RMPS Christianity: Critiques and Challenges Marxism

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Christianity: Critiques and
May 1999
Critiques and Challenges
Support Materials
1. Teacher’s guide
2. Student’s guide
3. Marx’s early life
The Challenges – What Marxism has to say about:
4. God as a projection of human aspirations
5. Religion as a force opposed to social justice
6. Liberation through revolution
The Responses – Christian responses to Marxism:
7. God as the revelation of what it means to be human
8. The Kingdom of God: a reign of justice and peace
Liberation through Christ: liberation theology
10. Appendix
11. Bibliography
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Christian belief encountered
significant opposition. Until then, for most people in Britain and throughout
Europe, Christianity had provided the basis of their beliefs and values. It told
them everything they needed to know about the meaning and purpose of life. The
opposition was of two kinds. First, scientific discovery and scientific methods
began to undermine religious belief. The universe as revealed by science
appeared to be governed by natural laws and to be subject to natural forces. Even
human life seemed to be explicable in terms of a random process of natural
evolution. Second, and perhaps more seriously, belief systems emerged which
repudiated the supernatural in favour of critical reason. The most powerful of
these was undoubtedly Marxism which influenced countless revolutions and, until
recently, drove a political wedge between east and west.
The two phenomena which caused so many problems for religious belief in the
twentieth century are closely interlinked. Humanism, in particular, which lies at
the heart of Marxist theory, if not all of its practice, places great store on modern
science and the scientific method of inquiry as the basis for its view of the world
and human nature. Consequently, Christians often find themselves faced with
critiques and challenges which seem to consist of a mixture of scientific,
Humanist and Marxist argument.
These materials deal specifically with Marxism, introduce the challenges which it
raises for Christian belief and discuss some of the ways in which Christians have
responded. By way of setting the scene and providing background information,
section 3 sets out briefly aspects of the early life of Marx with particular
emphasis on the influence of nineteenth century religion and philosophy.
Sections 4-6 deal with the challenges in terms of Marx’s critique of religion: in
particular what Marx had to say about God as a projection of human aspirations,
religion as a force opposed to social justice and the idea that liberation was to be
achieved through revolution. Sections 7-9 take up the Christian responses in
relation to: the Christian belief that in Jesus God has revealed what it means to be
fully human, the Kingdom of God as a reign of justice and peace and liberation
Students should be encouraged to identify and explain the central challenges to
Christian belief raised by scientific development as well as the relevant Christian
responses. Analysis of viewpoints relating to both challenges and responses
involves explaining them in some detail and citing relevant sources from both a
Marxist and Christian standpoint. Challenges and responses should be evaluated
in terms of their contemporary relevance and on the basis of the strengths and
weaknesses of the arguments. Conclusions should be supported by appropriate
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Students are required to:
• demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the essential features of a
challenge and relevant Christian response
• cite sources which are relevant to both challenges and responses
• analyse in some detail aspects or viewpoints of the challenges and responses
• evaluate the contemporary relevance of challenges and responses on the basis
of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments
• present a logical conclusion supported by evidence.
Teachers will have their own strategies and preferred ways of organising learning.
A recommendation to include variety, however, is an important one given that
students will inevitably have different learning styles. Students should be
encouraged to make use of their own life experiences when exploring and
reflecting on issues, and to seek views from a wide range of sources including
books, video material, and from recognised specialists in the areas being studied.
Opportunities to talk through particular challenges and responses in order to
tease out their meaning and significance will be important. Also important will
be class and group discussion so that through dialogue, students can learn from
others and begin to formulate their own opinions. Familiarity with key texts and
passages will enable students to demonstrate an appropriate level of
understanding in relation to both challenges and responses, and to support their
own conclusions.
Learning strategies will therefore take a number of forms such as:
• Gathering information and viewpoints from books, video, CD-ROM
• Student presentation
• Teacher presentation
• Class and group discussion
• Role play
• Direct teaching.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
These materials are intended to help you study the challenges to Christian belief
raised by Marxism, and to explore the responses offered by Christians. You will
be expected to explain these challenges and responses and to assess their
strengths and weaknesses. You will become familiar with some key texts,
passages and commentators within both Marxism and Christianity. These will
help you to understand better the challenges and responses and to support your
own views and conclusions.
The challenges to be studied relate to developments within Marxism:
God as a projection of human aspirations
Religion as a force opposed to social justice
Liberation through revolution.
The responses to be studied relate to Christian views on:
God as the revelation of what it is to be human
The Kingdom of God: reign of justice and peace
Liberation through Christ: liberation theology.
You should try to refer to sources as often as you can, especially where this helps
to show your understanding of a viewpoint or issue. You are encouraged to use
direct quotations if you can but there are other useful ways of referring to
• by naming the title of the source and/or where appropriate, the author
• by paraphrasing the source so that you use your own words in order to give an
accurate account of what is said
• by a combination of these methods.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Few individuals have had the impact on twentieth century thinking and life that
Karl Henrich Marx has had. He was born on 5 th May 1818 in Trier, which is
located in the Rhineland of Germany, and died in London on 14th March1883.
Marx was born into a large family - there were nine children. His parents Henrich and Henrietta - were Jews and they converted to the Lutheran Church for
what is described as ‘social reasons’. His conversion made it much easier for
Marx’s father to practise law and enabled him to counter much of the strong antiSemitic feelings which were commonplace at that time. Marx’s family were
middle class and comfortable. He came from a long line of rabbis on both his
mother’s and father’s side and it was only the prospect of loosing his job that
made his father seek baptism.
Both Judaism and Christianity had a powerful influence on the development of
Marx’s ideas. In particular, Marx was greatly influenced by the concept of utopia.
Marx describes his vision of a future society in terms of ideals: where all people
are equal and no-one will suffer. Such concepts have their roots in Jewish
Scriptures – what has come to be the Old Testament for Christians – and are
related to visions of the Messianic Age.
In Isaiah 2: 1-5 we can read of the settlement of disputes among the nations of
the earth. God will bring peace to the nations and they will hammer their swords
into ploughs and spears into pruning knives. There will be no more war. And in
Isaiah 11: 1-9 the great Messianic vision is continued where wolves and sheep lie
down together in peace. Calves and lions feed together in peace and no creature
on the earth will be harmed by any other. Christians believed that this Messianic
age would be established by an individual who would be descended from the line
of the great Jewish King, David. However, Marx believed that this idea of a
rescuer was itself destructive and that the working classes would have to free
themselves and create this kind of society together. Reorganisation of the means
of production would bring about this utopian age. People would not work for
others but they would share the benefits of their own labours:
‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.
The era into which Marx was born is generally known as the Enlightenment The
Enlightenment was a period of heightened intellectual activity which was
governed by three main principles:
• that the world is reasonable place in which to live
• that reason is the guiding principle of life for most people and
• that since people and the world are both reasonable, people and the world in
which they live are able to be understood.
Reason was at the core of this new thinking in philosophy and was held up against
revelation. Up until then dogma (orthodox teaching), based on revelation, was
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
viewed as the yardstick of all truth. Dogma was controlled by the Church and so
this new thinking was viewed with suspicion by most Christians.
The period of the Enlightenment emphasised the use of reason as being the best
method of learning truth. Up until then scripture was seen as the way of learning
what is true. But followers of the Enlightenment said that human beings have an
advantage over all other animals in that they are capable of reason. The
Enlightenment challenged people’s ignorance and uncritical acceptance of
authority. Thus religion came in for major criticism. Religion and superstition
were thought to be wholly unreasonable and therefore wrong. Both superstition
and religion are things which cannot be proven and they were therefore
considered to be misguided activities. If proof could not be clearly demonstrated
then beliefs were considered to be mistaken.
One of the greatest influences on young Marx was a German philosopher named
G.W. F. Hegel. Indeed, later in his life, Marx referred to one of Hegel’s works as
the ‘true birthplace of his philosophy’. Hegel formulated a method of arriving at
truth which is known as dialectics. ‘Dialectic’ means argument or dialogue. This
involved the recognition of a problem, the formulation of an answer – thesis, a
counter argument - antithesis, and then the formulation of a compromise - a
synthesis, and so the process would go on. Dialectics is the process where a
thesis is declared, then an antithesis - then a synthesis is arrived at. It is from this
process that Marx developed his theory of dialectical materialism.
There are three essential elements in Marxist theory:
a philosophy of history
a system of political economy and
a theory of the state and revolution.
The strength of Marx’s theory is in its appeal to those who are looking for a
means to change a social order they consider to be fundamentally unjust. Some
people have suggested that Marxism is a religion as much as it is a political
philosophy, in the sense that it implies a plan of salvation.
Summary of Ideas
Dialectical Materialism
This is the philosophy of Marxism
Historical Materialism
This is the science of Marxism
Theory and Praxis
These are inter-linked concepts.
The theory stage is Dialectical Materialism
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
the praxis stage is Historical Materialism.
Praxis refers to action, to activity. In Marx’s sense it refers to the free, universal,
creative and self-creative activity through which human beings makes and changes
the world and themselves.
Materialism is the view which considers that whatever exists or happens is to be
explained by reference to material causes. The word ‘materialist’ is likely to
conjure up the image of people who put their faith in money and possessions and
who care nothing for ‘ideals’. The word ‘idealist’ evokes images of someone
dedicated to a cause and caring little for personal gain. In philosophy the image
is more appropriate if reversed. Many philosophical materialists have their ideals
about the kind of society they would like to see exist, and frequently spend a
great deal of their time trying to bring it about.
Idealism, on the other hand, seeks for the ‘ultimate’ explanations in terms of
mind, ideas or spirit. It therefore embraces the whole gamut of mysticism conceptions of God and religion, of spirits and spiritualism, of the soul as
distinct from the body, of mind as independent of and superior to the body, and of
ideas as existing ‘outside’ or separate from the material processes of the world.
Whether a person is a materialist or an idealist in philosophy depends on whether
s/he considers reality to be grounded in nature and material things or in spirit and
ideas. Materialism and idealism are two opposed ways of considering every
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Ludwig Feuerbach ( born in 28 July 1804 - died 13 Sept. 1872) was one of the
other major influences on Marx’s thinking. Feuerbach's great achievement was to
show how God can be thought of as a human projection. Feuerbach rejected the
notion of God being a pathway to truth and asserted that only human beings could
discover truth. He went on to argue that the very notion of God was merely a
projection of what people needed and wanted in their own lives:
‘What man needs he makes his God’
‘What man desires he makes his God.’
According to Feuerbach, humankind creates God in its own image. The values of
love, justice, mercy and so on are qualities we recognise and wish to
acknowledge as being supremely important. As a result we personalise these
qualities and worship them in the form of a divine being. In other words if, in
people’s lives , they have a subconscious need to be loved then they will ‘project’
this on to their God. God will then be all-loving. If people have a need to be
powerful then their God will be all-powerful and so on.
For Feuerbach, God is simply some element of human experience projected out
and made into an object of worship. In particular he says, religion and religious
beliefs spring from human feelings of ignorance, helplessness and the desire to
attain some kind of personal fulfilment. God represents, in our imagination, the
idea that these things can be overcome and put right, that we can achieve
fulfilment of our deepest desires. He wrote:
"Religion, at least the Christian, is the relation of man to himself, or more correctly to
his own nature......The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather
the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective
- i.e. contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being. All the attributes of the
divine nature are, therefore, attributes of the human nature." (Hick, p.193)
Against Feuerbach it has been argued by Christians that a God who created
humanity would most naturally include in his creation a religion which projected
and reflected human aspirations. Man is made in the image of God, according to
the Bible. And a religion which did not reflect human aspirations would be of no
practical use whatever.
Marx takes up this idea of religion as a projection of human aspirations in his
own writings. In the introduction to his ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’,
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
he says that for too long people have looked up to the heavenly world to learn the
truth about themselves. Now they know that what they see there is nothing but a
distorted reflection of themselves. People must turn to this world, to the State
and to society. As a result there is no more need to criticise religion, it is the
politics of society that needs to be criticised.
By the second half of 1844 Marx had reached a point of view in which religion
had ceased to hold any interest for him whatsoever. The following passage shows
‘Since for socialist man what is called world history is nothing but the creation of man
by human labour and the development of nature for man, he has the observable and
irrefutable proof of his self-creation and the process of his origin.’ (Smith, p.55)
As far as Marx is concerned humanity creates itself. Human beings are to be
understood not so much as having a human nature, something fixed and
unalterable and given by God, but as having a social history through which they
create themselves and their society. Socialism starts with human beings and
nature. By their social activity throughout history human beings create
themselves and their society. By the end of 1844 Marx’s vision had become so
completely naturalistic that all the important questions of life had become
questions of politics. Marx lacked any deep personal interest in religion. For
him, human beings created themselves, for people make history and history
makes people. Human beings have even created the world, in the sense that the
only world that concerns us is the world that has been made intelligible and
familiar by human creative activity. For Marx ‘Man’ is always humanity in
general, as if the uniqueness of each individual was not important. Even death
seems not to greatly bother him; the individual is mortal, but the species goes on
and that is all there is to it. The truth is that “man makes religion, religion does not
make man”. (Livingstone and Benton, p.244)
According to Marx if God exists, Man does not. The abolition of God and
religion comes about because to be truly human, people need to be free to
fashion their own futures. If God is admitted, freedom and therefore humanity
itself is nullified. If human beings are to create themselves, the role of God
would seem to have been pre-empted. The abolition of God and religion with its
illusory happiness is at the same time a call to find true happiness. Religion is
like an illusory sun around which man thinks he must revolve. When religion is
abolished human beings will think, act and create society like people who have
lost their illusions and regained their reason. Man will then ‘move around himself
as his own true sun.’
(Livingstone and Benton, p.244)
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
In the Old Testament there is a permeating theme of God as the fearsome,
powerful and avenging protector of those who obey his wishes. The Ten
Commandments (Exodus 20) can be seen as a reflection of human aspirations for
a perfect society. Might they have simply invented a powerful being to provide a
means of validating and enforcing these ‘rules for right living’ ?
The God of the Old Testament is certainly depicted at times as violent and
aggressive. In Micah 8, for example, the people of Israel are commanded by God
to put the entire population of Ai to death. There are many passages in which God
tells his people that he will protect them in return for their unwavering obedience
– and he will destroy their enemies in no uncertain terms.
The Marxist critique would argue that here we have the ‘socialising and lawenforcing agent’ par excellence. Religion is being used to project the existence
of a being who will exact swift and dire retribution on those who sin (break the
established laws of their society).
According to Marxism, then, religion not only creates a fantasy being who both
inspires and threatens, it serves to infantilise the masses by keeping them from
taking responsibility for their own actions. God is eternal father and people are
eternal children, never to grow up and think for themselves. Of course, ‘God’,
Marx would argue, is simply a smoke-screen from behind which powerful forces
(both religious and secular) are able to manipulate the majority of a population in
ways which suit their own various agendas.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
According to Marx, religion served to maintain the established order in society.
It sanctified the existing social order; it was part of the very structure of society.
Marx also identified the consolatory-palliative function of religion (the giving of
temporary relief). He emphasised too the narcotic function of religion. Just as
alcohol or drugs allowed people a temporary ‘escape’ from pain and stress in
their lives, so religion too could be used to perform this same function, by
providing hope of a better life to come (with a loving, eternal God) beyond the
pain and suffering of this earthly life.
Marx maintained that capitalism needs a large number of poor people who are
willing to work for very little money. This in turn meant that capitalists gained
high profits and the poor’s only other option to working for very little reward was
not working at all, which led inevitably to starvation and death. Marx saw religion
as contributing to such a society. He maintained that the Church led people to
accept suffering on earth in the belief that they would be rewarded in heaven.
Marx saw religion as painting a picture of humans as spiritual, cosmic beings,
when he felt that they were social beings who had to revolt against oppressive
regimes if they were ever to be free. Religion, for Marx, acted as the catalyst in
the capitalistic society. It convinced the poor that they should be content with
what they had and if anyone attempted to revolt they were crushed by the
capitalist society in which the Church was a strong force. Marx saw religion as
the tool exploited by those in power to maintain control over the poor. Among
the beliefs which were important in achieving this were belief in life after death
and the idea of obtaining a reward in heaven for the suffering experienced on
Marx referred to religion as:
‘…the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of
soulless conditions’.
‘It is the opium of the people’. (Livingstone and Benton, p.244)
These quotations show that Marx is speaking of religion in general terms. Marx
is suggesting that religion is a sign of the oppression and abasement of human
beings. If human beings were not suffering from oppression and living in misery
then they would not need religion. For the poor, religion helps them deal with
their situation by consoling and distracting them from it. For the wealthy, it is a
means of ensuring that they can retain power and domination of the masses.
Religion legitimises a dysfunctional order in society.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
In Romans 13, 1 - 7, St Paul urges his fellow Christians to obey their civil
authorities since they are there by God’s grace. It is assumed that these
authorities are acting in good faith for the citizens whom they serve. Marxism
would wonder, however, how far this passage could be used to legitimate a
regime which was corrupt, oppressive and dictatorial over its people. In this way,
Marx would argue, religion is used support and provide divine approval for
oppression, injustice and poverty.
Marx believed that to criticise religion was to confront the illusion of comfort
which the oppressed seek. He asserted that the criticism of religion would
involve people looking at their situation, confronting it and changing it for the
better. Instead of focusing on myths of life after death people should concentrate
on transforming this present world.
For Marx, religion was the ‘opium of the people’ because he felt it acted as a
painkiller – temporarily relieving the suffering of an underclass but in the long
term serving to keep them in their lowly and impoverished conditions. Whereas
the Christian Church may have appeared to help those in need by giving them
hope of life after death, Marx saw this as the means by which the Christian
Church maintained its power. It supported the rich, capitalistic society, which
was exploiting those who did not have the means to live comfortably.
Marx believed that religion distracts people from seeking to build a just society
by encouraging them to think instead about heaven and the after-life. The hope of
this world being a place of greater justice and equality is lost as people think
about getting to heaven. The focus for religion is other-worldliness. Religion
provided consolation for people who were oppressed and exploited.
Marx viewed religion as epiphenomenal. It was easy to go from the real world to
the misty core of religions but not vice versa. Marx recognised the socially
conservative function of religion. In its early days Christianity was concerned
with liberating people from poverty and oppression. Marx believed that in their
time the concern of religion with liberation had been changed to the belief that
the only meaningful liberation would take place in heaven, after death. Providing
people with the hope of eternal life is simply promising them ‘pie in the sky when
they die’. People of religious faith can easily be too carried away with religious
activities – praying, going to Church and singing hymns – instead of looking
seriously at the problems of the world. Marx’s world was facing the challenges
of the industrial revolution and today’s world has its own challenges,
environmental pollution, starvation, hopelessness and AIDS.
With it s clear message of unconditional love – even for one’s enemies – the
gospel proves an irresistible attraction particularly for people who have been
ignored, abused or have seen life’s opportunities pass them by. In the Christian
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
way of life they find acceptance where before, all they experienced was rejection.
In such an altruistic atmosphere, people are ripe for exploitation by those who
seek power or wealth.
It is like a thief being accepted into a trusting community – there are rich
pickings to be had.
Marxists would argue that this is precisely the way that Christianity has been used
at times especially by those who seek power and riches. It is achieved through
two influential interpretations of the social gospel.
First of all, there are constant reminders that Christians should be following
Jesus who taught that wealth and possessions are not important. There is the
story of the rich young man who fails the test of detaching himself from his
considerable wealth for a greater treasure of becoming a disciple of Jesus (Mark
10, 1 – 45); there is the reminder that you cannot serve two masters – God and
money (Matthew 6,24). This amounts to keeping the poor impoverished and
powerless by having them impose degradation on themselves courtesy of the
gospel message. Jesus is ‘the man for others’, and true Christians always put
others before themselves.
The other interpretation relates to the acceptance of suffering, poverty and even
death. The powerful image of a crucified saviour, who died to save others, can
inspire human beings to heroic forbearance of all manner of pain and suffering in
the belief that this is what God would want them to do.
Marxism argues that this is the way in which religion can be used to legitimate
oppressive regimes and to endorse the mentality that ‘suffering is the means of
salvation’. It is not difficult to read the opening section of the Sermon on the
Mount (Matthew 5, 1- 12) and to find support for this point of view.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Marx did not treat religion in isolation from socio-economic life. Marx always
maintained that there was a close relationship between the interests of religious
institutions and those of secular property.
One of the central concepts of Marxism is alienation. For Marx alienation is a
process through which a person, a group, an institution or a society becomes
detached and shut off from the results or products of its own activity (and to the
activity itself). It is also alienation from its very own nature. Thus, alienation is
always self-alienation, that is, the alienation of the self from the self, through the
person’s own activity. This is the very essence of alienation and it usually evokes
an appeal or a call for revolutionary change, in other words de-alienation.
The idea of alienation is rooted in the thought of the German philosopher Hegel
although it plays a much greater role in Marx’s thought than it does in Hegel’s.
For Hegel all change and development is simply the coming to pass of what was
really around before but only in embryo. However all change and development
involves the overcoming of obstacles and difficulties. If human beings are to
grow and become more fully human then they need to go beyond what they were
before. The question is, can they do this without losing their true identity as
human beings, that is becoming alien to themselves ? Hegel and Marx believed
there are factors in human beings and in the societies they have created which can
lead them to be separated from their true selves, or alienated. For Marx religion
was one of the main factors making for alienation. It stood in the way of human
beings, preventing them from becoming what is their essential nature.
Another factor was people’s work. According to Marx, people cannot fulfil
themselves through their work because the kind of work they are doing is not part
of their nature. They can only feel comfortable during their leisure time. For
most people, work is not something they do for themselves but for other people
in exchange for money. In this sense the work they do is not theirs, but other
(Smith, p.57)
According to Marx, the basic structure of a society depends on people’s relations
to each other in the process of producing everything which is used or consumed.
These relations of production can be shown to be closely linked with the existing
level of technology, and with what in modern terminology we call the
productivity of labour. For example, when tribes existed by hunting and food
gathering, there was a simple division of labour based on gender, and an equality
in the distribution of what was obtained. However, when techniques improved,
when agriculture has been invented, and animals domesticated - and certainly by
the time of the bronze age - these simple communal relations has developed into
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
class relations. While the enserfed population toiled on the land, in mines or at
handicrafts, the slave owners and upper classes took from them the greater part of
what they produced. The growing division of labour had enabled some to use
their specialised skills to bamboozle or subdue, rob or exploit the producers.
Capitalism is another form of class relations in the means of production, where
capitalists exploit workers. Capitalist relations, however, could not dominate
until the labour-intensive methods of farming were overtaken by technical and
horticultural improvements were made. This raised the productivity of labour in
agriculture high enough for the landowners to displace peasants from the land,
which forced them to go to work, selling their labour-power for money, for the
developing capitalist class.
First hand observation demonstrated to Marx that there was growing misery,
oppression and degradation among the workers of their time, and also that there
was a growing revolt against this. Seeking to understand how antagonistic social
relationships could have come about, Marx was led to ask what was the
fundamental relationship between people that is common to all forms of society.
The answer he found was that people always enter into relations of production in
order to meet their needs. These relations of production, though taking different
forms in different societies, have always existed, for they are the precondition
for the maintenance of social and economic life. They are the basis on which any
society is founded, because as Engels put it at Marx’s graveside:
‘...mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before it can pursue
politics, science, art, religion...’
From this developed the theory called historical materialism, which demonstrates
the correlation between the relations of production and the forces of production,
and how on the basis of entering into relations of production people create their
social institutions and ideas. Marx held the following ideas about social
economic life:
Human beings enter into relations with each other in order to produce. These
relations form the permanent basis of social life. Without entering into
relations of production, people would be unable to work, and therefore to
feed, clothe and shelter themselves. In other words, it would be impossible
for them to live.
The kind of relationship that people enter into always corresponds to a
definite stage of development of the forces of production. By the term
‘forces of production’ Marx meant the total of the productive equipment
possessed by society, including the capacity and efficiency of machines and
implements used, plus the knowledge, experience, skill and organisation
applied by the producers.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
The relations of production in a society are consolidated by social institutions
such as laws, political systems, Church, forms of government. Corresponding
to these, there are ideas relating to people’s rights and duties in society.
Marx calls the institutions and ideas the ‘superstructure’ of society, and it
follows that the superstructure of any society can only be explained by
reference to the specific relations of production which exist at the time.
Within a given type of relations of production, human beings go on improving
their work techniques until the stage is reached when prevailing production
relations hamper the full utilisation of the forces of production. The relations
of production then have to change. It is the time of social revolution.
Marx saw religion as a counter-revolutionary force. Religious practice,
according to Marx, was not intellectually justifiable, but existed because of
social need. If the social factors which produced those needs were removed by
transforming the structure of society through revolution, then religion would
become functionless and would wither away. In order to build a communist
society the Marxist must fight religion because it will inevitably stand in its path.
But in a communist society there will be no need to persecute religion as its
essential functions will have disappeared. There will no longer be an exploiting
class and so the common people will not stand in need of consolation. Religion
will disappear of its own accord.
Yet religions stem from the sense of subordination and helplessness and, even
when there is revolt, religious ideas and idealist philosophy stand in the way of a
deeper understanding of the causes of what is wrong and so the way to put things
right. Marx believed in the eventual disappearance of all religion. Religious
authority had been falling into decay and he argued that religion would disappear
altogether when relations of production were changed.
All that the labourer gets in return from his employer is a wage sufficient to
support life. But the labourer in fact produces goods worth more than his or her
wages, making profit for the capitalists. The masses should therefore take over
the means of production to produce a free and just society. As Marx said:
‘…the proletarians have nothing to loose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Workers of the world unite.’
Marx believed that the internal contradictions of feudalism resulted in capitalism.
Capitalism was an advance on feudalism but was still defective as a way of
ordering society. He believed that the contradiction of capitalism would
eventually lead to communism. Even communism, however, was not necessarily
the final goal. The overarching goal that defines Marx’s vision is the overcoming
of alienation and the recovery of a truly human life within a truly human society.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
But how was this to be achieved? Essentially it was to be through revolution.
Marx distinguished between a political revolution where one section of society
gains freedom for itself and dominates the others, and a radical revolution aimed
at freedom for everyone. If one section of society or class can succeed in
representing the interests of the whole society, it can be the engine of
revolutionary change. Its aims and interests, however, must genuinely be the aims
and interests of society itself. According to Marx, the class most suited to this
role is the ‘working proletariat’ because it has been subject to oppression, it has
been the victim of the opposing classes. (Smith, pp. 60-62)
It is possible to argue that the Bible supports Marx’s criticisms of religion.
Certainly, Christianity had a genuinely revolutionary origin. Christianity was a
movement of oppressed people; it began as a movement infused with good news
for the slaves, the poor and the outlawed, it is a religion of the people defeated
and crushed by the force of the Roman Empire. Both Marx and Christianity
declared, however, that there will come a time when people will be delivered
from evil and poverty.
Marx’s view was that any change in the circumstances of the poor, the meek and
the oppressed required something extra. The only way the powerless would
‘inherit the earth’ would be through a revolution led by the working proletariat. It
required a forceful redistribution of society’s goods and possessions rather than
a ‘change of heart’ on the part of those in power.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Christians believe that Jesus is the revelation of God, that in the life of Jesus,
God was revealed. By this they mean that somehow in Jesus God was
communicating or revealing himself to human beings. Through Jesus God’s will
and intentions for human beings became known. According to Christians it was in
Jesus whole life, what he said and what he did, as well as the circumstances of his
death, which shows that God took on human form.
In the New Testament the earliest writers understood Jesus as the revelation of
God’s power and wisdom (I Cor:1:24) and as image or likeness of God
(Rom:8:29). Jesus of Nazareth is for Christians the revelation of God. In other
words in Jesus God shows himself, shows who he is. In his whole life, speech,
action and suffering, the man Jesus reveals the human face of God. The same
thing is often expressed by Christians in other ways as, for example, when Jesus
is called the Word of God or even the Son of God. Other writers have gone
further, describing Jesus not only as God’s Word but indirectly as equal to God
(John 5:18-19) and even as Lord and God (John 20:28). All these metaphors are
meant to express both the unique relationship of God to Jesus, and the unique
relationship of Jesus to other human beings in terms of his significance as God’s
revealer. For Christians, God meets people, shows himself in the work and
person of Jesus.
Marxists and others have often criticised Christianity with regard to their beliefs
about God revealing himself and taking human form. They have seen belief in this
process as something that simply serves to keep human beings small, robs them
of their freedom, and prevents them from achieving their goals. It also limits
their opportunities and possibilities for fulfilment and for becoming fully human.
In this view God is a kind of superpower intent on oppressing people and keeping
them in their place, a God in fact made in the image of humans.
As far as Christians are concerned it is God who makes possible human life and
human freedom and reveals his credentials in the life of Jesus. Christians also
believe that Jesus was wholly and entirely human with all the usual consequences
of humanness. Like all human beings he experienced fear, suffering, loneliness,
doubt, temptation. Despite this, for Christians, he was a model of what it is to be
human. As a result each person who commits himself to Jesus and follows his
way can discover what it means to be human – essentially such a discovery is to
be made within a life of service to others. For Christians Jesus “represents the
permanently reliable ultimate standard of human existence.” (Kung, p.450)
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
‘What if God was one of us ?
Just a slob like one of us ?
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home …’
For Christians, these words from a pop song are not a set of idle questions. God,
in Jesus, was ‘one of us’. In many ways, it is not difficult to argue that Jesus was
a real human being as revealed in the gospels. He ate, slept, was tired – and even
wept for the death of his friend Lazarus. Christians claim far more than this: not
only was Jesus fully human, he was also fully divine.: ‘true God and true man’ as
the words of the Nicene Creed put it.
If the picture of God as revealed in Jesus is a projection of human aspirations, as
the Marxist critique would argue, Christians would have to respond by
considering the nature of this projection in more detail.
Would the followers of Jesus have depicted his claim to have a special
relationship with God in quite the way in which the gospel record ? The various
accounts of the evangelists reveal a person of apparent contradictions. He works
miracles of various kinds, but enjoins his followers not to tell others about it
(throughout Mark’s gospel); he weeps for Lazarus who has died whom he then
raises to life; he provokes the High Priest to tear his robes at hearing his claim to
be the Son of God, but steadfastly refuses to answer similar questions put to him
by Pilate, the man with the power of life and death over him.
Christians would argue that if this is a projection of human aspirations, it is not a
very convincing one – even for them. The gospels all faithfully record the
apostles’ reaction to his words and actions as one of bafflement. They fail to
understand most of what he is teaching them, and their doubts are very real – the
natural leader of his faithful group, Peter, denies he knows him three times; when
women bring the news that Jesus is risen, their reaction is predictable – the
women are hysterical. Thomas will not even accept the word of the others that
Jesus is alive – he must see for himself. The story has all the hallmarks of human
beings blundering through their lives without any awareness of the momentous
events as they were unfolding – recognition follows quite some time afterwards.
Not in their wildest of imaginings or projections, Christians would argue, could
they have foreseen such amazing words and deeds from a man who then
underwent a humiliating and horrible death, and – to cap it all – was raised from
the dead.
Ultimately, the charge that Christians made all this up cannot be disproved. It is
impossible to detach the historical events from the gospel record of them, and
Marx was able to show in his own day, ways in which religion (in particular
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Christianity) was used as a tool for oppression. Roman history records, however,
that many died for the belief that, in Jesus, God was revealing himself in human
form, as the perfect model for human beings to follow.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
For Christians one of the most telling aspects of the story of Jesus is that, unlike
most other itinerant preachers of the time he does not proclaim himself. He
does not thrust himself to the front saying: ‘I am the Son of God, believe in me’.
Instead he subordinates himself to the cause he represents. His cause is about
what God is doing in the world and he speaks about this cause as the approaching
Kingdom of God. This term is at the centre of his proclamation. ‘Kingdom’ here
does not mean a territory or particular country. It means God’s reign, the activity
of ruling which God will inaugurate. This expression was extremely popular in
Jesus’ time but was expanded and elaborated by Jesus himself. According to
Jesus the Kingdom of God is:
• a Kingdom where in accordance with his own prayer God’s will is done on
earth, people will have everything in a abundance, all sin will be forgiven and
all evil overcome
• a Kingdom where in accordance with his own promises the poor, the hungry,
those who weep and those who are downtrodden will finally come into their
own; where pain, suffering and death will be at an end
• a Kingdom which cannot be described but only made known in metaphors
such as the new covenant, the ripe harvest, the great banquet, the royal feast
• a Kingdom of unsurpassable freedom, of universal reconciliation, of justice
and everlasting peace.
Jesus himself expected the Kingdom of God in the immediate future. There are
numerous sayings which expressly announce or assume the closeness of the
future kingdom of God. It is true that Jesus refuses to give an exact date. But
there is not a single saying of Jesus which postpones the end-event to the distant
future. The classical texts referring to this ‘immediate expectation’ would have
been such a stumbling block to the subsequent generation that there can be little
doubt that they are authentic. (Mark 9:1; Mt 10:23)
Acceptance of Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of God means that Christians believe
that God’s cause will prevail and his kingdom will finally come about. This is
completely opposed to the idea that God somehow is only concerned with the
hereafter, that the course of history in this world is unchangeable and that we
must simply put up with things as they are. For Christians therefore the idea of
the ‘Kingdom’ stands squarely against the Marxist criticism that religion leads
people to accept suffering and injustice in the hope of a better world to come.
The evidence, say Christians, that God is as concerned with the here and now, lies
in the life of Jesus. His miracles and parables indicate that the effects of the
coming Kingdom of God are visible even now. God’s future exercises its
influence on the present. In Jesus a beginning has been made. The question of
whether the miracles actually happened in the way they are described is not the
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
most important issue for many Christians. After all miracles alone prove
nothing. Even for Jesus’ contemporaries they were ambiguous. Not everyone
accepted them as signs of God’s presence and power.
The crucial point is that although Jesus did not establish the Kingdom of God
there and then, he did set up signs through which the coming Kingdom of God
could already be seen. By feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and opposing the
moneychangers in the Temple he was showing that the Kingdom was possible and
under way. The gospel writers were not interested in any breach of nature’s laws,
but they were interested in the fact that in these actions God’s power was
breaking through. Jesus’ charismatic cures and expulsions of devils were not an
end in themselves. They interpreted or confirmed what he was saying about the
coming of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus naturally made use of the imagery and ideas of his time when talking about
the Kingdom of God and when it would finally come about. He always refused to
say exactly when he thought the ‘end of the world’ would come but it seems that
he expected it in the very near future. In the light of all the historical
developments which have taken place since the first century, we would have to
say that Jesus and his contemporaries shared a particular time - conditioned
world view which is quite different from ours. We no longer expect the world to
end at least within our own lifetimes. What really matters is whether Jesus’ basic
idea about the future Kingdom of God still makes sense in today’s world, a world
in which we assume that history will continue at least for the foreseeable future.
Clearly, the Kingdom of God seems to resemble Marx’s vision of Utopia. The
ways in which Jesus sought to alleviate the pain and suffering of his fellows
(physically, at least) would chime in with Marx’s view of what a communist
society should be like.
It is clear from this, that Marx’s criticism of religion has less to do with what
Jesus taught than with how his followers failed, at times, to live out that message
in their own lives.
The struggle between good and evil, between domination and service of others, is
not new. Jesus himself was to experience the forces of evil and oppression most
crucially in his passion and death. Marxism accuses religion of causing
oppression and fostering injustice, when perhaps it is truer to say that some
Christians in positions of responsibility fail to observe the principles so clearly
stated and lived out by their teacher and brother.
So religion can be a force for good or evil – it depends on those who take it
seriously and those who do not.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Liberation theology began in the 1960’s when awareness grew of the social and
economic injustice present in many countries. The basic thrust of liberation
theology was Christian action on behalf of the poor.
As one of the key theologians of liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez noted it is
concerned with unity with the exploited and the poor, helping them to confront
evil in society and create freedom from oppression. He wrote:
“It is a question of loving all people, not in some vague, general way, but rather in the
exploited person, in the concrete person who is struggling to live humanly.”
(Gutierrez, 1974, p.276)
Liberation theology is an interpretation of the Christian faith out of the suffering,
struggle and hope for the poor. It takes the side of the poor and advocates a
‘preferential option for the poor’. Liberation theologians have tended to teach
that class struggle is the basic dynamic of social life and their aim is to work to
eliminate oppression and poverty by replacing the structures that have caused
them. If necessary, violence may be used to overthrow injustice.
It also firmly rejects the fatalist tendency in traditional Christianity. That is to
say, it rejects the idea that we should put up with the allegedly inescapable
injustices of this life in the hope of enjoying something better in the world to
come, which as we have seen, offered Marxism such a large target.
The use of the word ‘liberation’ has two connotations:
• it describes the social need for groups of people to be made free
• it is central to the work of Jesus Christ who came to bring salvation to
oppressed peoples.
Liberation theology is a favourite theme of Catholic theologians, of Latin
America in particular. Latin America as a whole is still suffering from a basic
situation of economic colonialism. Proponents of the theology of liberation
have taught that Latin America has been made, and is kept, deliberately poor and
dependent by the capitalist North. It’s starting point is clear, that the people must
be liberated from oppression.
The theology of liberation asserts that God’s love is on the side of the oppressed.
In 1959, Fernadez de Castro observed that Christians have a responsibility to be
on the side of the oppressed. Christianity is a liberating and revolutionary power
in any situation imaginable because it should always be on the side of victims.
The gospel message calls Christians to be wholly and unconditionally on the side
of the lowest in society. The gospel criterion is clear: justice must be given to
those who are dispossessed.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Liberation theology has three strands:
• economic liberation: free people from poverty
• political liberation: free people from tyranny
• spiritual liberation: delivery from sin
It is critical of European theology for:
• separating the meaning of the gospel from engagement in political and social
• allowing modern secular culture to restrict faith to the private life of
• being concerned with intellectual rather than practical questions
Liberation theology has grown out of personal contact with acute human
deprivation and it is from this vantage point that it interprets the Bible afresh.
This has been described as doing theology from the edge of history, from the
position of those without power to shape their future. Liberation theologians
struggle with the poor and declare that God demands an end to exploitation and
Jose Porfirio Miranda in his book ‘Marx and the Bible’ (1974) argues that, if they
could only understand him correctly, Christians could see that Karl Marx was
actually a better Christian than many professing believers.
The phrase the ‘option for the poor’ came into use in the 1970s. It is a
controversial religious term as hostile critics dismiss the notion as an unlikely
cross between Latin American Catholicism and Marxism. While those in favour
believe that the Church is called to make an option for the poor at all times and in
all places, liberation theologians claim that the basis for the option for the poor
is to be found in scripture rather than in Marxist ideology.
There are three basic elements to the option for the poor:
• a commitment by Church leaders not to collude with oppressive regimes but
to campaign actively for structural justice in society and to take the risk of
throwing the authority of the Church behind those efforts to resist oppression
and exploitation.
• the key agents in bringing about change must be the poor, the oppressed and
the marginalised themselves and therefore the Church must work to empower
• a commitment to making the Church itself more just and participative.
The option for the poor involves a struggle to overcome social injustices which
mar our world and a commitment to sharing the lives of the poor, living with them
and sharing their experience.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
The Old Testament
In the Old Testament the ‘poor’ refers to groups of people economically
deprived, who hold no social status, people who are treated unjustly by foreign
rulers or authorities in their own land. The oppressed are poor because they are
at the mercy of the unscrupulous. It also refers to the poor as widows, orphans or
resident aliens - those groups who have no-one to defend them against
exploitation. In the Old Testament there is no doubt of God’s special care for the
poor as recorded in the story of the Exodus and throughout the books of the
The New Testament
In the New Testament Jesus could be seen as one of the poor himself:
• He is a native of a despised village (Jn 1: 46)
• He is the son of a carpenter (Mtt 13:55)
• He resists the temptation to carry out his mission through the use of glory and
power ( Mtt 4: 5-10)
• He was the innocent victim of persecution and was executed as a criminal.
Human misery in its various forms is the obvious sign of the condition of
weakness in which human beings find themselves. Jesus’ response to the poor is
one of compassion and he took it upon himself to be identified with them. Thus
an option for the poor is central to the mission of the Christian Church and no
member of the Church is excluded from this.
Against too strong an emphasis on liberation it has been argued that something
has gone wrong when the gospel is too closely identified with a particular
sectional interest or political party. After all, God’s grace is for all humankind.
The rich too can be crushed by personal tragedy. Poor people can sometimes
engage in acts of violence and extermination. George Newlands writes:
“What is needed, it would appear, is a critical, self-critical reflection on liberation, not
to produce compromises but to be effective.” (Newlands, 1998, p108)
The Roman Catholic Church has frequently endorsed the notion of the
‘preferential option of the poor’ but has viewed with increasing alarm the manner
in which liberation theology has applied the Marxist analysis of society not only
to oppressed regimes, but to society in general, and even to the hierarchical
nature of the Church itself.
In 1984, the Catholic Church warned against an uncritical use of the Marxist
analysis in interpreting the Bible and Church teaching. It pointed out that to
reduce the history of salvation to the concept of a ‘class struggle’ was a gross
distortion of the Christian message. In this way, it said, liberation theology
confuses ‘the poor of the Scripture and the proletariat of Marx’. (Libertatis
Nuntius, Section IX, para 10)
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Two years later the Catholic Church published a second document in which it
sought to explain in greater detail the Christian doctrine of freedom and
liberation, not in relation to Marx, but in its own Biblical and theological context.
(Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation).
Liberation was explained in terms of salvation from sin, from death, and from an
oppression of the spiritual nature of human beings, although their physical and
social needs were not ignored. Crucial to this concept of liberation was the idea
of its ability to reconcile people to God and to each other. It had nothing in
common with the Marxist perspective of revolution in which freedom was won
through the violent and equally oppressive overturning of other ‘powerful’
‘Liberation in the spirit of the gospels is therefore incompatible with hatred of others,
taken individually or collectively, and this includes hatred of one’s enemy.’ (para 77)
The Christian idea of liberation disagreed with the Marxist concept in several
fundamental aspects:
Liberation is personal not social, in the first instance. God did not save the
world through a society but through an individual, and each person must meet
the Christian challenge on a personal basis i.e. personal commitment – a
‘conversion of heart’.
Marx did not recognise the importance of individuals – they could be
subordinated to needs of society’s (i.e. the working class’s) need for
liberation from oppression.
Liberation cannot stop at personal conversion – it is unthinkable for the
Christian to be satisfied that s/he is saved through their own personal
commitment and that is enough. Christian liberation cannot be individualist –
it reaches out naturally to others to call them to personal conversion as well.
In this sense, Christian liberation is open to all – it excludes no one.
In contrast, Marx’s idea of liberation is concerned only with the liberation of
the masses – their liberation does not include the ruling class – indeed it
requires their violent annihilation
Liberation does not come about from human endeavour but as a gracious gift
of God. God saves the world in an act of self-sacrifice by dying on a cross.
However, Marx sees liberation as the result of an act of mass mobilisation of
the proletariat who rise up in violent protest and topple the power base of
their oppressors. Liberation is achieved through revolution rather than
through revelation.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Student Activities
1. How would Christians respond to the criticism that religion is a projection of
human aspirations?
2. To what extent is the Christian vision of human life achievable?
3. What are the distinctive features of Liberation Theology?
4. Christianity and Marxism are fundamentally opposed to each other. How far
do you agree?
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
David McLellan: The Faith of Marxism (1992)
The question of the relationship of Marxism to Christianity and vice versa, is of
major importance in the world today. Almost one half of the world’s population
live in countries which call themselves Marxist in some form and many of their
inhabitants are religious believers.
• Is there a radical incompatibility between their citizenship and their religion?
• Can they be both good citizens of, say, Hungary or Nicaragua or Vietnam and
still remain faithful to their religion?
• Another, and related, question is whether in countries which are not Marxist it
is appropriate for Marxists and Christians to co-operate on social and
economic matters?
Both Christians and Marxists are concerned with the evils that are so present in
our world - famine, oppression, injustice. How far should Christians and
Marxists co-operate to eradicate such evils?
However much Christianity and Marxism may differ in their organised,
institutional form, do they not share the same enemy? This is a particularly acute
question for Marxists and Christians in Latin America.
Common Ground
There is undoubtedly a sense in which Marxism is the child of Christianity and,
like most children, it resembles its parent in important respects. Given that
Christianity has informed European culture for almost two millennia it is
inevitable that it should leave its mark on any successful world view, such as
Marxism, which emerged from that culture. Indeed, some have argued that
Marxism is simply a secular form of Christianity, that Marxism takes the values
inherent in Christianity and applies them wholeheartedly to this world.
There certainly seems to be strong structural parallels between Marxist and
Christian doctrines. They both tell the same story but in different languages. In
Christianity there is the Garden of Eden, the Fall, the travail of humanity under
the reign of sin, the appearance of a Saviour, the critical turning point of
crucifixion and resurrection, and the eventual coming thereby of the Kingdom.
In the Marxist version of history, we find an original communism in primitive
society, and its decline with the appearance of different classes and the State.
There is the travail of oppression and exploitation in one society after another,
the appearance of a Saviour in the shape of the proletariat, the critical turning
point of the revolution, and the eventual inauguration of a communist society.
On this view, Marxism is simply translating into the terms of this world
doctrines which Christianity has always been preaching but revealed itself
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
incapable of making real. Values such as equality and community, although
practised by the early Church immediately after the death of Jesus, were soon
transferred to another world. The Church was soon as divided and stratified as the
world in which it lived. Real equality as the children of God and real sharing of
the good provided by God were increasingly reserved for the after-life in heaven.
Nevertheless, throughout Christian history there have been groups reviving what
they saw as the original Gospel message and preaching the immanent triumph of
the Kingdom of God on earth.
Many of the early socialists saw their version of communism as just Christianity
in practice and Jesus Christ as the first communist. And Marxism could be seen
as simply the latest in line of attempts to realise Christian principles on earth.
Marx himself, on this view, was simply expressing, in a materialist form, the
principles of his very distant ancestors, the Old Testament prophets. Marxism is
thus seen as a secularised form of Christianity, an inheritor of Christian values,
an attempt to put Christianity into practice.
The Appeal of Marxism and Christianity:
An Interpretation of History
Furthermore, if we consider the reasons why Marxism has proved so attractive to
its adherents, they will be found to have their parallels in religion.
Firstly, Marxism offers a wide-ranging and all-encompassing interpretation of
history. Its adherents can orientate themselves, situate themselves in the world,
its past, its present, its future. In essence, the story that Marxism tells about
human history is quite simple. Since time immemorial, the most important
possessions of human beings have been the tools they use to satisfy their basic
need for food, clothing and shelter - tools which were, literally, a vital necessity.
As societies grew more complex, these tools and instruments were owned and
controlled by a minority of the population. And there was an increasing division
of labour, beginning with that between those who worked with their hands and
those who worked with their brains - and those who were rich enough not to need
to work at all. In ancient Rome, the patrician classes lived off the surplus
produced by slaves. In feudal times, the large landowners paid for their castles,
retinues and military campaigns out of the surplus produced by the peasants; and
in the capitalist era, the owners of capital could similarly finance their affluent
life-style from the surplus created by the workers. But capitalist society was just
as unstable, conflict-ridden and transitory as all previous societies.
In the famous opening sentence of the Communist manifesto, Marx wrote: ‘all
previous history is the history of class struggle.’ And just as feudal society had
given birth to the Industrial Revolution and a new ruling class - the capitalists or
bourgeoisie - so capitalist society was producing its own grave diggers - the
working class or proletariat. Every past revolution had brought to power a new
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
minority who had manipulated the economic resources of society for its own
benefit. By contrast, the proletariat was, or soon would be, the majority of
society. And theirs would be an egalitarian revolution, one in which society’s
resources would, for the first time in history, be able to be used for the benefit of
Thus, simply, Marxism explained to its adherents how things are and why they are
so. A Marxist individual can understand his/her place in the world. As Darwin
was to the evolution of the species, so Karl Marx was to the evolution of the
social world.
Secondly, Marx offered more than an all-purpose social theory. After all, in the
nineteenth century when he was alive there were other insightful social theorists
around too. But they, and their social theories, did not become the founders of
mass movements. What Marx also offered was a worthy goal. His explanation of
history contained the promise of a vastly better society, a kind of Utopia
embodying the aspirations of the age. Utopianism went back at least as far as the
roots of Judeo-Christianity. The prophecies of Isaiah talked of a time when the
nations would beat their swords into plough-shares. And the New Testament talks
of a new heaven and a new earth in which ‘there shall be no more death, neither
sorrow, nor crying, neither any more pain.’
What Marx claimed to show was that the time had come when the Utopian
principles of liberty, equality and fraternity could finally be realised. In an age
when the power of human beings over nature was increasing in leaps and bounds,
then why not too their power over society and their own destiny? The capacity
for change and progress seemed without limit. Just like the Victorian age,
Marx’s social theory was dynamic, forward-looking and optimistic. And to many
it seemed that Marx, unlike the Utopians of the past, was no idle dreamer. His
theories had the advantage of a solid scientific foundation. Previously Utopia had
been frustrated by history. Now history seemed to be moving in the direction of
Utopia. If not God, at least history was on the side of the big battalions provided
by the growing masses of the working-class.
Thirdly, Marx also provided an enemy. Dynamic mass movements need
something to move against, some great Satan. Successful religions have, by and
large, separated the forces of light from the forces of darkness. Marx was a
prophet, not just in the sense of seemingly being able to foretell the future, but
also, like Old Testament prophets, of denouncing the ‘evils’ of contemporary
society. Satan was capital – the concentration of wealth among the few.
Fourthly, Marxism provides a norm of conduct, a meaning, a sense to the world,
which tells you how to act and deal with the world. For the Marxist in the world
there is always a way out, always a solution, always a clear line. There is no need,
anymore, for a guilty conscience. And with the clear line, you get a sense of
belonging, of solidarity and of discipline that is familiar to many religions.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
Although these parallels are striking (and, after all no set of ideas is ever wholly
original), this concentration on the similarities between Marxism and Christianity
does encounter an evident initial difficulty. Marx himself was always violently
opposed to Christianity. From his early years as a student in Germany in the
1830s, until his death in 1883 after more than thirty years residence in London,
Marx maintained an implacable hostility to all religion.
“The social principles of Christianity”, he wrote, “preach cowardice, self-contempt,
abasement, submissiveness and humbleness, in short all the qualities of the
rabble...The social principles of Christianity are sneaking and hypocritical and the
proletariat is revolutionary.”
Christian socialism was, for Marx, a contradiction in terms.
Religion - Destined to Disappear?
Marx’s life long friend and collaborator Frederich Engels (1820-1895) wrote
more about religion than did Marx. Unlike Marx who never seems to have had
any religious belief, Engels was brought up a fundamental protestant and
conserved an interest in religious questions. In his Anti-Duhrung which was the
most popular Marxist work for decades after Marx’s death, he summed up the
classical Marxist position on religion:
‘When society, by taking control of all means of production and using them on a
planned basis, has freed itself and all its members from the bondage in which they are
now held by these means of production….. only then will the last alien force which is
reflected in religion vanish and with it will also vanish the religious reflection itself,
for the simple reason that then there will be nothing left to reflect.’
Both Marx and Engels thought that religion would be short-lived. It was, for
them, a hangover from mediaeval times and destined shortly to disappear since
people under a socialist organisation of society would no longer need its
consolations. Marx and Engels were good progressive Victorian rationalists.
They shared the widespread view of their age that the fresh, clear winds of reason
and science would blow away the dark cob-webs of religious superstition. Engels
in particular was particularly strongly influenced by the tide of scientific
positivism that flowed so strongly in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It
was this spirit that informed Engels evolutionary view in which religion would
eventually be replaced by the progress of science.
The Theology and the Politics of Liberation
Although the relations between Marxism and Christianity are at something of a
stalemate in the relatively stable societies of Europe, it is a different story in
other parts of the world. The expectation by Marx and Engels of the immanent
demise of religion has been frustrated by events and the reaction between
religion and politics is as lively as ever - whether in Iran, the Philippines, or in the
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
USA itself. As far as Marxism and Christianity are concerned this interaction is
particularly interesting in the vast area of Central and South America. The legacy
of the Spanish and Portuguese empires was two hundred million Catholics in
South and Central America, many of them living in the direst poverty where brutal
governmental oppression and exploitation by the super-rich are the order of the
No wonder that many Christians in that continent who take the precepts of the
Gospel seriously find that they have the same enemy as the Marxists - Capitalism.
Many Christians and Marxists see the enemy as capitalist interests particularly
linked to the United States.
‘Liberation’, long a watchword of Marxism has migrated to theology. Many of
the new liberation theologians openly acknowledge a debt to Marxism. Helder
Camara, Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, was widely accused of being a
communist. For the proponents of liberation theology Marx is the spokesman of
the oppressed, the philosopher of the modern age.
In its origin in the early 1960s, Liberation Theology was mainly a clerical
movement of younger theologians whose studies in Europe had led them to
abandon the traditional Thomist perspective of the Catholic Church in favour of
Biblical and Patristic sources and the ‘salvation history’ contained therein. They
were also influenced by such works as ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by the
Brazilian educator Paolo Freire.
The Second Vatican Council appeared to give official blessing to aspirations for
the church renewal - a process which reached its Latin highpoint in 1968 when
the Second Conference of Latin-American bishops meeting at Medellin in
Columbia proclaimed its ‘Option For The Poor’.
The countries who have made the biggest contribution to Liberation Theology are
Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Brazil - which has more Catholics than any
other country in the world. And it will come as no surprise that, in a continentwide movement, there are very diverse currents. Liberation Theology is
supported by a significant - though definitely a minority – of the Episcopate,
including such notable figures as Helder Camara. Its theologians vary from the
Columbian, Camillo Torres (who felt that he could best fulfil his priestly
vocation by joining the guerrillas, was killed by the security forces, and has
become something of a martyr for the Left) to the decidedly more nuanced
writings of Peruvian Jesuit Gustavo Gutierrez whose Theology of Liberation is
the best selling of Liberation Theology books. What unites all these currents is
the use of apparently Marxist categories to achieve critical self-renewal.
There has, of course, been much opposition to this friendly attitude to Marxism.
Almost half of the world’s Catholics live in Central and South America. The
disregard there of more traditional European doctrines, the insistence that truth is
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
not to be found in dogma or doctrine but in practical activity, the view that the
true church is to be found in the poor themselves rather than in any institution,
the use of Marxism as a tool of analysis - all these worry Rome. On top of the
disciplining of Leonardo Boff, one of the leading Liberation Theologians, the
Vatican’s Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation condemned
the confusions of Liberation Theology and declared that, ‘atheism and the denial
of the human person, his liberty and rights, are at the core of the Marxist theory.’
(Section VII, para 9)
The Church is a world-wide institution. Marxism may equal liberation for
Christians in Latin America but for many Christians in Eastern Europe and the
Soviet Union Marxism equals oppression.
Is Marxism A Religion?
It is sometimes said that Marxism itself is a religion. There is obviously one
sense in which there are close parallels between Marxism and religion - the sense
in which both terms can be descriptions of mass movements. As such, they are
traits that almost any mass movement that persists for a considerable length of
time will exhibit. The Communist Party and the Catholic Church, for example,
are both characterised by the same sort of hierarchical organisation, the same
attachment to sacred texts, the same penchant for dogma, and the same keen
attention to heresy.
Of course, both Marxism and Christianity are very powerful forces, possibly the
most powerful ideologies of the twentieth century, apart from Islam. Both are
therefore institutionalised belief systems with hierarchies of power and strong
attachment to traditional doctrines. The conflict between the two is often as
much a conflict of structures as of ideas. The idealism of their value systems has
often given way to bureaucracy and the needs of an organisational hierarchy.
But more importantly, there seems to be a structural similarity between Marxism
and religion in the realm of ideas. In the words of Joseph Schumpeter, Marxism
‘presents, first, a system of ultimate ends that embody the meaning of life and are
absolute standards by which to judge events and actions; and secondly a guide to
those ends which implies a plan of salvation and the indication of the evil from which
mankind, or a chosen section of mankind, is to be saved.’
According to the Russian philosopher Berdiayey, it was precisely these
similarities that made them such enemies:
‘If communism is opposed to all religion, it is less in the name of the social system that
it embodies than because it is in itself a religion. For it wishes to be a religion fit to
replace Christianity, it claims to answer the religious aspirations of the human sort
and give a meaning to life. Communism sees itself as universal, it wishes to control
all existence and not simply some of its aspects.’
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
In other words, the quarrel between Marxism and religion is a family quarrel and
there is no feud as bitter as a family feud, siblings quarrelling over their
There is much truth in these observations. But they do not provide a complete
answer. For such a characterisation of Marxism as a religion tends to do an
injustice, through conceptual wooliness, both to Marxism and to religion. To
Marxism, because it does not take seriously either its own self-description or the
clear implications of its science of society; to religion, because it tends to rob it
of its essential transcendence by subjecting it to currently fashionable
secularising trends.
In the battle for ideas, Jesus and Marx might have a lot more to say to each other
than their respective followers. For they would share a common concern for the
under-privileged, a contempt for hypocrisy of the powers of this world and a
confidence in the long term outcome of human history. Both attempt to create
universal, non-exclusive communities. It is therefore possible to claim that
Marxism does indeed inherit the major themes of Christianity, but the type of
inheritance implies, here as in most cases, the death of the testator. Marxism
may, in some sense and in some aspects, be a secularised religion, but it remains
secularised and should be treated in its own categories and not re-translated back
into religious ones.
Others have seen Marxism as a quasi-religion. There is the vision of a new
society and a new human being. There is the idea of alienation in all its forms as
what separates human beings from their true selves. There is a form of
deliverance through the proletariat’s role in the class struggle.
Marxism - ‘A Christian heresy?’
It is not true that Christianity and Marxism are saying more or less the same thing
and only separated by their different organisational momentum and the vested
interests of the respective bureaucracies. There remains one vital area of
difference between the content of Marxism and of Christianity, irrespective of
their organisational imperatives. As Arnold Toynbee once remarked, Marxism is
a Christian heresy. Heresy is a Greek word meaning ‘choice’ - choosing one
aspect of the faith and rejecting others.
Marxism has ‘chosen’ the material and rejected the spiritual. (Too often, of
course, Christianity has done just the opposite). But at the heart of Christianity
lies the Incarnation, the Word made flesh and with it, inescapable earthiness.
While Christianity can, and must, have a strongly materialist side to it, Marxism
cannot have a spiritual side. A thoroughgoing exclusion of the spiritual is of its
very essence. Marxism is a theory of society which concentrates on the socioeconomic aspects of human existence to the exclusion of others. It bears the
marks of its nineteenth century birth. Marx’s ‘mistake’ consisted in generalising
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
from the function of religion in mid-nineteenth century western Europe to the
function of religion in all societies, and in reducing the significance of religion
to that of the economic conflicts it was held to reflect.
Religion has proved more reticent and resilient than the founders of Marxism
expected. Religions are not (exclusively) of this world. They tend to refresh the
parts of the human psyche with which Marxism is not equipped to deal. Marxism
as a secular system of thought must deliver secular goods. It must deliver the
goods in this world, in social and economic terms. In other words, Marxism’s
raison d’être lies in its worldly success. Failure there is liable to be ultimately
dispiriting, whereas for most religions it would serve as a salutary warning. In a
Marxist’s view, reason and reality must ultimately coincide. But if we take
seriously Weber’s observation that ‘the experience of the irrationality of the world
has been the driving force of all religious evolution’, then, however dispiriting it may
be in the short-term, few would dispute that there is a better future for religion
than for Marxism.
Classical Marxist Critique of Religion
Marx was relentless in his hostility to religious beliefs, practices and
institutions but he did not practise nor advocate tactics designed to destroy
religion forcibly.
No religious doctrine from any source was ever accepted by Marx as true.
Items of religious belief functioned as objects external to human beings
which exercised control over them.
Objects of religious belief degrade and enslave humans. He referred to the
‘sheep’s nature’ of the Christian and criticised the ‘Christian slavish nature’.
Marx believed in the relativity of Christian ethics: a minister may say that
God wills one thing in Scotland and another thing somewhere else in the
Marx asserted that there was an intimate relationship between Protestantism
and political economy.
Marx identified the Jews with usury ( the taking of interests on loans).
He drew analogies between religion and economics.
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)
G.M. Newlands, Christianity & Marxism, in Christianity for the Twenty-first
Esler, P.E. ed. (1998), T&T Clark.
Guiterrez , Gustavo (1973) A Theology of Liberation, Maryknell, NY: Orbis
Kung, Hans, (1978) On Being a Christian, Fount.
Smith, John (1994) Quasi-Religions, MacMillan.
Hick, John ed. (1964) The Existence of God, A reader, MacMillan.
Colletti, Lucio (1975) Karl Marx, Early Writings, Penguin.
McLellan, David, Marx Before Marxism
Smart, Ninian (1969) Religious Experience of Mankind, New York.
Raeper, William and Smith, Linda, (1991) A Beginner’s Guide to Ideas, Lion.
Ruis, Marx for Beginners
Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation (Libertatis Nuntius)
(Catholic Truth Society, 1984)
Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (Catholic Truth Society, 1986)
RMPS Support Materials: Christianity: Critiques – Marxism (Higher)

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