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Editors’ note: 

Click here to read Dr. Flatt’s previous article on the origins of Marxism to provide a fuller context to argument below.

Although Karl Marx lived in the nineteenth century, it was not until the twentieth century that Marxism reached its full impact.

This impact took two main forms. The first was the establishment of communist regimes in Russia, China, and other parts of the world. The second was the influence of Marxist ideas on Western intellectuals. Christians need to be familiar with both of these phenomena, so we’ll look at each in turn.

Communist Regimes

As noted in my previous article, a revolution in Russia in 1917 established the world’s first communist state—the Soviet Union—on the basis of Marx’s ideas.

The wily exploitation of lavish American aid during the Second World War by Lenin’s successor Josef Stalin enabled the Soviets to not only contribute mightily to the defeat of Hitler but to bring the whole eastern half of Europe under their control.

After 1945 Europe and much of the world was divided into two opposing blocs of nations, one led by the United States and dedicated to free markets and liberal democracy, the other led by the Soviet Union and dedicated to communism.

A few years later, in 1949, a communist party headed by Mao Zedong won China’s civil war and brought the world’s most populous country into the communist fold. Then came Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan: for several decades, communism seemed to be spreading all over the place.

The results for the millions subjected to communist rule were disastrous.

As Marx had promised, the establishment of communism was bloody: vicious civil wars, the murder of “counter-revolutionaries” and “class enemies” ranging from the family of the Russian tsar to slightly-too-wealthy peasants, and brutal prison camps for anyone who dared dissent.

Contrary to Marx’s confident prediction, however, the violence and ruthlessness was not temporary but continued as long as communists remained in power. Every communist state employed secret police, elimination of rival views, and persecution of dissenters to maintain its hold.

At the same time, communism turned out to be a completely unworkable economic system. While communist regimes were able to fund industrial development and military expenditure by squeezing every drop of wealth from the rest of the economy and keeping ordinary living standards low, the costs were horrific.

Peasants in Russia and China had supported communists due to promises of “land, peace, and bread”; what they got instead was the confiscation of all land into poorly-run collective farms. The result was avoidable but incredibly severe famines exacerbated by government brutality. The worst examples were in Ukraine and southern Russia under Stalin in 1932–33 (around 7 million dead) and in China under Mao in 1959–61 (around 30–40 million dead). These are among the worst atrocities in human history.

Even at the best of times, inefficiencies, delays, and shortages of basic goods plagued communist economies, which were unable to keep up with the economic growth and rising living standards in the free world (another failure of Marx’s predictions).

Eventually, the system collapsed entirely in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991. Chinese authorities meanwhile quietly abandoned communist economics after the death of Mao in 1976 while maintaining their grip on power. Their policies today bear little resemblance to Marx’s theories.

With few exceptions, by the end of the century the formerly communist world had abandoned Marxism.

Western Marxism

In light of all this, the extent of Marxist influence among Western intellectuals up to the present day is perhaps surprising. To understand it we need to go back to the work of Italian radical thinker Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). Gramsci developed Marxism in new ways that would prove highly influential in the West.

Why were so many Italian workers unwilling to join the revolutionary movement, and even willing to defend capitalism, Gramsci asked? His answer was that the bourgeoisie do not control the population only through economic power and political force, but also through “cultural hegemony.”

In other words, the ruling class succeeds in making their own values the worldview of the masses, such that basic assumptions and common customs subtly reinforce the ruling structure. The workers buy into ideas like private property, thrift, and hard work, for example, and in effect oppress themselves.

Therefore, the first task of communists in advanced capitalist countries, argued Gramsci, is not to try to overthrow the government, but to wage a war for the workers’ consciousness.

Radical intellectuals need to infiltrate institutions like schools, universities, the news media, and even churches, gradually subverting the dominant bourgeois culture. With enough people awakened to their oppression, revolution would be possible.

Related ideas were expounded by a group of Marxist intellectuals known as the Frankfurt School which emerged in Germany in the 1920s. Men like Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse analyzed what they saw as the cultural features of capitalism, developing a body of ideas still influential today under the guise of “Critical Theory.”

Their basic claim was that Western culture and values as a whole are fundamentally oppressive, a claim they applied not only to the economic realm, but also to things like institutional cultures, moral norms, sexuality, and family arrangements.

The ideas of Gramsci and the Frankfurt School proliferated on university campuses throughout the Western world in the 1960s, an era of youth protest and student radicalism. In this and the following decades, Marxism mutated and generated new offshoot ideologies.

These offshoots shared key Marxist beliefs, including that the political and economic systems of modern society are inherently oppressive, that society can be divided between an oppressed class and an oppressor class, that many seemingly positive or neutral features of society in reality serve the system of oppression, and that a thoroughgoing revolutionary overthrow of the existing structures is necessary.

But drawing from Gramsci, the Frankfurt thinkers, and other sources like Freudianism and postmodernism, they added the beliefs that oppression is maintained primarily through culture and language, that traditional ideas about sexuality, gender, and the family play a central role in that oppression, and that the best hope of victory lay in spreading a revolutionary consciousness through intellectual means.

Many of the campus radicals became teachers, professors, lawyers, and journalists, carrying out what German activist Rudi Dutschke called the “long march through the institutions.”

It is important to note that the basic logic of Marxism, as inflected by twentieth-century thinkers, could and did take on quite different forms from traditional Marxism.

A Marxist framework could be translated into gender terms, as in radical feminism, where men are the oppressor class and women the oppressed, and “patriarchy” takes the place of capitalism as the main system of oppression. They could be translated into racial terms, with one class (whites) oppressing another class (people of colour) through a subtle “white supremacy culture” that poisons every social institution. And so on.

In these forms, elements of the underlying logic of Marxism are built into the leading ethos in academia. And because of the role of universities in shaping the outlook of teachers, journalists, lawyers, and other professionals, these ideas have become very widespread in society at large, including among people who would never describe themselves as Marxists and whose priorities are pretty far removed from Marx’s concerns.


No one, let alone a Christian, should endorse communism after the track record of the twentieth century. Nor can we reasonably believe, as is sometimes said, that “it works in theory.” The horrific results of applied communism emerged consistently everywhere it was tried, and this is because they logically and demonstrably follow from the flawed axioms of Marxism.

Contemporary revolutionary ideologies differ from classical Marxism, and some of their thinkers have arrived at genuinely valuable insights. But in their major forms these ideologies share Marxism’s simplistic oppressor-oppressed thinking, its tendency to find oppression under every bush, its penchant for stoking bitterness that sours into hatred, and its rejection of God and some aspect of his creation order (private stewardship of property, individual responsibility, sexual morality, parental rights, respect for authority, etc.).

If neo-Marxist ideologues ever attain full control in our society, they will no more deliver on their promises than communist regimes delivered on their promise of “land, peace, and bread.” We must therefore resist Marxism, beginning with our churches and Christian educational institutions, and extending into other spheres as God gives us opportunity.

Opposition is not enough, however. Racial bias and prejudice, the devaluation of women (not least in the womb), and the myriad of obstacles and indignities facing our working poor are real problems. They are too important to be left to (quasi-)Marxists. The more we can get beyond Marxism and generate fundamentally Christian responses to these problems, as many people are in fact doing, the more progress we will make.

Moreover, Marxist and offshoot ideologies’ emphasis on justice for the oppressed, concern for the “least of these,” and hope for a better world, however misdirected, are good—and, as the previous article noted, reflect centuries of Christian influence in our culture.

And while Marxists can’t deliver on these aspirations, our God can: all of them will be fulfilled in his already-not-yet kingdom, as we submit to his will and through the unmerited mercy and grace he lavishes on us. Let us pray and work for that kingdom to come on earth as it is in Heaven.