This past Saturday, May 5, saw the bicentennial of the birth of Karl Marx, arguably the most influential philosopher in modern history. What made him so influential was that he was not your typical armchair philosopher – delivering dry lectures in some ivory tower somewhere. Instead he laid out a political agenda that ultimately affected the lives of millions of people worldwide.
Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels laid out their agenda in the Communist Manifesto, published in London on the eve of the revolution of 1848. In it they described in vivid detail the rapacious effects of free-market capitalism as it developed during the Industrial Revolution, leaving a large segment of the population socially uprooted and economically impoverished, at the mercy of wealthy industrialists. (In describing the conditions of the working class they could easily have been describing how many of the supporters of Donald Trump feel today.) What Marx and Engels claimed was happening was a class struggle that would eventually result in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the triumph of the proletariat and the abolition of private property.
Some of the things advocated by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto have become widely accepted today in modern, industrialized countries: a progressive income tax, central banks, and public education. But other things are more troubling: the abolition of property in land and the establishment of “industrial armies, especially in agriculture.” At one point they called for the abolition of “the bourgeois family.” And all of this, according to them, will come about by means of violent revolution. Between the classes, they say, is a “veiled civil war” until “that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.” The Manifesto concludes with a ringing call to arms: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
What is remarkable about the Manifesto is the absence of any call for social justice, let alone an appeal to morality. Rather what underlies the authors’ call for revolution is a sense of economic determinism. Revolution is inevitable because history is a perpetual class struggle. “What the bourgeoisie therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
This, in turn, leads to a cultural relativism. The only reason we hold to certain beliefs is because we are economically conditioned to do so. To their “bourgeois” critics Marx and Engels say “Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into law for all, a will, whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of your class.” “The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property . . . this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.” Thus, for the proletarian, “Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”
Marx and Engels may have thought that they had found the cure for every human ill, but in their case the medicine was worse than the disease. The violent overthrow of governments and forced collectivization of property did not yield the promised blessings. Instead we had dysfunctional economies which led to chronic shortages and, on occasion, mass starvation. Some modern apologists for Marx have tried to exonerate him by arguing that the Communist dictators of the 20th Century had misinterpreted his writings. But to read the Communist Manifesto it becomes evident that Lenin and Stalin, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot, were simply following the agenda that had been laid out for them by Marx himself. And Marx’s sad legacy still lives on. Practically no one believes in dialectical materialism, but Marx’s attack on “bourgeois morality” still lives on in the identity politics of today.
The underlying problem was Marx’s philosophical materialism. It has the effect of at once eliminating the existence of God and dehumanizing man, making him little more than a creature of prevailing economic conditions. There is a denial of universal truths and moral absolutes. The end result is the collapse of Western Civilization itself. All that is left is the law of the jungle.
The Christian answer to all of this is that God does, in fact, exist. We live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being. Truth and morality are determined by Him and revealed through His Word. We were created in His image, we have the ability to differentiate between right and wrong, and will ultimately have to give an account to God, our Creator and Judge. And yes, capitalism can be a rapacious and oppressive economic system, creating a huge disparity of wealth between the privileged few and the disadvantaged many. But the underlying problem is man’s sin and rebellion against God; and economic oppression is just one form of human depravity. And the answer to the problem is not armed revolution, which simply replaces one oppressive regime with another. It is repentance toward God and the new birth, through the preaching of the gospel.
Getting rid of morality is not the answer to economic oppression. It is coming to terms with the will of our Creator.
“For He is coming to judge the earth.
With righteousness He shall judge the world,
And the peoples with equity.”
(Psalm 98:9; NKJV)