September 2019 Pulse
In 2012, Stuart James wrote an article for The Guardian pondering on the renaissance of Marxism 164 years after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto. What is interesting in James’ article is the reasons he reports as to why young people today are being drawn to Marxist thought.
When James asked Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal, who was then a twenty-two-year -old English and drama student at London’s Goldsmith College why she found Marxism attractive, this was the reply he received: ‘The point is that younger people weren’t around when Thatcher was in power or when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union.’
‘We tend to see it more as a way of understanding what we’re going through now,’ she adds. ‘Think of what’s happening in Egypt. When Mubarak fell it was so inspiring. It broke so many stereotypes – democracy wasn’t supposed to be something that people would fight for in the Muslim world. It vindicates revolution as a process, not as an event. So there was a revolution in Egypt, and a counter-revolution and a counter revolution. What we learned from it was the importance of organisation.’
Besides the youthful relish for that adrenalin rush of being at the centre of a political revolution, I am sure there are other reasons why young people find the thought of the nineteenth century writer and his Manifesto (which, incidentally, is the second bestselling book of all time, next to the Bible) so alluring.
One such reason could possibly be that the growing discontentment surrounding capitalism has made the Marxist critique of it suddenly very relevant and its counter-proposals inviting. Another possible reason could be the influence that writers such as Slavoj Žižek, Alain Bodiou, Eric Hobsbawm and Terry Eagleton were able to exert on these young minds with their energetic and hopeful discourse about a looming post-capitalist society and their fresh appropriations of Marxism and socialism.
Whatever one may make of the reasons behind Blackwell-Pal’s attraction to the thoughts of the nineteenth century thinker, the truth is she is not alone. According to an article published in The Washington Times (4 November 2017), the majority of millennials in America prefer to live in a socialist, communist or fascist nation rather than a capitalist one.
Be that as it may, it is not the purpose of this article to analyse the reasons for the renewed interest in Marxism or to discuss the work of its most vocal evangelists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The purpose of this article is simply to introduce to readers two Christian thinkers whose works are seldom discussed in academia but whose responses to Marxism and communism must be taken seriously by anyone who is interested in these topics.
Karol Józef Wojtyla
My first Christian thinker is Karol Józef Wojtyla (1920-2005), better known as Pope John Paul II (Papacy: 1978-2005). As a priest in Kraków, Poland, Wojtyla witnessed first-hand the atrocities committed by the communists; and as the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church he was credited with being instrumental in the collapse of Communism in Central Europe.
Wojtyla’s criticism of Marxism is aimed at its very foundation, namely, its uncompromising materialism with its vision of a world without God. In an article published in Commonweal Magazine in 1997, Jonathan Kwitny cited a work by the young Wojtyla which was first published in 1953 entitled Catholic Social Ethics. In this little-known work, Wojtyla articulated how the Marxist worldview stands in total contradiction to the Catholic faith:
The relentless materialism in Marxism contradicts Catholicism, [which] sees man as spirit and matter in one, [and which] proclaims the superiority of the spirit … Ethics is … the science of spiritual good, such as justice or love, that provides the material activities of human beings with specifically human values. This gives ethics primacy [over materialism] in economics or biology.
According to Wojtyla, the very foundation of any ethical reasoning or perspective is the idea that human beings are made up of more than matter, that they are also spirit and therefore capable of the spiritual good expressed in concepts like justice and love. This aspect of what it means to be human is lost to Marxism because of its materialist ontology.
As Pope John Paul II, Wojtyla further expands this earlier thesis in his 1986 Encyclical ‘On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World’ (Dominum et Vivificantem). Reflecting on the writings of Paul, Wojtyla notes that the Apostle is acutely aware of the struggles that takes place in the human being, who is composed of flesh and spirit, with the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s writings, argues the pope, ‘enable us to know and feel vividly the strength and tension and struggle going on in man between openness to the action of the Holy Spirit and resistance and opposition to him, in his saving gift.’ Unfortunately, John Paul II continues, the reality of this spiritual struggle within man is pushed aside and eclipsed in the modern world. The tension has been externalised, and recast as ‘a programme for action and for the shaping of human behaviour.’
The apogee of this movement, according to the pontiff, is Marxism. He writes:
It reaches its clearest expression in materialism, both in its theoretical form: as a system of thought, and in its practical form: as a method of interpreting and evaluating facts, and likewise as a program of corresponding conduct. The system which has developed most and carried to its extreme practical consequences this form of thought, ideology and praxis is the dialectical and historical materialism, which is still recognised as the essential core of Marxism.
The reason why Marxism has reduced the human struggle to the political, social and economic plane is the materialism and atheism it espouses. Wojtyla writes: ‘In principle and in fact, materialism radically excludes the presence and action of God, who is spirit, in the world and above all in man. Fundamentally this is because it does not accept God’s existence, being a system that is essentially and systematically atheistic.’
The reductionist nature of Marxist anthropology has resulted in serious deficiencies in one of its central ideas: alienation. Marxism, Wojtyla points out, launches one of the most powerful and scathing critiques of capitalist bourgeois societies by accusing them of committing a ‘mortal sin’, namely, of causing human beings to be aliened from themselves.
But, as Wojtyla is quick to explain in Centesimus Annus (1991), this ‘rebuke is … based on a mistaken and inadequate idea of alienation, derived solely from the sphere of relationships of production and ownership, that is, giving them a materialistic foundation and moreover denying the legitimacy and positive value of market relationships even in their own sphere.’
Because its diagnosis is defective (and it is defective because it works with an erroneous anthropology which fails to fully appreciate true nature of the ‘patient’, so to speak), so is its solution. ‘Marxism’, writes the pope, ‘thus ends up by affirming that only in a collective society can alienation be eliminated.’ Only the Christian understanding of alienation, he insists, can bring us to properly understand the human condition.
Finally, Wojtyla roundly rejects Marxism’s eradication of the private ownership of property. While he agrees with Marx that there is a need for socio-economic reform, he insists that such reform does not require the elimination of private property prescribed by Marxism. In his 1953 work, Wojtyla unequivocally asserts that ‘the re-creation of the socioeconomic system may be achieved by maintaining the institution of private property’. In fact, he goes so far as to say that ‘Private property is suited to human nature.’
In Wojtyla’s view, the main issue is not the abolition of private property but ensuring that everyone is treated justly. ‘The goal that should be pursued is to achieve, in the system based on private property, such reforms as will lead to the realisation of social justice.’
Nicolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev
My second Christian thinker is perhaps more obscure than the first. Nicolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) is a Christian philosopher who in his youth was expelled from the university and exiled to north Russia because of his involvement with socialist activities. As a scion of the military aristocracy, the young Berdyaev believed that Marxism best represented the interests of social justice and was for some time identified with the left-wing variety of the political ideology.
But Berdyaev gradually became dissatisfied with the Marxist doctrine, especially its metaphysics and anthropology upon which its social and political ideals were grounded, because its materialism is antithetical to the Christian vision of reality.
A number of writers persuaded Berdyaev to return to his childhood faith, Christianity. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Isben and the great Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky convinced him of the importance of human freedom which communism has quelled.
The German mystical theologian Jacob Boehme helped Berdyaev to rediscover the mystery of God’s revelation and his sacramental presence in the world, while nineteenth century thinkers like Vladmir Soloyev and Alexis Khomyakov introduced him to the concept of sobornost and its important role in modern Orthodox social thought.
Berdyaey’s critique of Marx refuses to separate his materialism, that is, his atheism from his anthropology. Basically, the Russian philosopher argues that because Marx has denied the existence of God, he is now incapable of properly conceiving the true nature of the human being and ipso facto of also imagining a society that would lead to human flourishing.
Herein lies the fundamental error of the secular humanism that Marxism has been forced to construct once it has rejected a power higher than man. Because God has been banished, man can no longer be regarded in his original nobility as the privileged bearer of the divine image.
In denying God in order to elevate man, Marxism ended up stripping man of his God-given dignity. Its atheism, in other words, has led it to espouse the most distorting of anthropological heresies. In his profoundly challenging work entitled The Destiny of Man, Berdyaev writes:
There enters into the world a being which bears within itself an image not of this world, but of a higher Being – the image of God. It is a being called to an active life in time, but predestined for eternity; a self-contradictory being, the meeting place of two worlds … Man is a being which transcends itself toward that which is more than man and more than human. The transcendence belongs to the existential marks of personality … The lie of humanism consists in the acknowledgement of the self-sufficiency of man, in asserting that man may realise the fullness of his humanity without the super-man, God.
The erroneous anthropology of Marxism manifests itself in so many profound ways in both its political and economic theories and practices.
One example is the collectivism that is associated with the Marxist understanding of society vis-à-vis the individual. Here Berdyaev points out that while Marxism has often accused Christianity of reducing human beings to passivity and docility (religion being the opiate that has stupefied the masses), it is in fact Marxism that suppresses human creativity. For according to Berdyaev Marxism privileges ‘not the activity of man, but the activity of society or of a social collective body, which supresses man and transforms him into his own instrument.’
There is another paradox associated with the anthropocentrism of Marxism, according to Berdyaev. Closer scrutiny would reveal that Marxism has in fact never given any true value and dignity to the individual and his or her profound uniqueness. In his essay on the Russian Revolution, Berdyaev describes the disappearance of the individual, his absorption into an abstract, impersonal ‘Communist society’ thus:
Man does not exist; only his class exists. And when classes have ceased to exist, man too will cease to exist; there only be the social collectivity, Communist society.
Another example is the Marxist claim to eventually emancipate man from his dependence upon economics. Berdyaev argues that Marxism works with an erroneous and reductionistic understand of freedom, since its materialism prevents it from ever conceiving human freedom as a spiritual category (and not just in political and economic terms), and therefore its true nature.
In failing to understand the spiritual nature of freedom, Marxism, according to Berdyaev, ‘frees’ man from one form of slavery (economic dependence) only to subject him to another form of ‘unfreedom’ (hegemonic collectivism).
Berdyaev compares the coerciveness of the socialist approach which results in the subjugation of the individual with Christianity which respects the integrity of human freedom. In ‘Christianity and Human Activity’, Berdyaev puts this point across arrestingly thus:
[Socialism] aims at drilling souls in platoons, disciplining them till they are quite content in their human ant-hill, till they like a barrack-life and no longer look for spiritual liberty; it wants to produce a race of contented children, unaware of sin. Christianity clings first and foremost to the freedom of the human spirit, and will not allow the possibility of drilling mankind into the earthly paradise. It leaves the attempt to the Antichrist.
Finally, in attempting to create a classless society Marxism unconsciously elevates a ‘class’ of human beings – the proletariat – that is immunised from the ‘original sin’ of human exploitation and accorded messianic status. As Berdyaev puts it, Marx assigns the transformation of the social order to the proletariat because ‘it alone is free from the original sin which vitiates all history and all the so-called bourgeois culture, the sin of exploitation of man by man and class by class.’
The similarities between our two writers have made themselves quite obvious in this brief sketch. Both trace the failure of the Marxist system to its defective metaphysics, namely, its unrelenting materialism. Both saw the profound relationship between Marx’s atheism and reductionist anthropology. And both writers reject the solution that Marx prescribes to the ills he identifies as plaguing human society.
I will be remiss if I did not mention that Wojtyla and Berdyaev are not only critical of the Marxist vision of society, they are also not unquestioning supporters of capitalism or even democracy.
In Centesimus Annus Pope John Paul II raises the question whether with the demise of communism capitalism can be said to be ‘the victorious social system’. The pontiff, recognising the complexity of the issue, answers: ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.
Yes, if capitalism is seen as an economic system that that recognises the positive role of business, private property and the market and promotes responsible production and human creativity in the economic sphere. But a resounding ‘No’:
if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious …
Berdyaev’s view of capitalism is perhaps harsher that the pontiff’s, and arguably less nuanced. He maintains that both communism and capitalism are cut from the same cloth – they are but different instantiations of the bourgeois world-view that is energised by the humanistic ethos of the Renaissance.
Be that as it may, I hope that I have shown in this brief article that both these writers have much to contribute to the continuing discussion on political and economic theories, particularly Marxism. Their works should be taken seriously and certainly not be ignored by the academia simply because they happen to write from the Judeo-Christian perspective.
 This encyclical was issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum (‘Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour’) issued by Pope Leo XIII on 15 May 1891.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.