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.