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To borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, there are two equal and opposite errors one can fall into concerning Marxism. One rightly identifies Marxism as a powerful and pernicious influence in modern Western culture, but then comes to the mistaken suspicion that anything that talks about oppression or justice is “Marxist” and needs to be exposed as such. The opposite error, which can stem from naïveté or nefarious intent, is to ignore or deny blatant signs of Marxist influence in contemporary ideologies and movements.

The two errors feed on each other: the more one side sees Marxism under every bush and uses the word as a club to beat down any opponent that is in some sense to their “left,” the more the other has an excuse to dismiss all charges of Marxism as so much spin and propaganda. In order to help the church avoid both of these errors, this article provides a factual account of Marxism’s origins and character. A subsequent article will look at the long-term influence of Marxism in communist societies and the West.

1. Origins

Marxism takes its name from the German thinker Karl Marx (1818–83). Western European society was changing rapidly in Marx’s day. The French Revolution of a few decades earlier had unleashed tremendous political upheaval. The Industrial Revolution was leading to the growth of cities and the emergence of a large urban working class. A growing belief in the inevitable progress of science and culture was taking hold of educated people.

Rapid change created new social problems. The new class of wage labourers in the mines and factories were vulnerable to dangerous working conditions, low pay, and insecurity—which seemed all the more unjust in comparison with the spectacular wealth and power amassed by the entrepreneurs who owned these mines and factories.

The more one side sees Marxism under every bush and uses the word as a club to beat down any opponent that is in some sense to their “left,” the more the other has an excuse to dismiss all charges of Marxism as so much spin and propaganda.

Marx was not the only thinker to criticize these conditions, and propose a society based on a different, more egalitarian economic system. What set him apart from other “socialist” thinkers was his all-encompassing vision of the hidden laws governing human history and society.

In contrast to the prevalent philosophies in Germany at the time, which saw ideas as the driving force in history, Marx concluded that material factors are everything. There is no realm of spirit and no God, he claimed—all that exists is the material world. The economic basis of life, how we feed and clothe and house ourselves, determines every aspect of a society, even its ideas. In particular, Marx argued, the class that owns the “means of production” in a society is able to dominate and exploit everyone else.

For Marx, this simple principle explained historical change. Changes to the means of production led to changes in the identity of the ruling class and therefore the leading values. The feudal nobility of medieval Europe had derived their power from their control of the land, and exploited the serfs whose labour made them rich. But as economic power shifted to commercial and industrial activities, the nobility and their values were thrust aside by the urban merchant class, the “bourgeoisie.” In this new dispensation, which Marx called “capitalism,” the exploitation of serfs by nobles gave way to the exploitation of industrial workers (the “proletariat”) by the bourgeoisie.

In this analysis history became a tale of woe and oppression. Supposedly lofty ideals were exposed, Marx thought, as the smiling mask of injustice, serving to keep the owner class in power. Even religion, he famously claimed, served a sinister social function as the “opiate of the masses,” dulling their pain but also lulling them into a sleepy acceptance of their own oppression with promises of reward in the hereafter.

Soon, however, Marx predicted, the oppression of the workers would intensify to such an extent that they would realize they had “nothing to lose but their chains,” and would violently rise up and smash capitalism. In its place they would establish a new type of society, which Marx called “communism.” In a communist society the means of production would be collectively owned. Everyone would contribute according to their ability and receive according to their need. Since private ownership was the root of oppression, once private property was abolished other social ills would fade away: poverty, inequality, crime, eventually even the need for government itself.

2. Spread

During Marx’s lifetime there was little sign that these ideas would catch on. He himself barely got by, living off meagre returns from his writing and charity from his wealthy friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels (whose father, ironically, was a successful factory owner). His revolutionary writings got him kicked out of Germany, and then France; he spent much of his life in London where the authorities were more tolerant of radical views.

Nevertheless, Marx’s ideas possessed a magnetic power. Disaffected intellectuals and workers were attracted to his claim to explain everything via a few simple principles, his deeply radical critique of the entire political, economic, and cultural establishment of mid-nineteenth-century Europe, his call for justice on behalf of the workers, and above all his confident “scientific” prediction of a coming revolution that would usher in a new age of equality. Marx’s belief that this revolution would necessarily require violence and wholesale destruction of the existing order also appealed to many, especially angry young men with real or imagined grievances.

Although there were several attempts to organize an international movement around these ideas in the nineteenth century, none of them lasted for long. And contrary to Marx’s expectations, no communist revolution took place in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe. Quite unexpectedly, the world’s first communist revolution took place in a relatively unindustrialized country, Russia. A radical socialist party there, the Bolsheviks, seized power in 1917 toward the end of the First World War. Their leader, Vladimir Ilych Lenin, was a devoted and ruthless disciple of Marx’s teachings. Under his leadership the Russian Empire became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world’s first communist state, with a vision to spread communism throughout the world.

3. A Christian Assessment

My space here does not allow a complete Christian assessment of Marx’s views, but we can identify some key points.

On the positive side, Marxism shares God’s indictment of the abuse of wealth and power, and his concern for the poor and vulnerable. It also shares the biblical hope (albeit for very different reasons) in a future when “all oppression shall cease.” It places the needs of the lowliest members of society at the top of its priority list, an emphasis that is only really conceivable in a culture deeply shaped by Christianity. For these reasons it is sometimes said that Marxism is basically a Christian heresy.

On the other hand, Marx and his followers were crystal clear in their contempt for God and his law. Moreover, while people sometimes claim that the Bible teaches communism, this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. The land laws of the Old Testament distributed land ownership equally, but land remained under the “private” stewardship of individual households, not collectively owned. The early church shared their possessions freely, but they still owned them until they sold them to provide funds for the needy. And the sharing was voluntary among a small community of believers, not coerced by violence across a whole society. Moreover, the Bible clearly prohibits not only stealing but even coveting the possessions of others.

Just as seriously, Marxism fails to understand human nature. It mistakenly locates the root of sin not in the human heart, but in an aspect of God’s normative social order, the private stewardship of possessions. Because its diagnosis of the problem is wrong, its proposed solution—the abolition of private property—fails to produce the promised results. For all its cynicism about history and contemporary society, Marxism in this way actually underestimates human depravity, against which distributed private ownership, markets based on free and consensual exchange, and limits to government power are all crucial protections.

As a result, wherever Marx’s ideas have been implemented, collective ownership has given a few people immense, unchecked power over every aspect of life—ironically, one of Marx’s accusations against capitalism. The failure of utopia to materialize means that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” becomes permanent, and can only be maintained through brutality and terror. Christians ought to reject this ideology and its fruits.

In a future article, I’ll explore the failures of Marxism in practice, and look at how it survived these failures to become a major intellectual force in the West today.