Christianity and Marxism

In his book entitled Christianity and Marxism (1995), the renowned Scottish philosopher, Alasdair Macintyre, observes that there are three ways in which modern western society has viewed Marxist philosophy.

The first is to accept Marxism in toto as substantially true and that society must therefore be ordered by its vision and ideals. The second, which is located at the opposite end of the spectrum, is to reject it as totally wrong and to oppose it.

The third perspective lies betwixt the first and the second. As Macintyre puts it, the third perspective sees Marxism as ‘a doctrine we cannot adhere to because there are truths which it cannot accommodate, yet there are truths which it cannot entirely discard because it embodies truths inseparable from their connections with Marx’s general theoretical formulations’.

In the history of modern theology, there are theologians who hold the second and third perspectives on Marxism (to my knowledge, no theologian has argued that Marxism is absolutely true!).

Thus, there are theologians who maintain that Marxism must be seen as a sort of Christian heresy – it is at once parasitic to the Christian faith and an unrecognisable distortion of the very religion that nourished it. As such, it must be totally rejected.

But there are also theologians – more in number than the first group – who maintain that although not everything in Marxism can fit comfortably into the Christian framework, some proposals do ring true – not because of their connections to Marx’s grand system, but because they may be said to be in harmony with the Christian worldview.

There have been some striking examples of Christian theologians who have appropriated Marxian ideas in their theological projects.

One example is liberation theologians.

In his seminal work A Theology of Liberation (1971), Gustavo Gutiérrez – the founder of liberation theology – developed his powerful proposals by employing significant strands of Marxist thought. From its revolt against class divisions and inequality to its anti-capitalist temper and its utopian vision – indeed, its central idea of liberation itself – liberation theology may be seen as a form of ‘Christianised Marxism’ or a ‘Marxist Christianity’.

Another example can be found in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. In 1967, Moltmann published his most influential book, Theology of Hope whose inspiration can be traced to the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch and his famous The Principle of Hope (Das Prinzip Hoffnung: 3 Volumes, 1938-1947).

That there can be found in Marx’s theories vestiges of Judeo-Christian ideas should not surprise us. Though his family was Jewish, they converted to Christianity. However, the alliance between Christianity and Marxism is not without difficulties and problems, and any attempt to harmonise the two must be cognisant of the profound differences between them.

Militant Atheism

The first and most obvious difference between Marxism and Christianity is the former’s dogmatic atheism. The Marxist-Leninist worldview is essentially materialistic in that it dismisses as nonsense any notion of God, the divine or a transcendent reality.

But Marxism does not only view the religious concept of God as nonsensical; it also presents it as dangerous. For Marx and Lenin, religion is the result of social inequality and political oppression: an opiate that people suffering under the weight of injustice use to secure happiness, however illusory and fleeting that happiness may be. Thus, Marx could write: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heart-less world, and the soul of soul-less conditions’.

The eradication of religion and social reform go hand-in-hand in the Marxist project because both religion and capitalism are seen as evils that oppressively prevents human beings and society from achieving their fullest potential. Thus, when Lenin says ‘Down with God’ his goal is nothing less than the complete abolition of religion.

Lenin’s venomous hatred for religion and the militancy of his atheism come into full display when he told the writer Maxim Gorky that ‘Every religious idea, every idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions … are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of God decked out in the smartest ideological costumes’.

This militant atheism has left in its trail untold violence, death and destruction.

The Russian State Commission reported that in the first two decades of Soviet rule, 45,000 Orthodox Churches were left in ruins and tens of thousands of priests, monks and nuns were killed. In Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937-8, 1,238 Catholic places of worship were turned into shops, warehouses, farm buildings and even public toilets.

Marxist Ethics

Turning our attention now to ethics, it is pertinent to note at the outset that most Marxist ideologues maintain that their moral vision is more noble and just than other accounts. For example, a 1961 Russian statement boldly and unequivocally declares that:

The Communists reject the class morality of the exploiters; in contrast to the perverse, selfish views and morals of the old world, they promote a Communist morality, which is the noblest and most just morality, for it expresses the interests and ideals of the whole of working mankind.

There are of course many aspects of Marxian ethics that we could discuss. However, in the limited space of this article, I would like to briefly touch on two salient and related features: its rejection of religious ethics and its emphasis on human freedom.

That Marxian ethics is a rejection of and an alternative to religious ethics is unsurprising. In concert with its fundamental outlook that religion is the opiate that stupefies the masses and blinds them to the political and social realities they inhabit, Marxism rejects religious ethics as worthless because of its otherworldliness.

Put differently, religion is incapable of producing any robust ethical response to mankind’s concrete situation because it creates a pathological state in man that makes him oblivious to the realities of his social environment thereby alienating him from his own existence.

Needless to say, this picture of religious (especially Christian) ethics is nothing but a distorting caricature. In the Christian faith, moral reasoning emerges from and is shaped by belief in the God who has revealed himself as Creator and Redeemer, and who is actively involved in the world.

In addition, the commandment to love the neighbour (and even the enemy), which is the very foundation of Christian ethics, demonstrates that ethics have to do, not just with an abstract reflection on the Good, but its ‘incarnation’ in concrete actions. The history of the Church’s involvement in the social and political life of society bears powerful witness to the fact that its ethics is not so ‘otherworldly’ that it’s irrelevant.

One of the main constituents of Marxist ethics is freedom. According to Marxism, freedom is the ability to act autonomously according to the laws of one’s nature. The Marxist revolt against any ordering of society that stratifies human beings into classes is precisely because these imposed divisions would result in unfreedom and alienation.

Thus, at the heart of Marxism is the ‘ethics of liberation’, which is of a piece with its ‘ethics of struggle’. Marx himself articulated this dictum clearly when he wrote: ‘That man must fight, that there is no hope of human liberation without fight, is thus the very essence, the central command of historical materialist ethics’.

In this way, Marxism does not present itself as just another philosophy or ideology or as a social or economic theory. Its social analysis must always be the catalyst for and result in action – revolutionary action. ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways’, Marxist famously wrote, ‘the point, however, is to change it’. This is the Marxian mandate.

The fundamental question is whether the stark materialism of Marxism can provide the resources for ethics. Can the notion of the Good – so essential for any ethical system – be gleaned from the worldview that regards matter as the ultimate reality? And can the materialistic anthropology it espouses offer any substantial account of human dignity and freedom?

The answer to these questions is surely No. The moral intuitions of Marxism – justice, equality, freedom – cannot come from historical or dialectic materialism. They are in fact vestiges of the Judeo-Christian tradition against which Marxism has revolted and vigorously rejected, but from which it ironically continues to draw, albeit in a parasitic manner.

The concrete instantiations of communist totalitarianism, shaped by its understanding of the relationship between the masses and the state, shows that Marxist faith in freedom is in the final analysis illusory.

The economist Friedrich von Hayek has written eloquently if disturbingly about the ‘omniscient state’ of the socialists in his insightful book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. And in her treatise on totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt provides a lucid elucidation of the determinism intrinsic to the materialist worldview, the hegemonic totalitarianism it produces, and the unfreedom it engenders:

In a perfectly totalitarian government, where all men have become One Man, where all actions aims at the acceleration of the movement of nature or history, where every single act is the execution of a death sentence which Nature or History has already pronounced, that is, under conditions where terror can be completely relied upon to keep the movement in constant motion, no principle of action separate from its essence would be needed at all.

This is all too evident in the way Marxists treat ‘pagans’ and ‘heretics’, i.e., capitalists, bourgeois and landed proprietors. In Marx’s own words: ‘We are reckless, and we do not ask for your consideration. When it will be our turn we will not palliate terrorism’.

With characteristic perceptiveness Arendt describes how totalitarian terrorism is an affront to human freedom:

Totalitarian government does not just curtail liberties or abolish essential freedoms; nor does it, at least to our limited knowledge, succeed in eradicating the love for freedom from the hearts of man. It destroys the one essential prerequisite of all freedom, which is simply the capacity of motion which cannot exist without space.

Total terror, the essence of totalitarian government, exists neither for nor against men. It is supposed to provide the forces of nature or history with an incomparable instrument to accelerate their movement. This movement, proceeding according to its own law, cannot in the long run be hindered; eventually its force will always prove more powerful than the most powerful forces engendered by the actions and the will of men.

Bereft of the notion, found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God their Creator, Marxism is incapable of constructing an anthropology that could give an account of human freedom – except in its most distorted form.

Secular Eschatology

We turn finally, and very briefly, to the Marxian view of history and the goal of society. The first point to be made concerning the Marxian view of history and the future is that, like many versions of modern progressivism, it is rooted in the apocalyptic tradition found in both Judaism and Christianity.

The Marxian view, however, contains significant features that are dissimilar to Christian eschatology. For example, Christian eschatology envisions the end of history and of the world, as we know it, and the dawn of a new heavens and a new earth. Marxian teleology predicts that a time will come when historical development will cease after a long process of humanistic or socialistic political evolution, but humankind and the earth will continue to endure.

Thus rooted in the chiliastic tradition of the Judeo-Christian worldview, Marxian millenarianism can be described as the secularised version of that worldview.

For Marx and his followers, the root of all oppression and alienation can be attributed to the division of labour. This state of affairs allows some to take control of production and subjugate others under this control, making them utterly dependent on them. This is the Marxian version of ‘original sin’ or the ‘fall of humankind’.

According to Marxian Messianism, the advent and expansion of the Communist State will come about through revolution and it will eradicate this oppressive evil and bring about redemption in the form of political and social harmony. The ‘New Jerusalem’ of the Marxian vision will be an egalitarian society where every human being will be treated as equals and where kings, feudalism and capitalism will be forever buried under the rubble of the past.

The Marxian ‘Armageddon’, the endgame as Marx saw it, would be the apocalyptic revolutionary struggle between the capitalists and the working class, at the conclusion of which – so prophesied Marx – the proletariat will emerge as victors.

This would usher in the Marxian paradise, the promised land of worldwide communism and socialism, free from the choking grip of religious illusions, destructive individualism and social stratification. Hans Barth describes the Marxian concept of salvation thus in his book, Truth and Ideology:

The end and meaning of history should be the complete recovery of man. Once this goal is realised, social struggle comes to an end, and so does history. The realm of necessity is finished, and the realm of freedom begins, when the production and distribution of goods is socially controlled and has ceased to dominate man. Man at last returns to himself, his reintegration becomes a fact.


Much can be said in criticism of these grand ideas from the Christian perspective. However, this must be the subject of another article or a slew of articles.

I conclude with the simple observation that there can be no easy blend of Marxism and Christianity because of the fundamentally different metaphysical assumptions that undergird them – superficial similarities notwithstanding.

The miscegenation of Christianity with Marxist philosophy has invariably resulted in the distortion of the former, as the criticisms of liberation and political theologies as well as Moltmann’s eschatology have made evident.

Furthermore, one questions if such a marriage is even necessary in the first place, since, as we have seen repeatedly, Marxian philosophy is parasitic to Christianity, borrowing heavily but selectively from the very system it despises. Perhaps it is more fruitful for Christian theologians simply to drink deeper from the well of their own theological and spiritual traditions.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

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