy that is antithetical to all forms of spirituality as well as inherently repressive. Hence, in spite of Christianity’s doctrines concerning social-justice, Christians do not view Marxism as a viable political option. As an orthodox Christian and a communist, I would contend that both sides are incorrect in their assessment of one another and that the time has come to build new bridges of reconciliation and solidarity between Christians and Marxists.

The main Christian critique of Marxism is that historical materialism is incompatible with Christian doctrines such as the existence of substances beyond matter, like spirit. Many Marxists (Marx himself) would agree. Many Christians have reinterpreted Christian doctrine in such a way that squares more ontological materialism, but for more conservative Christians such as myself, this is not a viable option.  There is, however, a way to interpret historical materialism in such a way that it need not conflict with the existence of spirit.

Whether or not Marx would have believed that all things are composed of matter is beside the point; the most important aspect of Marxism is historical materialism—material entities satisfying their material necessities and the forces and modes of production that facilitate this are what primarily drive history—not necessarily ontological materialism (everything is matter). If we understand historical materialism in this way, we still leave open the possibility of immaterial reality; it is merely that, in terms of how history plays out, material reality has a certain priority. In addition Engels, in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” concedes that higher levels of the historical materialist superstructure can turn around and exert causal influence over economics, so Marxism can allow for things which are not necessarily material to have a direct impact on history.

As an orthodox Christian I am required to believe in the existence of spirit; nevertheless it’s undeniable that economics exerts a greater influence over history than the activity of our consciousness, and our consciousness itself has been to a large degree shaped by our particular relationship to the means of production. I see no necessary contradiction between this view and orthodox Christianity, so long as the Christian maintains that spirit does exist and exerts a certain non-historical priority over matter.

Marxists and Christians have a lot of common ground in that the Bible clearly teaches God’s preference for the interests of the poor. According to the 8th century BCE prophets, a key reason for the Babylonian exile was punishment for Israel’s failure to care for its poor (cf Jer 5:28-29; 22:3-5; Hos 6:6; Amos 2:6-7; 4:1; 4:11-12). The Torah is also filled with provisions designed to protect the poor from oppression (cf Ex 23:3, 7-11); not the least of which was the Jubilee Year, wherein every 50 years all outstanding debts would be canceled, all possessions returned to their original owners, all prices reduced, and all servants set free; this measure was designed to level the economic playing field among ancient Hebrews (Lev 25:8-17).

Jesus, for his opening sermon in the Luke’s Gospel quotes the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach good news to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the year of the Lord’s Favor,” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus later tells his disciples: “how hardly shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of Heaven,” (Luke 18:18-25). Beyond Jesus, James might as well directly explicate the doctrine of surplus value in the 5th Chapter of his epistle: “behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which you kept back by fraud crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord Sabaoth,” (James 5:4).

Finally, the Acts of the Apostles explicates clearly the kind of society in which Christians are to live, and for which we are to advocate: “And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common… Neither was there any among them that lacked… and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need,” (Acts 4:32, 34-35). Oddly enough, Marx said something suspiciously similar to the tone of: “…from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” Concern for the oppressed and the establishment of a just society is as much a part of Christian tradition as is raw spirituality. The goal of the Communist Party with regards to Christians should be awaken them to these teachings of their own traditions and how they have more in common with the left than with the right.

Concerning the Marxian critiques of religion: that it is unnecessary in communism, and more essentially (as per the new-Hegelian school from which Marx hailed) that it projects the human essence onto a non-existent reality rather than enabling humans to reach said essence themselves. It is here that I and Marx will part ways. If one believes this to be essential to Marxist doctrine, then Christianity and Marxism are incompatible, but I would contend that this interpretation is not necessary to either of the two most important doctrines of Marxism: historical materialism, and surplus value. Not only is this interpretation of Marx unnecessary, it is also unrealistic.

Although many of the existential problems that plague humanity stem from material causes, not all of them do. Even if the human person finds herself completely at home in her workplace, this alone is not satisfactory enough to unite the human essence with its existence. While Marx was correct that the human essence includes its ability to rationally change nature to produce the goods necessary to survive and thrive, it is also the case that human essence includes the possibility of achieving some kind of transcendence of the mundane that cannot be found in merely ending working class alienation.

In terms of the New-Hegelian Critique: I agree, we do project ideal humanity—in an allegorical sense—onto God. To argue that this necessarily implies that God does not exist, however, is circular. At any rate, the projection of ideal humanity onto God does not imply that religion must prevent humans from reaching this ideal itself. Although some Christians would argue that we should merely rely on the grace of God for salvation and wait for the coming of Christ rather than improve ourselves and reform society, they are sorely unbiblical (cf Eph 5:1; Phil 3:13-14; Heb 6:1). It is because of the biblical imperative to strive for existential authenticity as well as the interdependence of all members of the human community that Communism is entailed by Christian social ethics.

At any rate, whether or not my comrades agree with my interpretation of Marx, there is an entire community of social-justice-minded Christians—Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical or other—who could potentially be Communists without even realizing it. The party has a great deal of work to do in reaching out to them and assuring them that in the society we intend to build, our right to practice Christianity will be protected. A plurality of the working class of this nation identifies as Christian; imagine what we could accomplish if we managed to convince them that our faith is not only compatible with communism but entails it. At any rate that the party will never succeed in building a mass-people’s movement until it does just that.

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  • An excellent article. And there is so much that one can develop theologically. For example, just as the mysterious union of God the Father and God the Son cannot be entirely defined, and the exact nature of human union with Christ cannot be entirely defined, there is also the mysterious union of matter and spirit.

    Christians need to see history as such as meaningful. Too often we see it as having ended with the resurrection, with everything after it a long, meaningless wait for the Second Coming.

    The Second Coming and the Revolution are as one.

    Posted by J.W. Horton, 07/27/2015 9:02pm (2 years ago)

  • Too simple, even early christians after the book of acts episode didn't require communal ownership. The Byzantine empire had private property though the emperor could take property but this was not always popular both Procopius and Evagrius Scholastius complain about Justinian did property from the wealthy in order to enrich himself or his projects for the state. So, Byzantines didn't always except the state taking property away from private indivduals even when they were wealthy.

    Posted by cynthia curran, 08/20/2012 4:40pm (5 years ago)

  • It's nice to say that Christianity entails or requires socialist or communist ideals, but it doesn't, at least not particularly so. Christianity is based on the Bible, which people read in extraordinarily different ways, based on their own tastes, prejudices and desires. It justifies your communism, but it also justifies slavery. Segregationists used it, and so did Martin Luther King. It's an extremely malleable philosophy, and people will interpret it how they want.

    As for Marxism: It's compatible with Christianity in the same way that the theory of evolution is. It is, at least in the opinions of its proponents, science based and material, the same way evolutionary theory is. There's nothing to stop any person of any religious background from agreeing with it, and then adding the spiritual, "All this is scientifically true, but only because God wills it." Evolution becomes "compatible" with Christianity when the Christians say, "Oh, forget all that Adam and Eve stuff; it was metaphorical. There was evolution, but it was part of God's plan." Christianity works that way with not only Marxism, but everything.

    But if you accept both Christianity and Marxism, you have the same sort of questions that an acceptance of evolution and and Christianity brings about: Why was it necessary for God to build up to some socialist society? Why couldn't He simply have created it, Garden of Eden style? Instead, it was necessary for earlier generations, the generations of the past 100,000 years or so, to not only have to deal with the problems of the capitalist system, but also the even worse problems, the tortures, of feudal society, of slave society, of Marx's "Oriental Despot" societies or of the "primitive communist" societies, in which people lived an egalitarian lifestyle, but were constantly in fear of everything around them.

    In short, if you're creative, you can square Marxism, evolution and other sciences with Christianity - so long as you continually update and revise Christianity away from much of the Bible - and that's your right, but there's no reason to do so, aside from the religious beliefs you were taught since birth.

    A further point: it would be useful to not confound the terms "Marxist" and "communist." They are not interchangeable. A Marxist agrees with the general philosophy of Marx, as developed by countless followers - who often disagree with other. A communist is an adherent of a Communist Party, who may be more or less Marxist, or may not. It's far easier to be a Christian communist, a Christian member of the Communist Party, than to be a Christian Marxist.

    Posted by Sylvester, 05/01/2011 12:06pm (6 years ago)

  • I grew up in the 40's and 50s in a house where my father was a Marxist and a Communist as well as a Christian. While he did feel the Church was used as a tool by the Capitalists his faith was never in doubt, just his feelings toward the religious hierarchy. He actually went with our Priest to San Quentin Prison and served mass to the men, including to those on death row before an execution. While both my parents were labor organizers my Father took it a step further because he also worked with the men in Prison bringing them the daily worker and teaching classes on labor history in the Prison itself. This was done after mass on Sundays, He called his classes an extension of the Bible Study classes and one of the guards from San Quentin who was also a member of our church helped him teach it. At a time when HUAC hearings were broadcast live on the radio and later TV no one questioned my Father and his friend teaching labor history and Marxism after mass because of the wide held belief that Christians can not be Communists.

    Posted by Sheila Malone, 04/30/2011 3:54am (6 years ago)

  • Andrew: Of course. I understand completely. Just trying to cast the proverbial wider net.

    Posted by Joel Wendland, 04/29/2011 12:37pm (6 years ago)

  • Joel: Sure... I chose not to comment from the perspective of non-Christian Religions as I, not being a practitioner of said religions would feel uncomfortable speaking for them. I agree that certain interpretations of most forms of religiosity can be compatible with Marxism, but being an orthodox Old-Catholic Christian I chose to write from that perspective alone. I'll leave it to a Muslim, hindu, Buddhist, animist, or other to comment on the compatibility of Marxism and their own religious traditions.

    Posted by Andrew Miller, 04/28/2011 10:19pm (6 years ago)

  • This is an interesting article, especially for someone who grew up in a right-wing, anti-communist evangelical Christian family. However, I agree with Tom. Couldn't socially-conscious interpretations of all the world's religions be equally treated in a similar manner? In other words, why Christianity? Why not Islam? Buddhism? etc.

    Posted by Joel Wendland, 04/28/2011 8:29pm (6 years ago)

  • As a lifelong member of the Orthodox Russian Church I would like to present a slightly different view of the ROC and the Communist Party.
    While there were indeed periods of revolutionary and ideological excesses directed against the Church and Her Faithful in the USSR there were also long periods of good cooperation. I know. I lived there.

    No one wanted the collapse of the SU. But that didn't matter; other forces brought the collapse about and the return to capitalism. Now let's look at "free" Russia:
    Millions of poor and even starving. Homeless people by the hundreds of thousands across the former USSR who eat out of garbage dumps and dwell in metro stations and under bridges. Prostitution like we never saw before. Open and vulgar displays of alternative life styles. Drugs trade. Pornography. Record abortions. Joblessness. Fir the first time sine Stalin, illiteracy. Open racism and ethnic hate. In Ukraina and the Baltics an adoration of Hitler! In western Ukraina forced Catholicism on the Orthodox.

    There is much more wrong, too.

    Now the Communist Party there has made apology to the Church and the Church has accepted it. In many places the Church and Party work together to try and salvage what was good and prevent growing capitalist, "freedom's" evils.

    This article is very important. It reveals reality of situation "on the ground" in former communist countries. The former USSR learned too late to embrace at least respect for Christianity. And the price was high. We Soviets have learned that the gates of Hell won't destroy the Church. But they can destroy Socislism.

    We learned this too late.

    As a Russian Orthodox Christian I lament the persecution of my Church by the Party. But now I lament the loss of Socialism. "Freedom" and capitalism are much worse persecutors.

    Posted by Vsevolod, 04/28/2011 4:34pm (6 years ago)

  • I see no conflict between socialist or communist society and the practice of christian worship. But Marx-ism, to the extent that it reflects the philosophical views of Karl Marx, is atheistic.

    Posted by John Case, 04/28/2011 3:25pm (6 years ago)

  • I happen to agree that Marxism and Christianity are not compatible. (I'm an animist, and don't subscribe to either.) But perhaps a more important fact is that, while Marxism and Christianity are incompatible, the incompatibility of Christianity and capitalism is much greater and more significant.

    Capitalism, like Marxism, is a recent ideology that rejects the authority of the Church and of scripture, and elevates technology and results to the highest value. Like Marxism, it was imposed on society by a fairly small elite group that gained control of the state. Unlike Marxism, it places no value on human solidarity or caring. Capitalism negates all Christian morality in favor of accumulation of wealth, which was the activity that Jesus most explicitly condemned.

    It may be possible for a rich man to enter Heaven, but no capitalist can possibly meet the test of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.

    Posted by Larry Yates, 04/27/2011 7:31pm (6 years ago)

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